On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge
Putting the Record Straight
The legend “Produced by X” began to appear regularly on classical recordings only around 1960, though of course the function it denotes had existed long before and was performed anonymously by people called “recording director” or “artist and repertoire man” (“A&R” for short). Under whatever title, the producer supervised the progress of the recording session in both its musical and technical aspects, and sometimes had a part in planning the particular conjunction of performer and music. In some quarters, the tradition of public anonymity still prevails; Volker Straus of Philips, who with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw produces the most persuasive current orchestral recordings, is not named on jackets or labels.
During his active career, the late Walter Legge (pronounced “leg”), who produced for Britain’s EMI combine from the early 1930s until 1964, was never credited either, and he must have resented it, for he was not a modest man. On the jacket of On and Off the Record, a book made up in greater part of Legge’s own writings, he is described as “the most influential man in twentieth century classical music,” which is absurd (whatever happened to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Toscanini, et al.?), but may represent the man’s resentment.
Legge (1906-1979) was in fact the most significant record producer of the mid-century years. This collection of his writings has been assembled and furnished with a connecting narrative by the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whom Legge met in 1946 and married in 1953, and all of whose mature recordings he produced. As a compilation, the book is (perhaps inevitably) both repetitive and elliptical, not least in the one specifically autobiographical essay, which has been interlarded with examples of Legge’s music criticism in the 1930s and passages from his correspondence after his retirement. Most of the chapters are about performers Legge admired or worked with. Not a fluent writer, he is capable of vivid and precise description (about Maria Callas: “she knew that a legato must be like a telegraph wire or telephone wire, where you can see the line going through and the consonants are just perched on it like the feet of sparrows”).
John Culshaw (1924-1980), the principal producer for EMI’s leading British competitor Decca (known in the United States as London), left unfinished at his death a more conventional autobiography, which also tells interesting and provocative tales of why and how classical recordings were made. Putting the Record Straight suffers, as narrative, from the necessity of circumnavigating its author’s most significant project, the first complete recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle, a story already told in his absorbing book Ring Resounding (Viking, 1967). Briskly and breezily written, Culshaw’s memoir is less self-important in tone than Legge’s book, though the author’s evident desire to maintain his standing vis-à-vis musicians and critics through retailing discreditable anecdotes is not more attractive.
Although it grew steadily more complex, the producer’s role took shape in the earliest days of recording, when the wax master discs …