Friday, August 16, 2013

SR 90281 Another of the Best Mercury Living Stereo Records

SR 90281

Debussy: Nocturnes for Orchestra
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Paul Paray, conductor
Detroit Symphony

Pressing: Maroon first label

Condition: NM

Stampers: RFR-1/RFR-1

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 9/10

Price range: $32-200, mean $99 on popsike

Comments:   This is another one of my very favorite Mercury Living Stereo records.  It also happens to be a TAS list record.  I know that this is another review of French impressionistic music, but it is one of the best of its kind, not just from the golden era of classical recording but, in my humble opinion, of all time.  Paul Paray, credited with transforming the Detroit Symphony into a world class orchestra in the 1950s and also the featured conductor on the Mercury sonic blockbuster SR 90313 (recently reviewed on this blog site, was a highly regarded interpreter of French orchestral music during his lifetime.  Many of his famous records for Mercury were of music by French composers, including Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Franck, Lalo, Gounod, Debussy, and Ravel*.

I found the sound to be very natural with no exaggeration whatsoever of the highs or lows.  Dynamic range is wide.  Take, for example, the openings of both Debussy's Clouds or Ravel's Lever du Jour from Daphnis et Chloe, both of which begin with very soft playing from the orchestra.  Compared to many of the other Mercury records, the surface noise on this record is low, allowing us to truly appreciate these opening movements with greater clarity.  The heat is turned up in the Fetes as well as the finale of Daphnis, when you can appreciate the power of the orchestra without any sacrifice in clarity.  No distortion that my ears could pick up.  The soundstage is expansive on this record, and the listener is not seated right next to or on top of the conductor (as seems to be the case in many of the Mercuries) but rather a number of rows back in the auditorium.

Some liner notes from the back cover:

"Working with the 90-odd members of a full symphony orchestra, though not without its complications, has beome reasonably easy for the members of the Mercury recording staff.  In the third Debussy Nocturne, however, a full female chorus is added to the texture, not as a soloistic group but rather as another instrumental color.  For the purposes of recording, Debussy's direction in the score to use sixteen singers was disregarded; somewhat more than twice that number are actually heard.  The chorus was ranged behind the last rows of the orchestra on the stage of Cass High School auditorium, pretty much filling up all available space.  After this particular section was finished, the chorus departed, and the orchestra was reseated with a little more room.

Like all Living Presence stereophonic recordings, these two works were recorded with three extremely sensitive omnidirectional microphones which were hung in front of the orchestra at the beginning of the session, tested for balance, and then never moved.  Likewise, the volume controls on the recording machines were adjusted by means of level checks at the start, and then they were not moved throughout the session.  In this way Mercury recordings preserve the entire dynamic gamut of a real performance, and the listener hears the music just as he would at a live concert ... better, in fact, because the microphones are hung in the focal point of the auditorium, an optimum position where no seat could ever be.

Wilma Cozart was the recording director for the session, Harold Lawrence was the musical director, and Robert Eberenz was the engineer.  George Piros made the transfer from tape to disc."

This record was reissued by Speaker's Corner.  I have not heard this particular album for comparison.

*Also available is a 5 CD Mercury set compiling Paray's recordings of French composers.


  1. Debussy Nocturnes. You've got SAX 2463, Monteux on both Decca and London, and the Silvestri CD. All are 5/5. Which is best? How do the Decca and London compare? If you say you don't have Anserment London CS 6023, I'll be shocked.

    I just spotted a Philips Golden Import of the Nocturnes which might work well for those in the poor house.

    1. I almost forgot to share the story of how I got this Mercury record. About 10 years ago when I was scouring all the used record stores in Chicago for classical records, I regularly received monthly updates from a record store called Dusty Groove. It still exists and is doing better than ever, or so I hear. They would send out lists of their latest acquisitions. Rarely they would have classical, and on one special occasion, I checked the list and saw SR 90281. RFR-1/RFR-1. Price? $9.99. You can bet in an instant that I emailed them to secure the purchase within minutes of that email. A day or two later, it came in the mail. That might be one of my luckiest moments in my search for classical records. Okay, maybe not THE luckiest. That might have been my discovery of SXL 2011, Ansermet conducting Petrouchka on Decca FFSS, in near mint condition for $1. Or finding a Festival Quartet album on RCA Living Stereo, NM, for $1 in a used sale. That almost never happens anymore, sadly, because people just have to use popsike to know how much their albums are worth.

      I will have to get back to you on my choice of the best Nocturnes. I actually don't have both the Decca and London of the Monteux, just the London. And yes, you're right. I did own the Ansermet at one point but sold it a few months ago.