Introducing the People Behind the Labels
The scope of labels primephonic offers is astounding. This means that the diversity of music available on primephonic ranges from the staples of the symphonic repertoire to authentic period instruments to brand new compositions by the cutting-edge composers of today. In these label portraits, Beth Adelman introduces you to the people behind some of the labels.
As the focus of the early music movement moved from scholarship to musicianship in the 1970s and 1980s, it was harmonia mundi that introduced the world to the some of the first stars of the genre, including Anonymous 4, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, Andreas Scholl, and Andrew Manze.
The French label was founded in 1958 by Bernard Coutaz, who simply wanted to record music that he thought was beautiful. His quest for exciting new sounds led him to the emerging proponents of historically informed performance. “There was a special focus on a quest for excellence, linked to the notion of authenticity: more period instruments, returning to the original manuscripts, and above all, the idea of exploring the repertoire with a new perspective, always questioning the score, never accepting it without asking questions,” explained harmonia mundi’s current head of classics, Christian Giardin.
Coutaz passed away in 2010, leaving his widow, Eva Coutaz, in charge of the company. In 2015 she sold harmonia mundi, still with a solid line-up of early music artists, to the eclectic European independent label PIAS. At the time, PIAS co-founder Kenny Gates called harmonia mundi “a hidden gem.”
“The spirit of continuity,” is what Giardin said he’s after as harmonia mundi continues to grow. “The mastering of historically informed performance is now at the highest level possible, with such artists asIsabelle Faust,Alexander Melnikov,Jean-Guihen Queyras,René Jacobs, Andreas Staier andKristian Bezuidenhout. But new artists have been joining the label in recent years.”
The continuity shows in their commitment to uncovering something new and fresh in the music they record. For example, the conductor Brad Lubman is a brilliant advocate for new music, Graham Ross a leader in choral music, and the stunning sopranoSophie Karthäuserstars in opera and song. “They embody that new generation: new perspectives, new repertoire, and a new sound,” Giardin enthused.
“There is no method available today to reproduce the exact perception of attending a live performance, with all its commercial limitations. On the contrary, we should create the sonic experience that emotionally moves the listener to a better place,” said Morten Lindberg, founder and CEO of 2L. “That leaves us with the art of illusion when it comes to recording music.”
This pursuit of the perfect illusion makes 2L recordings sound almost as if they are playing inside your head. “Recorded music is no longer a matter of a fixed one- or two-dimensional setting, but rather a three-dimensional enveloping situation; a sculpture that you can literally move around and relate to spatially,” Lindberg explained. “As recording engineers and producers, we need to do exactly the same as any good musician: interpret the music and the composer’s intentions and adapt to the medium where we perform.”
The Oslo-based label started out as a production company in the early 1990s. But as the major labels scaled back their classical music recordings, Lindberg said, “we wanted to move forward. Our obvious solution was to start our own label.” 2L currently has 10 to 15 releases per year, all on Pure Audio Blu-ray and HiRes files. Most feature Nordic artists and contemporary composers.
2L recordings have garnered 28 Grammy nominations since 2006—mostly in the engineering and sound categories. Lindberg has a hard time explaining the science behind how they make such beautiful illusions, saying “It's a mixture between intellect and the heart.”
He continued, “2L records in roomy acoustic venues—large concert halls, churches and cathedrals. This is actually where we can make the most intimate recordings. [There is a] spaciousness due to the absence of close reflecting walls. Making an ambient and beautiful recording is the way of least resistance. Searching the fine edge between direct contact and spaciousness—that’s the real challenge!”
Collin J. Rae
Like so many audiophile companies, Sono Luminus began as an engineering studio and eventually branched out to record under its own label. It started in 1995 when the founders of Cisco Systems, Sandy Lerner and Len Bosack, decided that their knowledge of digital signal processing could be applied to recorded music, to gorgeous effect.
They married a studio made for natural acoustics (a 100-year-old former Episcopal church with a 25 foot vaulted wood ceiling and the original heart pine flooring) with the best possible technology and the minimal possible miking, to end up with a remarkably natural sound.
Ten years later, they bought up the entire catalogue of Dorian, one of the first audiophile labels and an early music pioneer, and launched Sono Luminus as an independent label.
Today, the focus is still on using the highest technology to create the most natural ambient sound. Sono Luminus was the first American record label to release Pure Audio Blu-ray discs. All recordings today are made in 192kHz/24-bit stereo versions as well as 7.1-channel, 96kHz/24-bit, and 5.1-channel, 192kHz/24-bit surround sound, and Auro-3D 9.1-channel recordings. As label CEO Collin Rae said, “Once you have recorded something, you can always go down [in quality] but you can’t go up.”
These days Sono Luminus records an eclectic mix of early and contemporary music, two genres that Rae said are “relatable as an aesthetic; there’s something similar about the sonic quality and the atmosphere.” So, for example, Jory Vinikour playing Bach Partitas on the harpsichord is coming out around the same time as Nordic Affect and a program of new music from theIcelandic Symphony Orchestra.
“We want to support artists who are actively engaged with their audience,” said Rae. “I’m trying to take a holistic view and up the ante on what music is relevant.”
LSO Live was born in 2000, when the musicians of theLondon Symphony Orchestradecided they needed to control their own recording legacy. “LSO Live was set up to be profitable, but we also had other reasons,” said Becky Lees, head of LSO Live. These included replacing income lost from the decline of traditional recording deals, maintaining a high level of exposure for the orchestra, and reaching a wider audience through digital distribution—something LSO has been pioneering. “We were adamant that only the artist truly has their long-term business interests at heart.”
While other orchestras have since launched their own labels, LSO Live was the first. It grew out of the structure of LSO itself, “a collective built on artistic ownership and partnership,” said Lees. “The LSO is still owned and governed by its members, and the chairman is an elected member of the orchestra.” The musicians decide what to record, they control all rights, and share the profits.
LSO Live recordings really are live; they edit together several live performances—combining the best features of live and studio recordings. “We wanted to capture the energy and emotion of our concerts, and for that we need a high-quality sound,” said Lees. “We are a world-class orchestra. We don't compromise on the quality of our performances and we don't feel we should compromise on the quality of our recordings.”
The label was founded whenSir Colin Daviswas at the helm, and a lot of his core repertoire was featured—Berlioz, Haydn, Sibelius. WithSimon Rattlenow ready to pick up the baton, “There will be a greater diversity to the orchestral programme, and that will broaden the offer on LSO Live,” Lees said. “Simon believes passionately in living composers and each season will begin with a new commission. It's our intention to record these for the label. We have also addedGianandrea NosedaandFrançois-Xavier Rothto the roster. We look forward to some exciting recording projects with both conductors.”