Mercury Living Presence Recordings

Releases & Covers
Rudolf A. Bruil - Page first published 2001 .

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Mercury and Philips, Melodiya, Nixa, Tono, and HMV

Mercury's first classical release in the Olympian Series was MG 10000 with Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto performed by David Oistrakh and conductor Alexander Gauk, a recording that sometime later could be found on a few other record labels as well.
One of the earliest original Mercury sound recordings was of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin of Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Alexander Schneider and presented as MGL#1, Mercury's first boxed set, recorded in 1949 at Reeves Sound Studios, New York City, by Robert Fine (engineer) and Mitchell Miller (recording director). The set with notes written by David Hall was issued in 1950, the Bach year (200th anniversary of his death). Performances of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas in the 1950s.

Mercury had a license contract with EMI in Great Britain. The recording which appeared in the US on Mercury 50000 with Pictures at an Exhibition performed by the Chicago Symphony under Rafael Kubelik was released in Great Britain on BLP 1002, a 10" HMV in the fall of 1952.

In issue No. 21, 1953 of the British publication DISC - Quarterly Pocket Miscellany for the Music Lover and the Gramophone Enthousiast - critic Moore Orr reviewed HMV BLP 1002.

"Recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, by the Mercury Co. for a 12" disc and by a new process in which a single Telefunken microphone was hung 25 feet directly above the conductor, this vital recording has been re-taped by HMV and most successfully transferred to 10" dimensions. I do not mean that the present issue is dubbed from a 12" disc but, rather, from the same tape used in the first place. The result is highly satisfactory and there need be no newcomers of this work for a long while to come."

Also in France, Germany and the Netherlands the EMI companies issued the Mercury recordings on the Electrola, Voix de son maitre, and His Master's Voice labels. By 1955 Barclay was issuing the more popular repertory of classical and jazz. At far left he French issue of Ravel's Boléro and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capricio Espagnol with the Detroit Symphony conducted by Paul Paray on MLP 7509 (original MG 50020).
In the early days recordings of the TONO label from Denmark were released by Mercury in the US. At right the label and the cover of the Danish TONO edition of Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 9, "Kreutzer", performed by Antoinette Wolf (piano) and Endre Wolf (violin). Reference LPA 34001. The Mercury release from December 1952 had reference number 10120 and contained also Sonata No. 5 performed by the same artists.
Tono Label with Endre Wolf and Antoinette Wolf playing Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata
Symphonies 1, 2 and 5 of Carl Nielsen performed by The Danish National Orchestra of the State Radio under Thomas Jensen appeared on the London (English Decca) label. No. 6 - Sinfonie Simplice - was a Mercury release: MG 10137.
 
  The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Odd Grüner-Hegge with Alfred Maurstad (Peer Gynt), soprano Eva Prytz (Solvejg/Solveig), Gunvor Mjelva, Synnove Haugan and Randi Brandt Gundersen (the Saeter Girls), perform the Original Stage Version of Grieg's Peer Gynt: Recorded under the auspices of the Norwegian Performing Rights Society, originally released on the Danish TONO label. As a Mercury release it is MG 10148.

Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jacques Rachmilovich: Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 1 Op. 13 on Mercury MG 10111, released in the Fall of 1953.

Rachmilovich also recorded for the Concert Hall Society label.

 
Apparently Mercury also bought ready recordings from other sources, like this performance of 'Das Klagende Lied' (Gustav Mahler) with conductor Zoltan Fekete and singers Ilona Steingruber (soprano), Sieglinde Wagner (contralto) and Ernst Majkut (tenor). In Great Britain it was not released as a Mercury but was issued on the Concert Artist label in April 1955.
Critics considered the Fekete Mercury recording as excellent. Maybe because of the optimization of the playback curve of the tape and the cutting of the lacquer. Note that on the right of the spindle hole is printed: Reeves-Fairchild Thermodynamic Margin Control.
 
"In dynamic and complex passages the behavior of the cutter diamond is more intense and this raises the temperature which can be detected by a sensor to which the speed of the motor of the cutter head responds. This is an easier way to keep optimal land at adjacent positions of the groove."
 
