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Mono Maven
Mercury Living Presence
Volume1

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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Paul Paray & The Detroit Symphony

From the beginning, I was attentive to record labels.  It was just about 50 years ago this month that I bought the first LPs to spin on my newly acquired Webcor portable with earnings from my paper route.  This was to be my "hi-fi" for the next 9 or 10 years -- all the way through college.  When I imagine what those records must have endured before I sold my collection for rent, I wince at the thought, and wonder how many mono records out there have been treated with similar disrespect, even if out of honest ignorance.

The first records I acquired were Columbias.  How could I resist slogans like "The World's Greatest Orchestra!" - good for a half dozen Ormandys anyhow.  Before long, I was introduced to Westminster, Angel and Mercury by Herb at Norty's Records a couple of blocks down the street from Fairfax High School.  "Mercury Living Presence" recordings, even played on my $89 Webcor, were something of a revelation.  Mercury introduced me to orchestras and conductors I had never heard of playing music that only then was surfacing into my awareness: Stravinsky's Le Sacre, the Franck D Minor Symphony, Bach's Cello Suites, Walton's Crown Imperial, Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. Hey, I was just a kid – what did I know!

All this preamble leads me to the present survey in five parts, each featuring one of Mercury's resident conductors and their orchestra: Paul Paray & the Detroit Symphony, Howard Hanson & the Eastman-Rochester, Rafael Kubelik & the Chicago Symphony, Frederick Fennell & the Eastman Winds, and Antal Dorati & the Minneapolis Symphony.  I'll concentrate on the mono releases, though some will have been released in stereo as well.  All or nearly all are available on CD.

Paul Paray was born in France in 1886 and studied music, composition and, significantly, the organ.  He won a major prize for his cantata, Yanitza, in 1911; and during WWI he wrote a string quartet while a prisoner at Darmstadt.  Even though he continued to compose for the next couple of decades, it was as a conductor that Paray made his mark.  He was music director of several European orchestras, most notably at Lamoureux and Monte Carlo.  He made his first American appearance with what we now call the New York Philharmonic on the eve of WWII.  After the war, Paray returned to the U.S. at 66 as music director of the Detroit Symphony from 1952-1963.  It was during this period that he made his many fine recordings with Mercury, specializing in French music. He was noted for performances of clarity, elegance and rhythmic vitality.

Before getting to the specific recordings at hand, a brief sidebar about the pressing pecking order: The first mono pressings were MFs.  These were followed by FRs at about the same time as Mercury began to make stereo LPs; then RFRs.  My experience is somewhat counter-intuitive.  Generally, the MFs are fuller, richer, bolder, more dynamic. RFRs are thinner, though generally satisfying versions of the MF.  But the FR pressings, unlike their stereo counterparts, are all over the map: some very good, some only fair.  My advice: If you have a medium compliance cartridge or one that tracks above 1.5 grams, then try to find clean MF pressings.  If you have a lightweight stereo pickup, go for the RFR.  They seem to present best in that configuration.  Previously owned RFRs are also likely to be in better shape than earlier pressings.

 

Franck: Symphony in D Minor. Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray conductor.
Mercury MG 50023

The dark, richly textured orchestration of Franck's only symphony (a piece that has yet to achieve the popularity it deserves) sets this work apart from other nineteenth century symphonies, and provides a unique audio experience.  From its opening bars, reminiscent of Liszt's Les Preludes, the D Minor Symphony soon morphs into one of the most brooding pieces from the nineteenth century symphonic repertory, a sort of French Isle of the Dead.  In its day, late in the century, it was stupidly vilified by archconservatives for its three-movement construction and the composer's inclusion of the English horn (little more than an alto oboe), as if Franck had chosen the kazoo. Both the DSO/Paray recording for Mercury and the Monteux for RCA remain the statements about this passionate work, even as compared to Cluytens and the French National Radio Orchestra on EMI/Angel, whose energy peters out in the finale.  The Monteux has the advantage for most audiophiles of a superb stereo recording.  While the original MF pressing is the most desirable, in this case the FR and RFR's are both excellent.

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Chausson: Symphony in B-Flat, Op. 20. Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray, conductor.
Mercury MG50108

Ernest Chausson's Symphony in B-Flat is a kind of Franck meets Wagner (I'm thinking Tannhäuser here) affair: dark (even for a major key), but vivacious.  Ernest Chausson studied with Franck, and is remembered primarily for this symphony, his Poeme for violin and orchestra, and the orchestral song cycle, Poeme de l'amour et de la mer, all written before the close of the last century, and all very much worth having in your library. Sooner or later I should think, we will have to give this little known, and less often performed symphonic masterpiece its due. Exceptionally well played, I don't remember the DSO sounding so world class. Gorgeous sound, even in a third edition RFR pressing I auditioned.  Also, very nice in stereo.

 

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Brahms: Symphony in E Minor, Op. 98. Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray, conductor.
Mercury MG50057

Hesse describes a conversation between Steppenwolf and Mozart in which Brahms and Wagner are brought to the bar for their "excesses."  Emperor Joesph's alleged comment that Mozart's music suffered from "too many notes" is thus turned back on itself.

"Turgid" is another word that we sometimes hear from those who turn up their noses at the man who waited until he was past forty to write a symphony, so awed was he (we are often told) by the shadow of Beethoven.  Brahms' Fourth Symphony was finished in 1885, T the leading edge of late nineteenth century Romanticism.  Brahms had yet to compose his characteristically textured Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, the achingly lyrical Clarinet Concerto and his last delicious morceux for the piano, the Opp. 117-119. Tchaikovsky would give us his Pathétique in 1893, after which things began to slowly unravel for large works, all coming to shattering climax in Schönberg's monumental Gurre-Lieder.

