Mercury Home Page
Contained within this website are listings of Mercury long-playing (LP), microgroove, 33 1/3 rpm record albums bearing the “Living Presence” moniker. There are separate listings for the MG-50000, MG-40000, MG-80000, and OLx-100 series of monophonic albums and the SR-90000 and SRx-9000 series of stereophonic albums. The listings, in PDF format, show the covers of the record jackets and give pertinent information regarding each album, including the album title, the works contained therein, the conductor and orchestra or ensemble, any soloists, recording date (if known), and approximate release date. Additionally, there are PDF files for the CD and SACD reissues of recordings from the “Living Presence” library with cover images and other information.
Starting in 1951 Mercury began a series of LP record albums of classical music, the first album having catalog number MG-50000. Mercury already had experience marketing classical recordings, the MG-10000 and MG-15000 series of 12” and 10” LPs, respectively, having been initiated in 1949. Many of the recordings in these series were of European origin and not recorded by Mercury personnel. The MG-50000 series brought to the forefront the technical expertise of C. Robert Fine and his signature monophonic recording technique of a single microphone carefully placed in the recording venue (usually above and slightly behind the conductor). With the advent of stereo, Fine augmented his recording set-up to include two additional microphones flanking a center pick-up—a simple, straightforward configuration that, with careful microphone placement, yielded excellent results. The resultant sound was more authentic to what a listener would actually experience in the concert hall than that of many of the other major record labels of the time. Fine’s techniques, coupled with other technical refinements in recording and record mastering, resulted in a series of records (the SR-90000 series) which became and still are highly regarded by audiophiles.
The technical achievements would have been a waste were it not for the many top notch performances recorded by Fine and his staff. Mercury was able to sign on the likes of Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra, and Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, to name a few.
The consistency and quality of the recordings is due in large part to the small team of people who made them possible. Most of the LP and CD albums include a list of technical credits where you will see the same names repeated over and over again. Another name in additional to C. R. Fine’s which deserves special mention is Wilma Cozart. She wore many hats in the production of the albums, bearing the title of either recording director or executive producer in the liner notes. As an executive, she was responsible for signing on the orchestras and conductors, selecting the material to be recorded, and selecting what material to put on what albums. She was present at recording sessions, involved in technical decisions that affected the resultant sound as well as mundane tasks such as keeping track of the unionized orchestras session times. She was responsible for mixing down the 3-track tapes to 2 channels for the production of the stereo LPs. She repeated the task again for the CD reissues. She had an impressive range of talents which complemented those of C. R. Fine.
THE ORIGINAL LP SERIES
MG-50000 Series (Mono)
The MG-50000 series (1951-1968) was initially called “Mercury Classics”, but that changed in response to a review in the New York Times by critic Howard Taubman of the first recording in the series—Pictures at an Exhibition performed by Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—in which he characterized the recording as so lifelike that he felt he was in the ‘living presence’ of the orchestra. Shortly thereafter, new releases bore the new “Olympian” logo incorporating the “Living Presence” trademark. As can be seen in the listing, many of the early albums were reissued with updated covers displaying the new “Living Presence” logo. Several recordings in the MG-50000 series were originally released in the MG-10000, MG-40000, or MG-80000 series. They are identified in the ‘Notes’ field in the listing.
The list includes all the MG-50000 series albums for which there are no stereo equivalents in the SR-90000 series or for which the covers of the SR-90000 series equivalents are substantially different from the mono versions. Albums with catalog numbers above MG-50166 share the same basic cover images with their stereo counterparts, the principal differences being text, logo, and banner placement. The bottom of the cover photo is often cropped on the stereo cover because it is scrolled down to make room for the stereo banner at the top. Consequently, mono albums above MG-50188 are not listed. Refer to the SR-90000 list to view higher numbered releases. The highest numbered mono album that appears to have made it into distribution is the MG-50466 (3 Bach Violin Concertos performed by Henryk Szeryng and the Winterthur Collegium Musicum), released in 1967. Several higher numbers were used to identify individual LPs in multiple disc sets (OLx-100 series). By 1969 Mercury had stopped manufacturing mono LPs.
MG-40000 “Golden Lyre” Series (Mono)
This short-lived series (1952-1957) contains only 16 albums, all but the last being part of the American Music Festival Series. The recordings feature Howard Hanson and Frederick Fennell conducting mostly modern music by American composers. At the beginning of 1957 Mercury deleted the series from their catalog and incorporated it into the MG-50000 series by recataloging MG-40000 through MG-40015 as MG-50073 through MG-50088, retaining the same cover art in most cases.
MG-80000 “Custom Fidelity” Series (Mono)
This even shorter-lived series (1954-1957) contains a mere 5 albums of soloist and small ensemble recordings. As was the case with the MG-40000 series, Mercury deleted the series from their catalog at the beginning of 1957 and incorporated it into the MG-50000 series by recataloging MG-80000 through MG-80004 as MG-50089 through MG-50094, skipping MG-50093.
