When I became musically aware in the late 1960s, concerts by
the London Mozart Players under Harry Blech were generally ignored
by the London press. If they were commented upon at all, it
was generally with an air of wonderment that what was, man for
man, the English Chamber Orchestra with different front desks,
should play so wonderfully when it was called the English Chamber
Orchestra – then at its glorious zenith – and so lackadaisically
when it was called the London Mozart Players.
In those days I was at school in Ashford, Kent. London was considered
too far afield for school groups so the nearest source of professional
orchestral concerts was the Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone. Regardless
of what the London press thought, Harry Blech and his Merry
Men were welcome and favourite visitors there. Supercilious
schoolboy though I was, I gradually came to see that the Harry
Blech show had something often missing from the appearances
in the same hall of the RPO and the LPO with second-stream conductors
they never played under in the Royal Festival Hall – character.
The actor Robert Morley used to regret that his personal aspect
allowed him to play only comedy roles. Harry Blech, founder
of the LMP in 1949 and its conductor for 35 years, did look
a bit like Robert Morley. My first sight of him waddling onto
the platform in all his magnificent girth was not easily forgotten.
His conducting style, too, played into his detractors’ hands.
The first thing I saw him conduct was a Haydn symphony – don’t
ask me which but it was one without a slow introduction. He
pitched in dramatically, cheek-flab all a-wobble, his enormous
behind protruding dangerously as he bent to his task. Then suddenly,
after a few bars he lowered his right arm, stopped conducting
and calmly raised his left arm towards the first violins with
an air of regal condescension such as an aristocratic Milord
might use when graciously allowing his footman to hold his horse.
The actual playing seemed to be the same either way. I have
seen many conductors, too, pass the baton to their left hand
in order to shape slow music more expressively with their untrammelled
right hand. But at the end of a Schubert Italian Overture I
saw Harry Blech conduct three sharp concluding chords, one with
the baton in his right hand, the next with his bare right hand
and the baton in his left, then seize the baton again with his
right hand for the final chord. Or maybe he did it the other
way round. Whatever, it went down a deal with the Folkestone
ladies. I don’t know to what extent the London critics were
conditioned by the visuals, but it was hard not to get the idea
that someone who conducted like that could no more give great
performances of great symphonies than Robert Morley could play
Hamlet or King Lear.
The LMP and Blech made at least one recording in the 1970s for
the fledgling Unicorn label. It was politely received but did
not develop into a series. I was only dimly aware that the band
had actually recorded quite extensively during its first decade.
By the time I saw him, Blech had evidently passed his sell-by
date – yet he had another decade of yeoman’s service ahead of
him. The present disc provides strong evidence that the LMP/Blech
story was originally something far more serious.
When Blech founded the LMP in 1949 he was a man with a mission.
A mission to explore the Haydn/Mozart repertoire in its entirety
– in those days only the Haydn “London” symphonies, the last
six of Mozart and a handful of the latter’s piano concertos
could be considered standard fare. And above all, to provide
them in brisk, unsentimental readings with the clear, clean
textures of orchestral forces approximating in scale to those
usually heard by the composers. By the time he retired 35 years
later he had conducted all the Haydn and Mozart symphonies and
most of their other orchestral works as well. The operation
extended to the earlier symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert
and occasionally took in later works suited to smaller ensembles.
By the time he retired, too, the Original Instruments movement
was in full swing. The Blech recipe was seemingly tired and
outdated. Maybe the time has now come to remember how exciting
it sounded to ears of the 1950s.
By skilful management, and skilful choice of successors, the
LMP, too, is one of the few such bands that has survived the
Historically Informed Performance invasion. Its current publicity
proclaims it as the oldest chamber orchestra of its kind in
Europe, though at the time it was not quite unique and there
were, too, the pre-war experiments of Anthony Bernard’s London
Chamber Orchestra and the Dolmetsch brothers. 1949, too, saw
the formation of the Naples Scarlatti Orchestra, with similar
aims to the LMP. I mention this group because Blech guest-conducted
it from time to time. I have a tape of him conducting them in
Haydn’s symphonies 6-8 (“Le Matin”, “Le Midi” and “Le Soir”)
in 1959, then in 1961, Haydn’s 43rd, some Mozart
dances and, of all things, Roussel’s Piano Concerto with Carlo
Bruno. He certainly got neat and lively playing from them. The
Naples group later had the parallel problem of a conductor,
Franco Caracciolo, who had passed his sell-by date. When the
RAI pulled the rug from his feet by disbanding the orchestra
in 1987 some critics, unaware that this was the harbinger of
an anti-artistic trend that has continued in Italy ever since,
felt that a logical decision had been made to discontinue an
orchestra that had outlived its usefulness. As I have just noted,
the LMP escaped such a fate and are still with us.
So back to Harry Blech and the 1950s. He sounds out the introduction
to Schubert 4 like a man who means business. The following Allegro
has tremendous drive and passion, sometimes running a little
ahead of itself but always superbly alive, even to the point
of a touch of irascibility. The more lyrical second subject
has a surging warmth without any slackening. There is no exposition
The “Andante”, on the other hand, is given a Brucknerian breadth.
Blech’s 11:29 contrasts notably with the 7:34 of Boult’s 1959
recording. By virtue of long-breathed, arching phrasing Blech
reveals a real depth of feeling in this movement. Theoretically
Boult’s is a more “correct” interpretation of Schubert’s Andante
marking. But, much as I admire Boult, heard immediately after
Blech it has to be said that Sir Adrian’s forward-moving elegance
registers almost as a deliberate refusal to recognize the full
expressive potential of the music.
Blech’s Menuetto is not especially fast but the accents are
punchily delivered while the Finale again finds him in superbly
driving form. Frankly, I think this is the best Schubert 4 I’ve
The Fifth seems to me a little less special. It nevertheless
has more point and purpose than the version under Georg Ludwig
Jochum which I recently heard on this same label. The Andante
con moto is more extended than GL Jochum’s – 10.12 compared
with the latter’s 8:54 – but actually seems shorter thanks to
longer phrasing. On the other hand, a comparison with the recording
under Van Otterloo, which also came my way recently, is less
evidently in Blech’s favour. Still, it’s a good performance,
worth having alongside the magnificent Fourth.
From the above descriptions, the reader will maybe perceive
another aspect of the Blech “problem”. Scaled-down orchestra
or not, the brisk allegros and long-drawn slow movements seem,
to our ears, to hark back to the age of personalized, romanticized
interpretations. Not necessarily for the better, Boult’s Fourth
is actually closer to how a modern HIP-influenced conductor
might play the work. So don’t go here for embryonic modern interpretations.
Just go for a superbly alive Fourth and a reminder that there
was more to the Blech story than listeners of my generation