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 Recording of the Week  Westminster boxes

Few labels from the dawn of the LP era are recalled with greater admiration and affection than Westminster Records. The label was founded by three men in New York in 1949: businessman and music lover James Grayson; owner of New York’s Westminster Record Shop Mischa Naida; and conductor Henry Swoboda.

Over the next sixteen years the label released hundreds of recordings, creating a real treasure trove of classical music. It created firm connections in Vienna and London, working with many of the most well-known musicians, chamber groups and conductors of the time, and using its famous single-microphone “Natural Balance” technique established a distinctive sound, a good balance, and a consistency in quality which became world-renowned.

The advent of stereo in 1956 gave the label a whole new impetus, as they began to amass a new and even more dynamic catalogue, including recordings with conductors like Monteux, Knappertsbusch and Scherchen, pianists like Daniel Barenboim, and singers like Beverly Sills. Westminster changed hands a few times before finally ceasing production in 1965.

Although a few of the recordings have been re-issued in recent years, the vast majority have remained hidden in the archives. It was therefore with considerable interest that I became aware of the existence of two substantial box sets recently released by Universal Music (who own the rights to the Westminster catalogue) in Korea – Volume 1 consisting of 59 CDs of Chamber Music Recordings; and Volume 2 containing 65 CDs of Orchestral Recordings.

Both sets contain a mixture of mono and stereo recordings but even the mono has a warmth to the sound, and there is also a real sense of nostalgia (particularly in the chamber music set) which is strangely alluring.

The Chamber Music set features many recordings of the two famous Viennese Quartets of the 1950s – the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet and Barylli Quartet. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert unsurprisingly feature prominently, and the tender, rich and sonorous sound is quite wonderful, if very different to what you’ll generally hear today. This set also contains some noteworthy pianists as well, with Paul Badura Skoda, Daniel Barenboim (aged 16), Jörg Demus and Clara Haskil all contributing noteworthy performances.

The Orchestral set is dominated by the conductors Hermann Scherchen and Artur Rodzinski, but also features Knappertsbusch, Monteux and some noteworthy concerto soloists. The repertoire ranges from Bach to Shostakovich, and while some of the recordings do sound a little under-rehearsed, others are simply outstanding.

At the same time as importing these two substantial boxes from Korea we also took the opportunity to bring in some of the other special edition sets. Many of them contain recordings newly re-mastered and released on CD for the first time, and although not amazingly cheap, for the number of discs included they are in most cases still excellent value.

You can browse them all here. Other than the Westminster boxes, the ones that I’ve particularly enjoyed are the complete EMI and Deutsche Grammophon recordings of violinist Joanna Martzy, and the wonderful Mozart and Schubert playing of pianist Ingrid Haebler.