Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)

London Mozart Players: The complete HMV stereo recordings

Symphony No. 36 in C major, Linz, K425 (1783) [23:45]
Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491 (1786) [34:08]
Twelve Minuets, K568 (1788) [23:16]
Louis Kentner (piano)
London Mozart Players/Harry Blech
rec. Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 22-23 December 1954 (Sym), 23-24 May 1959 (Concerto), 4 December 1956 (Minuets), ADD
First and foremost, this is enjoyable music-making, cleanly and clearly recorded. As First Hand Records specialize in bringing stereo recordings to CD for the first time I must point out that this applies to all the recordings here and in the case of the Symphony and Minuets this is their first release in stereo.
This is just about an ideal performance of Symphony 36. The instruments are modern but the lean approach, the clarity and contrast nevertheless obtained, are those of period instrument accounts twenty years later. What Harry Blech exploits in addition, is the silkier, sunnier quality of modern strings combined with attractively shaped phrasing. You notice this first in the second phrase of the introduction which is melting, sinuous, feminine. The first phrase, virile, authoritative but not over weighty, sets down a marker without impeding progress. Thereafter the sforzandi, those loud chords which suddenly soften, are gently nudged, not stabbed. The main body Allegro is sprightly and lithe, athletic rather than majestic. The rhythms dance and the violins’ tremolo shimmers.
I compared the 1956 recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer (EMI 9559322). His full size orchestra brings more majesty and weight to the opening movement, with great panache save for an over heavy start to the introduction. Klemperer has the advantage over Blech in the outer movements in observing the exposition repeats. Blech’s slow movement is sunny and warm, regal in a feminine way yet its emotive underpinning is still clear. The motif of rising semiquavers in the second part of the movement is pleasingly gentle. Here Klemperer, within a more fulsome sonority, is sleek and graceful. Without Blech’s warmth or imperious quality, he relies on clear dynamic contrast and rhythmic pointing which gives a rather furtive nature to the rising semiquavers.
Blech’s Minuet has a cheery bounce yet remains crisp and light. The Trio, soft throughout as marked by Mozart, has simplicity and grace. Klemperer’s Minuet is just a little too measured. Again contrast is neatly effected in Blech’s finale (tr. 4) with an opening sweet, soft phrase followed by a loud one of generous depth. The stimulating effect of the gradual increase of fast rhythms and fuller scoring is relished. It’s good to experience Mozart’s antiphonal writing through the benefit of stereo when the theme passes at 4:47 from first violins on the left to the seconds on the right. Klemperer’s finale exploits the scope offered by fuller forces to contrast shimmering lightness and rigour.
In Piano concerto 24 (tr. 5) Blech’s conducting shows the same attention to rhythm and clarity. With a 1959 full-sized orchestra the tutti sound is starker, more romantic, partly owing to the brighter recording. It also features an extraordinarily nasal oboe which takes some getting used to. From the first piano solo comes a contrast, Louis Kentner seeing his role as smoothing things out, emphasising contemplation and lyricism. I compared the classic 1967 account by Clifford Curzon with the London Symphony Orchestra/Istvan Kertesz (Decca 4684912). Curzon has more inwardness while Kentner accentuates display. I’m thinking especially of his treatment of the leap which ends the obsessive 6-note phrase that dominates the first movement. With Curzon you feel a sense of distance and effort involved in that leap. With Kentner it’s more a matter of athleticism. Nevertheless the development from Kentner (6:40) is more suitably cloudy and reflective. Kertesz’s direction for Curzon creates a feeling of implacable progression. He is more tense than Blech who has power but lacks Kertesz’s sense of frenzy on the cusp of eruption. As Mozart left no cadenza Kentner plays his own which is highly romantic and discursive; it lasts 3:04. Even so, it is in keeping with the overall interpretation.
The slow movement is limpidly played by Kentner with the minimum of ornamentation. It offers a contrasting and attractive sparseness to the gestures of the previous movement. The tempo is easygoing but works and the Philharmonia’s woodwind backing is lovely; this granted that you are by now used to the oboe. Curzon’s concern in this movement is with emphasising its flowing melody, to which he brings more warmth.
Clarity is again the key feature in Blech’s finale (tr. 7), for instance the first violins’ snake-like chromatic descent (0:31). Kentner is equally neat, clean, even more detached. You can admire the martial third variation (2:39) and the yielding fourth with its more dancing piano (3:40). There’s further relief in the sunny sixth variation (5:47) but towards the close the mood becomes frozen. Curzon is engaging because everything is more active. So his third variation is spirited, his fourth has more spring, his sixth is happier and Curzon’s close is one of active defiance rather than Kentner’s stoic submission.
The Twelve Minuets were written for Vienna’s Imperial Court’s Redoutensaal. This is light-hearted, ingenious, sometimes experimental Mozart full of vivacity and charm, all aspects which Blech gets across well. Minuet 1 contrasts the confidence of the strings’ four-semiquaver flourishes with the strut of trumpets and drums added at the end of the first phrase. Its Trio has blithe oboes and chuckling bassoons. My only criticism of the recording and performance is that there seems to have been a concern about making the timpani too prominent so the opposite is what tends to happen.
Minuet 3 is all high spirits with a more humorous stride and clarinets spotlit. Minuet 5 is elegant, with a petite, charming Trio. Minuet 6, for all its graceful dancing, surprises in the second section of its Trio which is a wild, chromatic tutti fandango. Minuet 7 has a comely and carefree flow and Minuet 8 adopts a pastoral manner. Minuet 9 is the most striking. Its opening serenity quickly turns to something more assertive where melodic repetition is spiced by harmonic variation. Its Trio sets off oboe and bassoon in urbane dialogue. Minuets 10 and 12 are of military character with trumpets and drums. Minuet 12 has the more contrast in its playful Trio with repeats featuring solo piccolo.
There’s not a cloud on the horizon in this set and Blech conveys it all both stylishly and with evident enjoyment. To sum up, Blech’s Linz symphony is excellent and ahead of its time while his Twelve Minuets offer plenty to enjoy, but Piano Concerto 24, with full sized orchestra, doesn’t make the same impact.
  Michael Greenhalgh
Blech’s Linz symphony is excellent and ahead of its time.