Labels We Love – Mercury (Classical)

Labels, Patterns and the Circle of Reason

Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

30+ Reviews of Mercury Classical LPs

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This commentary was written more than ten years ago, but as far as I can tell, it still holds up!

RFR1/ 2.

This pressing has DEMONSTRATION QUALITY SOUND.

Here is the sound that Mercury is famous for: immediate, dynamic and spacious. This record lives up to the Mercury claim: You immediately feel as though you are in the Living Presence of the orchestra.

This is precisely the kind of record that Speakers Corner would not have a clue how to master. I’d stake my reputation on it, for what that’s worth.

As you know, I am one of the most vocal critics of the new Speakers Corner Mercury series, and I can tell you without ever hearing their version of this recording that there is NO CHANCE IN THE WORLD they will ever cut a record that sounds like this. It’s alive in a way that none of their pressings would even begin suggest. If you don’t believe me, please buy this record and play it for yourself. If you don’t agree, I will refund your money and pay the domestic shipping back.

This record also gives the lie to those who think that Vendor pressings are inferior. This is a Vendor and I would be very surprised if there’s a better sounding copy than this one. I’ve certainly never heard one.

People who like to read labels and find some sort of pattern or connection between the label and the sound of the record are living in a world of their own making.

The stamper numbers are the only thing that can possibly mean anything on a record, and even those are subject to so much variation from pressing to pressing that they become only a vague, general guide.

This LP is a good example of a record that a misguided or misinformed record collector would pass up, hoping to find a better sounding non-Vendor pressing.

Of course the circular reasoning that would result is that such a collector would buy the non-Vendor pressing, possibly with the exact same stamper numbers, hear how good it sounded, and congratulate himself on the fact that the non-Vendor pressings always sound so much better. All without ever having done a comparison.

A good way to never be wrong!

Stravinsky / The Firebird – Dorati

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Reviews and Commentaries for The Firebird

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  • One listen to either side of this pressing and you’ll see why this is one of the Top Mercury Titles of All Time
  • The Heavy Vinyl reissues – at 45 or 33, on one disc or four, makes no difference – barely begin to capture the energy and drive Dorati brings to the work
  • “The magic lies in the elaborate orchestration and the excitingly uneven rhythmic writing. Stravinsky changes the orchestration of his themes at each repetition, breaks them down into their constituent parts, pushes their accents across the bar-line, and moves them out of sync with their own accompaniments.”

Neither side has peak distortion or Inner Groove Distortion of any kind, which is rare for this exceptionally dynamic title in our experience.

Both sides are so clear, ALIVE, and transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

This pressing boasts rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury. Both sides really get quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy. (more…)

Remind Me, What Is the Point of Listening to a Quiet Record with Mediocre Sound?

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A mediocre reissue from Philips, bad enough to qualify for our Hall of Shame.

This is some truly dead as a doornail sound, sound which is not remotely competitive with the real Mercury pressings we’ve played. The FR pressings of the recording can be phenomenally good.  Even the later M2 pressings from Philips can be excellent. 

Back in the ’80s and ’90s I actually used to like some of the Golden Import pressings.  That was a long time go, and thankfully our playback system is quite a bit more revealing than the one I had back in those days.

After playing literally tens of thousands of records since then, my critical listening skills are better too.

Now when I play these imports, they sound veiled, overly smooth, smeary and compressed, not too different from the average Philips pressing, which of course is what they are. They’re all remastered by Philips using the Mercury tapes.

Sadly, not much of the Mercury Living Presence sound has survived.

They’re good for audiophiles who care more about quiet surfaces than good sound.  We are firmly staked at the opposite side of that trade-off. Quiet vinyl means nothing if the sound is poor.

Our advice: Don’t waste your money.


This Record Is Good for Testing the Following Qualities

Ambience, Size and Space

Compression 

Energy

Smear

Transparency 

Compromised Recordings and the Rapture of the Purely Musical Experience

Hot Stamper Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

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The best classical recordings of the ’50s and ’60s like the one you see pictured above were compromised in every imaginable way. Yet somehow they manage to be sonically and musically head and shoulders above virtually anything that has come after them, now that we can play them on the high quality equipment of today.

The music lives and breathes on those old LPs. Playing them you find yourself in the Living Presence of the musicians. You become lost in their performances. Whatever the limitations of the medium, they seem to fade quickly from consciousness. What remains is the rapture of the musical experience.

That’s what happens when a good record meets a good turntable.

We live for records like these. It’s the reason we all get up in the morning and come to work, to find and play good records. It’s what this site is all about — offering the audiophile music lover recordings that provide real musical satisfaction. It’s hard work — so hard nobody else seems to want to do it — but the payoff makes it all worthwhile. To us anyway. Hope you feel the same.

The One Out of Ten Rule

If you have too many classical records taking up too much space and need to winnow them down to a more manageable size, pick a composer and play half a dozen of his works. Most classical records display an irredeemable mediocrity right from the start; it doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear it.

If you’re after the best sound, it’s the rare record that will have it, which makes clearing shelf space a lot easier than you might imagine. If you keep more than one out of ten you’re probably setting the bar too low if our experience is any guide.


