The History of Mercury Living Presence

Wilma Cozart Wilma Cozart at 3- to 2-track mixer
Telefunken U-47 Mikrophon Telefunken U-47 Microphone
Mercury Aufnahmewagen Robert Eberenz on 35mm tape device in the Mercury car

The year was 1950. The record industry was recovering from the 'battle of the speeds', which pitted RCA Victor, with its 45-rpm disc, against Columbia Records, inventor of the microgroove long-playing record. (The 78-rpm shellac disc had just suffered a swift demise.) In the aftermath of the protracted struggle, the unexpected happened. Both sides won: the 45-rpm became the preferred speed for popular music at the time and the LP was adopted as the industry standard for classics and other 'long-playing' programs.

But an even more significant and far-reaching development had taken place a year before, when wide use of magnetic tape recording was introduced. The new medium made it possible for independent labels to penetrate an area that was hitherto the exclusive domain of major labels like RCA and Columbia. Compared to the cumbersome 78-rpm recording process, tape recording was easily within the reach of the small record entrepreneur who, with portable tape recorders, could travel to Europe to record musical groups for only a fraction of the recording rates in the United States. In London, Vienna, Zagreb, Prague and other cities, orchestras and other musical ensembles were only too eager to welcome these independent record labels.

The sudden influx of new orchestral recordings made abroad was also an indirect result of the second Petrillo ban in 1948, which prevented union musicians from recording in the States. It was not an unmixed blessing; many of the discs were of mediocre performances, hastily produced and with indifferent engineering. At the same time, orchestral recording in the United States experienced a decline, directly or indirectly attributable to the battle of the speeds and the startling increase in the number of classical labels and new releases. Exclusive recording agreements with major orchestras like the Chicago Symphony were allowed to languish. It was in this volatile climate that Mercury Records, an independent label based in Chicago, entered the classical record market.

Mercury was founded in 1945 by Irving Green as a pop label. Working with such now-renowned producers as Mitch Miller, Norman Granz and John Hammond, the company was an immediate success, producing hit records with Patti Page, Vic Damone and Frankie Laine, whose single, That's My Desire, became Mercury's first million seller.

In 1947, Mercury ventured into the classical record field when Hammond, by then vice-president, brought to the label a number of 78-rpm and acetate masters which he had produced before joining Mercury, including Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto conducted by the composer. He hired record critic David Hall in 1948 to manage the new department, assigning him first the task of transferring these older masters to LP.

The same year, Mercury acquired the U.S. rights to recordings made in Germany before and during World War II, many of which were taken from off-the-air broadcasts. The company made news in 1950 by obtaining the rights to the world premiere recording of Khachaturian's Violin Concerto, recorded in Russia with the already legendary violinist, David Oistrakh. Technically, the Soviet tapes were second-rate, even primitive by Western standards, but C. Robert ('Bob') Fine, (1922-1982), then manager of the Disc Recording Division at Reeves Sound Studios, who handled Mercury's engineering needs in New York, managed to salvage the Russian recording to the extent that Oistrakh's artistry somehow came through. Encouraged by the attention and sales which the album garnered, Mercury decided to continue in the classical record business.

As Mercury grew more successful, the association between the company and Bob Fine became more far-reaching. He engineered and supervised recording sessions for Mercury's pop, jazz and classical divisions from 1945 to the early 1970s, although never an employee of Mercury. After leaving Reeves Sound Studios in the early Fifties, Fine headed his own studios and companies, doing film, television and commercial work, as well as research and special productions.

Fine was one of the first audio engineers to use the Telefunken U-47, a tube condenser microphone that was to play a key role in the development of the Living Presence recording technique. The microphone's high sensitivity and wide frequency response impressed Fine, who saw in it a means to implement his vision of how orchestral recordings should be made.

It was also in 1950 that a young Mississippi-born orchestra administrator named Wilma Cozart joined Mercury Records to work in the classical division. Cozart came to New York with strong ideas about artists and repertoire, an intense love of music and a profound commitment to excellence. Through her experience with the Dallas Symphony and the Minneapolis Symphony in the late Forties, Cozart was aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the American orchestral scene. Within a short time, she conceived of the idea of building a catalogue of symphonic works, not be leasing foreign masters or recording abroad, as some independent American labels were doing, but by signing up outstanding U.S. orchestras with strong conductors and committed Boards of Directors.

