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Paray Mercury v1 4842318
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Paul Paray (conductor)
The Mercury Masters, Volume 1: 1953-1957
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
No texts
ELOQUENCE 4842318 [23 CDs: 902]

Paul Paray (1896-1979) has long been celebrated for his Mercury recordings in Detroit, but their availability has been both inconsistent and patchy. Pristine Audio has used XR technology on some releases – the effectiveness of which I leave to those who have heard them - and ArkivMusic reissued some in their ‘on demand’ service. However, it has taken Australian Eloquence to release these recordings in full, in two massive box sets containing 45 CDs.

In the inter-war years Paray had been the conductor of the Lamoureux orchestra. The years between 1923 and 1928 were formative and he mastered important French repertoire, from Roger-Ducasse to Caplet by way of Rivier and Vierne. He premiered Ibert’s Escales amongst other things and after leaving the Lamoureux juggled the orchestra in Monte Carlo with the Concerts Colonne in Paris. His American debut was in July 1939 where he was apparently, according to Peter Quantrill’s authoritative notes, offered the co-directorship of the NBC Symphony with Toscanini. After the War, which he spent in his native country, he returned to America and was offered the conductorship of the Detroit Symphony, giving his first concert with them as the new music director in 1951 (he had conducted concerts with the orchestra back in 1948 so was by no means an unknown quantity). Whereas another Mercury-associated orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, had been in turmoil when Rafael Kubelík was appointed, the Detroit orchestra had disbanded in 1949 when conductor Karl Krueger left. Paray’s job therefore was a rebuilding one, assisted by newly appointed concertmaster and ex-NBC leader Mischa Mischakoff, who brought high standards and auditioned new players.

With Kubelík now out of Chicago, Mercury saw an opportunity to record with Paray in Detroit. They had to contend with a series of recording locations but soon settled, in the main, on Old Orchestra Hall in preference to the Masonic Temple and the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium. The results are memorable and lasting indices of Paray’s clarity of direction, streamlined orchestral sonority, intensity of expression, and a panache-fuelled approach to his repertoire.

Paray’s default position to tempi was fast. You can hear in the 1953 Boléro just how tensile is his grip whilst the accompanying Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio espagnole allows those newly appointed and trained principals to shine. The Wagner excerpts in discs 2, 9 and 20 exude a visceral tension without exhibiting Teutonic density of sound. Clarification of the string choirs was one of the most vital elements of Paray’s success in Detroit, accompanied by precision of articulation and a vivid muscular intensity, which Paray is on record as having admired in Toscanini. Stylistically, in fact, his position is somewhere between the Italian and, say, Szell, though in the last resort Paray didn’t have as fine a body of players as Szell enjoyed in Cleveland. The finest qualities Paray exemplified can be heard in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony where the strings are tight, inner part writing is explored in the Allegretto and where the harmonies are pointed; so too in the fearsome drive generated in the finale, all brilliantly captured in the larger-than-life front row sonics that Mercury managed to conjure with their one microphone for monos.

Back in the early 50s when orchestras still recorded the Franck Symphony with regularity and when, by corollary, leading ensembles recorded his String Quartet, Paray’s recording still emerged as a formidable achievement, finely paced, powerfully intoned, uninclined to indulge the work’s spiritual-mystic underbelly, and suavely dispatched. Paray also recorded one of the best sounding recordings of Antar that you will hear, notwithstanding its mono status. Linear and lean but full of tensile refinement and many beautiful and felicitous touches, this is a recording for the ages. CD 6 houses a French trio. Ravel’s La Valse is characteristically brilliant and there’s quite a stylistic jump to Fauré’s Pavane and then to Francks Psyché, of which we hear three excerpts. If I find Paray less convincing in Fauré’s incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande it’s because I find his relative bluntness comes close to curtness and I prefer Armin Jordan in this repertoire; a personal preference only. His Dukas is splendid, and he shows that it wasn’t only Munch who could conduct Roussel. The curio at the end of CD7 is another version of Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier, which with narration in English by Jerry Terheyden emerges as The Sorcerer’s Apprenctice.
Paray recorded a superb Schumann symphonic cycle. This box contains Nos 2 to 4 with No.1 following in the second box. No.2 takes a similar set of tempi to Toscanini, generating maximal pointing and drama. Only No.4 is in mono but that’s of little account, so aerial, clear-voiced and lacking in any sense of heaviness are these interpretations. You won’t complain about Schumann’s (alleged) thick orchestrations in these polyunsaturated performances, nor will you easily submit to anyone else’s interpretations, no matter how festooned with the latest fancy dan recording technology - this is real musicmaking: insightful and ebullient and alive. Meanwhile Liszt’s Les Préludes pulsates with drive and intensity.

