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Feb 20

The EMI Recordings|1987-1997| Part One

 

The EMI Recordings | 1987-97|Part One

In my previous blog posts devoted to the recording activities of the Oslo Philharmonic during my tenure, I concentrated, naturally enough, on the recordings we made for Chandos Records LTD, of Colchester, England. These consisted of the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky, the 9th Symphony of Anton Bruckner, and the 2nd Symphony of Gustav Mahler. All were conducted by our chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, except for the Bruckner, which was conducted by Yoav Talmi.
The orchestra had almost completed recording the Tchaikovsky cycle for Chandos, when the administration was approached by EMI Records, and after some extended negotiations, was offered a 14-record deal, with repertoire to be agreed on by the conductor, orchestra and EMI. EMI had at the time a much larger distribution worldwide than did Chandos, although the latter firm was becoming increasingly respected in the recording industry. It was not an easy decision for Mariss and the orchestra, not what you would call a “slam-dunk” by any stretch of the imagination. The choice before the orchestra was one that needed careful consideration. One the one hand, there was the EMI name and distribution, with all that could mean in terms of getting the orchestra’s name out on the musical/audiophile stage. The mid to late eighties were still a period when conductors like Mariss and orchestras like the Oslo Philharmonic  signed recording contracts and made recordings on a fairly regular basis. However,  the signals of a slow-down in recording projects due to the remastering of older recordings into CDs were on the horizon, though none of us could see how far-reaching that would be in 1986-87. The world-wide distribution that EMI commanded at the time was a selling point, plus their generally good reputation for making recordings. One the other hand, Chandos was gaining great respect in the music industry for their enterprising repertory and the quality of their recording. The Couzens father and son and Jimmy Burnett had done us proud, and from an artistic point of view, we had nothing but good things to say about Chandos. In fact, Chandos’ counteroffer to the EMI offer was very attractive: An unlimited number of recordings of whatever we wanted to record. From an artistic point of view, this was a dream come true. However, the economic incentives and the fact of the discrepancy in distribution were the factors driving this project, and it was ultimately these factors that proved decisive in Mariss and the orchestra deciding to go with EMI. Let me clarify one important detail here: The real driving force here was Mariss Jansons. He it was that the companies were after, and he became an EMI exclusive artist for a ten year period, recording not only with us, but with the Leningrad Philharmonic (now St. Petersburg Philharmonic); Royal Concertgebouw; Berlin Philharmonic; Vienna Philharmonic; Philadelphia Orchestra; and London Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras. It was the same way with Chandos. Mariss recorded the Prokofiev 5th Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra for that firm.

 

The Decision: Then and Now

It was a tough call for Mariss and the administration to make. Chandos was giving us carte blanche to record what we liked. EMI was giving us distribution and Mariss (and to a lesser degree) the orchestra more of a world-wide profile. However, with EMI, we would have less of a choice in repertoire, as EMI’s A and R people would rule on what would sell and not sell. It was the price on paid for the distribution and profile.
Mariss proved himself very practical in this case and made the right decision in going with EMI, the administration backing him totally. A larger musical profile is what his career needed at the time, and the more records that would potentially be sold, the better. Incidentally, he took the orchestra along with him, which was so much the better for us. Still, it would have been nice to record Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie, instead of leaving the field to other orchestras.
Looking back over the years, and after pondering what eventually transpired, I have to conclude again that the right decision was made, and just in time, for as the eighties turned into the nineties, the record/CD market began to flood with the remasterings of old Karajan/Furtwaengler/Boult/Beecham recordings, and the market for new recordings began to shrink. We were able to make our 14 recordings over a ten year period, but only just. Mariss did get his enlarged musical profile and his career was off and running from that point on. And the orchestra did get a respected musical status which it continues to maintain to this day, long after Mariss and I left the organization. From that standpoint, the decision paid off, and just in time. If it happened two years later, the results might have been more adversely affected by what happened in the classical recording industry than they were. I always felt that in addition to being extremely skilled, Mariss was the orchestra’s lucky charm.