In the early Olympian days violinist Rafael Druian made various recordings for Mercury when he was in his thirties. At left Sonatas by Schumann and Brahms performed with pianist John Simms. Mercury MG 50091. He played the solo violin in Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov) with Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony in a brilliant Living Presence recording. Mercury MG 50009.
Benjamin Britten's 'Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra' and Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet 'The Nutcracker' were exquisitely enlightened by composer/musicologist Deems Taylor (cover not displayed here). At far left the British EMI pressing of the mono recording. He also explained the recording of the 1812 Festival Overture - Ouverture Solennelle (shown is the release by PYE in England of the 1956 recording).
 
After Mercury had been bought by Philips, in Europe many a Mercury recording found its way into the homes of music lovers and audiophiles. One of the best sellers was Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Ouverture Solennelle). At left the Italian release on Mercury MGY 130 514. Wellington's Victory was a Philips matrix. The Overture a matrix with the number in writing: Mercury SR-90054A-PFR-1.
 
In April 1978 Antal Dorati returned to his old neighborhood, Minnesota, to make his third recording of Tchaikovsky's Festival Overture, coupled with Capriccio Italien and Marche Slave, this time with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and for English Decca (SXL 6895; London 7118), and featuring the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia, the bells of the National Cathedral, Washington DC, and an American Civil War cannon.
 
Antal Dorati Stravinsky SR 90226
Antal Dorati recorded The Suite of Stravinsky's Firebird with the Minneapolis Symphony on 18010, coupled with Borodin's Second Symphony.
Later the complete ballet was recorded in London and released on Mercury SR 90226 (cover at left). This performance is compelling even if you content yourself with a release from EMI in Great Britain or Germany, or a Philips-Fontana pressing, if you cannot acquire an original Mercury.
 

Some of the releases of Mercury recordings by Philips on the Philips and Fontana labels can boast of matrixes cut by George Piros like the recordings of Gershwin's Concerto in F with Eugene List and Howard Hanson, and Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 with pianist Gina Bachauer and conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

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Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 with pianist Gina Bachauer and conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski on Fontana
Early recordings issued in the Philips 835-Series and Mercury MGY 130-Series were later released in the Festivo-Series 839-Series while using the original 835 AY and MGY 130 matrices, all showing the original sound. At left is Dorati's recording of Beethoven's Third Symphony 'Eroica'. The Fontana Series als contained recordings of artists from the Philips catalog: Clara Haskil, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Igor Markevitch, Bernard Haitink, Roberto Benzi, George Szell, Carl Caraguly, etc.
As so often with Philips issues here also the character of the original sound recording is preserved as well as the acoustic nature with the orchestra positioned on stage. Below the cover of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov) and Polovetsian Dances (Borodin), Antal Dorati conducting. Violin solo by Rafael Druian.
Other notable issues in the Festivo Series were the recordings of pianist Byron Janis performing the Schumann Concerto Op. 54 with conductor Stanislav Skrowaczewski and the Minneapolis Symphony. Also on that recording Schumann's Quasi Variazione. There is Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov) and Polovetsian Dances (Borodin), Antal Dorati conducting. Violin solo by Rafael Druian.
Janos Starker plays 'Rococo Variations' (Tchaikovsky) and Cello Concerto No. 1 (Saint-Saëns), with the London Symphony under Antal Dorati.
Sviatoslav Richter and Kyril Kondrashin were made in London by the Mercury team: 835 474 Hi-Fi Stereo
The Philips recordings of the Piano Concertos of Franz Liszt performed by Sviatoslav Richter and Kyril Kondrashin were made in London by the Mercury team: 835 474 HiFi-Stereo label, original first Dutch matrices which differ substantially from German HiFi-Stereo matrices. At left the first edition in its original cover. Mercury had already recorded these concertos with Byron Janis in Moscow for their own catalog. At right the American Philips Richter release distributed by Mercury (PHS 900 000).
 
