Alfred Deller, Leonhardt & the Harnoncourts: the first recording

The recently restored organ built by Johann Wöckherl in 1642 for the Franziskanerkirche in Vienna © Bwag / Commons

I was very pleased recently to come across a copy of the Vanguard LP – issued on the Amadeo label – made in May 1954 which, apparently, was this group’s first recording played on historical instruments, albeit with modern bows and strings.

It’s an all-Bach programme, with Cantatas numbers 170 and 54 and the Agnus Dei from the B Minor Mass, which according to Pierre-F. Roberge of  became something of a “cult” recording.

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In an interview, Gustav Leonhardt recalled:

Because of the strength of the dollar, the American companies had found out that they could come to Vienna and record for almost nothing. So they swarmed there in droves, and I met the people of the Bach Guild [Vanguard], for whom I made a lot of records.

This was not the first time that Deller and Leonhardt had worked together, as they had previously made a live broadcast, for Dutch radio in April 1952, which was happily recorded and is now online.

Although all the tracks from this record have been reissued on CD, there’s something rather special about having the original, with its simple stylized church window on the white sleeve and a more spatial analogue quality to the sound.

This predates the Leonhardt Consort days; and the group was called the Leonhardt-Barockensemble back then. The billing on the sleeve suggests that Eduard Melkus rather than Leonhardt’s wife, the violinist Marie, led the single string band, but maybe this was simply because his name was better known at the time. (I’ve always been puzzled as to why Melkus never went over to gut strings and, as a consequence, his fame as a Baroque specialist became eclipsed by others who did make the change.)

The other players were Alice Hoffelner (the future Mrs Harnoncourt), Kurt Theiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Alfred Planiawsky and the oboist Michel Piguet.

The texts of the cantatas are printed on the back of the sleeve, and there’s a blurb – in German – about the music, but nothing at all about the musicians. Curiously, Deller is described as a “Tenor (Altlage)” [alto range], as the term ‘countertenor’, revived for him by Michael Tippett, had at that stage not made it to Vienna. For more on Deller’s career, see my blog post.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt described his experience of Deller as follows:

We had never heard a male alto before, and now this! A magnificent sound, handled with refinement, effortless, light, ideal for our old instruments; exceptionally individual and used with great expressiveness. To accompany him was sheer pleasure.

The recording was made in the Franziskanerkirche, described on the sleeve as having “world-renowned acoustics”. It is no coincidence, however, that this church also contains the oldest organ in Vienna, built by Johann Wöckherl in 1642. This instrument is used to great effect by Leonhardt and I particularly liked his playing, and the chirpy registration, in Wie jammern mich doch die verkerhrten Herzen, below.

 Alfred Deller singing J. S. Bach –Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen

Leonhardt said of the recording: “Deller was superb, we were atrocious;” while Marie Leonhardt remembers:

Deller sang the Agnus Dei beautifully, and we accompanied him on three baroque violins that sounded as out of tune as a crow [translated from the Dutch kraaievals]. Whenever I hear this record, I just want to die of shame.

Despite its flaws, this record was an important milestone, and must have sounded strikingly different from anything else that was on offer almost 60 years ago.

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4 comments to Alfred Deller, Leonhardt & the Harnoncourts: the first recording

  • Gaetan Naulleau

    Very interesting post. But this is not strictly speaking “the” first recording of Leonhardt(s), Harnoncourt(s) and Deller: three LPs were recorded at the same time, in May 1954. Besides the Bach, there was the Purcell-Jenkins-Locke trilogy and the “Elizabethan and Jacobean Music” (with the superb “Pandolfo”).

    Alice was already Nikolaus’s wife in 1954. He explained to me (in an interview that I made for Radio France) that Seymour Solomon [co-founder of Vanguard Records and the Bach Guild] insisted on using her maiden name, as he feared that having two couples appearing in the musicians list would give the impression that the album was rather “amateurish” and not very serious at all!

    I don’t remember who told me that Melkus played the first violin. Maybe we should ask Alice.

    Playing the BWV 170/II on the old instrument of the Franziskanerkircher must have been quite a challenge, with its short octave.

    The complete quote of Leonhardt is: “Deller was superb (especially in the Agnus Dei), we were atrocious”. I think that the “especially” is important here: Deller’s German pronunciation is rather… personal! (This comes from a few lines he published in Diapason [the French classical music magazine] some 20 years ago.)

    Thank you very much for linking to the 1952 recording.

    • bnadmin

      Many thanks for this additional information, Gaetan, and for posting your comment on the blog, rather than on Facebook. My source for the “atrocious” quote was not Diapason, but another interview. This demonstrates again that Leonhardt regularly recycled what he’d previously said, using almost exactly the same words.

  • A very interesting article. It is possible to find out from Eduard Melkus himself if he played first violin on the recordings. It certainly sounds like his playing. He chose not to use gut strings for several reasons, one of them being that Baroque music was not the only repertoire he played.
    Sally Gordon-Mark

  • In response to why Eduard Melkus “never went over to gut strings,” Professor Melkus, 90 years old and still directing his chamber orchestra after 52 years, recently told me that he did start using gut strings, but didn’t continue because the strings were too fragile and broke nearly every day. He found other strings that gave him the same sound. Also his performing was not limited to Baroque music. It should be remembered that he was one of the great violinists of his time.

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