The Academy’s Choral Era

The Chorus of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was formed in 1974 with Laszlo Heltay as director in a partnership with Sir Neville Marriner lasting over 25 years. Performing all the major choral works in a variety of styles touring across Europe and USA, the chorus made 28 recordings with legendary soloists including Kiri Te Kanawa, Janet Baker, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, culminating in sharing a Golden Disc with the orchestra for the sound track of Amadeus.  

Laszlo Istvan Heltay

5 January 1930 – 17 December 2019,

Director of the Chorus of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields from 1974 – 1999.


When Laszlo Heltay arrived in UK in 1956, a 26 year old refugee from the Hungarian Revolution, all he possessed were his grandfather’s overcoat, a letter of recommendation from composer Zoltan Kodaly and a box of batons.  Speaking no English, this graduate of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and pupil of Kodaly, began life in the UK by cleaning offices in Oxford Street – in contrast to his role at Budapest Radio.  However, his linguistic and intellectual abilities soon got him to Merton College Oxford to pursue his music studies. There he founded the Kodaly Choir in 1957 and in 1960 the Collegium Musicum Oxoniense (later renamed the Schola Cantorum of Oxford).

Heltay was a charismatic and driven director, and his influence on the performance of choral music all over the world is difficult to over-estimate.  The clarity and agility which he demanded of his many choirs reached its apogee with the Chorus of St Martin in the Fields which he founded in 1974 when Sir Neville Marriner sought a group whose singing style would match the style of the orchestra, now well established.  Purity of style, devoid of explosive consonants with a clear tone and fresh spirit, was only just beginning in the choral world.  Laszlo was the pathfinder in this movement, setting the new standard from the start at Oxford and inspired generations of conductors, choral leaders and singers who revered his musicianship, charisma and relentless perfectionism.

Laszlo’s choral and Marriner’s instrumental styles matched perfectly, and their 25 year partnership took them through concerts, tours and 28 recordings of the major choral repertoire with legendary singers of the day. These included the soundtrack to the film Amadeus (1984), the 250th anniversary performances of Handel’s Messiah in Dublin in 1992 and closing concerts of the Hong Kong handover in 1997. Other recordings included Paco Pena’s Missa Flamenca and the Champions League football theme, still used today!

Advertising the very first tour in January 1975

After Oxford, Laszlo spent two years in New Zealand conducting the NZ Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra and Opera and gave Kiri Te Kanawa her first professional engagement! He returned to the UK in 1967 to join Phoenix Opera and was asked to found the Brighton Festival Chorus in 1968 for a performance of Belshazzar’s Feast to be conducted by the composer.  He remained their director for a further 27 years training them for a galaxy of concerts and recordings with Menuhin, Bernstein and Previn as well as his fellow Hungarians Antal Dorati and Istvan Kertesz.  He formed yet another choir, the Collegium Musicum of London and was also director of music at the University of Sussex. In 1995 the University conferred on him an Hon D Music.  He also held prestigious positions with the Hamburg & Stuttgart Radio Choirs and from 1997 the Spanish TV & Radio Choir in Madrid.  His recordings with all these groups are legion.


Always keen to encourage young musicians, especially conductors and singers, Laszlo was a staunch supporter of the Europa Cantat movement and regularly toured European countries and further afield as Chorus Master, Guest Conductor, Masterclass leader or Jury member.  He had an impressive command of languages and added German, Spanish and Catalan to his English and native Hungarian. Outside music, his other passions were books, football, tennis, chess and especially his dogs who would respond to his commands in whichever language was uppermost in his mind. In Spain and Hungary he worked hard to set up rescue centres through his own charity for abandoned dogs.

His autobiography was published in 2018 entitled Dogs & Conductors (“From Bach to Bark” did not translate well into Hungarian).  He long ago acquired British citizenship but in his eighties he retired from the world of music and returned to live in Budapest with his beloved dog Charley.  He is buried in the same cemetery as Kodaly, Bela Bartok, Bardos and Georg Solti.

“…an orchestra and choir playing with the consummate perfection and ensemble which only comes from the mutual understanding gained from years of playing on the same team.”

Vanguardia, Spain 1999

Giles Dawson, compiler of this affectionate memoir of the founding conductor of ASMF Chorus, has copies available in return for a suggested donation of £5. All contributions are now forwarded to Help Musicians UK, in memory of Laszlo.  Please contact


BACH B Minor Mass
Marshall, Baker, Tear, Ramey
Philips 1977
BACH Magnificat & VIVALDI Gloria
Hendricks, Murray, Rigby, Heilmann, Hynninen
EMI     1990
BEETHOVEN Symphony no 9
Mattila, Von Otter, Araiza, Ramey
Philips 1990
CHARPENTIER Te Deum & Magnificat
Upshaw, Murray, Robinson, Aler, Moll
EMI     1991
FAURE Requiem
McNair, Allen Birch
Philips 1993
HANDEL Coronation Anthems & 3 from Judas Maccabeus
Rodgers, Denley, Rolfe-Johnson, Dean
Philips  1984
HANDEL Jephtha

Marshall, Kirkby, Hodgson, Esswood, Rolfe Johnson, Keyte

Argo   1979
HANDEL Messiah
Ameling, Reynolds, Langridge, Howell
Argo   1976
HANDEL Messiah
McNair, Von Otter, Chance, Hadley, Lloyd
Dublin 1992
HAYDN Die Schöpfung (Creation)
Mathis, Denley, Baldin, Fischer-Dieskau
Philips 1981
HAYDN Die Jahreszeiten (Seasons)
Fischer-Dieskau, Mathis, Jerusalem
Philips 1981
HAYDN Stabat Mater & Salve Regina
Auger, Rolfe Johnson, Hodgson, Howell, Birch
Decca 1980
Kenny, Dawson, Von Otter, Rigby, Rolfe Johnson, Allen, Birch
Philips  1992
MOZART Amadeus (excerpts from Requiem & C Minor Mass)   Decca 1984
MOZART C Minor Mass
Marshall, Palmer, Rolfe Johnson, Howell
Philips  1979
MOZART C Minor Mass
Te Kanawa, Von Otter, Rolfe Johnson, Lloyd
Philips  1994
MOZART Laudate Dominum (& 8 other arias)
EMI     1988
MOZART Requiem
Cotrubas, Watts, Tear, Shirley-Quirk
Argo   1977
MOZART Requiem
McNair, Watkinson, Araiza, Lloyd
Philips  1990
PACO PENA Misa Flamenca (arr S Dodgson) Nimbus 1991
*RESPIGHI Lauda per la Nativita del Signore
Gomez, Dickinson, Tear
Argo   1979
*ROSSINI Petite Messe Solennelle
Marshall, Hodgson, Tear, King, Holford, Constable, Birch
Argo   1977
ROSSINI Petite Messe Solennelle & Messa di Milano
Focile, Mentzer, Gimenez, Bostridge, Alaimo, Birch
Philips  1994
SULLIVAN Yeomen of the Guard
Streit, Allen, Terfel, McNair, Rigby
Philips  1993
WALTON Music for Shakespeare’s Henry V
Chandos 1990
VALMONT dir. Milos Forman, music by Philidor arr Palmer 1989

*as London Chamber Choir conducted by Laszlo Heltay rather than Sir Neville Marriner