First, with the support of Irving Green, Cozart approached the Chicago Symphony, no longer under exclusive contract with RCA. Later, she looked at Minneapolis, which occupied a pivotal place in American music, and noted that the Detroit Symphony was in the process of being revived with a new board and a new conductor. In 1952 the Eastman School of Music and its director, Howard Hanson, signed an exclusive contract with Mercury to record works by American composers and this program later expanded to include Frederic Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

All of these organizations, their boards, conductors and musicians, were eager to make recordings. Although a different contract was devised for each orchestra, the basic formula was the same in each case: financial obligations were shared on a realistic basis, making it possible for both parties to undertake the venture.

In getting ready for the first recording sessions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bob Line had a plan that was simplicity itself.

He decided to use a single microphone for the taping of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which was scheduled for April 23-24, 1951. The sessions took place in Orchestra Hall with Rafael Kubelik conducting. Fine suspended a single U-47 microphone approximately 25 feet directly above the podium, its position having been determined at rehearsals. Once a level check of the loudest part of the score had been taken, there was no tampering with the dynamic range of the performance, no spotlighting of individual instruments and no compression. The performance was recorded just as the conductor conceived and directed it.

From the softest passages of the Catacombs movement to the fortissimo climax of Great Gate at Kiev, the full dynamic range and power of Ravel's multicoloured orchestration was preserved in this historic recording. Howard Taubman, then chief music critic of The New York Times, wrote upon hearing the disc that "one feels oneself in the living presence of the orchestra." Delighted with Taubman's reaction, Mercury adopted the phrase, 'Living Presence' for its new Olympian Series. Critics, record buyers and classical radio stations around the country hailed the new Mercury recording as the beginning of a new era in high-fidelity sound reproduction, and Mercury was adopted as theirs, the audiophile's label. The idea that a single microphone could pick up the sound of a large symphony orchestra captivated the general public.

Under the Mercury-Chicago Symphony contract, further recordings were made with conductors Rafael Kubelik and Antal Dorati, which consolidated the label's position in the classical record field.

Mercury then turned its attention to the Minneapolis Symphony, also without a recording contract. Eugene Ormandy and Dimitri Mitropoulos, two of America's most celebrated conductors, had conducted the orchestra before moving on to Philadelphia and New York, respectively. Now the orchestra boasted a vigorous new music director, Antal Dorati, whose special relationship with Bartók and Kodály in Budapest during the conductor's early years lent authenticity to his interpretation of works like Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Kodaly's Háry Janos Suite. His years as music director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo gave artistic validity to his spirited performances of Stravinsky and to the series of ballets by Tchaikovsky, recorded complete for the first time ever from their original scores. As music director of the Dallas Symphony and of the Minneapolis Symphony, Dorati enriched the symphonic repertory by commissioning new works from American composers, some of which were recorded by Mercury.

In 1952, Mercury surprised the recording world by signing contracts with the Detroit Symphony and its recently appointed director, Paul Paray. It was an unexpected decision because the orchestra had fallen on hard times in previous years. Although its new conductor was little known in the United States, the calibre of musicians recruited for the newly reorganized and enlarged ensemble (now up to 104 players) was impressive, as was the vitality and kinetic energy of its new music director. Paray brought added distinction to the French wing of the Living Presence catalogue; the first Detroit Symphony release, recordings of Ravels Boléro and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, were conducted with a Toscanini-like discipline and a sensitivity to colour and texture befitting a Paris Conservatoire-trained musician.

In 1954, Mercury embarked on one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a classical label. It set about recording Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, using the original score for symphony orchestra augmented by church bells, cannon and brass choir. The work was recorded in three different locations. The musical score was taped by the Minneapolis Symphony conducted by Antal Dorati in Northrop Auditorium; the pealing of Kremlin bells was re-created by the bells of the Harkness Memorial Tower on the campus of Yale University; and an authentic Napoleon-era (1761) cannon was recorded at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The final 'effects' tapes of cannon and bells were then played in synchronization with the edited musical performance to produce the master tape.

The landmark recording resounded (literally) throughout the recording world, further consolidating Mercury's position among audiophiles and the general record-buying public. For several years, the 'Mercury 1812' became the definitive test record for audio equipment manufacturers demonstrating their latest loudspeakers, cartridges and amplifiers at audio shows around the country. Even The New Yorker published a story headlined "Boom!" on the making of this recording.

In 1958, mercury re-recorded the 1812 Overture in stereo with the same musical forces, but with the bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon at the Riverside Church in New York City and a 12 pound, Napoleon-era (1775), bronze siege cannon, (made in Douai, France and inscribed Le Constant), again from West Point.

