Wilma Cozart Fine

Wilma Cozart Fine died Monday September 21 at age 82. Together with her husband Bob Fine, Cozart was responsible for producing and engineering Mercury's superb-sounding series of "Living Presence" classical recordings in the 1950s and '60s.

Wilma Cozart Fine started her career as conductor Antal Dorati's personal secretary. She became vice president of Mercury Records in 1954. She came out of retirement in the 1990s to produce again, this time to satisfy the demand for CD re-issues of the Mercury Living Presence LPs.

Mercury's initial series releases, made a year or two before Ms. Cozart joined the company, were monophonic and were produced by David Hall. For these, Hall and Robert Fine used a single microphone ("single-point recording") positioned fairly high and a bit behind the conductor's position (over the orchestra floor). The secret was supposed to be in finding the ideal single spot where all the orchestra's instruments were in balance. This was quite successful but the most outstanding outcome was the very wide dynamic range (for the time). The initial release of Mussourgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition with the Chicago symphony under Rafael Kubelik was a block-buster and an eye-opener. The series continued, with the Detroit Symphony (under Paul Paray), the Minneapolis Orchestra (under Antal Dorati), the Eastman Symphony (under Howard Hanson) and, perhaps most importantly, the newly formed Eastman Wind Ensemble (under Frederick Fennell). Ms. Cozart Fine made 32 recordings through the mono and stereo era with the latter group and they represent a body of wind band recordings outstanding for its breadth (from Sousa to Wagner) and style.

With the advent of stereo, Cozart used a pair of additional microphones flanking the original "single point" but mixed them down to two channels for LP release. These stereo Living Presence recordings preserved the clarity and dynamics of the mono series and added the directionality and spaciousness of stereo. Work with the Detroit and Minneapolis orchestras was expanded to recordings with Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra and, even, a foray into the Soviet Union.

As the guiding spirit of the entire Living Presence series, Ms. Cozart Fine established a library of remarkable recordings which, even today, stand among the finest ever made. The recent SACD transfers of the full three-channel recordings that had previously been mixed down to two reveals a spacious and transparent view of the performance that has rarely been equalled. Proof of this is available in the form of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite with the LSO/Dorati, an unsurpassed performance and recording, as well as with Bach's Suites for Solo Cello performed by Janos Starker. The contemporaneous RCA Living Stereo series (also recently transferred to three-channel SACDs) offered similar advantages over the more ordinary classical recordings from Columbia, EMI, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon but rarely conveyed with the dynamics that Ms. Cozart Fine captured with her "single-point" approach.

In the words of John Atkinson, who was privileged to meet her in 1988, "Giants walked the earth" when Ms. Cozart Fine and her colleagues were making their ground-breaking recordings.