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The Westminster Legacy

When the Westminster Recording Company was founded in New York in 1949, the timing could hardly have been more propitious. After the traumas of World War II and its aftermath, both Europe and America were ready for new beginnings and musical life was getting back to normal. Home listening - tied for half a century to clunky 78rpm shellac discs holding not more than five minutes of music per side - was undergoing huge changes. In 1948 American Columbia had launched the 33rpm long-playing record, which held the equivalent of four or five 78rpm discs. But the way was wide open for competitors, as EMI was still faithful to the "78" and RCA Victor was busily darting down the cul-de-sac of seven-inch 45rpm discs. And as the industry was virtually starting again from scratch, the entire panoply of repertoire was available for exploitation. It cost a lot of money to record in America but, as EMI had already discovered, Vienna was full of singers, instrumentalists and orchestral musicians of high quality who desperately needed cash; and Austria seemed to be a less controversial workplace than disgraced Germany.

James "Jimmy" Grayson, the New York-based Englishman who spearheaded Westminster's operations in the field, started recording in Vienna in autumn 1949. His fulcrum of activity was the Konzerthaus, opened in 1913 as the last great cultural achievement of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some recordings were made in the main hall, decorated in Secessionist style; and in the early days the resident Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Henry Swoboda, was used because it had its own Symphonia studio. But even more sessions were held in the middle-sized Mozartsaal, where the Busch Quartet had held sway from 1913 to 1935. The resident ensemble at this hall since 1937 had been the Konzerthaus Quartet, one of two world-class string quartets in the Vienna Philharmonic. Founded in 1934 by members of the Symphony Orchestra but soon taken into the Philharmonic, this group was at its peak in the post-war decade, with its original personnel, so Westminster gratefully made use of its skills. Another coup was to capture the Vienna Philharmonic Wind Group, including two already legendary players, clarinettist Leopold Wlach and hornist Gottfried von Freiberg, who had premièred Richard Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto.

By April 1950 five discs were ready for release. The honour of carrying the first number, WL 5001, went to a coupling of Kodály’s Te Deum and Theatre Overture – from the start Westminster stressed repertoire and composers rather than performers. Of the first 25 discs issued, 14 featured orchestral music and one of those, with Philharmonic wind soloists, employed the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. This ensemble was homeless, as the bombed opera house would not reopen until 1955 – the company was camping out at the Theater an der Wien – although the Volksoper, for which the VSOO also supplied players, was doing fine. The band that made so many Westminster recordings was drawn from this pool of musicians, but without the star soloists who occupied the first chairs when the opera orchestra appeared in its concert guise as the Philharmonic.