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 could not be played back immediately in the studio. Somebody had to listen carefully as the waxes were made and decide when sufficient acceptable “takes” of each selection had been achieved to satisfy the requirements of the manufacturing process and the market. Some part of this judgment was technical: for example, too-loud recordings would overtax the average home gramophone. According to Legge, his predecessors considered it their function “to record as well as we can [on] wax what artists habitually do in the opera house or on the concert platform.” If it was good enough for the Met or the Royal Albert Hall, it was good enough for Victor or The Gramophone Company Ltd. Fred Gaisberg, who supervised Caruso’s first famous discs in 1902 and Paderewski’s last in 1939, spoke of “sound photographs,” and he contented himself with preserving the sound of the performing arts in his day—a passive position that has often been characteristic of new media in the early stages.
Legge conceived a grander purpose: “It was my aim to make records that would set the standards by which public performances and the artists of the future would be judged—to leave behind a large series of examples of the best performances of my epoch.” Inspired by the critic Ernest Newman’s enthusiasm for the songs of Hugo Wolf, Legge devised a subscription scheme to underwrite recordings of them. It worked so well that many similar projects were undertaken on the same basis, including Artur Schnabel’s cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas, the Glyndebourne Festival Mozart opera sets, and others that have ever since formed the backbone of EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” reissue series.
After World War II, Legge went beyond creating a market for the performances he wished to record and began creating the performances themselves. None of the existing London orchestras seemed to him satisfactory, so he founded his own, the Philharmonia (Culshaw calls it “arguably the best orchestra ever assembled in London”), and presented concerts in conjunction with the making of records. He found the Covent Garden Opera mediocre (“my standards were notoriously higher than those they aimed at”), and used the Philharmonia as a nucleus for opera recordings under conductors such as Furtwängler, Karajan, Giulini, and Klemperer, with hand-picked international casts—“events” that had no theatrical counterpart but have surely influenced public expectations of performances of these works more than most staged productions. When Legge did work with a standing opera company in the 1950s, Milan’s La Scala, the recorded results reflected his taste more than the theater’s own practices: for him, Maria Callas learned and recorded parts she never sang in the opera house, and the principal conductor was the knowledgeable veteran Tullio Serafin, who in fact never appeared publicly with the company after 1947.
It is clear that Legge most enjoyed working with musicians who shared his passion for polished surface and impeccable detail, who planned every nuance in advance—and who were willing to grant Legge the authority to question every point and, often, to make the final decisions himself. He quotes with obvious pleasure the conductor Victor de Sabata’s withdrawal from the editing of the famous 1952 La Scala Tosca: “My work is finished. We are both artists. I give you this casket of uncut jewels and leave it entirely to you to make a crown worthy of Puccini and my work.” A memo to George Szell after a session on Mahler’s song “Revelge” gives the flavor of the man and his methods:
We have only one take of section 11 and in the tenth bar after this fugue the oboe interprets “grell schreiend” by quacking an octave on a semi-quaver, an effect more hilarious than dramatic. To cover this, we shall need to rerecord from figure 11, and I would like to do it to the end, because the piano crescendo to fortissimo in the fifth bar from the end does not come through nearly as well as in the concert hall.
Musicians such as Szell, Karajan, Schwarzkopf, and Klemperer found Legge’s nit-picking congenial, even stimulating. It was not conductive to spontaneity, however, and the effect on Schwarzkopf’s singing, in particular, was not always salutary—a comparison of her 1952 recording (accompanied by Edwin Fischer) of Schubert’s “An Sylvia” with the remake some two decades later shows the acquisition of a chilly rigidity quite unrelated to the vocal changes wrought by time.
Although Legge achieved with Wilhelm Furtwängler an inspired recording of Wagner’s Tristan, that conductor’s preference for improvising his performances (after rehearsing the details of the score to ensure that the players would be able to follow him) was inherently resistant to studio conditions. Only post-humously, when large numbers of his public concerts began to circulate widely, did Furtwängler’s reputation from records begin to equal his stature in German and Austrian musical life. (From Culshaw, we learn that Hans Knappertsbusch was similarly uneasy in the studio.)
