Labels We Love – Mercury (Classical)

Hearing Is All It Should Take, Right?

Hot Stamper Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

Well Recorded Classical Albums – The Core Collection

Some person on some audiophile forum might feel obligated at some point to explain to you, benighted soul that you are, that the old classical records you and other audiophiles revere are so drastically compromised and limited that they just can’t sound any good.

It’s just a fact. It’s science. Technology marches on and has left those old records collecting dust on the ash heap of history.

That’s why the audio world was crying out for Bernie Grundman to recut those Living Stereo recordings from the ’50s and ’60s on his modern cutting equipment and have RTI press them on quiet, flat, high-resolution 180 gram vinyl, following the best practices of an industry that everybody knows has been constantly improving for decades.

But for those of us who actually play these records, there is little evidence to support any of these statements of “fact.”

However, the above sentence only makes sense if the following four conditions have been met for the person judging the new pressings against the old ones:

  1. He or she has a good stereo,
  2. A good record cleaning system, and
  3. Knows how to do shootouts using his or her
  4. Well developed critical listening skills

If you have spent much time on this blog, you have probably read by now that the first three on this list are what allow you to develop the fourth.

Compromises?

The best classical recordings of the ’50s and ’60s, similar to the one you see pictured here, were compromised in every imaginable way.

Yet somehow they manage to stand sonically and musically head and shoulders above virtually anything that has come after them, now that we have high quality equipment on which to play them

The music lives and breathes on those old LPs. When playing them you find yourself in the Living Presence of the musicians. You become lost in the music and the quality of the performance.

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.

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Hovhaness / Giannini – Sym. No. 4 / Sym. No. 3 / EWO

More Mercury Label Classical Recordings

More Classical and Orchestral Recordings

  • An original Maroon Label Mercury pressing of these enchanting symphonies for winds boasting incredible Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) grades throughout – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • Both of these sides are big, clear and lively, with no trace of smear, and clearly reproduced harmonics on every instrument – a Demo Disc to be sure
  • The woodwinds are so rich and natural, with none of the “nasally” quality one hears on so many Mercury records
  • The brass at the end of the record are full-bodied and smooth in the best tradition of vintage analog

These symphonies for winds are an audiophile delight. Mercury is famous for their wind band recordings and this is clearly one of their best.

The idea of a symphony performed only by wind instruments (with added harp and percussion) is novel, to me anyway, and I found the music nothing short of enchanting. One of the first wind recordings I fell in love with decades and decades ago was British Band Classics on Mercury with the EWO under Fennell. Whenever a copy comes in I play it and fall in love with it all over again. You may feel the same about this very record.

I’ve been a fan of the Hovhaness piece here for many years. Finding enough clean copies with which to do a shootout took a very long time, but eventually we had enough and this copy was doing more of what we wanted than practically all others we played.

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Rachmaninoff / Piano Concerto No. 3 – Years Ago We Liked a Mono Pressing

Hot Stamper Mercury Pressings Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos

CBFR-1/CBFR-2. This Mono pressing sounds SUPERB, much smoother and more natural than I remember the Stereo pressings sounding. What’s interesting about these Monos is they’re not mastered by Robert Fine. They are mastered by someone with the initials J.J., who apparently does all the Mono mastering. The reason Mercury Monos can sound as good as they do is because they have their own separate microphone feed and their own separate Mono tape recorder dedicated all to themselves. (London did the same thing and that’s why so many London Monos are amazing sounding.)

I don’t think you can find a better sounding Rachmaninoff 3rd on Mercury than this one. 

[Of course we no longer agree with that.  The best stereo copies are in an entirely different league. The mono can be good, but it cannot be great in the way the stereo pressings can be.] (more…)

Stravinsky / The Firebird – Hard to Beat for Table Setup

Reviews and Commentaries for The Firebird on Mercury

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

White Hot Front Row Center sound – amazingly lifelike. One listen to either side and you’ll know this is one of the Top Mercury Titles of All Time. Dorati breathes life into the work as only he can.

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.

These sides really gets quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy. Some of our favorite (and not so favorite) Mercury classical and orchestral recordings can be found here.


Table Setup

This is an excellent record for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like. Classical music is really the ultimate test for proper turntable/arm/cartridge setup (and evaluation). A huge and powerful recording such as this quickly separates the men from the boys when it comes to proper orchestral reproduction.

