First, if youíre interested,
a trio of little "essays"
about SACD/CD compatibility and the
advance of Mercury Living Presence into
the SACD arena. Otherwise, please skip
to the heading "The
This being the first
SACD that Iíve clapped eyes on, I was
naturally intrigued by the legend emblazoned
across the u-card, "THIS DISC PLAYS
ON ALL CD PLAYERS", supported by
a sticker on the front declaring "PLAYS
ON SACD AND CD PLAYERS". I canít
resist a challenge like that, particularly
when I have to meet it in order to actually
review the disc, so I popped it into
my personal CD player and pressed "Play".
Guess what? It didnít play. Was
the machine faulty? No - it plays all
my many ordinary CDs with ease. For
sheer devilment, I tried it in a cheap-and-cheerful
domestic DVD player, which - sadly -
is increasingly the average familyís
"device of choice" for workaday
music playback. No joy there, either,
Alright, it does
play on my main audio system, and also
on the dinky little micro-machine perched
on my desk and, for that matter, on
my computerís CD-ROM drive. Still, thatís
only a 60% success rate. Iíll let that
be a warning to me: "compatibility
ainít what itís cracked up to be; if
you only want CD donít buy SACD".
I know, it is an awful rhyme,
but then I never claimed to be a Willie
Wordsworth, did I?
Sound of Mercury Living Presence
Mercuryís avowed aim,
as discussed in the booklet, is the
same as ever it was: "to capture
as accurately and completely as possible
the true sound of the original tapes
and film masters".
on what you define as the "true
sound". For the CD remasterings
done in the 1990s, Mercury refurbished
one of the machines used to make and
replay the original recordings. Their
argument then was that this enabled
them to exactly recreate the signal
that went into the original LP mastering
process. The "true sound"
was what came out of the original playback.
There was never any question of "improving"
or "refurbishing" the signal.
Mercuryís philosophy dictated that the
CD remastering should sound exactly
the same - if the original sounded bad,
then the CD should sound just as bad!
Mercury did a straight A/B comparison
between the results of their digital
mastering and the original playback,
and made sure that they sounded the
same. All nice, neat and simple
The CD medium already
boasted resolution, frequency response,
dynamic range and headroom that were
superior to the original Living Presence
masters. Hence youíd think that doing
the job again, using a medium of resolution
etc. superior to CD, would be a complete
waste of time. Youíd be right. However,
somebody had moved the goalposts regarding
the "True Sound"!
For the new SACD remasterings,
Mercury turned to thoroughly modern
tape playback equipment, substantially
customised for maximum accuracy of information
retrieval and carefully tweaked to mimic
the original playback equalisation.
This amounts to "improving"
the sound, not by the use of filtering,
equalisation, and other digital jiggery-pokery,
but in effect by reducing the distortions
introduced during playback on the original
machines. The "True Sound"
is now no longer what comes out of
the playback loudspeakers, but what
is on the master tape.
Of course, this means
that those simple A/B comparisons are
no longer possible, because the "A"
is no longer a sound! Mercury
say that they made "repeated comparisons
both to playback of the original masters
on an Ampex 300 machine previously belonging
to Wilma Cozart Fine and to the original
CD transfers which she herself had prepared".
Thatís all well and good, but why?
The "Ampex 300" and the "CD"
playbacks had already been "certified"
as identical during the CD remastering
process, so it was surely pointless
doing both comparisons.
Moreover, what would
comparison of the new (SACD) mastering
and old (CD) mastering prove? Either
they sound the same, or they sound different.
If there is to be any point to the exercise,
we must assume that the latter is the
desired outcome. If so, then what criteria
of "fidelity" do they apply
- how do you know that the new job is
actually "better" than the
old? And, if so, how much "better"
is the "right amount" of "better"?
Tricky one, that.
Of course, the answer
is, "You donít know".
Youíre no longer in the business of
re-creating the "True Sound",
but of subjective assessment of whether
one sound is "better" than
another. Mercury may be successful in
their avowed aim, but now it is no longer
possible - for them or us - to actually
test the claim.
The disc encapsulates
three versions of the recording. In
addition to the standard CD audio -
if you can get your player to play it!
- there are two SACD versions: you get
the choice of normal two-channel stereo
and a version that enshrines the original
Living Presence three-channel master
recording. Let the unwary beware - this
is not a "surround sound"
option! If you try feeding the three-channel
format through any surround sound processor,
be prepared for some strange results.
Mercury, in moving
from monaural to stereo, replaced the
single Living Presence microphone not
by the "crossed pair" that
their principles most obviously suggested,
but by a "line of three" -
three omni-directional microphones arranged
above and behind the conductor, to cover
the left, centre and right of the sound-stage.
The master tapes recorded each microphone
separately, with the three channels
being mixed down into two only when
preparing the stereo production masters
(LP or CD).
Here, the big advantage
of the SACD format over CD is that Mercury
can, for the first time, pass on to
the listener the responsibility for
balancing these three channels. If you
choose this option, you must play the
channels back through three front
speakers (only): a normal stereo pair
and a centre speaker. The speakers should
be identical models - if you
use a "centre channel" speaker
that is different from (usually "smaller
than") the main stereo pair, then
you will get some distortion of the
image due to the disparity of sensitivity,
dispersion and frequency response. You
will then need to adjust the relative
level of the centre channel so that
it nicely, but only just, "fills
the hole" - anything more and the
centre will "suck in" the
sides! If your kit wonít let you do
this, then the best option is to revert
to the two-channel SACD version.
