Three SACD Hybrid Releases from Mercury

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos 2 & 3, Byron Janis, Dorati, 470 639-2
Stravinsky: Firebird, Fireworks, etc. Dorati, 470 643-2 
Respighi: Ancient Dances & Airs, Dorati, 470 637-2


September 2005


Three SACD Hybrid Releases from Mercury

The place, Carnegie Hall. The Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. Soloist, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (hotshot young Norwegian Rachmaninoff specialist, now touring with the San Franciscans. The performance—curiously unaffecting.

What was the problem? Musicianship, that’s what.

Who was it who said, “It’s the music, Stupid.” One might apply the musicianship standard to these three disks, or one might enter into a discussion of the several unique technical issues presented by these three disks.

In fact, we’ll do both.

First, some history. These discs, and many others for Mercury, were recorded on half-inch tape around forty or so years ago, by Robert (Bob) Fine, using his proprietary three- microphone technique. The three channels were then mixed to two, dealing as best they could with the inevitable phase anomalies, and then pressed into vinyl. (As I recall, much of that vinyl was fraught with tics and pops, but those lucky enough to get a clean copy enjoyed gorgeous analog sound.) 

Enter Wilma Cozart Fine some thirty years later. Her husband is now dead, and the era of CD’s is well underway. Drawing from her experience as engineering assistant to Bob when these recordings were made, Ms Fine embarks on an ambitious project—to transcribe much of the Fine/Mercury catalog onto CD.

Although heartily welcomed by many Mercury enthusiasts who were not able to find or afford the original vinyls, many of the CD’s sounded a bit hard, even strident, in the upper mid range. I sniff the use of BBC type speaker monitors during these re-recording sessions, with their characteristic upper mid-range dip. Otherwise, the best Theta A-to-D gear was used and every effort to bring these CD’s up to the highest standard of PCM recording available in 1992 was employed.

Over a decade would pass before engineers would make another attempt to present these recordings. The result— the SACD hybrids of which three are reviewed here.

The CD layer of our discs is the 1992 PCM (pulse code modulation) version as originally mastered by Wilma Cozart Fine. Compared to the 1992 CD versions, they are virtually identical.

What is unique about these new releases is the SACD layer, and the ability of the SACD format to present the three tracks of the original recordings without the need for a mix-down to two. Thus, in one sweeping gesture, the engineers have substituted SACD’s DSD (Direct Stream Digital) for PCM, and restored the center track from the 40-year-old tapes. And since the source material is analog, there is no PCM in the chain. Technology to the rescue. Right? Well, maybe.

Let’s consider the center track. Yes, if the center-track levels are properly set, the orchestra seems more full, more coherent. Yet, if the center-track level is set too high, depth is diminished, and the stage moves forward. Conversely, too low a setting of the center track will result in a thinning of the orchestra center, mostly at the expense of the woodwinds which occupy that space in most orchestral set-ups.

As to the change from PCM to SACD, SACD wins if (a big ‘if’) the playback systems are as near identical as possible. SACD is a bit sweeter, wider, more spacious and generally more agreeable than the 1992 PCM versions. Yet, make no mistake, SACD is no magic bullet. SACD cannot turn the sow’s purse of a lesser audio system into the lustrous pearl of a well-tuned high-end system, capable of digging gobs of exquisite detail, dynamics, imaging and layering from the myriad pits of the 4 ¾ inch silver disc.

As to the recordings themselves, let’s dispense with theRespighi. Neither the CD nor the SACD versions can save this long-in-the-tooth recording from the reject pile. Perhaps there was some magic in the vinyl, but both versions on the hybrid disc are pinched, lacking in color, dynamics and all the other goodies we expect from an excellent disc. The work itself is charming and played well enough, but certainly not compelling. Let’s move on. 

Things get better with the Stravinsky. Here is an energetic, dynamic performance from Dorati and the London Symphony. Tempos are lively. Plenty of rich detail in either the PCM or SACD version. Superb dynamics. Low-end enthusiasts will want to hear the taut and detailed bass drum hits on cut 14 of the Firebird. Mind you, on this disc we enjoy the complete Firebird ballet, not the shortened one (also sanctioned by Stravinsky). And yes, the SACD track is surely smoother than the 1992 PCM track. 

I have saved the best for last. The Rachmaninoff piano concertos. At first, a technical glitch has prevented me from hearing the SACD layer of this disc. My sample read ‘DVD’ instead of ‘SACD’ on the Esoteric Universal DV50 display, and a long exasperating silence ensued. Those of you who have early pressings of this disc may need to exchange it for a later version in order to experience the SACD magic. Yet, I am happy to report that both the PCM version as mastered by Wilma Cozart Fine, or the SACD, are just dandy. The upper mid-range peaks common to many of the 1992 masterings are not present in the Red Book version, nor do they intrude on the beauty of the SACD. In either version, we are free to enjoy the music without those distractions.

I’m listening to it now. What music this is! Unlike the live concert version by Andsnes which I described at the beginning of this review, the Byron Janis performance is nothing short of thrilling. (And just enough tape hiss to remind one of its birth credentials.) Arpeggios are light and nuanced. Fortissimos are impressive. The development of the music proceeds logically and drives inevitably to dramatic climaxes. In short, Janis’ technique beautifully serves the music.

The orchestras play exquisitely while exercising restraint so as not to intrude upon the virtuosity of the soloist. With this Rachmaninoff disc, we have one of the rarest of treats—a beautiful recording rivaling, indeed exceeding, some of the best of contemporary live performances.

A must in any collection.

Ross Wagner

Questions? Email me at


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