by David McGee.
With moderator Tom Fine effortlessly guiding the way, attendees at Friday night’s “Mercury Living Presence” Historical Program were treated to a vibrant, informative overview of one of the great classical labels in music history—Mercury’s Living Presence series, which was steered by Fine’s father, engineer Robert C. Fine, and mother, producer Wilma Cozart Fine (who passed away only last month). The Living Presence Series was a true sonic wonder, a gold standard in classical recording, so much so that it gained its name from a New York Times critic who, in an awestruck review, asserted that listening to one of the Fines’ recordings was like being “in the living presence” of an orchestra.
The Living Presence Series began in the 1950s and continued into the ‘70s, although Mrs. Fine retired in 1964; she came out of retirement in the late ‘80s, though, to oversee the remastering of the titles for CD release. In the Friday night session, her son, an engineer himself, succinctly detailed the historical background that informed his parents’ work, as well as acknowledging the other superior technicians who assisted the Fines over the years. It was an anecdote-rich presentation, thoroughly delectable for those who could appreciate fully that the king of 1950s singalongs, Mitch Miller, was the featured (and quite striking) oboe player on a 1947 Living Presence recording of Domenico Cimarosa’s Concerto For Oboe & Strings.
Fine offered a personable tour through both the history of the Living Presence Series—and thoroughly, with individual presentations devoted the gear, to mic technique (for 3-channel recording and, in the ‘60s, the use of a Westrex 35mm magnetic film recorder—“the unique thing Mercury used,” said Fine)—and the prehistory of Mercury’s entrance into the classical business in 1947 after absorbing producer John Hammond’s Keystone label shortly after it had started doing classical work (it was Hammond who signed Mitch Miller) and then producing its first single-mic recordings direct to 78 rpm discs.
The big payoff came with the music samples at the close of the session. Played through stacks of superb PMC monitors, the music spoke for itself as being expertly played, beautifully recorded and emotionally compelling. By far the most anticipated and most popular of the Fines’ work was saved for last, that being the use of actual weaponry in the recording of the “Wellington’s Victory” segment of Beethoven’s 1812 Overture. The composer’s score calls for 100 cannon shots synchronized to the beat plus random small arms fire, all of which the Fines recorded using period weapons at West Point. After several minutes of sustained rifle volleys and cannon bursts thundering in the room, the “Mercury Living Presence” presentation could truly be said to have came, saw and conquered its enthusiastic audience.