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 who, together with her husband C. Robert Fine and the other members of the Mercury team, produced these outstanding recordings in 1961 for Philips .
The Mercury recordings of the two Liszt concertos with Byron Janis were made in Moscow with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kyril Kondrashin and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky respectively (Mercury SR 90329).
The First Concerto replaced the recording from 1957 played by pianist Richard Farrell and conductor George Weldon, coupled with the Grieg A Minor Concerto. These recordings were originally made by the Mercury team for Pye and released on CCLP 30194 and on CCL 30104 in Great Britain in 1957 and 1958.
At left cover and inner sleeve of the British issue on Pye CCL 30 104. The Richard Farrell performance - which starts without much energy and only reaches momentum in the third movement - was released in mono on Mercury MG 50126. It was later available in stereo on Mercury SR 90126. There never was a stereo release with reference AMS in England. And this recording was superseded by the performance of Byron Janis with Kyrill Kondrashin (coupled with No 2. with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting).
In France the contract with Barclay ended when EMI in Great Britain signed a license agreement with Mercury. Now "Les industries musicales et électriques Pathé-Marconi" issued the Merrcury recordings in France. The label was styled the AMS-way and mentioned the original American references and the French numbers. At left the edition with the Mozart Symphonies conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. The original Mercury was SR 90184. The reference for the French release was 190184.
 
Cellist Georges Miquelle was the soloist in Schelomo (Ernest Bloch) and Cello Concerto No. 2 of Victor Herbert on SR 90286
Cellist Georges Miquelle was the soloist in Schelomo (Ernest Bloch) and Cello Concerto No. 2 of Victor Herbert on Mercury SR 90286. Passionnate and dramatic music making, especially in Bloch's work. Howard Hanson conducts the Eastman Rochester Orchestra. The concerto had been released earlier on SR 90163 coupled with Sinfonie in G by Johann Friedrich Peter.
Byron Janis made several recordings which are admired by many. One of these is Mercury SR 90300 with conductor Kyril Kondrashin: Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 and Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 1, one of the recordings made in Russia. When When Philips released the Mercury Series on 12" records with the original US-covers, they issued the First Concerto on a 10 inch disc as a Hi-Fi Stereo edition.
SR 90300 Byron Janis with conductor Kyril Kondrashin play Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 and Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 1
There were three more Russian Mercury recordings: a recital by pianist Byron Janis, Balalaika Favorites played by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra, and the Borodin Quartet playing Shostakovich Quartets Nos. 4 and 8.
The issue by Philips on Mercury 130 540 MGY had of course the same cover as the original American release. The plate of Side Two was cut by George Piros as the dead wax indicates SR-90309B-RFR-1. The matrix of Side One was made by Philips from a tape supplied by Mercury in Chicago. Side One had a few passages with fierce high frequency content.
Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter play Beethoven Sonatas on Philips Hi-Fi Stereo
Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter play Beethoven Sonatas on Philips USA

Another "Russian" recording was made for the Philips label in London on 35 mm film: cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter playing Beethoven's Complete Sonatas for Piano and Cello were recorded in London and Vienna 1962 according to a member on a Google Forum and first issued on the Philips HiFi Stereo label (835 182/83). The recordings were later reissued using the same plates in the 839 Series (839 602/03). The American release was a 2 LP gatefold album and pressed from plates made by Mercury. Reference number of the set: PHS 2-920.

The same performances of Beethoven's Complete Sonatas for Piano and Cello were also released in the Soviet Union on the Mk label (torch) on two discs: 013811/12/13/14 (mono).
Music and Songs of White Russia by Pierre and Vladimir Svetlanoff with the Sania Poustylnikoff Orchestra is another authentic recording from Russia. At ledt the cover of the mono edition issued by Philips in Europe.  
 
