LONDON MOZART PLAYERS/HARRY BLECH: THE COMPLETE HMV STEREO RECORDINGS • Harry Blech, cond; Vitya Vronsky (pn); Victor Babin (pn); London Mozart Players • FIRST HAND 5, mono1 (3 CDs: 199:24)
MOZART Symphonies: No. 28; No. 41, “Jupiter.” Serenade No. 9, “Posthorn.” Concertos for 2 Pianos: in F, Read more class="ARIAL12">K 242; in E?, K 365. Minuets, K 601. German Dances, K 605. HAYDN Symphony No. 103, “Drum Roll”.1 ARRIAGA Symphony in d
Founded by violinist-turned-conductor Harry Blech in 1949, the London Mozart Players quickly became a staple of the postwar London concert scene. (Blech directed them for more than 30 years, until his retirement in 1984.) The group recorded first for Decca, later for EMI; the enterprising reissue label First Hand Records has gathered together their complete recordings in stereo for EMI, from the years 1956–57, when their contract with the label expired. The LMP’s recordings with Blech have not been well served in the CD era: one all-Mozart disc on Dutton Laboratories; some concert arias with Irmgaard Seefried; and the Sinfonia Concertante K 364 with Norbert Brainen and Peter Schidlof of the Amadeus Quartet (Testament). All the material in this set appears on CD for the first time, and much of it for the first time ever in stereo.
As related in Lyndon Jenkins’s excellent notes, a chamber orchestra devoted to Classical-period repertoire was something of a novelty in the postwar period. In its heyday, the group boasted many of the best players in London, which together with Blech’s inspirational leadership and innate sense of Classical style proved a winning formula. For audiences accustomed to the anachronistic sound of full symphony orchestra in this repertoire, hearing it for the first time on an appropriately Classical scale must have been quite revelatory for many.
Fifty years on, with period-instrument and period-style performance the new norm for this repertoire, how do these performances hold up? Very well indeed, as it turns out; it is surprising to think that music-making of this caliber has had to wait so long to appear on CD. In the “Jupiter” and “Drum Roll” symphonies, the outer movements fairly crackle with brio and élan, an irresistible sense of these top London players enjoying themselves. The chamber-orchestra textures are less string-dominated than was the norm at the time, paying dividends in the textural clarity of the contrapuntal finales. But Blech’s original vocation as a violinist is everywhere in evidence, in shapely, imaginative, rather soloistic string phrasing and a freely expressive style (hear the C-Minor variation theme from the Andante piu tosto allegretto of the “Drum Roll” Symphony). The result, however, always sounds natural, without the sense of self-conscious point-making heard too often nowadays. Solo woodwinds play with the kind of individual personality reminiscent of the glory days of the Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras of the 1950s (not surprisingly, since the LMP shared many of the same players)—hear the inimitably witty conversational interplay in the Rondo of the “Posthorn” Serenade. Indeed, throughout it is this sense of the orchestra as a felicitous collaboration of strong individual personalities (strings as well as winds) that distinguishes these performances from others of the time. Comparison with Eduard van Beinum’s contemporaneous recording of the “Posthorn” Serenade (Concertgebouw, 1956, Decca Original Masters) illustrates well: For all the sleek expertise of the Concertgebouw under van Beinum’s crisply stylish direction—magnificent in its way—the music-making comes across as rather generic by comparison.
Slow movements are occasionally phrased with a heavier espressivo than is now the norm—hear the Andante from Mozart’s No. 28, though Blech doesn’t come close to Walter’s treacly bogging down with the Columbia Symphony in 1954. (The young Colin Davis is well-nigh ideal here, with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1962, reissued on Eloquence.) Blech’s minuets, conversely, sound years ahead of their time in their brisk clip—the “Jupiter” Minuet’s joyous one-in-the-bar Schwung a far cry from (say) Beecham’s stately gait.
The two-piano concertos are exceedingly well served by Vronsky and Babin—subtle characterization in the first movements (listen to their response to such details as the dark turn to minor beginning the recapitulation of K 365), a wonderful singing freedom and orchestral palette of tone colors in the slow movements (K 242 a tour de force of different colors and articulations), and a supple virtuoso interplay in the finales. The minuet and Ländler groups are nicely characterized, and the 19-year-old Arriaga’s hand-me-down exercise in symphonic Sturm und Drang played to the manner born.
The production is exemplary, with full discographic details, informative notes, and attractive reproductions of the original artwork. First Hand’s remasterings, from the original stereo tapes (disturbed from their slumbers for the first time in 50-plus years!), are outstandingly vivid and full-bodied. (The only mono item, the Haydn, was included to fill up the third disc. But the sound is so good, and the performance so engrossing, that the ear scarcely registers the difference.) Now can we have the LMP’s complete mono recordings? Meanwhile, I recommend you snap up this marvelous set without delay.
Symphony in D majorby Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga Conductor:
Period: Romantic Written: circa 1825; Spain Date of Recording: 02/22/1956 Venue: Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England Length: 22 Minutes 10 Secs.
Symphony no 41 in C major, K 551 "Jupiter"by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1788; Vienna, Austria Venue: Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England Length: 25 Minutes 55 Secs.
Minuets (4), K 601by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1791; Vienna, Austria Date of Recording: 05/01/1957 Venue: Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England Length: 8 Minutes 42 Secs.
German Dances (3), K 605by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1791; Vienna, Austria Date of Recording: 05/23/1957 Venue: Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England Length: 6 Minutes 3 Secs.
Symphony no 28 in C major, K 200 (189k)by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Conductor:
Written: 1774 Date of Recording: 02/23/1956 Venue: Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England Length: 17 Minutes 14 Secs.
Concerto for 3 Pianos in F major, K 242by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1776; Salzburg, Austria Venue: Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England Length: 23 Minutes 13 Secs.
Serenade no 9 in D major, K 320 "Posthorn"by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1779; Salzburg, Austria Venue: Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, England Length: 39 Minutes 31 Secs.