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hobbyists's views for hobbyists
Mercury Recordings on The Fontana Label

 

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Page 3

Being an 'American label' Mercury did much for American composers who were significant at the time: Barber, Copland, Griffes, Hanson, Ives, Sessions, Thompson, a.o. ; a task that was taken over by some other labels of which Nonesuch is the most prominent in Lp days and New World Records in the CD era.

Of the many Mercury recordings that were released on the Fontana label there are a few I came across and are worth mentioning. I also will note some personal recommendations. Despite the fact that these Fontanas are not original Mercury issues the sound still shows something of the superior technique of microphone placement and recording equipment, be it sometimes rudimentary. Especially the recordings made with the American orchestras of Minneapolis (with the exception of the French release of Rossini overtures on Fontana) and Detroit, and with the Eastman Philharmonic, illustrate to the best the typical early Mercury quality. Every recording conveys the intimacy of an orchestra on stage even if the playing is not always top rate and the recording can sound as if you witness a performance in a provincial town. But that immediacy is just a point of excellence.
The recordings with the London SO are not always in the same vein technically. In some cases it looks as if less attention was paid to the best microphone placement. The acoustic properties of the stages of the halls used in Minneapolis, Detroit and Rochester were more appropriate for Mercury's recording technique than were the immense acoustics of the halls used in London (and in Moscow for that matter).

We should always bear in mind that for the production of the Philips and Fontana Lp's in most cases dubbings of the Mercury tapes supplied by the Mercury engineers were used and that the tape recorder employed in Europe when cutting a laquerdisc was not necessarily exactly the same (as was the other equipment used) although technicians have adjusted azimuth and balanced the sound.


For the 700 releases different (older) Philips matrixes were used. For a few releases in the 894 series matrixes from an older series were used (850). In some instances 894 series matrixes were used in releases of the same work in both 894 and 6531 series. If later on new matrixes were made then noise reduction and some compression were applied which influenced the dynamics and the phase of the frequency characteristic. The Fontana release of 'An Evening with Los Romeros' exemplifies this. In the end the quality of each individual Fontana pressing depends on the 'sharpness' of the matrix. Overall the sound is less fresh and clear and open as in the original Mercury releases. Nevertheless, if you come across these Fontanas (or Philips reissues) and they are in mint condition, you might as well look twice.

 

700 137 Brahms: Symphony No. 1. London SO/Antal Dorati. Am. Mercury 90268.**)***)

700 176 Mendelssohn: Italian Symphony. Mozart: Symphony K550. Minneapolis SO/Antal Dorati.*)****)

700 184 Brahms: Symphony No. 4. Detroit SO/Paul Paray **)****)

700 455 Ravel: Bolero, Saint-Saëns: Dance Macabre. Dukas: The Sorcer's Apprentice. Detroit SO/Paul Paray. (Various Am. Mercury-recordings).**)****)

894 009 Liszt: Piano concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Yuri Boukoff. Vienna SO/Laszlo Somogy. Am. Mercury 18066. This Youri Boukoff playing the Liszt Concertos.recording from Mercury's first stereo-series shows its age. Boukoff's interpretations are less controled if compared to Janis' performances that were recorded later. French pressing is to be preferred.

894 020 Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. London SO/Antal Dorati. Am. Mercury 90378. Truly Bartok, truly Hungarian. Recommended!

894 021 Beethoven: Violin concerto. Joseph Szigeti. London SO/Antal Dorati. Am. Mercury 90358 **) The Mercury-team must have known that by inviting Josph Szigeti to record the Beethoven Concerto with Antal Dorati (and of course the Brahms and Prokofiev No. 1 with Herbert Menges) that the recording would document the art of a legend at some seventy years of age. Szigeti was born on September 5, 1892 and died February 19, 1973. Dorati's accompaniment is careful and sympathetic.

894 022 Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3. Marcel Dupre. Detroit SO/Paul Paray. The American Mercury with reference 90331 had also Chausson's Symphony.**)

894 024 and 6531 013 Dvorak: Cello concerto; Bruch: Kol Nidrei. Janos Starker. London SO/Antal Dorati. European Mercury MGY 130 531. Also released as 850 420. Matrixes of 850 420 are used for both 894 024 and 6531 013. Am. Mercury 90303. These are most inspired performances. Both sound and interpretation are highly recommended.

894 025 Gershwin: Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue. Eugene List, Eastman Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson. This Fontana release is pressed from matrixes of European Mercury MGY 130 509. Am.Mercury 90002. Not exactly the Gershwin of my choice. The performance of the concerto is at times hectic and lacks the broad gesture. The sound is for an early stereo-Mercury at times impressive but the cymbals can be quite prominent. My copy did not show much space.

