When I was growing up, my parents belonged to the Musical Heritage Society, a sort of book-of-the-month club for classical music recordings. There was a quaint-looking printed catalog, and I think it was once a month or so that we ordered a new cassette tape with new baroque and classical music treasures. I first experienced the music of many composers through what was inside those little clear-plastic boxes.
Orpheus Records, MHS’s label, has returned (from the underworld?) with its figurative lyre to digitally reissue, through classical music label Musical Concepts, some of its early catalog. These are albums that had never leapt out of those plastic boxes onto vinyl, CD, or digital release – until now.
The MHS/Orpheus Records catalog comprises over 2,000 recordings, some produced by the Society itself, others that it purchased, beginning in the mid-1960s. They include a Chopin album from Ruth Slencnzyska; Telemann from the Austrian Tonkunstler Orchestra; and Monteverdi from Denis Stevens, an important 20th-century promoter of early music. The release schedule for 2023 includes a complete set of Hummel’s chamber music and all the organ symphonies of Widor and Vierne.
Music for the First Elizabeth
The quaint original artwork and liner notes (included) recall a time when classical music had more purchase in the popular consciousness. So do the recordings themselves. Two in particular caught my attention.
Exhibit A: The Cries of London, & Music in Honor of Elizabeth I. Partly a cappella, this 1969 album from the Ambrosian Singers and Players (co-founded by Stevens in 1951) revels, just as the title promises, in the cries one would have heard from hawkers on the streets of old London. Musicalized by composers of the (first) Elizabethan era into multipart harmony and counterpoint, they make for fun, sweetly charming “songs.” How could anyone resist “Buy new broom, buy new broom!” or “A Pedlar’s Song: Will ye buy a fine dog?” The pièce de résistance is a 10-minute opus by Richard Dering simply called “The Cries of London.” Multiple singers call out their cries over, under and on top of one another.
The album then turns serious, presenting songs by the great William Byrd and others, with titles like “Eliza, her name gives honour” and “Fair Oriana, beauty’s queen.” Beautiful playing by a string quintet, which includes Neville Marriner on violin, complements the hearty singing.
Exhibit B: Shakespeare: The Sweet Power of Musicke. On this almost painfully charming 1979 album, the New York Consort of Viols, an ensemble that dates back to 1972, plays 16th- and early 17th-century popular songs and courtly dances. Interspersed among the viola da gamba and harpsichord pieces are readings from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets by actor Tom Klunis. These sonorous selections shed light on how often music served as illumination and metaphor for the Bard.
Soprano Sheila Schonbrun contributes appealing vocals on some tracks. But it’s the emotional resonance of the viols—predecessors of the modern violin family—that stands out in this pristine-sounding first digital release.
The stitching together of readings and music may seem a bit twee to cynical 21st-century ears. But the original compilers of the album were on to something. They understood the value of knowing the kinds of music, and indeed some of the very songs, that hung in the air when Shakespeare wrote passages like Lorenzo’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1:
“The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; / The motions of his spirit are dull as night / And his affections dark as Erebus: / Let no such man be trusted.”
The first Musical Heritage Society/Orpheus Records reissues are available now on major streaming services.