Joseph Szigeti Mercury SR 90225
Josph Szigeti was invited to record the Beethoven Concerto with Antal Dorati (Mercury SR 90358) and of course the Brahms (SR 90225) and also Prokofiev's No. 1 (SR 90419) with conductor Herbert Menges. The accompaniments for the old master are careful and sympathetic.
Another recording of Byron Janis is his performance of Rachmaninoff's 3rd Concerto with the London Symphony conducted by Dorati (Mercury SR 90283). This recording is also one of the most admired performances of "Rach Three".
The original Mercury covers had a colored back and additional notes explaining the technical ins and outs of each recording.
SR 90283 Byron Janis Rachmaninoff 3
The transfer to CD of this Concerto was done from a half-inch tape. The LP release also, otherwise the banner would have shown the perforated tape. The original 35 mm film recording had been lost, hence the inlay of the juwel box of the first CD release does not have the 35 mm banner either. Apparently the 35 mm film recording was discovered and used for a new transfer to LP by Speakers Corner.
The original Mercury covers had a colored back and additional notes explaining the technical ins and outs of each recording. The back of the Philips issue is shown at the far right. Even the earliest Philips MGY 130512 release is worth having as it was pressed from original George Piros plates. Later the Concerto was reissued on Golden Imports SRI 75068.
Other outstanding recordings are those of Marcel Dupré at the organ of the Saint Sulpice in Paris, playing César Franck (SR 90168), Charles Widor (SR 90169), and five volumes of works by Johann Sebastian Bach (SR 90227/ 90228/ 90229/ 90230/ 90231).
Yehudi Menuhin plays Bartok's Violin Concerto with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and Antal Dorati on SR 90003. The early American recordings in the SR 90000 Series had the Mercury logo in the upper left corner next to the STEREO lettering.
 

Bouquet de Paray: Paul Paray conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in a spectacular program: Wilhelm Tell Overture, Dance Macabre, Invitation to the Dance and Mephisto Waltz on Mercury SR 90203.
At right the cover of Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz) on SR 90254.

After the introduction of the "stereo compatible" format, the release of stereo and mono editions of a recording was no longer necessary. Many new plates were cut from the original stereo tapes or were cut from tapes which were copied from the original 35 mm and 1/2 inch tapes.

Philips regrouped the music of Ravel on two volumes instead of releasing the compositions on various dics with music of other French composers as Mercury originally did.

At left the French "stereo compatible" release of Vol. I of the music of Maurice Ravel conducted by Paul Paray with the exhilarating and captivating rendition of "La Valse" on 130 634 MLY (instead of MGY).

 
SR 90268 with Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati was later released on the Fontana label owned by Philips: Stereo Spezial 700 136 WGY, pressed from the 850 400 matrices from the series which replaced the the earlier 130 MGY series,.
It is known that the earliest pressings from matrices with prefix FR are to be considered the best. However there are examples where the quality is not high. Dorati's Beethoven 3rd (Eroica) in stereo pressed from FR plates for example suffers from a lean lower register and some rumble caused by the drive of the cutting lathe. If performance is your first criterium for collecting, it can be worthwhile to have a later, not original pressing.
The Golden Import Series were pressed from new matrices and more refined, high quality vinyl. At left the release of the performances by Janos Starker, cello, accompanied by pianist Georgy Seebok, of Bach's Sonatas for Violoncello and Piano, BWV 1027, 1028, and 1029, on SRI 75104.
Already in the mono days Janos Starker recorded for Mercury. He was the cellist in the Roth String Quartet. The other members were Feri Roth, 1st violin, Jeno Antal, 2nd violin, and Nicholas Harsanyi, viola. At left the recording of Ernest Bloch's String Quartet No. 1 (MG 50110). The Roth String Quartet also recorded Zoltan Kodaly's String Quartet No. 1 (MG 50094).  
Janos Starker's most famous recording is of his performances of the Six Suites (Sonatas) for Solo Cello of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007-1012). Suites 2 and 5 were issued first on SR-90370 in 1964. The 3 LP set with all six Suites was issued as Mercury SR3-9016. The recordings of BWV 1007-1012 were made in the Ballroom Studio. The sound engineering naturally added to the impact of the cello and revealed the full intensity of Starker's playing. Robert Eberenz was the engineer. Harold Lawrence was the producer. But this time just two microphones were used, I was told.
At right the reissued recordings in the Golden Import Series: SRI 3-77002.
At left the box with the complete set as it is reissued by Speakers Corner. (There is also a two-LP set issued on the Philips label in the nineteen seventies.) The sound of the issues differs. The Golden Import has the openness and lightness of the analog days but lacks somewhat consistency in the lower mid band. The Speakers Corner issue is of an extremely high quality.
With the dawning of the era of the Compact Disc, many a record company started reissueing older recordings in new series. On top of that Philips concentrated the pressing activity in Baarn, the Netherlands where from 1980 on Decca, Philips and Mercury discs were pressed. The Golden Import Series were adorned with a lable "Imported Pressing - Records made in the Netherlands". Among these re-releases were also old mono recordings like MG 50064 with Antal Dorati conducting Feste Romane and Church Windows (Respighi), "altered to simulate stereo".
The reissue of Frederic Fennell's recording with the Eastman Wind Ensemble playing Ruffles and Flourishes on SRI 75034 (originally SR 90112) is a good test record for phase and harmonics when optimizing a system.
Several knowledgeable music lovers who are also audiophiles maintain that the reissues in the Golden Import Series pressed by Philips in the Netherlands are often superior to the pressings in the earlier SR 90000 series done by RCA. From a viewpoint of antique value, the originals are most desirable.