FURTHER READING

Hot Stamper Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

Well Recorded Classical Albums – The Core Collection

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Winds In Hi-Fi – Grainger / Rogers / Milhaud / Strauss – Fennell

Hot Stamper Mercury Pressings Available Now

More Recordings Conducted by Frederick Fennel

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  • This famous TAS list LP finally makes its Hot Stamper debut here with outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound or very close to it throughout
  • This pressing boasts superb sound on both sides – Mercury knows how to capture the bite of the brass
  • Fennell is a master of this sort of sweet and lyrical Wind Music
  • This spectacular Demo Disc recording is big, clear, rich, dynamic, transparent and energetic – HERE is the Mercury sound we love, and that is so hard to find

Harry Pearson put this record on his TAS List of Super Discs.

The credit must go to Fennel along with the brilliant engineering team at Mercury. I’ve been told that he was a stickler for making sure everyone was perfectly in tune and playing correctly within the ensemble. That’s exactly what you hear when you play a record like this — it’s practically sonic perfection.

Fennell made a number of band music recordings for Mercury. My favorite is British Band Classics Vol. 2, which was the first Mercury recording I ever heard. I went out and bought a copy of it immediately from my local Tower Records on Golden Import.

Years later when I heard the real thing, and original pressing, I realized the Golden Import was a pretty second rate reissue, fine for the $4.99 I might have paid but a big step down from the early pressings.

Also, if you ever see a clean copy of Vol. 1, only available in Mono, pick it up. If it’s cut right it too is out of this world. (more…)

Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker Ballet / Dorati / LSO

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Hot Stamper Pressings of The Nutcracker Available Now

More Hot Stamper Pressings of Classical Music

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  • The Hot Stamper return of this stunning rendition of The Nutcracker, with a Triple Plus (A+++) side three and nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound on sides one and four – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • If you love the excitement Dorati brings to warhorses such as this, coupled with the equally exciting sound that Mercury achieved under Robert Fine, you will have a hard time finding a better combination of the two than this very record
  • The sound is glorious – full, rich, spacious, big and transparent, with virtually no smear
  • With this early pressing the power of the orchestra will come to life right in your very own listening room
  • “The last of Tchaikovsky’s three great ballets, and was premiered in 1892, the year before his enigmatic death.

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Rodrigo / Concierto Andaluz & Concierto de Aranjuez (SR 90488) – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

More of the music of Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)

More TAS Super Disc Recordings

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A good side one backed with a lovely side two! We shot out a stack of these recently and side two of this copy was one of the few sides that really impressed us. The sound is transparent and full of energy. Side one is pretty good but a bit crude in the louder passages.

This is a wonderful record. The performance here by the first family of guitar is legendary. More importantly, the music is delightful and belongs in any serious classical collection.

RFR-1 stampers. TAS List. What the best originals like this one give you is immediacy. The attack of the guitar is more real. Comparing this with the Golden Import shows you that some of the transients are smoothed over on that pressing.

If you’ve got the front end that can deal with the Mercury upper midrange and transient attack, the strings will sound textured and clear, not harsh or shrill. (A badly mastered version of this record would make your ears bleed.) More importantly, this copy captures the sounds of the guitars perfectly. I doubt if anybody could do it as well as Mercury. (more…)

Wagner for Band / Eastman Wind Ensemble

More of the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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  • Wagner for Band finally makes its Hot Stamper debut with STUNNING Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound from start to finish
  • There is plenty on offer for the discriminating audiophile, with the spaciousness, clarity, tonality and freedom from artificiality that are hallmarks of the best Mercury recordings of Fennell leading the EWE
  • Far richer, smoother and livelier than every other pressing we played, with Tubey Magic and space we guarantee you have never heard on any Fennell record before
  • An incredibly rare TAS List recording, now replaced on the list by a Speakers Corner LP – from the looks of it, The Absolute Sound is going deaf in its old agestere

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Liszt / Enesco – Hungarian Rhapsodies / Roumanian Rhapsodies / Dorati

More of the music of Franz Liszt (1811-1880)

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  • This wonderful collection of rhapsodies finally makes its Hot Stamper debut here with outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER on both sides
  • One of the best of the Mercury Living Presence Titles – the orchestra is big, rich and tubey, yet the dynamics and transparency are first rate
  • Beautifully performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (our favorite performances of these works in fact), under the direction of Antal Dorati
  • Other versions — the Oscar Danon we like on RDG, for example — may be faster, but Dorati and the LSO bring an energy and spirit to these pieces that we feel is unequaled on vintage vinyl
  • “The playing is flawless… if you like and/or appreciate the music of these composers, your life would be remiss not having heard these performances.”

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The Said and the Unsaid – The Firebird on Mercury

More on The Firebird

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

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For our recent shootout of The Firebird we had three minty, potentially hot copies of the Mercury with Dorati, as well as our noisy ref. (We have a noisy reference copy for just about every major title by now. We have been doing these shootouts for a very long time. After thirty years in the record business we have accumulated a World Class collection of great sounding records that just too noisy to sell.)

We had one FR pressing and two of the later pressings with the lighter label, the ones that most often come with Philips M2 stampers.
This is how we described the winner:

So clear and ALIVE. Transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

Lifelike, immediate, front row center sound like few records you have ever heard.

Rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury. This side really gets quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy.

What we didn’t say — and what we never say in the listings — is what the second tier copies didn’t do as well as the shootout winner. (more…)