In 1955, Mercury began recording all of its sessions in stereo, initially using a quarter-inch two-track Ampex machine. Simultaneously, drawing on his audio-for-film experience, Fine had Ampex build to his specifications the first half-inch, three-track tape recorders to be used for classical recordings. Again, the system was stunningly straightforward and became the standard method used for Mercury for all its Living Presence stereo recordings. Utilizing the single microphone in the centre for overall balance, two side microphones were added to the set-up, and the exact focal point for each of these microphones was carefully located. Expressed in visual terms, each microphone projected a beam of light; the resultant overlapping beams lit the entire ensemble. These three discrete signals then were recorded onto the three-track, half-inch tape recorders.

The critical task of combining the three-track master tape into two tracks for the master lacquer was entrusted to Wilma Cozart, who in almost all instances had directed the recording sessions. It was a tricky procedure. Great care had to be exercised to retain the spatial perspective of the three-track master tapes and to ensure that instruments did not 'drift' from their original positions on the sonic stage. This combining of the three tracks into two was done during the actual lacquer-cutting procedure, and both Cozart and George Piros, the principal cutting engineer for Mercury's tape-to-disc transfers, strove to reproduce the full dynamic range of the original tapes without jeopardizing reliable stylus tracking. It was not easy to overcome the limitations of the tape-to-disc process, defying the system's inner-groove perils, cutting-head quirks and unpredictability of lacquer quality.

In the spring of 1956, David Hall left Mercury for a Fulbright Fellowship in Denmark; he later served as director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Recording Archives at Lincoln Center. In the fall of that year, Harold Lawrence, who had been director of recorded music at WQXR, the radio station of The New York Times, joined Mercury's classical division.

An abstract entity like a record label is not usually known to have a 'personality', but, with its own immediately recognizable sound, its unusual approach to repertoire and its close relationship with its artists, the Mercury Living Presence catalogue was an exception to the rule.

This would not have been possible without the label's continuity of personnel and working methods over the years. The predictably high quality of each new Living Presence release added to its strong profile.

The emergence of the Living Presence catalogue as part of an international label created new opportunities for recording abroad. In the summer of 1956, the Mercury recording team travelled to England for the first time to make recordings with the Hallé Orchestra (Manchester) and the London Symphony. A highlight of its sessions with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra was the world première recording of Vaughan Williams's Eighth Symphony, recorded in association with Mercury's British affiliate. In London, Antal Dorati conducted the London Symphony in the first of a ten-year series of Living Presence recordings with that orchestra. Dorati is generally credited with having been responsible for the LSO's artistic resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s as England's foremost recording orchestra.

Most of Mercury's recordings with the London Symphony were made in Watford Town Hall, outside London. With its large auditorium and removable seats on a hardwood floor, the hall was an ideal setting for Living Presence recordings.

Using the stage only for choral forces, the orchestra was deployed on the floor with three microphones suspended along the frontal area of the ensemble. The recording director and engineer were free to shift or raise instrumental sections as needed. As in all Living Presence sessions, the height and angle of each of the three microphones were extremely critical since an adjustment of inches could change the musical balance. These microphone adjustments were carried out by the Mercury technical team using ropes, poles and pulleys. After the elusive focal point for each of the three microphones was determined, placement diagrams were drawn not only of the microphone positions, but of the exact location of each instrument and section, including the height of platforms for the winds, for example, and the presence (if any) of tarpaulins on the floor for resonance control.

Since the early Fifties, all of Mercury's Living Presence location recordings, both in the United States and abroad, were taped using a recording truck containing tape machines, monitor loudspeakers, microphones, amplifiers and enough audio and power cables to reach the most remote positions in a church, hall or even on a battlefield. This mobile recording 'studio' was the heart of the Living Presence recording system, since its tape machines and speakers were identical to those which would be used later in the mastering process, thus guaranteeing the consistency of sonics that gave the label its distinctive character.

An example of the care which the Mercury team lavished on its location recordings was the ongoing ingenuity exercised by both Bob Fine and associate engineer Robert Eberenz in designing and expanding the recording truck's equipment and keeping it in perfect working order. To combat condensation caused by foggy nights in London, microphone capsules were kept heated and the AC generators kept running continuously for the sake of the tube equipment. For its recordings at the Eastman Theatre, special dedicated lines were run from the hall to the garage on Swan Street (where the Mercury recording van was parked) to avoid radio frequency interference.