MG-90000 Series (Mono)
This is another short-lived series containing only 5 albums of Scandinavian music. All 5 albums were released in July, 1955, and deleted from the catalog in 1960. The recordings were acquired from Tono by Mercury and not designated as “Living Presence” albums. The only reason I have listed them here is because of their attractive covers.
OLx-100 Series of Multiple Disc Sets (Mono)
Mercury "Living Presence" mono albums consisting of more than one LP were cataloged in the OLx-100 series, where “x” indicates the number of discs in the set. Several of the early releases were deluxe presentations with book-style covers containing bound-in record sleeves and extensive notes with numerous illustrations. The listing shows the first few releases, some of which were mono-only. For recordings having a stereo equivalent (OLx-1yy translating to SRx-90yy), the same basic cover art was used for both releases, the cover image being scrolled down for the stereo release to make room for the stereo banner across the top of the cover. For recordings later than OL2-107 refer to the listing of SRx-9000 series albums.
SR-90000 Series (Stereo)
The SR-90000 series is the crown jewel of the Mercury classical catalog, containing over 400 albums. Many are still highly regarded by audiophiles and music lovers, and some are considered the very best recordings of the works they contain, both technically and artistically. Mercury continued its relationship with many of the conductors and orchestras it recorded in the mono era. Fine augmented his single microphone technique for monophonic recordings by adding two additional microphones which fed a 3-track magnetic tape recorder. The orchestras were usually seated on stage in normal concert position, and the microphones were typically spread out above and behind the conductor to capture the sound from the left, center, and right of the orchestra. No additional spot microphones were employed to enhance the sound of solo instruments, lending a kind of purity to the resultant recordings. The result was a sound fairly true to what would be heard by a listener seating in a center-front position in the concert hall, with no unnatural exaggeration of soloists. It should also be noted that it was the policy of Mercury to give the conductor complete freedom in controlling the dynamic range of the performance and recording levels were not adjusted during the performance. The 3-track recordings were mixed down to two channels for transfer to the consumer formats available at the time.
Mercury began recording performances in both mono and stereo in 1955. Although there was a small niche market for distribution of stereo recordings on 1/4” magnetic tape, wide distribution of the stereo versions of the performances had to wait until 1958, when the stereophonic LP was launched. As the listings show, Mercury was in a position to release many stereo recordings of performances that had previously been released only in mono.
Mercury continued to release albums in the SR-90000 series into the early 1970’s, the last entry being the SR-90533, which contained reissues of recordings of Bartok works from 1955 and 1958. In fact, as the series progressed through the years, Mercury increasingly resorted to reissue albums and series within the SR-90000 series in an effort to extract as much profit as possible from their library of first-rate recordings. Some of the series appearing in the listings are the Curtain Up!, Great Music of the Romantic Age, Great Music by Russian Composers, Great Music by French Composers, and Great Music by American Composers series. The last mentioned series consisted mostly of recycled mono recordings which were electronically enhanced to simulate stereo. A number of the last recordings did not benefit from C. Robert Fine’s expertise or use his recording techniques. This decline was not unique to Mercury; many of the audiophile recording labels deteriorated during this period due to the worsening economics of the business, misguided changes in recording techniques (such as the use of many microphones in order to produce an “engineered” sound), and poor marketing decisions. Sad as the decline of Mercury was, however, audiophiles and music lovers can still enjoy a large and varied library of wonderful recordings on vinyl and compact disc.
SRx-9000 Series of Multiple Disc Sets (Stereo)
Mercury stereo albums consisting of more than one LP were cataloged in the SRx-9000 series, where “x” indicates the number of discs in the set. 2-LP sets were packaged in gatefold albums; albums with more than two LPs were packaged in simple cardboard boxes.
LPSx-900(0) Series (Stereo)
Between 1960 and 1962 three "Living Presence" albums were recorded and released in a separate, short lived series with the LPS prefix.
THE REISSUE LP SERIES
MGW-14000 & SRW-18000 “Wing” Series
In 1963 Mercury introduced a budget line of classical LPs entitled “MERCURY WING CLASSICAL FAVORITES”, featuring mono and stereo recordings from the Living Presence series. The albums have typically uninspired front covers, abbreviated notes on the back covers, and often inferior pressings. There are a little over a hundred albums in the series. Most of the albums in the series carry MGW-14xxx catalog numbers for the mono versions and SRW-18xxx numbers for the stereo versions. Several albums, for reasons unknown, carry a WC instead of SRW prefix; and the multiple-disk sets bare SRW-19xxx catalog numbers. Most of the early “stereo” albums through SRW-18044 are in fact mono recordings which have been electronically reprocessed to simulate stereo.
SRI-75000 “Golden Import” Series
Circa 1976 Philips, then owner of Mercury, began a reissue series entitled “Golden Imports”, consisting of stereo recordings from the Living Presence series. The albums have more appealing covers than the Wing series, usually use the notes on the original SR-90000 series albums, and were pressed in the Netherlands, yielding sound quality approaching that of the originals. There are a little over 150 albums in the series. Single LP albums carry SRI-75xxx catalog numbers; multiple-disk sets of n LPs have SRIn-77xxx catalog numbers. Several albums in the series contain mono-only recordings which, unfortunately, were electronically reprocessed to simulate stereo.
