Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Living Presence" No Longer

Readers of my San Francisco Examiner.com site know that I have been working my way through the second volume of Mercury Living Presence: The Collector's Edition. I took on this rather massive task because it was a real walk down Memory Lane for me. Those Mercury releases figured significantly in my vinyl collection; and, unless I am mistaken, I had more of those "Living Presence" recordings than I had from the RCA "Living Stereo" series. There were any number of recordings that dazzled me simply for the amount of sound they could produce. As a result, when I finally had the opportunity to listen to a recording of Samuel Barber conducting his Opus 23 Medea orchestral suite, my initial reaction was to ask why the sound was so feeble compared to the recording Howard Hanson had made with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra for Mercury.

That was then, as they say. While the relationship that Hanson had with Mercury was certainly groundbreaking for vinyl releases, it now seems relatively modest (to say the least) in comparison with what can now come off of a compact disc. To be fair to Hanson, however, I think it is still the case that one gets a better sense of how well Barber could work with orchestral resources from the 1959 Mercury recording than one can get from the 1950 recording of Barber himself. Furthermore, I would not be surprised to learn that Hanson's performance had been shaped by familiarity with Barber's at least in matters of tempo and phrasing. Whether or not this music deserves a new recording with more grandiose sonorities is, of course, a matter of listener tastes!

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