At left an early Pye release of British Band Classics with Suites Nos. 1 and 2 by Gustav Holst, and Toccata Marziale and Folk Song by Vaughan Williams on MRL 2001.
At right the British EMI release of MG 50143 (SR 90143) with Hindemith (Symphony), Schönberg (Theme and Variations), and Stravinsky (Symphony for Wind Instruments). All performed by Frederick Fennell and the Eastwind Ensemble.

Tapes were "mastered and quality audited by Ampex. Duplicated by Ampex in Elk Grave Village, Illinois, USA."
And it was printed "This tape recording contains two automatic reversing signals."
The front and back of the box of the reel to reel issue of Volume 2 of The Civil War is shown at left. The box has both the Mercury and Philips logo. It is a late release.

Like most labels, also Mercury issued 4 track tapes of many of their recordings.
Mercury Living Presence Stereophonic Tape Redording of Gershwin's Concerto in F with pianist Eugene List and conductor Howard Hanson.
  At right the cover of an English pressing from EMI plates of Gershwin's Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue with Eugene List and Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Orchestra, EMI reference number AMS 16026 (originally Mercury SR 90002). The British Mercury releases were pressed from plates cut at a lower level.
Gershwin Concerto in F on AMS 16026
 
Gina Bachauer's performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor) is a relative rare recording. Dutch Philips reissues in the Festivo Series suffer from wow at the beginning of the first movement. The issue on Mercury 131.006 MSY - Magie du Son from France does not have this problem. The London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.
 

At right the cover of a Dutch Mercury (Philips pressing) of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minneapolis Symphony with Prokofiev's Suites from Romeo and Juliet (originally SR 90315).
 
The earliest recordings were made with conductor Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: the famous recording of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' with Adolph Harseth, trumpet (MG 50000), Bartok's 'Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta' (MG 50001),
 
Deutsche Mercury Ausgabe von Elektrola.
At left an early German release of the recording from the mono days of Symphony No. 6, Pathétique (Tchaikovsky), performed by Rafael Kubelik and the Chicagoans. At right the original Mercury MG 50006.
Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony (MG 50002), Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony (MG 50003) and Brahms's First Symphony (MG 50007) all conducted by Rafael Kubelik.
Antal Dorati (Minneapolis Symphony), Paul Paray (Detroit Symphony Orchestra), Howard Hanson (Eastman- Rochester Symphony Orchestra) and Frederick Fennell (Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble) were the principal conductors who recorded for Mercury.
At left the gatefold cover of the British EMI release of the Mercury recording of Dvorak's New World Symphony Op. 95 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Kubelik (ALP 1018).

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Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1998-2012 by Rudolf A. Bruil and co-authors