894 026 Brahms: 2nd Piano concerto. Gina Bachauer, London SO/Stanislaw Skrowaczewsky. European Mercury MGY 130 530. Am. Mercury 90301. The strong playing of Gina Bachauer and firm performance of the orchestra are enhanced by the good recording. This release is recommended because the matrixes for pressing the MGY 130 530 were used and they were supplied by Mercury.

894 027 Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade. Minneapolis SO/Antal Dorati. Pressed from matrix of European Mercury MGY 130 510. (which was subsequenly issued as Philips VY 838 501 and coupled with Borodin's Polovetsian Dances; 1963). Am. Mercury 18008 (1959). Recommended because of sound and because of the execution of a well structured and sensible performance.

894 028 Beethoven: Wellington's Sieg. London SO/Antal Dorati. Tchaikovsky: Overture 1812. Minneapolis SO/Antal Dorati. European Mercury MGY 130 514. A 'sonic spectacular' including canons and bells. Over 1.000.000 copies were sold of the original American release of Mercury SRD 19. The Fontana release that I came across shows that it is difficult to produce so many matrixes in order to press over 1.000.000 copies while at the same time keeping a high level of soundquality.

894 029 Tchaikovsky: Pathétique. London SO/Antal Dorati. Earlier as Philips VY 838 504 (1963). Am. Mercury 90312. This is a reading with some beautiful moments. Especially the balletlike nature of the 2nd movement comes off well. The complete set of symphonies was much later released on Philips 6747 195 (6 Lp's) from new matrixes that were cut with less dynamics but show the qualities of a wider range and the warm and harmonious Philips sound to the benefit of Dorati's performances that get more depth.

894 080 Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies 1, 4, 5 and 6. London SO/Antal Dorati. Am. Mercury 90371. Sound: this recording has the dry Mercury sound wich enables the players of celli, bass and cimbalon to build op harmoniously. Also because of interpretation recommended.

894 081 Suppé: Overtures - Poet and Peasant, Pique Dame, Light Cavalry, Bocaccio, Fair Galatea, Morning Noon and Night in Vienna. Detroit Symphony/Paul Paray (Am.Mercury 90269). I did not listen to this recording but knowing how well Paray conducts both major works (like Dvorak) and items in this lighter category on Mercury 90203 (Bouquet de Paray), this must also be fine playing. **)

894 082 Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 41 & 39. London SO/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. Pressed from Philips-made matrixes of European Mercury 130 506 Am. Mercury 90184. Strong readings.***)

894 083 Stravinsky: L'Oiseau de Feu. London SO/Antal Dorati. Dorati recorded The Firebird twice: Am. Mercury 18010 and 90226. The performance of this 894 083-disc must be from the tape of the older 18010 recording. **)

894 084 Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake. Minneapolis SO/Antal Dorati. Am.Mercuty 18025 **)

894 085 Prokofiev: Piano concerto no. 3; Rachmaninoff Piano concerto No. 1. Byron Janis and the Moscow Philharmonic/Kyrill Kondrachin. For my copy the original matrixes made by Mercxury for Philips 130 525 were used. Beautifull performances and good sound, though some recordnoise is evident.

894 088 Franck: Symphony in D. Detroit SO/Paul Paray. Sensitive performance. Here as in so many other releases of the 894 series the sound is rounded if compared to the sometimes fierce sound of the releases in the MGY130 series.

 I could not find the Fontana equivalent of Dvorak's New World Symphony conducted by Paray who in a very good performance shows with the chosen tempi that the 9th is the logical successor of the 8th Symphony. I did not find the Schubert's 8th Symphony conducted by Skrowaczewski and Beethoven's 5th Symphony conducted by Dorati which appeared earlier on Philips 838 502. As two channel transfers were made by the Mercury people from the original channel recordings for earlier Philips releases and for the Fontana reissues it is evident that the very freshness, transparency and refined quality of the original sound recording was somewhat lost, also because Philips did some filtering also. Nevertheless one can still hear to a certain extent that these recordings were made with amplifiers and mixing consoles that work with valves. From about 1974 on Mercury tapes were again released on the Philips label; the Fontana label more or less vanishing from the catalogue). Even then the typical characteristics of the Mercury sound are still discernable though to an even lesser extent in the 6531 series.

6531 002 Wagner: Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Vorspiel zum 1. Akt, London SO/Antal Dorati; Vorspiel zum 3. Akt, Detroit SO/Paray; Overture 'Der Fliegende Holländer', Götterdämmerung: Tagesgrauen und Siegfrieds Heimfahrt, Detroit SO/Paul Paray; Lohengrin: Vorspiel zum 3. Akt London SO/Antal Dorati. Am. Mercury 90232 and 90287. Earlier released as Fontana 700 174. Recommended. ****)

6531 003 Brahms: Hungarian Dances. London SO/Antal Dorati. Am.Mercury 90437. **)

6531 004 Beethoven: Piano concerto No. 5, Gina Bachauer, London SO/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Earlier as Philips VY 838 500. Am.Mercury 90321. Recommended for the sound.