 

First EMI Recordings I

Our first recordings for EMI set the pattern for much of what followed. Most recording companies record on an agreed schedule, provided artists, orchestras and venues are available or at the disposal of the recording company. We were fortunate in that the Norwegian Broadcasting Company (NRK) was extremely generous in ceding a lot of the time that the orchestra was committed to recording Norwegian music for them back to the orchestra so that we could make recordings of the standard repertoire for both Chandos and EMI. Without their permission, none of what eventually

Tchaikovsky 1812

Tchaikovsky 1812

became a long list of Jansons/OPO recordings would ever have happened. They were also generous in providing the use of their recording equipment and engineers, and for this, the orchestra owes a debt of gratitude to the NRK for their cooperation. The changeover from Chandos to EMI was evident right from the get go. EMI was quite anxious to get started with us, and proposed a series of three recordings for 1987, beginning with an album of Tchaikovsky war horses – 1812 Overture – Romeo and Juliet – Francesca da Rimini in March of 1987, followed by Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in late May, and the two symphonies of Johan Svendsen in August. For us, this was an extremely ambitious schedule, as we were used to making recordings every six months, and now we were to make three in the space of five months. On top of that, we were finishing our commitment to Chandos with a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 which was used as a filler for the as yet unreleased recording of the Second Symphony. This was scheduled around our recording of the Shostakovich, which actually followed a recording of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Incidental Music under Esa Pekka Salonen for CBS/Sony. Recordingwise, we were really set to crank it out that year.

 

Tchaikovsky

Having  just completed (or nearly so) a cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies for Chandos, we were not exactly panting to record more of his music.However,  EMI figured that having the 1812 and accompanying warhorses would be a good opener, and it was agreed that the orchestra and Mariss would get them “in the can”, so to speak. We were under a bit more pressure this time, as we were recording these works without the benefit of working them through in concert performances, and we had only a five day window to rehearse, record, make edits and finish.
What we wound up doing was playing the work through once, then doing two more run-throughs for the recording microphones. After listening to what we had,  we would make any necessary edits, and then it was on to the next piece.
Our first recording producer for EMI (there were to be two over the course of the contract) was David Murray, who was one of the senior producers for the company. Extremely competent, and quite personable, he was very good at dealing with Mariss and they developed a working relationship quickly, which served us all well. EMI chose to provide their own sound engineer in the person of Mike Clements. Mike had worked on EMI recordings for years, but was a free-lancer who worked per project. He called his recording services “Black Earth Engineering”. He was fun to talk to, and he was only too happy to explain why the mikes were set up the way they were. It took EMI a little getting used to the problematic acoustics of the Konserthus. But adjust to them they did.
1987 was the first year in which we had a complete set of Light timpani to replace the Ludwig Professionals. We took delivery of the 31 inch Light Continental Chain in the spring of 1986, and in early 1987, took delivery of a 24 inch Metropolitan B. (We took delivery of a 31 inch Metro B in the spring of 1988.) Naturally, I was anxious to see how those drums would work together, and how they would record. I was in my experimental mood – mixing and matching drums – really taking quite a chance. I was young, and one can only learn by taking chances.
I mixed and matched on the Tchaikovsky recording – I used the Hingers for Romeo and Juliet  and Francesca. For 1812, Iused the Lights.I was still using Hinger and Feldman mallets for the most part and I mixed and matched those as well, according to the dictates of the recording situation and the hall’s quirky acoustics.
We managed to record all three works within the deadline set by the company. 1812 was the splashiest of the three. We were joined by the military brass band of the Norwegian Defense Forces for the final section, and Mariss decided to triple the chimes – he actually had three sets of chimes placed behind the orchestra, with the military band in the forward chorus positions. The cannons were actually rifles fired (they used blanks) into 55 gallon drums off stage, supervised by Terje Mikklesen, the orchestra manager. Actually, I think he fired one of the rifles! The effect was quite spectacular and quite LOUD! It was a lot of fun!
Romeo and Juliet was a little harder to nail down. It is not an easy piece, though we managed to negotiate it fairly well. Mariss added a tam-tam to the F sharp timpani rolls, which I thought made it sound a little more like Rimsky-Korsakov. The most controversial decision of those sessions came when recording the coda of the Romeo and Juliet – the famous heart-beat triplets. No what felt-tipped mallet I use – no matter how hard, it was not hard enough for the conductor’s liking. I wound up using the butt end of a pair of Hinger wood-shafted reds, and to tell you the truth, while articulate enough, it sounded too thin. I used the Hingers for the Romeo, and the heads were the Remo hazy-type, but they were a bit cold sounding anyway. If I had recorded this a year later, when we had calfskin, there would have been no need to do what we did with the butt end of the sticks. Chalk it up to another learning experience. Today, I would have had calf skin on the drums, and use somewhat narrow headed felt mallets which would serve the purpose better.
Francesca da Rimini completed the trio, and went smoothly. Like most of Tchaikovky’s music, this one is harder than it looks and is very thickly scored at points. Mariss shaped it quite nicely and nuanced it in a way that made sense, preventing it from getting too hysterical, yet maintaining a high degree of tension. When we concluded the recording sessions, we felt that we had accomplished quite a lot. Now, it was on to Shostakovich! But that’s a story for the next post.

Here is a clip from the last few minutes of 1812! Enjoy!