I was hooked by the LSO at an early age, at first thanks to its prime-time television appearances, and later through trumpet lessons with one of its more flamboyant members.
My admiration grew when I joined the London Symphony Chorus in the mid-1980s, and has been strengthened since as an audience member, journalist and record listener.
From its earliest days, the LSO collectively knew how to thrill audiences and capture loyal fans. It could also alienate those who favoured tonal warmth and corporate blend over downright virtuosity. For Edwardian audiences, the Orchestra set standards previously unimagined in London and soon exported them to the regions and overseas.
Pioneering first recordings
Gramophone pioneer Fred Gaisberg, shrewd and forward-thinking as ever, lured as many members of the band as possible (together with Principal Conductor Arthur Nikisch) into HMV’s Hayes Studios on 25 June 1913 to record Beethoven’s 'Egmont' Overture, Weber’s 'Oberon' Overture, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody in F minor. The Beethoven and Liszt works were released by the year’s end; the Weber and part of the Liszt were replaced by fresh takes at sessions the following June, and augmented with the overtures to Der Freischütz and The Marriage of Figaro. These low-tech acoustic recordings may sound restricted, but are anything but wanting in spirit or style.
'A national disgrace'
One waspish critic described the LSO of the late 1920s as ‘a national disgrace’, an attack that appears harsh for a band capable of playing as they do on their 1928 recording of Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla under Principal Conductor Albert Coates. It was wide of the mark, too, for the orchestra that recorded Brahms’s First and Fourth Symphonies under an inspired Hermann Abendroth, discs that became mainstays of the HMV catalogue for many years.
Highs and lows
On its way up again in the 1930s, the LSO made great and invaluable recordings with Elgar, Harty, Weingartner, Barbirolli, Kajanus and Walter, with Walton premieres and recent Sibelius included in the repertoire mix. The immediate post-war years were tough for the Orchestra. The great freeze of the British winter of 1947, one of the century’s coldest, coincided with yet another low point in LSO history, compounded when George Stratton, the Orchestra’s seasoned leader, wrote to the board calling for the entire second violin section to be ‘reconstructed’. Recording sessions for Decca planned for the year’s turn were axed because of failures in London’s overburdened power supply.
More internal strife
In October, however, the struggling band arrived at Kingsway Hall to make its first record with Josef Krips. The LSO and Krips made a good match, as their early recordings for Decca clearly demonstrate. As Conductor-in-Chief from 1950 to 1954, Krips helped improve the orchestra’s standards considerably.
Soon after the temperamental Krips resigned, the LSO convulsed towards another crisis, this time an internal dispute led by Principal players calling for the Orchestra to abandon risky ‘own promotion’ concerts and concentrate exclusively on lucrative recording and film sessions. The Board called the Principals’ bluff, prompting a rush of resignations and the appointment of a new breed of players not long out of music college. Hugh Maguire led, with Neville Marriner, Simon Streatfeild, Kenneth Heath and Stuart Knussen heading the other string sections. Gervase de Peyer, Roger Lord, Barry Tuckwell, William Waterhouse and Denis Wick were among the recruits to the Orchestra’s wind and brass departments in the late 1950s.
Photo: Josef Krips recording with the LSO at Walthamstow Town Hall, 1950s
'Young Turks' on the up
By the time Pierre Monteux made his first LSO recording in Kingsway Hall in June 1957 (a generous selection of pieces drawn from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty), the fresh, unbridled energy and unashamed virtuosity of the Orchestra’s ‘Young Turks’ had spread throughout the band.
Shared pride and individual ambition contributed to the LSO’s rise in the early 1960s; the same qualities often turned its rehearsals and recording sessions into war zones ringing with the clash of mighty egos. Those who recoil from harsh-edged string tone and incisive wind playing will struggle with the best of the LSO’s recorded output under István Kertész and André Previn. And yet that was part of the excitement of the Orchestra’s music-making: dangerous, never dull, and marked by an audacious virtuosity that sets converts’ hearts racing.
Some have described, not without justification, the LSO of the 1960s and 1970s as a haven for musical gangsters or solo showboaters. The story’s other side is gloriously preserved in the Orchestra’s May 1963 recording of Debussy’s Images under Monteux, a model of refined elegance that loses nothing by comparison with contemporary releases from Berlin, Vienna or New York.
A commitment to excellency
The last quarter-century of LSO history deserves a book-length study, not least to chart the changes made to the Orchestra’s management, improvements in playing conditions and preparation, its commitment to excellence, and fleet-footed responses to threats and opportunities. There is also material enough for a thriller, in which one Clive Gillinson steps out of the Orchestra’s ranks to become an inspirational Managing Director, leading it from the edge of bankruptcy and converting short-term gains into long-term advantages.
Taking control of its destiny - LSO Live
The launch of LSO Live in 2000 drew dismissive, even hostile comments from record company executives unhappy that one of the world’s finest orchestras should take control of its discographic destiny.
LSO Live is dedicated to making exciting recordings that have the power to reach and inspire new audiences. Since its launch in 2000, it has become one of the world’s most talked-about classical labels and the leader among the new breed of orchestra-own-labels.
Its recordings have received praise from around the world, collecting Grammy, Gramophone and Classical Brit Awards among many others.
LSO Live recordings capture the energy and excitement that you experience at a concert but with the refinement and production standards of the finest studio recordings. Players, conductors and soloists are stakeholders in each recording, receiving profits instead of royalties or fees. Ownership of the label and its recordings remains with LSO Ltd whose only shareholders in turn are the orchestra’s players.
To date LSO Live has released over 100 titles, which are available internationally on CD, Super Audio CD and Pure Audio DVD. It was one of the first classical labels to embrace downloading and to date is the only classical label whose entire catalogue is available on the leading digital music services. The opportunity to make recordings available digitally was one of the main factors that led to the creation of LSO Live as it gives new listeners the opportunity to discover classical music anywhere at any time.
LSO Live is now pioneering new co-production agreements with other record companies and broadcasters, capitalising on the strengths of LSO Live and helping create a more vibrant market for classical recordings. The label also assists other orchestras around the world in launching their own labels, including the label of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia, and the Choir of King's College Cambridge.
If LSO Live’s ambitious plans are any measure, it appears likely the ‘world’s most recorded orchestra’ title will rest with the London Symphony Orchestra well into its second century.
By Andrew Stewart. A version of this article first appeared in Gramophone Magazine, January 2004 and later in the LSO's Centenary Concert Programme in June 2004