Itís a sad fact of
life that, as the years go by, the quality
of recorded sound gets ever better,
but our hearing becomes ever less able
to appreciate the improvements. A well-recorded
CD still sounds so wonderful to me that
I hesitate to invest in anything "better",
and so Iím likely to become "SACD-enabled"
only when my current CD player finally
gives up the ghost and I find that SACD
capability comes as standard, whatever
replacement I choose! So, here I am
just considering the standard CD-audio
option on this SACD. Iím relieved to
say, that this does indeed sound identical
to the original CD issue!
As befits its name,
the Mercury "Living Presence"
recording method has long been associated
with astonishingly lifelike results.
However, Iíve always had nagging doubts
about the "line of three"
microphone arrangement which, for reasons
I wonít go into here, tends to "flatten"
the front-to-back perspective. To some
extent this is a movable feast, less
or more pronounced depending on the
exact recording configuration. In these
particular recordings the "flattening"
leans distinctly towards the "lesser"
end of the "pronounced" spectrum.
As is typically the
case, the headphones user will find
that the strings are very immediate,
spread right across the very front of
the sound-field. The woodwind, although
far from shy, do sound as though they
are slightly behind the strings, whilst
the horns seem to emanate from a very
natural back left. Brass and percussion
tend to sound too immediate, but in
terms of sonic weight are balanced beautifully
against the strings and woodwind. Even
in the more boisterous tuttis - and
there are plenty of those! - you can
still hear the strings and woodwind
a real treat.
In the quieter moments,
the hissing of the original master tape
makes its (living?) presence felt, but
luckily it sounds very smooth and even,
and Mercury have considerately maintained
this background through the gaps between
the items. In view of this, and of whatís
happening "above" the hiss,
even on headphones it is very easy to
forget about it. Ah, but push the sound
out through decent loudspeakers, and
not only is the hiss less obtrusive,
but also the feeling of the "living
presence" of a real orchestra is
immediately more convincing. Moreover,
the crisp immediacy of the orchestral
sound is not at the expense of ambient
bloom and the feeling of a large volume
of air within which the luscious sounds
can breathe. Even with the slightly
flattened perspective, this is a real
top drawer sound recording by anybodyís
The problem, for those
of us who do not live in goatherdsí
crofts on remote mountainsides, is that
this is not neighbour-friendly. A reviewer
once described these recordings as "life-enhancing".
Iíd go further - turn up the wick and
they are fully capable of waking the
dead! Someone who does not know them
might be hard-pressed to distinguish
which of these overtures are by Suppé
and which by Auber, though this is not
because they lack character but because
they share so many common - and commendable
- characteristics. Those listeners who
find monotony raising its ugly head
only have themselves to blame: these
nine overtures were never meant to be
heard one after the other. But pick
just one - any one - and listen, and
youíll be bowled over by it. Guaranteed.
How come? Good question. Whatís the
Well, as I said, pick
one. Letís start at the very beginning.
It is, after all, a very good place
to start (ask Julie Andrews!). Suppéís
The Beautiful Galatea thunders
into your ears, all guns blazing! Itís
not just the brute impact of the fortissimo
tutti that impresses, but the ebullience,
the swagger, the infectious "bounce"
with which Paray invests the music,
his Detroit players slashing with glinting
sabres at the dotted rhythms of the
equestrian galop. Yet, scarcely half
a minute in, a solo horn calls lazily,
woodwind are oscillating dreamily and
spinning elaborate arabesques. Then,
before youíve time to say "Ahh",
meltingly intimate strings whisper the
sweetest sentiments in your ears, and
youíre glad you held onto that "Ahh"
for a second. A bassoon, oozing throaty
character, wakes up those winds. A sudden
bang, and off they romp with another
tune, chattering and twittering gaily.
Thatís three belting good tunes in as
many minutes! For good measure Paray,
steering the tempo like a stallion,
unerringly builds a climax that erupts
with rumbustious heavy brass and crashing
percussion that pin you to the back
of your armchair. Paray resists any
temptation to overcook the disarming
waltz, which is played with beguiling
simplicity. The tempo is eased back
just so, nicely lining up the
sights to trigger off a scintillating
galop. Thereís more: further down the
road the waltz returns, bashed out with
cheerful and utterly unsophisticated
gusto by the Detroit players!
OK, pick another one!
Which one? Any one you like - every
oneís a gem, alternating nifty nuances
with the highest of spirits. Itís as
if youíd gatecrashed the orchestraís
annual party: everybodyís having an
absolute whale of a time, and who can
blame them, with so many cracking tunes
and colourful effects around which to
wrap their instruments? Is this all
a bit too "uncritical"? Alright,
take Light Cavalry. At about
a minute and a half in, following the
grandiose brass cavalcade, Paray launches
the woodwindís stuttering pulse at such
a lick that the violins can scarcely
negotiate their convoluted lines. They
do manage it, but it feels as if they
only just succeed in hanging
onto their scalpel-like executive precision.
Iím sorry, but this is my one and only
quibble; itís the one change of tempo
that sounds forced, along with the corresponding
wrench on the reins to yank it back
for the tune that always reminds me
of The Galloping Major. A mere
minute later, Paray has already made
up for this little lapse: the declamatory
central episode, on ripe unison strings,
is maintained at a sturdy pace that
slips through into the return of the
"Major" with all the ease
of an oyster in white wine making its
way down oneís gullet! Every other performance
Iíve heard drags this tune out interminably.
So it goes on. Believe
me, as far as undemanding but tuneful
and colourful repertoire is concerned,
this is as good as it gets. Paray and
the Detroit orchestra are without peer,
and the sound sends my ears into ecstasy.
Daft as it might sound, if the SACD
remastering sounds any "better"
than this CD version, then I really
donít want to hear it. At my
age, I donít think my system could handle
that much sheer, unalloyed pleasure.
Iím happy to leave that experience to
someone younger and more robust than