CD10 contains a Pastoral Symphony notable for taking Beethoven at his word regarding metronome markings. Exhilarating though it can be – the Storm is just overwhelming in its immediacy and will force you to take cover – and admirably steady in the Scene by the brook as it is, there are moments of inflexibility that can sap the music of its natural flow. He is on his best form for another French Rhapsodic Trio; Chabrier’s España, which is full of elan, an evocative Ravel Rapsodie espagnole and, probably best of all for its web of connections with his younger self, Escales.
In the days when recording a single symphony didn’t necessarily lead to a cycle, Paray recorded one Brahms Symphony for Mercury, the Fourth. It’s a fine and forceful reading though very occasionally inclined to become rhetorical. CD13 however, a joyful all-Bizet disc, inaugurates stereo recording. Oddly there’s no Habanera in Paray’s selection of music from Carmen but perhaps he was looking beyond the obvious. He shows here and in the two L’Arlésienne suites a Beechamesque brio and sense of charm, all generated in the studio. He always denied the suggestion, common in America, that he had shaped a French orchestra in Detroit. No, he would reply, it was an American orchestra. Yes, in certain ways its lean string sonorities may have suggested to some the clarity of the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra or the kind of sonority and approach that Markevitch obtained from Paray’s old orchestra, the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux, but in the final resort the string section was trained and cast largely in the image of a Ukrainian, Mischakoff, and the winds, so prominent and individual, contained no Frenchmen so far as I know.

Taking advantage of stereo Mercury re-recorded Boléro with just as much vitality as before but an even greater and more brilliant depth of sound from those three microphones. Ma Mère l’oye receives a reading both detailed and loving – as well as being beautifully phrased. Critics are generally keen to praise Paray for his incision and drive but it’s only fair to point out his subtlety of phrasing and refinement too. Chabrier’s Bourée fantasque is a riot of colour and swagger whilst Henry Barraud’s Offrande à une ombre, one of the relatively few contemporary works that Paray recorded, is impressively sombre. La Mer follows on CD15, bracing as spume, declining the opulent option in favour of a lean trajectory though you will find Paray’s Iberia is colourful but not brittle, refined and never harried. It’s also beautifully balanced, a tribute not only to him but to Mercury’s expert microphone placements.

Paray had first performed Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony back in his Lamoureux days with Marcel Dupré. When a recording of the work was scheduled for 1957 the conductor therefore turned to his old friend and the result was something of a triumph. It may not be the best remembered or most touted recording of the work but that’s probably because Paray abjured all notions of grandiloquence – for which, step forward Charles Munch - preferring instead to focus on the symphony’s purely musical qualities. The next two discs contain two more important symphonic statements. The first is Chausson’s Symphony in B-flat, one of the work’s great recordings. Vividly shaped and shimmering with drama, he brings out the cello’s curvaceous lines and generates character in every bar. Once again, he is deliciously fast so if your preference is for a more overtly languorous and expressive (and recent) version, once again Armin Jordan might well be a good choice; in some ways he replicated Paray’s profile in Franco-Belgian repertoire though remained a more relaxed interpreter.

We now have had the chance to hear early recordings of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 going right back to Sokoloff’s Cleveland recording of 1928, so Paray’s 1957 recording – which has almost the exact same timings as Sokoloff’s and which also uses then-standard cuts – fits into a distinct tradition. This is the tradition that is direct yet inflected, linear yet expressive, and that propels the music with genuinely Rachmaninovian intensity. Once again, if you prefer a more romantically inflated version you’ll know where to look.

Paray’s own Mass, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc, was first performed in 1921. This is, for its time, a rather conventional work but that’s of a piece with Paray’s own preferences, which were largely confined to traditional, non-confrontational music. His Mass looks to trends in French music, naturally, and there may be points of comparison with Duruflé and Fauré though there are also subtle Bachian hints too.

In October 1956 Paray recorded a Haydn-Mozart coupling. He takes the opening movement of Mozart’s Haffner as a thrilling, breathless ‘con spirito’ – it’s the essence of fieriness – though elsewhere he’s a touch more temperate. I happen to prefer his approach to Haydn’s The Miracle where his Big Band approach is aptly grand seigneurial.

This first box of Paray’s Detroit recordings contains 15 hours of music on 23 like-for-like original jacket CD recordings. Elsewhere in their reissue programme, whilst still retaining original jackets, Eloquence has rejigged their discs so that near-CD times can be obtained but not here.