The years 1957-64 saw a dramatic expansion of the Living Presence catalogue. In Detroit, Mercury added two new sites to its list of recording venues: the acoustically resonant Old Orchestra Hall (now restored and, for a second time, the home of the Detroit Symphony) and the Cass Technical High School Auditorium, where Paul Paray taped some of his best-selling Mercury performances. In Rochester, Mercury continued its ambitious program of recording works by American composers and ventured into the 'pops' repertory.

In Vienna's famed Konzerthaus, Mercury recorded the Philharmonia Hungarica, a newly formed orchestra made up entirely of refugees of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This orchestra's performance of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances remains one of Mercury''s most highly acclaimed and best-selling albums. In Paris and New York, Mercury recorded the legendary French organist, Marcel Dupré, in works closely associated with his long and distinguished career, including the music of Franck, Widor and Messiaen in the historic Church of St. Sulpice (Paris). And, following an electrifying Bartók concert in Carnegie Hall by the Minneapolis Symphony, Antal Dorati and violinist Yehudi Menuhin recorded an authoritative performance of the Violin Concerto No.2.

Harpsichordist Rafael Puyana continued the tradition of his teacher, Wanda Landowska, whose pioneering efforts led to the modern interest in the harpsichord and in three centuries of literature for this instrument.

Pianists Byron Janis and Gina Bachauer focused on the repertory they knew best, including some of the most popular and enduring Nineteenth- and early Twentieth- century concertos and solo works. Janos Starker's mentors, from Bartók, Kodály and Fritz Reiner, helped shape the career and musical philosophy of this extraordinary artist, recognized throughout the world as one of the great virtuoso cellists and, indeed, one of the greatest musicians of the Twentieth century.

Another important technical advance for the Living Presence catalogue was the addition of 35mm magnetic film technology to the Mercury sound. It was Bob Fine who encouraged its use by the Living Presence team. Naturally attracted to the new medium because of his film recording background, Fine regarded 35mm magnetic film as a significant breakthrough because it made possible greater clarity, dynamic range and transient response than conventional tape and virtually eliminated tape hiss.

The new technology was used to full advantage in Mercury's monumental Civil War project, which was especially created, designed and executed on 35mm magnetic film. The final composite of Pickett's Charge in the sonic re-creation of the Battle of Gettysburg contained 93 separate tracks, synchronized with all other tape sources. Westrex 35mm film recorders were incorporated into the permanent Living Presence recording set-up in 1961 and transported to London that year and to Moscow in 1962 for the Russian expedition.

In 1961, Mercury Record Corporation was sold to Consolidated Electronic Industries Corporation, an American branch of Philips Incandescent Lamp Works, the giant electrical firm based in The Netherlands. The momentum of the classical division kept up its enterprising recording programs at home and in Europe and took over handling Philips classical releases in the United States as well.

In the summer of 1961, Philips asked the Living Presence team to record Sviatoslav Richter and the London Symphony conducted by Kyril Kondrashin in the Liszt Piano Concertos using the 35mm magnetic film technique, for its initial release in the United States. (Philips classical recordings had been previously released on the Epic label in the United States.)

In 1964, Wilma Cozart, who had been made vice-president of Mercury early in 1956, resigned from the company to devote full time to raising a family. (She and Bob Fine had married in 1957.) Upon her departure, Harold Lawrence, who had served as musical director on most of the sessions, was appointed to handle the Mercury catalogue. Clair van Ausdall, who had joined the Mercury staff in 1958, was to handle the Philips label. Bob Fine continued to act as technical consultant for the Living Presence recordings, while contractual commitments made by Cozart to the orchestras and solo artists in the Mercury classical roster were fulfilled.

The last Living Presence orchestral recording was made in San Antonio, on November 13 and 21, 1967, when the San Antonio Symphony and the Romeros performed guitar concertos by Vivaldi and Rodrigo. Harold Lawrence (who left Mercury the following month to become general manager of the London Symphony) was the recording director and Robert Eberenz was recording engineer.

"We stretched the technology to its limits and spared no effort in trying to capture the true sound of the performance at the session and on the record," said Wilma Cozart-Fine, referring to the philosophy of the Mercury Living Presence recording technique.

Critic Richard Freed of The New York Times, summed up the special relationship between Mercury and its recording artists in this way: "If the performances they recorded exude the vitality generally associated with live events rather than studio sessions, it may be because [the artists] responded to the twin stimuli of the sheer vividness of the sound provided for them and the demonstrated respect for their own authority".

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