Recordings of this quality are the reason $10,000+ front ends exist in the first place. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you do, this is the record that will show you what you got for your hard-earned dough.

Ideally you would want to work your setup magic at home with this record, then take it to a friend’s house and see if you can achieve the same results on his system. I’ve done this sort of thing for years. (Sadly, not so much anymore; nobody I know can play records like these the way we can. Playing and critically evaluating records all day, every day, year after year, you get pretty good at it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.)

Properly set VTA is especially critical on this record, as it is on most classical recordings. The smallest change will dramatically affect the timbre, texture and harmonic information of the strings, as well as the rest of instruments of the orchestra.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More VTA Advice

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Bach / Suites for Solo Cello – Reviewed in 2010

Hot Stamper Mercury Pressings Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Classical Records on Mercury 

EXCELLENT CELLO REPRODUCTION and MOSTLY QUIET VINYL on side one, where you get Bach’s entire Suite No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello. Side two has excellent sound as well but the vinyl is noisy so take this one at a bargain price and hear how wonderful a cello can sound when recorded and mastered for maximum effect, live in your listening room!

The sound of Starker’s cello here is HUMONGOUS — it’ll fill up your room, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. Click on the link to see other recordings with oversized images.

It’s also tonally correct from top to bottom, a quality we heard on none of the Mercury Heavy Vinyl Reissues, some of the worst sound we had heard from Speakers Corner up to that time, but very much in keeping with overly rich, overly smooth sound of the Heavy Vinyl records being made today. We despise that sound and want nothing to do with it.

Two Mercury recordings of Starker’s are currently on the TAS List, SR 90303 and SR 90392. I suppose we could order them up, audition them and list their many sonic shortcomings, since we do have nice copies of both albums in the backroom, just not enough to do a shootout, but there are so many other good pressings to play, why go out of way to play another second- or third-rate Heavy Vinyl pressing?

(By the way, we have a new link for audiophile pressings that are tonally correct but are wrong in other ways (as they usually are). You can assume that our Hot Stamper pressings are tonally correct for the most part, as correct tonality is fairly key to high quality sound. Not essential, but important nevertheless.)

The cutting is super low distortion on this later label copy as well. This copy will show you why these Starker Mercury records are so highly prized.

Starker’s records are legendary for their sound, not to mention Starker’s way with this music. If anybody can make Bach’s solo cello pieces capture your interest, Starker can. (more…)

Various Composers – Fiesta in Hi-Fi / Hanson

More Classical and Orchestral Recordings

More TAS List Super Discs

  • An INSANELY GOOD original (FR 1) Mercury stereo pressing with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from the first note to the last
  • We owe a debt of gratitude to Harry Pearson for championing records such as this one — who is fit to carry his mantle today (besides us of course!)
  • It’s also fairly quiet at Mint Minus Minus, with no marks that play or issues with the inner grooves
  • The notes read:
    • So rich and big
    • Great space and detail
    • Everything sweet and clear
    • 3D too
    • Great dynamics
    • Deep bass
  • If that sounds like the kind of Mercury you would like to hear — it sure does to us, how many Mercurys can be called sweet? — then this is the record for you
  • “…this musical merriment is brought bubbling forth by gregarious conductor Howard Hanson and his merry band, the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, which sounds like it had fun making this music.”

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Respighi – The Birds / Brazilian Impressions / Dorati

More of the music of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

More Classical and Orchestral Recordings

  • This vintage TAS-approved Maroon Label Mercury pressing boasts superb Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER from first note to last
  • It’s also fairly quiet at Mint Minus Minus, a grade that even our most well-cared-for vintage classical titles have trouble playing at
  • This copy is everything that a good Mercury should be: dynamic, open, immediate, exciting, and of course, with Dorati and the LSO, beautifully performed
  • Both “The Birds” and “Brazilian Impressions” are wonderful sounding – we guarantee you’ve never heard a better copy of both works
  • This is yet another amazingly good sounding Mercury recording engineered by Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart

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Rachmaninoff – Have You Ever Noticed that Sometimes the Highs Will Come Back?

More of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Hot Stamper Mercury Pressings Available Now

This side one is interesting., I would say that it starts out Super Hot (A++) and within a few minutes becomes White Hot (A+++). The piano is a bit veiled at the start, but within a relatively short period of time that subtle loss of transparency disappears and the piano is RIGHT THERE.

This is not unusual in our experience.

