By Richard S. Ginell
ANALOG REVIEW — Once given up for dead, LPs are currently in the astounding position of being the only form of physical recorded music whose sales are climbing. New LPs can be found almost as readily as CDs, even in mass market stores like Best Buy and Barnes and Noble — albeit for a lot more than what people used to pay — and almost every major rock group’s catalog is available in vinyl once again. In a statistic that just screams “Back to the future!” of the 102 pages that the 2016 Music Direct catalog devotes to recordings, 89 are for LPs.
The major classical labels had been slow to catch on to the trend, leaving matters mostly to boutique audiophile labels, but they are coming around to it. The LP renaissance has given Decca another excuse to recirculate its Mercury Living Presence holdings from the 1950s and 1960s, and this time they’ve gone virtually all the way in the direction of authenticity.
The jackets and record labels are near-exact replicas of the precious originals from the Golden Age of Stereo that sometimes fetch up to three figures on the collectors’ market — right down to the original record numbers, wonky period explanations of stereo, and ads for other albums. Some telltale signs that these are repros are tiny credits to Decca and its parent Universal Music, some differing fonts or colors on the jacket spine and record labels, the increased weight of the vinyl (a medium-hefty 180 grams), paperboard jackets instead of cardboard, and the inevitable bar codes.
As for how they sound, I was able to compare a couple of the new Mercury LPs with their CD equivalents. On an all-French program of Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, Alborada del Gracioso, Pavane pour une Infante Défunte and La Valse and Ibert’s Escales — with Paul Paray vigorously immersing the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in his native element (Mercury 478 8317) — the LP sounded dazzling; it was consistently clearer, fuller, and more open than the CD. You could place the instruments more specifically in their positions across the speakers, a typical advantage of a well-made LP when played on an audiophile turntable (in this case, a Rega Planar 3).
The LP of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet — whizzed through in record time by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra (Mercury 478 8318) — had a noisier background than the CD, a mixture of surface noise and tape hiss that masked some low-level detail at times. Despite the 180g weight, the record emerged slightly warped from the jacket, though there was no audible effect on playback. Still, I would again give the LP an overall edge over the CD; the sound was brighter and airier, and the drums could deliver as satisfying a whomp! from the grooves as the CD, a format that should have a wider dynamic range.
For a Paray/Detroit rendering of the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 (Mercury 478 8319), I was able to compare the new pressing with a bonafide original LP pressing from the 1960s. Finland wasn’t exactly Paray country; he drives the piece hard and fast with little mystery, though the finale has cumulative swirling power. But the important point is that Decca has just about captured the authentic Living Presence LP sound on its reprinted edition. The old and new pressings run about neck-and-neck — same acidic string sound, same deep bass on the pizzicatos — with the 1960 original just a bit boomier and the new one a bit clearer.
Finally, I heard Byron Janis’ technically fearless and lyrically probing performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 — with Dorati and the LSO in lean, sometimes fierce form (Mercury 478 8316) — on its own without comparisons, and the sound was full and beautiful on the new LP, the piano coming through with impressive power and clarity. Yet there was one oddity: there is a space between the grooves of the second and third movements, creating a long, jarring pause where the music is supposed to be continuous.
The Rachmaninoff and Ravel/Ibert programs were recorded on 35mm magnetic film, which seemed to yield somewhat clearer results than those made on conventional tape. Nevertheless, all of these LPs will give those who remember them a pleasant nostalgic twinge, and those new to the Living Presence series may be staggered by the glistening life-like sound that Mercury was getting more than a half-century ago.
I never thought I would be writing this in 2015, but here goes: For the holiday season, give ’em records!
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.