6531 005 Schumann: Piano concerto and Quasi variazioni from Sonata No. 3. Byron Janis, Minneapolis SO/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Am. Mercury 90383. The piano is blended well with the orchestra. The sound is not as pungeant as with other releases but shows good ambience. As a result the pianotone is rounded, but nevertheless beautiful. (Is it a Baldwin?) This release is pressed from matrixes 839 532. It is a pity that the second movement is on side one. Beautiful and very sensitive playing by Janis. Recommended.The Fontana Lp sounds nearly as good as the original Mercury.

6531 107 Szering Plays Fritz Kreisler: Tambourin Chinois, Liebesleid, Liebesfreud, Caprice Viennois, a.o. with Charles Rosen (piano). Am.Mercury 90348. The Fontana release uses the matrixes of the original Philips release 838 426.

6531 008 Gershwin: An American in Paris. Offenbach (arr.Rosenthal): Gaïté Parisienne. Minneapolis SO/Antal Dorati. Offenbach/Rosenthal was coupled with Graduation Ball of Johann Strauss Jr. on European Mercury MGY 130 519 (pressed from matrixes supplied by Mercury).  Offenbach appeared on Am. Mercury 90431 and Gershwin on 90290.. The Offenbach/Rosenthal piece is not to everybody's taste. The sound and playing of the Gershwin is very good.

6531 010 Beethoven: Symphony No. 3. Minneapolis SO/Antal Dorati. First issued as European Mercury MGY 130 508, later released as Philips 839 534. Am. Mercury 18047. This is an early stereo-recording (1958) and the quality of it shows the beginning of that era. The performance is not only uninspired but not at all Beethoven.

6531 025 The Romeros play works for guitar by Teleman, Schubert, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Bach, Sor, etc. Am. Mercury 90417. The sound of this Fontana-release suffers from dynamic enhancing and compression. Good performances with Spanish soul. Sor's Variations on a Theme of Mozart are played by Celedonio Romero with verve and compassion in a gypsy-like style with rubato and singing strings, this freedom being the privilege of the older man. His son Pepe recorded the same piece some 15 years later (1977) for Philips and was more truthful stylistically.

6531 027 and 6545 027 Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition. Minneapolis SO/Antal Dorati. On European Mercury MGY 130 515 coupled with Prelude and Dance from Khovanshchina. Am. Mercury 90342. The Fontana releases were coupled with Philips-recordings of Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia played by the (Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra with Jean Fournet and Polovetsian Dances performed by the Vienna SO and Philh. Chorus, conductor Willem van Otterloo. Recommended because of Dorati's 'authentic' Moussorgsky with his orchestra from Minneapolis.

6531 029 Liszt: Piano concerto No. 1. Byron Janis, Moscow PO/Kyril Kondrashin. Pianoconcerto No. 2. Byron Janis, Moscow Radio SO/Gennady Roshdestvensky. Am. Mercury 90329. Balanced playing of orchestras and conductors, and lyricism by Janis who gives Liszt what he really deserves. Kondrashin and Roshdestvenky are inspired.

6531 050 Brahms: Violin concerto. Henryk Szering. London SO/Dorati. Matrix from 839-series. Am. Mercury 90308. Not the dramatic, choleric Brahms. Nevertheless well structured performance and beautiful playing by Szering. Recommended.

*) We all know how important the cuttingprocess and the pressing on relative hard vinyl is. French made matrixes and pressings have a harder vinyl and show in practically every case a better midband and more clarity. Also Fontana 700 037 WGY attains more drama in the French edition (Liszt Piano concertos performed by Yuri Boukoff with Laszlo Somogyi). The Philips-recordings mastered by Mercury in the USA were pressed on the vinyl used by Mercury. PHS 900-132 (Gérard Souzay) shows his voice with neater contours, but the Lp has also more hiss.

**) These releases I did not audition.

***) These recordings were possibly made in cooperation with EMI.

****)The performance of Brahms' First Symphony with Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra which appeared in the early Fontana 700 series as 700 136 WGY was the same Mercury-recording (American reference 90268) released by EMI as AMS 16082 in April 1961. If I am not mistaken it seems that Philips only could release this and other early stereo-recordings in one of their subseries: 700 039 WGY with Dvorak's Slavonic Rhapsody and 700 184 WGY with Brahms Fourth Symphony. I did not investigate Fontana's 700 series and the earlier Philips 850 and 839 series..

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