When I first started collecting classical CDs, I only had a few Mercury Living Presence (MLP) titles. In my quest to get the absolute best, or at least a definitive recording, of the major works of the standard repertoire, MLP discs rarely topped the critics' lists. In fact, only three MLP recordings have been earmarked as "Essential Recordings" by amazon -- Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Byron Janis performing Rachmaninov's 2nd & 3rd Piano Concertos, and Yehudi Menuhin performing Bartok's 2nd Violin Concerto, all three with Antal Dorati as conductor. It is also safe to say that three other titles are equally essential for their historical value alone. They are Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake by Dorati (the first recording of the complete ballet), Janis performing Liszt's Piano Concertos (the first recordings made in the Soviet Union by American technicians, musical staff and equipment), and Kubelik's Chicago Symphony performance of Pictures at an Exhibition (one of, if not the single best mono recording ever, and the one that led the New York Times critic to coin the phrase "Living Presence," from which the label named its series). But how does a CD line go from having a half-dozen must have recordings, to being this reviewer's all-time favorite classical label?
The answer: consistently magical performances, captured in brilliant golden-age stereo sound, that offer a slightly different take on your typical interpretation of the great works. While MLP titles may not offer the best standard account of a work, they always surprise you and open you up to all the possibilities that the music has to offer. For example, these performances of Fritz Kreisler's Violin Works by violinist Henryk Szeryng and pianist Charles Reiner may not be the consensus first choice recording -- many prefer Joshua Bell's recent digital recordings, and others still will sift through the tape noise and crackles to listen to Kreisler perform these works himself. However, I constantly come back to this disc for a different perspective, and the vibrancy and splendor of that classic MLP sound never disappoints me. The added treat here is rarely recorded compositions by Leclair, Gluck and Locatelli, which are ever bit as enjoyable as the well-known works by Kreisler. Maybe that is why collectors prize these recordings, because they are a breath of fresh air in a homogenized world of listening. Of course, collectors love a challenge too, and MLP CDs are becoming increasingly hard to find. It has taken years for me to finally find all of the MLP CDs released to date, and unfortunately I don't think there will be any new releases forthcoming. So collectors, and even those who aspire to be, should pick up as many Mercury Living Presence discs as possible now, before they all die.