A new podcast and video documentary series, Trust Your Ears: The Mercury Living Presence Story, produced by dCS in partnership with Decca Classics, explores the fascinating story behind one of the world’s most pioneering classical record labels. Watch the first part of the documentary series, exploring the history behind the label, here.
Trust Your Ears: The Mercury Living Presence Story
The three-part podcast series, Trust Your Ears: The Mercury Living Presence Story, presented by writer and broadcaster Charlotte Gardner, charts the history of Mercury Living Presence from its genesis to this year’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Episode 1, available now on Spotify, reflects on the birth and evolution of Mercury Living Presence and the people who shaped its distinctive sound. Episode 2 will be released on 26 May and episode 3 on 9 June.
In April 1951 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Kubelík, performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at the city’s Orchestra Hall, which was recorded for LP by US record label Mercury. Founded by Irving Green and partners in 1945, Mercury had already established itself as a formidable force in popular music and in 1950 the label decided to expand its classical division under the direction of Wilma Cozart, an orchestra administrator who had worked with the Minneapolis Symphony and Dallas Symphony orchestras.
At the time most American labels travelled abroad to record symphonic productions or leased masters from Europe and Russia. Wilma’s vision was to work with performers and conductors closer to home, providing a catalogue highlighting the extraordinary classical talent within the US and the Chicago Symphony, Mercury’s ‘hometown’ orchestra, was the logical first partner.
Pictures at an Exhibition was the first recording released under this new direction. Sound engineer Bob Fine captured the performance using a single Telefunken/Neumann U47 tube condenser microphone positioned around 25 feet above the conductor’s podium. The lifelike and immersive recording of the orchestra’s performance was described by Howard Taubman, then chief music critic of The New York Times, as being, “in the living presence of the orchestra.”
“The recordings have a very specific personality and sound”
Over the next two decades, Bob, Wilma, and the Mercury Living Presence team travelled extensively across the US, Europe and Russia, producing over 200 classical recordings with leading orchestras in the United States, Europe, and Russia. Wilma said the team strived to make listeners feel “part of an audience”. Their recordings were renowned for their clarity, accuracy, and faithfulness to the original musical event, and are still considered references for lifelike music reproduction. “The recordings have a very specific personality and sound,” explained Wilma. “You can usually know when you’re listening to one.”
In 1989, Wilma, working with mastering engineer Dennis Drake, remastered much of the Mercury Living Presence catalogue for release on CD. For this project, Wilma and Dennis selected the dCS 900 analogue to digital converter for its high-resolution, musicality, flexibility, and then-unique ability to record 24-bit files. The resulting CDs became coveted collector’s items and were beloved by classical music lovers and audiophiles alike for their astonishing sound quality.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Mercury Living Presence label. To celebrate Decca Classics is planning to release the complete digital catalogue and reissue selected titles on CD and vinyl.
Listen to Trust Your Ears: The Mercury Living Presence Story podcast series on Spotify.