However, with Thomas Fine in charge of remastering and with his splendid sessionography and Peter Quantrill’s notes complementing archival photographs and LP sleeves, this is an outstanding box enshrining recordings of energy, vitality, and finesse. Grab it while it’s still around.

Jonathan Woolf

CD 1
MAURICE RAVEL (1822–1890)
Boléro, M.81
Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, February 1953

CD 2
RICHARD WAGNER (1813–1883)
Lohengrin: Preludes to Acts I & III
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act I
Tannhäuser: Overture
Die Walküre: The Ride of the Valkyries (Act III)
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, February 1953

CD 3
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Recording Location: Masonic Temple, Detroit, USA, February 1953

CD 4
CÉSAR FRANCK (1822–1890)
Symphony in D minor
Recording Location: Masonic Temple, Detroit, USA, February 1953

CD 5
Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36
Symphony No. 2, Op. 9 ‘Antar’
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 7 December 1953

CD 6
MAURICE RAVEL (1822–1890)
La Valse
GABRIEL FAURÉ (1841–1904)
Pavane, Op. 50 (orchestral version)
CÉSAR FRANCK (1822–1890)
Psyché – poème symphonique (excerpts)
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 7 December 1953

CD 7
PAUL DUKAS (1865–1935)
L’Apprenti sorcier
GABRIEL FAURÉ (1841–1904)
Pelléas et Mélisande – Incidental music, Op. 80
ALBERT ROUSSEL (1869–1937)
Le Festin de l’araignée, Op. 17
PAUL DUKAS (1865–1935)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Children’s story with narration
Jerry Terheyden, narrator
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 26–28 December 1953

CD 8
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120
FRANZ LISZT (1811–1886)
Les Préludes
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 26–28 December 1953

CD 9
RICHARD WAGNER (1813–1883)
Der fliegende Holländer: Overture
Parsifal: Good Friday Music (Act III)
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod (Act III) (orchestral version)
Siegfried: Forest Murmurs (Act II)
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, USA, 27 November 1954 (Der fliegende Holländer, Parsifal, Siegfried), 25 March 1955 (Tristan und Isolde)

CD 10
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 26 November 1954

CD 11
España – Rhapsody for Orchestra
MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937)
Rapsodie espagnole, M.54
JACQUES IBERT (1890–1962)
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 25 March 1955

CD 12
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 26 March 1955

CD 13
GEORGES BIZET (1838–1875)
Carmen Suite
L’Arlésienne – Suite No. 1
L’Arlésienne – Suite No. 2
Recording Location: Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, Detroit, United States, 8 November 1956

CD 14
MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937)
Boléro, M.81
Ma Mère l’oye, M.60
Bourreé fantasque (orch. Mottl)
ALBERT ROUSSEL (1869–1937)
Suite in F major, Op. 33
HENRY BARRAUD (1900–1997)
Offrande à une ombre
Recording Locations: Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, Detroit, USA, 19 March 1957 (Ravel: Ma mère l’oye; Chabrier: Bourreé fantasque; Roussel: Suite in F major; Barraud: Offrande à une ombre); Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 24 March 1958 (Ravel: Boléro)

CD 15
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
La Mer, L.109
Ibéria (No. 2 of Images pour orchestre)
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 3–4 December 1955

CD 16
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 ‘Organ Symphony’
Marcel Dupré, organ
Recording Location: Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, Detroit, USA, 10 December 1957

CD 17
Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 23 March 1956

CD 18
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
Recording Location: Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, Detroit, USA, 18 March 1957

CD 19
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 3–4 December 1955

CD 20
RICHARD WAGNER (1813–1883)
Götterdämmerung: Prologue – Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (Act I)
Siegfried Idyll
Parsifal: Prelude
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude (Act III)
Recording Location: Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 23 March 1956

CD 21
PAUL PARAY (1886–1979)
1–4 Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc
5 Paul Paray’s post-session thanks to the performers
Frances Yeend, soprano; Frances Bible, mezzo-soprano
David Lloyd, tenor; Yi-Kwei-Sze, bass
Rackham Symphony Choir
Recording Location: Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, Detroit, USA, 20 October 1956

CD 22
Symphony No. 35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’
JOSEPH HAYDN (1732–1809)
Symphony No. 96 in D major, Hob.I:96, ‘The Miracle’
Recording Location: Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, Detroit, USA, 21 October 1956

CD 23
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 ‘Rhenish’
Recording Location: Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, Detroit, USA, 9 November 1956

CDs 1-12 Mono; CDs 13-23 Stereo

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