The DSO and Paul Paray's classic recordings for Mercury
Consider this question offered by classical music writer and media lawyer Peter Gutman:
Pop quiz: the greatest French orchestra on record is in (a) Paris, (b) Marseilles, (c) Lyon, or (d) Detroit? The correct answer is (d). That’s right – the very essence of French musical culture is in the Motor City, or at least it was from 1952 to 1963. That’s when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, led by the Frenchman Paul Paray, recorded a legendary series of LPs for Mercury’s Living Presence imprint.
Mr. Gutman isn’t the only one who raves about the Living Presence records. Classical music fans, musicians honing their craft, and LP collectors share an “if you know, you know” understanding that the 20-odd DSO recordings on the imprint are some of the finest ever made in the classical genre – and that some of them mark the definitive recorded versions of their respective repertoire.
Most of the magic comes, of course, from the musicians themselves. The DSO was 104 members strong in the early 1950s, and Paul Paray was a disciplined conductor with a French touch. His style brings out all of the color and Impressionistic sensitivity that defines the “French” sound, and his championing of lesser-known Gallic repertoire meant that the DSO became an evangelizing ensemble for composers like Chabrier, Franck, and Chausson.
“These recordings are real evidence that the DSO has a stake in the American tradition of recording classical music,” says Jay Ritchie, DSO Percussion and Assistant Principal Timpani.
Paray’s prodigious recording streak as leader of the DSO was a game-changer that put the symphony from Detroit – not New York, Boston, Vienna, or London – on the map.
Jay remembers borrowing a Living Presence recording on CD from his (Virginia-based) high school band director and being blown away. “That was my first eye-opener to the DSO, to be honest,” he says. “I guess I figured that there must be an orchestra in Detroit, but that was my real introduction.”
And even when the music on the stand is Russian, Austrian, or German, Paray and the DSO offer fresh, textural takes that encourage re-listening. Heavy-hitting French classics like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Bizet’s suite from Carmen, and Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 are bookended in the catalog by Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony – all of which sound colorful and alive, even on 60-year-old vinyl.
Luckily, crate diggers and Discogs enthusiasts aren’t the only ones able to get their hands on these classic recordings. Many of the Living Presence entries have been released on CD in addition to their original vinyl pressings, and most have found their way onto streaming services like Amazon Prime and YouTube Music.
Check out some of our favorites from the Living Presence library on Spotify.
Jay and dozens of his fellow DSO musicians light up when you ask them about the Living Presence records. For classical musicians they’re practically a rite of passage – at some point you’ll come across one, and it’s bound to ignite a spark.
“There was a percussionist in Japan that reached out to us during the Asia Tour in 2017,” Jay remembers. “We organized a little hang with him, and he was raving about the old Paray recordings. When he was coming up through school, that’s how he learned the French repertoire, and to him those records will always be the gold standard.”
Paray and the DSO recorded the Living Presence sessions in the auditorium of Cass Technical High School and at Orchestra Hall – which was for several years in the 1950s the weekly home of the Church of Our Prayer. Some of these now-classic performances were recorded with a single microphone hung from the ceiling, which gives the discs a thrilling sense of vitality.
“And honestly, some of the sound characteristics from those records are still here today,” says Jay. “We still play with lots of character [and] we’re still very brass- and percussion-forward.” The traditions of the midcentury DSO were more than recorded on wax – they were brought to life and carried through the decades.
“I actually see Jader Bignamini bringing that energy,” Jay adds, referring to the DSO’s incoming Music Director. “When I listen back to his performance of Symphonie fantastique it makes me think of those old Paray recordings – he brings out the intensity and the wildness of that piece. It sounds really fresh.”
Listen for yourself! Compare two DSO performances of the fourth movement of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique: one conducted by Jader Bignamini in January 2020, and one conducted by Paul Paray and recorded for the Mercury Living Presence imprint in 1960.
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