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- Published on Amazon.com
I wouldn't have bought this collection of orchestral "pops" hadn't it been for Mercury Living Presence. Let me remind the non-audiophiles who would have landed on this entry and review, that Mercury was a label established in 1945 at the end of the 78s era (a division of Mercury Radio and Television Corporation), first devoted to and famed for its catalog of popular music and jazz, but that branched out to classical at the end of the 1940s and became a prized audiophile series in the LP era under its moniker "Living Presence", and under the aegis of C. Robert Fine (sound engineer) and Wilma Cozart (producer). In fact the two worked so well together that they eventually became, in 1957, Mr and Mrs (Cozart) Fine. There were a few others involved too, especially, from 1964 to 1967, producer Harold Lawrence and engineer Robert Eberenz, previously Fine's assistant. Mercury Classics was famous for its MG-50000 series in the mono era, which opened with the legendary April 1951 recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition by Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Moussorgsky (orch. Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition / Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta), and was paralleled in the stereo era (1958 onwards) by the SR-90000 series. Interestingly, the slogan "Living Presence" wasn't invented by Mercury: their series was called "The Olympian". It is (or so goes the legend - I've never been able to retrieve online the actual review) the New York Times' critic Howard Taubman, reviewing the Kubelik/Mussorgsky, who commented that it was like "being in the living presence of the orchestra", and the Mercury marketing team picked up the expression and eventually stamped it on the LPs.
What made the "Living Presence" sound was Robert Fine's "minimalist" approach to microphoning, using just (in the mono era) one microphone ideally positioned ("approximately 30 feet from the performers", said the blurbs on the LPs back then), flanked by two side ones in the stereo days (which, for Mercury, started in November 1955). The mics were famously "Telefunken", starting with the U-47 in December 1950 and ultimately settling on three 201s as of January 1959, although it has recently been disclosed (in the 55-CD compilation, Mercury Living Presence II) that Telefunken only sold them in the US, but that they were built, respectively, by Neumann and Schoeps. There were other factors in the Mercury "Living Presence" sound, the kind of tape equipment used (Fine had custom-made machines built for him, and for a while Mercury recorded on much more expensive 35mm film), the fastidious way in which the masters were transfered to LP, reducing all intermediary steps and refusing to tamper electronically with the original sound. For more on the Mercury Living Presence saga and catalog, see my review of the compilation set linked above.
Many of those Mercury Living Presence recordings, especially those from the stereo era, were rejuvenated in the early 1990s, when Philips/Universal launched a program of CD reissues, made with loving care and restored equipment by Wilma Cozart Fine. They reissued in all 136 CDs (some in 2 or 3-CD sets), and when I originally wrote this review, Decca or whoever holds the rights now had so far reissued 103, on two big sets, Mercury Living Presence Boxed Set and the one linked above (volume II ended with two CDs of previously unreissued material). Since then, volume III also came out, in the early months of 2015, Mercury Living Presence Vol. 3 [53 CD Box Set].
But when I wrote this review (I'm returning to it in August 2015), this Mackerras collection was among those that hadn't yet been reissued in the compilations. I can't help much on giving an informed opinion on the interpretation: this is not the kind of repertoire I often listen to, and have no special insights. It seems brilliant enough, it is the London Symphony Orchestra and the Mercury Living Presence sound, TT is 76 minutes, the recordings were made between July 19 and 23, 1961, and obviously timing limitations didn't permit to include Brahms' Hungarian Dances 20 & 21 on the CD, also recorded in those sessions.
But the interesting point with those recordings is that they were NEVER issued on Mercury. They were part of a batch of recordings made in July 1961 by the Mercury team on behalf of Philips. The products of those Mackerras recordings were dispatched on various LPs - Glinka's Jota Aragonesa (track 13) never found its way to an LP and was issued on cassette-tape only, and Weber's Invitation to the Waltz (track 12) was published only on a French LP with a compilation of compositions of Weber - and it is the first time that the family (save the two Brahms Hungarian Dances) is reunited all together (there are reports that a Massenet Thais-Meditation was also recorded, but if so, it was never released in any form). The two main issues were, in 1962, "Kaleidoscope", Philips PHS600-022 (Offenbach's Orpheus-Overture, Tchaikovsky's Cossack Dance from Mazeppa, Smetana's Dance of the Comedians from The Bartered Bride, Brahms' three Hungarian Dances, Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor-Overture and Weber's Abu Hassan-Overture, funnily credited to Suppé on the LP's front cover, see CHARLES MACKERRAS /LONDON SYMPHONY Kaleidoscope LP Philips PHS 900-022 Stereo) and, in 1966, "Concert Sparklers", PHS900-105, which reissued part of the contents of "Kaleidoscope"(Nicolai, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1, Weber's Abu HAssan) and added some hitherto unpublished material from the July 1961 sessions (Meyerbeer's Coronation March from Le Prophète, Johann Strauss Sr's Radetzky March, Thomas's Mignon-Overture, Offenbach's so-called "Can-Can" from Orpheus in the Underworld, and, at last, poor old Suppé's Jolly Robbers-Overture!). Incidentally, the CD booklet's information is a bit muddled on this: whoever compiled it obviously confused Weber's Invitation, track 12 (which is claimed to have been first issued on "Kaleidoscope/PHS 900-022") and Abu Hssan-Overture, and ditto with Offenbach's Can-Can (track 11) vs Orpheus-Overture (track 12).
But where it really becomes interesting is when you look at those other July 1961 sessions made by Mercury on behalf of Philips. And the rest are famous recordings, not usually associated with Mercury: Richter's Liszt Piano Concertos with Kondrashin (19-21 July), Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3 with Rostropovich and Richter (24-26 July) and the song recital of Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich at the piano, recently reissued by Australian Eloquence, Galina Vishnevskaya Sings Russian Songs. In fact, Philip Stuart, in his masterful discography of the London Symphony Orchestra now hosted on CHARM, the Research Center for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music, indicates that "Mackerras was on hand with a repertoire of short pieces so that the orchestra's time would not be wasted if Richter refused to conform to the booked timetable. In the event he demanded a replacement piano and [Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor-Overture] was recorded while it was being delivered; [The others] were made after he had completed his recordings".
So, one may have wondered, if Mackerras's collection is now included in Mercury Living Presence thanks to the careful remasterings of Wilma Cozart Fine, why not the rest? In fact, apparently, one of these HAS: an online source indicates that "the two Liszt concertos played by Richter were remastered for CD (446-200-2) from the original 3-track master tapes by Wilma Cozart Fine". This is Liszt The Two Piano Concertos; The Piano Sonata.
And, since writing this review, compilation volume III came out and indeed included ALL the recordings from these July 1961 sessions (adding even the four other Beethoven Cello Sonatas by Rostropovich and Richter, although NOT recordings made by the Mercury Living Presence team - see my review for more details on this).
And that's all I have to say about this Kaleidoscope.