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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1956-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 [26:09]
Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 ‘Haffner’ [20:14]
Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 ‘Jupiter’ [29:15]
Michal Roll (piano)
London Mozart Players/Harry Blech
rec. 1973/74, St Giles, Cripplegate

The three performances on this disc are typical of the artistry of Harry Blech, who for some five decades was one of Britain’s best-loved musicians. His varied career as violinist, quartet leader and then conductor brought him immense success. He has a permanent memorial in the orchestra he founded, the London Mozart Players. These recordings were made in the early 1970s. The symphonies were released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the London Mozart Players in 1974. The piano concerto features the superb Michael Roll, a pupil of Fanny Waterman, and the first winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1963. This was his first concerto recording. Despite having a thriving career in the concert hall, Roll has made precious few recordings. Although his recordings are few and far between, he did record a highly recommendable cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concertos and the Beethoven Triple Concerto for Tring in 1995 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Howard Shelley.

The striking thing about the opening bars of the concerto is the beautiful sound quality: warm, detailed and realistic with a lovely string sound and the woodwinds given a terrific presence. This is good old-fashioned Mozart playing, and the soloist is immaculate in all the runs and trills. His playing is wonderfully controlled, and Blech supports him all the way. The Adagio showcases Roll’s ability to make the instrument sing. The final Allegro assai is a joyous romp for orchestra and soloist alike. You can hear every note in the piano part without the instrument being unrealistically balanced in the recording. This is a really intimate chamber music performance, in which soloist and orchestra are equal partners.

The symphonies were first issued on LP by the Abbey record label. The sound is bigger, bolder and more resonant than the concerto coupling but the textures can sometimes be slightly cramped at climaxes. The orchestra actually sounds larger than a chamber orchestra but that is probably partly due to Blech’s approach to the music. In his excellent liner notes, Tully Potter calls the Haffner a lively reading. I have to agree with him there. The Allegro con spirito is certainly full of spirit and it is also conceived on a grand scale in the style of a full sized symphony orchestra. The flowing Andante is taken at a brisk tempo and the Menuetto is strangely heavy with thick orchestral textures but this is what Mozart used to be played like in the 1960s and 1970s. Styles change over the years. The final Presto is also delivered very boldly and maybe there is not enough dynamic contrast. Blech doe not seem to encourage pianissimo playing from his orchestra but his view of the symphony is still enjoyable enough.

The Jupiter symphony has similar qualities. Blech takes a straightforward no-nonsense approach to the work. He lets the music speak for itself without too much interference from the podium. It reminds me of the Collins version with the Sinfonia of London on WRC. The Menuetto can often sound wooden and metronomic but not so here. There is an elasticity in the phrasing that gives the music a dance-like quality. The Andante cantabile is given the romantic treatment, with the singing cantabile quality that Mozart clearly marked in the score. The magnificent Molto allegro is big-boned and glorious, and there is no holding back from the performers as the music reaches its conclusion.

This is a very timely reminder of a truly committed conductor, immensely popular with his audiences. His view of the symphonies may be one of a bygone era but they are well worth investigating. It is also to be hoped that Michael Roll can be encouraged to add to his shamefully small recorded output. This marvellous version of the Mozart concerto will surely help the cause.

John Whitmore


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