It must have been an interesting day in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s press office when Blair Tindall’s memoir Mozart in the Jungle hit the bookshops in 2005. ‘He sat in the desk chair, pushed aside the first oboe part of Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers and tapped a pile of cocaine on the glass’ runs a typical anecdote. Even in 2005, it wasn’t really what anyone expected to hear from a former member of Orpheus — a youthful, conductor-less New York outfit who used to pose for album covers dressed in spotless white.
For a brief moment during the 1980s CD boom, Orpheus was going to save classical music — offering stylish, low-calorie interpretations for collectors who craved something healthier than Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic but weren’t ready to embrace the valveless veganism of period instruments. And here it all is: the 55 CDs that the Orchestra recorded on the crest of that digital wave, practically an entire core orchestral collection in a single colourful box.
It looks great. Deutsche Grammophon spent proper money on album artwork in those days, and it’s reproduced in full. More surprisingly, a lot of it still sounds fresh too. There are duds: gloopy baroque miniatures and cold, slick Bartok and Ravel. But their Ives is unsurpassed for atmosphere, there’s dew on their Elgar and their neon-lit, conductor-free Stravinsky feels near-ideal. The heart of the collection is an ebullient Mozart and Haydn series, large as life and positively bouncing with vibrato. No one plays 18th-century music like this now, which is a pity because it sounds a lot of fun. Reprehensible, sure — but fun.