For longtime collectors it is a jolt to realise the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra celebrates its 50th birthday next year. Begun as a collective in New York in 1972, the brainchild of a young cellist named Julian Fifer, the group developed into an orchestral ensemble, augmenting its numbers with freelance players depending on the program, and toured America for ten years.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Orpheus at a recording session in the booth, 1984

In its recording heyday, the 1980s and 90s, the group signed a contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Each new release garnered praise on both sides of the Atlantic (a miracle in itself), and it became established as one of the great recording ensembles of the 20th century. But, unlike the Moscow Chamber Orchestra (with Rudolf Barshai), or The Academy of St Martin in the Fields (with Neville Marriner), Orpheus has no conductor. They devised a system where a core group of musicians would be elected for each piece, to make decisions on tempos, articulation and so on. While this painstaking process might have produced a certain rigidity, it actually had the opposite effect: there is palpable joie de vivre in their performances. Invariably, important solo lines are shaped with sharp attention to detail.

The musicians, drawn from the expert New York scene, included at this time respected names like clarinetist Charles Neidich, horn player William Purvis and harpist Nancy Allen. Needless to say, collaborative soloists were keen to take part in the process too, and DG provided a few of their stars: cellist Mischa Maisky in Schumann and Saint-Säens concertos, and violinist Gil Shaham in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The Orpheus recorded the latter work in a tit-for-tat deal with DG, in exchange for a disc of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphonies that became the standard version.

Orpheus & Mischa Maisky

Orpheus with cellist Mischa Maisky at 92Y. Photo © Richard Termine

In Mendelssohn’s early D Minor Violin Concerto they were joined by Gideon Kremer, and also by Martha Argerich in Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings. Two discs produced outside the main time frame brought the ensemble together with counter-tenor Andreas Scholl for a set of folksong arrangements, and (in 2018) young pianist Jan Lisiecki playing Mendelssohn’s two mature Piano Concertos. A wonderful series of the Mozart wind concertos features soloists from within the group: Neidich’s recording of the Clarinet Concerto is lovingly played, and he shines in the two Clarinet Concertos and the Concertino by Weber.

However, the Orpheus are at their most compelling in the chamber orchestral repertoire. There are few symphonies here, but the ones they choose are given with tight rhythmic precision and flow: a lovely Mozart selection (Nos 29, 33 and 40), 16 Haydn Symphonies, and a stunning program of Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1, Classical, Bizet’s Symphony in C, and Britten’s Simple Symphony for strings. From the string orchestra repertoire, we get first-class performances of the Serenades by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Josef Suk; Bartók’s Divertimento; Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and the best modern instrument recording of Handel’s Concerti Grossi Op. 6.

Orpheus Box

There is so much to treasure: elegant Mozart Serenades, fizzy Rossini overtures, a quirky group of short works by Charles Ives, great discs of Respighi, Stravinsky and Copland (Appalachian Spring in its original chamber scoring) – I don’t have space to mention them all. It is a beautiful program of superb miniatures: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, the Rêverie et Caprice by Berlioz, and short works by Turina, Dvořák and Puccini. Glorious!

This is the ‘collector’s box’ I have been wanting for years, and it is worth every cent.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: The Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
DG 4839948 (55CD)

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