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 www.medieval.org 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.
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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