Paray's Brahms could hardly be guilty of such excesses.  There is a leanness, a ferocity in his approach to this symphony — especially in the last two movements — that, if nothing else, will upend many a notion as to how this noble work is supposed to go.

I've generally found the sound of MG50057 a little congested, but I've never been quite certain if it was just wear.  Curiously enough, there is a passable electronic stereo version of this recording on Wing SRW18003.

 

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Ravel: Ma Mere L'Oye; Chabrier: Bourée Fantasque; Roussel: Suite in F; Barraud: Offrande a une Ombre. Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray, conductor.
Mercury MG50145

Curious thing, this Ma Mere L'Oye business. Like a number of other works by Ravel, it exists in both piano and orchestral form, not all of which began at the keyboard. This one did. We frequently find the term "suite" added to the title of the orchestral version, in which guise it is likely to be identical to the content and arrangement of the movements for the piano work.  The history of this work is convoluted, too much so for the purposes of this essay. Suffice it to say that the present recording, while it does not include the term "Suite" in the title, is not the same as the later ballet score, but instead opens with Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant, and rearranges the order of the middle movements.

Paul Paray's reputation as the chef de musique Francaise emerges from his attention to the rhythmic life of the music. He never permits the music to dissolve into a mere wash of colors. Textures are always neatly delineated, but never over-controlled. Ma Mere L'Oye is one of those pieces, like parts of Tombeau de Couperin and much of Daphnis et Chloë, that could vanish into an abyss of primordial ooze, but in the hands of a watchful conductor such as Paray, it sparkles with life struggling to emerge. Paray brings this attitude to the other pieces on this program, most deliciously with the exuberant Roussel Suite—a sort of French Prokofiev Scythian and the festive Chabrier. High marks for the recorded sound in the FR pressing.

 

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Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice; Fauré: Pelléas and Mélisande (Incidental Music); Roussel: The Spider's Feast. Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray, conductor.
Mercury MG5035

Three pieces; three moods in another delicious program of French music: dazzling, high-spirited, colorful, programmatic.  The Dukas, which dates from 1897, is justly famous and, as usual, Paray gives an atypical reading.  The beginning is so brisk you might wonder if you've walked into the right movie; but Paray soon makes sense of it all.  Very much worth a listen.

The Spider's Feast is subtitled "Symphonic Fragments from the Ballet-Pantomime."  It was first performed in 1913 in Paris, the same year and city as Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and it was a resounding success — so much for the judgment of first responders. . .  which is not to say that's it's entirely frivolous.  Fauré's incidental music for Maeterlinck's famous play about ill-fated lovers, also the subject of Debussy's enchanted opera composed just about at the same time, is given an unsentimental, but magical reading here.  The music includes the very sweet and popular Fileuse.

The original MF pressing is to be preferred.

 

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Schumann: Symphony #2 in C Major, Op. 61. Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray, conductor.
Mercury MG50102

Second symphonies have a way of slipping beneath the radar.  Scan your memory for a second from Schubert, Mendelssohn, Shostakovitch, Bruckner, Prokofiev, or Dvorak.  Any luck?  You might even have difficulty recalling anything substantive from what are arguably the best of them--the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, and the Beethoven.  For many, Schumann's dramatic and often fierce Op. 61 falls in the shadow of his masterful "Rhenish" (#3) and the agreeable "Spring" (#1.)  Yet this less popular symphony has a lot going for it.  Both Szell and Paray thought so, and gave it compelling and quite different readings. Like his Mercury recording of the Rhenish (especially in the first movement) Paray finds fascinating rhythmic textures we didn't know were latent.

Also available in stereo as SR 90102 and on a 2-CD set, 289462955-2, that includes the remaining three Schumann symphonies (#1 & 3 also in stereo.)

 

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Saint-Saëns: Symphony #3 in C Minor, Op. 78 ("Organ"). Marcel Dupré, organ; Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray, conductor.
Mercury MG50167

Paul Paray made quite a number stereo recordings for Mercury, several of which have achieved audiophile collectible status and have also received the full 180 gram reissue treatment.  The symphony itself is no exception, though I've never been a big fan of the Munch on RCA.  Commonly known as the "Organ" Symphony, more for marketing than musical consideration, it might just as well have been titled "Symphony for Orchestra, Organ and 2 Pianos."  We often forget about those pianos, used by Saint-Saëns for color and support rather than as solo instruments--not unlike the way he makes use of the organ here.  Certainly the scoring is unique.  And, as for the organ, its use is sometimes so subtle that it takes a good audio system to realize its full contribution.  Its entrance in the slow "movement" is often missed.  As usual, I prefer the later RFR to the FR.  It's more open, more brilliant, and yet retains the necessary richness.

The Paray performance was my first acquaintance with the symphony and it took many years before another could rival it for pride of place (viz., Martinon/French Radio/Erato.)  Paray's way with articulating texture while moving the piece on in a coherent way is much in evidence--perhaps a little too much in the finale where I want the music to approach coming apart at the seams.  It is also there that the Detroit band sounds a bit scruffy, where all those brash overtones seem to collide instead of coalesce into heroic glory.

The stereo version is superb, but not much less so is the mono, especially the RFR: spacious, lush, detailed and immediate in its impact.

 

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