THE REISSUE CDs
Between 1990 and 1999 a series of 125 “Mercury Living Presence” CDs were released. The albums used artwork and notes from the original LP releases. Having been transferred from the original 3-track tapes whenever possible, they held the promise of being the best way for the consumer to enjoy “Living Presence” sound (at least for those music listeners who prefer the sound of a well mastered CD over vinyl). Unfortunately, many of the CDs suffer from several flaws due to poor audio engineering. Many CDs have channel imbalances on the order of 2 db, which in and of itself would not be too bad were it not for excessive recording levels which results in hard digital clipping in loud passages, especially bad in the louder channel. The clipping generates harmonic distortion which results in some harshness in the loudest passages. As bad as the clipping looks when viewed on a time versus amplitude display in an audio editor, I’m surprised the loud passages don’t sound a lot worse. The other annoying aspect of the CDs is the practice (common in the industry) of replacing the actual background noise with a noise loop during the quiet intervals between works or movements during a performance. The noise loops chosen on many of the CDs have short, very audible repeats. To make matters worse, the crossfade from the actual audio to the noise loop is often rather abrupt, cutting off the decaying reverberant sound prematurely. These deficiencies noted, I generally prefer the CDs to the LPs. The mix-down from 3 to 2 channels and the spectral balance of the CDs is a close match to the LPs. To this listener’s ears, only top quality pressings of LPs in near mint condition can compete with the CDs, and they are hard to find.
In 2004 and 2005, 6 multiple-disk sets were issued containing CDs taken from previously issued albums with a common theme. In the interests of economy, the notes were highly abbreviated.
The listing for the CDs is in release order, which would be in catalog number order were it not for the adoption of 10-digit catalog numbers for some the CDs instead of the normal 7-digit numbers. The 10-digit numbers have a 289 prefix which, when deleted, results in catalog numbers increasing with release date. The sampler CD released in 1994 is listed first.
In 2004 and 2005 20 hybrid Super Audio CDs were released containing recordings which had already been released in the CD series. The SACDs use the original, flawed transfers for the CD layer. The SACD layer, however, contains new 2- and 3-channel transfers from the original 3-track tapes. The listener has the choice, with proper playback equipment, of listening to the recordings in 2-channel playback as originally intended or as 3-channels (left-center-right), an option not previously made available to the consumer. Take your pick. The higher resolution and superior editing of the transfers presented on the SACD layer make these releases the ones to own. It’s too bad only 20 SACD albums were produced.
Other Non-Mercury CDs
Some of the Mercury recordings have been reissued on labels other than Mercury. A number of recordings that appeared on later Mercury LPs were actually recorded by Philips engineers. Some of those recordings have been reissued on the Philips label. A number of C. R. Fine recordings that were never released on CD in the U.S. have been reissued under the Philips label in Japan. The listing, by no means complete, contains several other CDs, mostly foreign, containing material never released under the Mercury name.
Notes on the Listings
1. Recording dates, where given, are derived from a variety of sources. The most complete source is “The Mercury Labels: A Discography” by Michel Rippli and Ed Novitsky, Volume 4 (The 1969-1991 Era and Classical Recordings), Greenwood Press. In many cases recording dates are given in the notes on the back of the record jacket. CD releases of performances often specify recording dates and venues.
2. Release dates for the albums are derived from Schwann catalogs and given as a range. The second date is the first catalog in my possession in which an album appeared. The first date is that of the previous catalog in my possession, thus establishing the time range during which the album was released. Single dates are given in the listing for those albums which were marked as new listings in the Schwann catalogs. If anyone knows of a better source for release dates please let me know (email@example.com).
3. Mercury reissued some of the early mono albums in their catalog with different cover art, typically updating a graphical cover with a photo cover. Both the original and reissue album covers are shown in the listings.
4. I welcome any comments on this website. If you are in possession of any album covers which are missing from the mono listings, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Any help in making the listings as complete and accurate as possible would be greatly appreciated.
1. Many thanks to John Garish for loaning me many of the Mercury albums appearing on this website as well as providing me with invaluable information regarding Mercury and the artists featured on their recordings.
2. It was Jim Long who originally suggested that I create my own website displaying all the mono Mercury covers that I had scanned. At the time I had already scanned approximately two thirds of the albums of interest. He provided part of the inspiration to continue with the mono albums and also provided me with an Excel spreadsheet with part of the mono catalog already entered which formed the basis for what you see on this website.
3. Ron Penndorf’s website (www.ronpenndorf.com/labelography3.html) is an excellent resource for information on Mercury’s classical catalog. His site has extensive information on Mercury labelography.
4. I have also made many references to Matsubayashi ‘Shaolin’ Kohji’s website (www.microgroove.jp/mercury/) during the creation of my listings. He has also made a considerable effort to document the Mercury catalog, having listings of many of the Mercury series with images of covers of numerous albums.
Text copyright 2013 by James Lacy
Images property of current copyright holders
"The Complete Mercury Living Presence Discography" by James Lacy (last updated 5/25/13)