Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no.4 in C minor D.417 – “Tragic” [28:47]
Symphony no.5 in B flat major D.485 [25:00]
London Mozart Players/Harry Blech
rec. 1953 (no.4), 23 February 1953 (no.5), venue not stated

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 repeat.

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 heard.

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 can remember.

Christopher Howell

I don’t think I’ve heard a finer Schubert 4. A welcome reminder that there was more to the Blech story than listeners of my generation can remember.