Mercury Living Presence LPs started in 1951 when the Mercury engineering team recorded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Rafael Kubelik performing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Ravel orchestration. They used but one microphone suspended over the orchestra and the sound came out naturally and with great presence. When stereo dawned, the microphones were upped to three, left, right, and center. Once they were adjusted, the levels were left in the hands of the performers.
The label was Mercury and it had its stable of regular performances. Antal Dorati led the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now known as the Minnesota Orchestra), and later on conducted the Philharmonia Hungarica and London Symphony Orchestra); Paul Paray led the Detroit Sympohny Orchestra; Howard Handson the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra; and Frederick Fennell the Eastman Wind Ensemble. There were some individual spots with other conductors – Walter Susskind, Anatole Fistoulari, and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt led the London Symphony. After Dorati left Minneapolis, Mercury recorded with the orchestra’s new music director, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.
The recordings were tremendously successful, setting standards for performance and recording that still exist. The Living Presence recordings were issued in two 50 plus CD boxes as Volumes 1 & 2, and now they have just issued Volume 3 (the final one), containing 53 CDs. You might think that this third box would be the “dregs.” You’d be totally wrong. Dorati has complete Brahms symphonies with the LSO, Tchaikovsky Sym 1, 2, 3, and 5 with the same orchestra. There’s also magnificent Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Rossini and Verdi overtures with Dorati. Paray weighs in with the complete Schumann symphonies and absolutely magnificent readings of the Franck and Chausson symphonies, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, Dvorak’s “New World,” and a splendid Sibelius Second Symphony.
Hanson is represented with three volumes of “The Composer and his Orchestra,” a once in a lifetime recording of the two Bloch concerti grossi, and a scintillating disc of Gershwin. There so much more, go here to see the complete listing. Listening to all of these discs I was struck by the sound quality, always excellent, sometimes even better than that. Nice separation, smooth high frequencies, focused, rumbling bass. And lots and lots of presence!
The set is not really expensive. You can pick it up for about $125 and that comes to only 2.35 per disc. Though a few have hit the streets in single CD editions it seems unlikely that all of the discs will ever be released separately. The only criticism I have is this: it’s perhaps right to say that the separate cardboard sleeves contain original art, but they are not the original covers. Until the later days of the series, the covers were immediately identified as Mercury Living Presence by the broad “Stereo Hi Fi” banner across the top, and the diagonal swash stating “Living Presence.” Since CD offers a greater playing time than LP, many of these albums contain more titles than the original so more words have to be edited in. The examples above will give you an idea, the original LP on top and the CD release (containing a Haydn symphony from a different LP) on the bottom.