Legge abhorred “live recordings,” principally because of his extensive experience with them in the 1930s, when EMI recorded many Covent Garden opera performances, from which little more than half an hour was ever approved for release. (His characteristically dogmatic article about that experience, for the Covent Garden magazine About the House, is not included in the new book.) As he observes, “many a great concert experience is not, in that hideous German expression, Plattenreif“—but some are (though far from all that are now being circulated on discs as a result of gray areas in United States law and a huge loophole in the Italian statutes). Certainly Legge did not get from Furtwängler, in Vienna in 1947, a performance of the Brahms First Symphony to match the 1952 concert recording published a few years ago by Deutsche Grammophon.
Walter Legge produced recorded performances that, even if they did not, might have taken place in “real life,” and he wanted his records to “sound in the public’s home exactly like what they would hear in the best seat in an acoustically perfect hall.” (They didn’t, of course, and the extent to which public expectations of the sound and character of live performances have been altered by the prevalence of recordings is a fascinating question, not easily resolved.)
John Culshaw saw the possibility of using stereophonic recording techniques to create musical and sonic effects impossible in concert halls and theaters, and did this in a way that caught the imagination of the classical music public and critics. In a famous series of opera sets (including Verdi’s Aida and Otello conducted by Karajan as well as Georg Solti’s Ring recordings), he demonstrated that the three-dimensional spatial illusion created by stereo could be used to sharpen dramatic focus, that varied acoustical ambiences could articulate and color individual scenes. Spectacular effects, such as Decca’s realization of Wagner’s meteorological extravaganza near the end of Das Rheingold, didn’t hurt sales either.
Sometimes the wizardry was overdone, obscuring or upstaging the merely musico-dramatic effects planned by the composer, but this was a serious attempt to use the medium in its own terms. Very likely, Culshaw’s most valuable legacy is an extensive series of recordings by Benjamin Britten of his own music, and the most successful of Decca’s complex stereo productions is that of the War Requiem, for the composer (probably under the stimulus of earlier stereo sessions) actually composed into the work the effects of placement and distance that Culshaw and his team had become so expert at realizing.
Neither Legge nor Culshaw attended a university; both came from middle-class English families, and were essentially self-taught in musical matters. Recordings had a central part in their musical growth. In those years, between the wars, the classical record business was relatively simple and stable: a very few companies made small but regular additions to substantial backlists, and only rarely were more than two or three recordings available of a particular selection—a situation in which it was usually possible for reviewers in the musical press to discriminate among different versions. In such a world, Legge’s philosophy of recording made good commercial sense. Quality was likely to be recognized, and over the years it would earn back the extra initial investment it might require.
But with the introduction, in the late 1940s, of tape recording (which greatly reduced the initial cost of making recordings) and long-playing records (which greatly reduced both the retail price and the storage space per minute of music), the terms of the marketplace began to alter radically. Soon there were dozens of labels, and dozens of recordings of all the standard works (and even of some, such as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, that had been virtually unknown before 1950), and discrimination among so many possibilities has inevitably become more and more arcane to the nonprofessional audience. Culshaw recognized this problem and aspired to make “something more than just another recording of a familiar work,” but his successors have turned more and more to externals. The marketing (and the making) of big-name classical recordings now resembles that of cosmetics: the company that produces the most new records of a given work will get the most display space, and (in lieu of advertising) TV talk-show appearances and PBS concerts help to clinch the sale. (Similarities to the present condition of book publishing are not coincidental.)
It is possible to suggest that the initially laudable principle of making “better,” even “best” recordings of standard works is at the root of the industry’s present difficulties; it is rather as if book publishers spent most of their capital on the production of new editions of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens, with the names of the editors in the largest type on the jackets, rather than on new titles. We need good editions of the classics, of course, but after a certain point the law of diminishing returns sets in. Big corporations are creatures of habit, and no consistent attempt to shift the emphasis in recordings from performer to music—and thus, eventually and inevitably, to new music—has ever been made, despite occasional attempts to do so such as those of the late Goddard Lieberson at CBS. The grimmest anecdote in Culshaw’s book concerns the Britten War Requiem, which would have become a runaway best-seller on release had a timid managing director not put through a tiny pressing order; months went by, and sales were lost, before an adequate supply was available. The guilty man had a response: “Do you think you could talk him into writing another Requiem that would sell as well? We wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.”