The first track on many records can sound dull, and by the second track the highs come back and the tonality is right from top to bottom. Who knows why?

We speculate that the vinyl did not have time to fully heat up the edge of the record, but that’s speculation, something that has almost no value in our (yours and mine) quest for better sounding records. 1A, 1B, first off the stamper, who gives a flying you-know-what. You have to play the record to know how it sounds.

The rest is BS, proffered by those who are simply too lazy to do the work of actually cleaning and playing multiple copies of an album to know what they are talking about.

Side Two

A++, with all the texture and transparency we heard on side one. The strings are PERFECTION — truly Demo Disc quality.

The piano however does not quite have the weight it does on side one, so we knocked a plus off, putting this one at A++.

Only the last quarter inch has the slightest amount of groove damage on the loudest piano peaks. We’ve never heard one that played cleaner all the way through, I can tell you that. [This was written about a decade ago. Now we have, many of them in fact. They are out there, but if you buy a copy, make sure you can return it for Inner Groove Distortion because most of them have a problem in that area.]

What an amazing recording! What an amazing piece of music!

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Haydn / Symphonies 59 & 81 – The Best on Record

More of the music of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Hot Stamper Mercury Pressings Available Now

These notes are taken from the first shootout we did many years ago.

These are THE BEST HAYDN SYMPHONIES I have ever heard on disc. Folks, until I heard Dorati and the Festival Chamber Orchestra perform these pieces I never knew there could be this much FIRE in Haydn’s music. (Please excuse the pun; the 59th Symphony is entitled “Fire”.)

The producers and engineers for Mercury bring the kind of recording energy and presence to this music that I have frankly never heard before. Credit must go to both Dorati and his players.

His tempi are fast and sprightly throughout, and the smaller orchestra allows the players to zig and zag with the musical changes much more quickly than would be the case with a larger and more inertia-bound group.

The FCO are so technically proficient and so light on their feet that Dorati was able to push them to dizzying heights of performance. For the first time I can honestly say that Haydn’s music really works — it’s wonderful!

(If you’ve ever heard Previn conducting Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony with the L.A. Phil from 1990 you will know what I mean. In his (their) hands the work is so lively it’s hard to hear it performed by anyone else. Bad digital sound but it’s worth it to hear the piece played with such gusto.)

Dorati and Haydn

As you may know, Dorati recorded all the symphonies of Haydn for London/Decca. Having played some of them I can tell you they certainly do not sound like this! (Perhaps my copies were not the best, but how many copies of these records can be found nowadays? Not enough to do shootouts with, that’s for sure.)

This recording is not your typical dry, bright, nasaly, upper-midrangy Merc, on side one especially. Here the sound is rich and smooth like a good London, with a big stage and lovely transparency. We graded it A++ to A+++ — side two had more texture to the massed strings than this side one, so we downgraded it half a plus. In virtually every other way it was SUPERB!

Side Two

A touch of that Mercury brightness can be heard on this side, but it is well under control at normal listening levels. The strings are textured and lively, the orchestra just bursting with enthusiasm for this music and the recording captures it all! A++ to A+++, again, superb, and priced accordingly.

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The “Not-So-Golden-Age” of RCA, Mercury, London and Others

Well Recorded Classical Albums – The Core Collection

Hot Stamper Pressings of Classical Albums from The Core Collection

We ran into a number of copies of this title that had what we like to call that “Old Record Sound,” which is surprisingly common on even the most revered Golden Age labels, RCA included.

No top, no real bottom, congested climaxes and a general shrillness to the sound — we’ve played Living Stereos by the dozens that have these shortcomings and many more.

Some audiophiles may be impressed by the average Shaded Dog pressing, but I can assure you that we here at Better Records are decidedly not of that persuasion.

Something in the range of ten to fifteen per cent of the major label Golden Age recordings we play will eventually make it to the site. The vast majority just don’t sound all that good to us. (Many have second- and third-rate performances and those get tossed without ever making it to a shootout.)

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Liebestraum / Composed By – Franz Liszt
Gayne Ballet Suite: Lullaby / Composed By – Khachaturian
Moonglow And The Theme From “Picnic”
Dancing Through The Years

Side Two

Jalousie / Composed By – Gade
Fantasia On “Greensleeves” / arr. Vaughan Williams
Hernando’s Hideaway / Written-By – Jerry Ross, Richard Adler
The Bohemian Girl: Overture / Composed By – Balfe

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