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Label : Mercury
Format : Flac track
Cover : Yes

The classical division of Mercury Records recognized a great brand name when a New York Times critic used the line “one feels oneself in the living presence of the orchestra” in his review of a 1951 Rafael Kubelik/Chicago Symphony recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Soon dubbing itself Mercury Living Presence, the label evolved from that first mono LP recorded by a single microphone to high-quality three-microphone stereo LPs and recordings made on 35mm film stock that still thrill audiophiles. Mercury Living Presence led by the sharp-eared, ever-devoted producer Wilma Cozart Fine, made hundreds of records until 1967, amassing one of the great legacies for an American company in classical music. This boxed set collects fifty CDs drawn from that catalog, utilizing the early-’90s remasterings supervised by Fine, housing the discs in miniature faux LP sleeves and including a booklet retelling the story of the label and its artists. And those artists, prime among them conductor Antal Dorati, cellist János Starker, pianist Byron Janis and violinist Henryk Szeryng, almost invariably made the best records of their careers for Mercury Living Presence.

These recordings, although in and out of print over the years, have been fetishized by collectors of a certain age. This bargain-priced set is the best way yet of hearing what the fuss was all about. It’s striking how fresh the recordings made on 35mm tape sound, with depth, clarity and very little analog tape hiss. These include Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with the Minneapolis Symphony, Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Janis and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with Gina Bachauer (a protégé of Rachmaninoff). Starker’s 35mm versions of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and the Saint-Saëns A minor concerto are wonderfully vital performances and beautiful audio documents, all with the London Symphony Orchestra under Dorati. In a reminiscence for the booklet, Starker points out that Dorati was “probably the only conductor then, other than Stokowski, who understood the difference between a live performance and a recording.” Having rebuilt the LSO into a world-class ensemble, Dorati led it in earthy Prokofiev and Stravinsky, as well as in the Brahms, Schumann and Khachaturian violin concertos with Szeryng. Also here is Dorati’s important recording of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin and the Minneapolis Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

Mercury Living Presence made the first-ever recordings in the Soviet Union using American technicians and equipment. This historic venture is represented by Janis in Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, Rachmaninoff’s First and both Liszt concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic under Kyril Kondrashin. Although this box had to include the million-setting hit that put Mercury’s classical division firmly in the black — the hi-fi version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture made with Napoleonicera cannons from West Point, this listener would have gladly traded the Sousa and old circus marches for some of Rafael Puyana’s harpsichord recordings. The orchestral vividness captured for Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle is let down by wobbly singing, and the set’s booklet is marred by a lack of proofreading. Still, there is Starker’s best recording of Bach’s Cello Suites (far more lithe than his Grammy– winning RCA set of three decades later), plus such rarities as Howard Hanson’s Piano Concerto and a series of Spanish guitar albums with the Romero family that includes a sublime pair of Rodrigo concertos. For those in the market for truly retro hi-fi, Universal has also released a limited-edition boxed set of six audiophile vinyl LPs that includes Starker’s Dvorák, Szeryng’s Brahms and Janis’s Rach 2 with Dorati.

Complete tracklist : http://www.deccaclassics.com/en/cat/4783566