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Mercury Living Presence and Minneapolis – A Golden Partnership

by Thomas Fine

On April 15, 2015, Tom Fine gave a wonderful presentation to the Audio Society of Minnesota chronicling the careers of his parents, C. Robert and Wilma Cozart Fine, and their development of the Mercury Living Presence line of classical recordings. The material is now available on CD and is absolutely beautiful. Here are some highlights of his talk ... steve raymer

Pop quiz: What was the best-selling classical music album of the 1950s? The answer is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as performed by the Minneapolis Symphony under the baton of conductor Antal Dorati, Mercury Living Presence MG50054.

The recording was made in the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium, which was recently rebuilt and renovated. The “Golden 1812” is the most famous result of a decade-long association between Mercury Records and the Minneapolis Symphony (now called the Minnesota Orchestra).

Antal Dorati 1953

The Mercury-Dorati-Minneapolis story is a prestigious chapter in Minnesota’s audio history. Mercury made its first three-channel stereo recording in Northrop Auditorium, and scored many critically acclaimed successes with conductors Dorati (1952-1960) and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (1961-1962).

Mercury’s first recording session in Minneapolis occurred February 19-20, 1952. Recording director David Hall and recording engineer C. Robert Fine brought an Ampex 300 tape recorder in portable cases, and a Neumann U-47 microphone, and recorded works by Borodin, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Ravel, and Debussy.

The team returned April 27-29, this time in Fine’s brand new recording truck, which featured Fairchild tape machines and studio-quality monitoring equipment. Works by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mendelssohn, and Mozart were recorded.

In those days of monophonic recording, Fine’s revolutionary approach was to capture an entire symphony orchestra with a single omnidirectional microphone. Upon hearing Fine’s 1951 recording of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, New York Times music critic Howard Taubman described the sound as “being in the living presence of the orchestra.” Minneapolis’s orchestra was the second signing to Mercury’s newly named classical imprint.

Fine Sound Truck 1955

After those first two sessions, Mercury Records’ producers and engineers returned to Minneapolis 23 times, with the last session held April 21-23, 1962. That last recording date took place in the Edison High School auditorium; all others were held in the Northrop Hall Auditorium. The first stereo recordings were made on November 26, 1955, with Dorati conducting Bartok’s Second Suite for Orchestra.

Here are some technical and musical highlights of the Mercury Minneapolis recording sessions, in chronological order:

• February 5-7, 1953, was the first time Fine experimented with “controlled reverb,” taking a feed from the tape recorder’s playback head (delayed by the distance between the record and play heads) and sending it back to an amplified speaker in the middle of cavernous Northrop. The aim was to have more “hall ambience” picked up by the rear element of the microphone, which was placed above and behind the conductor’s head in order to pick up the full details and balance of the orchestra. Among the works recorded at those sessions was Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, which was released for the first time on CD in the new Mercury Living Presence box set 3.

• December 12-14, 1953, was the first time Fine used a Schoeps M201 microphone in Minneapolis. The mic’s greater sensitivity allowed it to be placed a bit further back, picking up more “hall ambience.” Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was recorded at these sessions. This version of the seminal Twentiethth Century work is considered one of the most intense and ferocious performances ever captured on tape. It was released on CD for the first time in the second Mercury Living Presence box set.

• November 20, 1954, was a very productive day in Minneapolis. Dorati and the MSO put on tape works by Respighi (including a famously dynamic version of Church Windows featuring a massive tam-tam boom), Britten, and Ginastera. The two albums that resulted from this session were released for the first time on CD in the MLP box set 3.

• December 2-4, 1954, was another busy recording trip. Ravel’s complete Daphnis and Chloe, featuring the University of Minnesota chorus, was laid to tape; the music for the 1812 Overture was recorded on December 4. During the next year, a Napoleon-era bronze cannon was recorded at the West Point Military Academy, and the massive bells at Yale University’s Harkness Tower were captured to tape. The 1812 Overture, from Tchaikovsky’s original score, and featuring cannon blasts and church bell peals as indicated by the composer, was mixed at Fine’s Manhattan studio in 1955 and released in 1956. It quickly captured the imagination of music buffs and a new generation of audiophiles, and became the go-to demonstration record for high-end audio systems of the day. The album was certified Gold by the RIAA (in those days, that meant sales of more than $500,000). According to Billboard data, Dorati’s monophonic 1812 Overture album was the best-selling classical release of the 1950s. It was released on CD for the first time in the new MLP box set 3.

• Mercury Living Presence began recording in stereo on November 26, 1955. For stereo recording, Fine expanded his single-mic approach to a three-mic/three-channel setup. The center mic still served as the sole source for mono releases, and stereo issues now comprised a spaced array of three omnidirectional mics, mixed to two-channels at the time the LP records (and later CDs) were mastered. For that first three-channel stereo recording, Fine used a Schoeps M201 in the center and Neumann U-47 mics on the left and right sides. Subsequent stereo sessions until 1959 used a Schoeps M201 in the center and Neumann KM-56 mics on the sides. From 1959 on, three Schoeps M201 mics were used. Fine’s three-spaced omnidirectional mic approach was unique to Mercury. For the stereo sessions, musical supervisor Harold Lawrence edited master tapes from the first-generation three-track session tapes, and LPs were cut from a “live” 3-2 mix made by producer Wilma Cozart Fine. Ms. Fine used the same technique to make CD reissues of most Minneapolis Symphony stereo recordings in the 1990s. All of these CDs are collected in the three MLP box sets.

• Mercury reprised the success of the mono 1812 Overture album with a newly recorded stereo version, which also was certified Gold by the RIAA. The music was recorded in Northrop Auditorium on April 5-6, 1958. A new cannon recording was made at West Point, and for the stereo record, the bells of Riverside Memorial Church in Manhattan were used. Ms. Fine remastered the stereo 1812 from the original three-channel elements in 1995, and the CD was included in MLP box set 1, released in 2010.

• Antal Dorati’s last session conducting the Minneapolis Symphony was April 16-19, 1960. Among the works put to tape during these sessions were Dorati’s own First Symphony, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2 with Byron Janis at the keyboard, and then-modern works by Fetler, Bloch, and Schuller. All of the recordings except Dorati’s symphony were reissued on CD in MLP box sets 1 and 2.

• Mercury returned to Northrop March 25 and March 27, 1961, for its first session with Skrowaczewski, recording symphonies by Shostakovich and Schubert. That November the Mercury truck rolled up to Northrop with something new in the box, a Westrex 35mm magnetic film recorder. All of the works recorded during that session were released with the famous “Stereo 35mm” banner across the jackets. Fine acquired the 35mm equipment from Everest Records, which had pioneered the new medium and then gone out of business. The magnetic film featured wider tracks, thicker emulsion and backing material, and a slightly faster speed than tape. Net-net, it offered lower noise, less print-through, and greater dynamic range.

• The last Mercury MSO session took place April 21-23, 1962, at Edison High School. The auditorium was discovered too late, after a decade of wrestling with Northrop’s cavernous size and dry acoustics. The Mercury-MSO relationship ended on a high note: Pianist Byron Janis recorded a lovely rendering of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Skrowaczewski led the orchestra in inspired recordings of Schubert’s 5th Symphony and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 and 2. All of these recordings were remastered for CD by Ms. Fine and are spread across the three MLP box sets.

For further details about the three Mercury Living Presence CD box sets, please point your browser to mercurylivingpresence.com