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 Recording of the Week  Bernard Coutaz and Harmonia Mundi

It is with much sadness that I report the death of Bernard Coutaz, the founder of the French record label Harmonia Mundi, who died on February 26th at the age of 87. What he has achieved over the last five decades is truly remarkable, as his company has grown and flourished into one of the finest record labels in the world. Their history is a rich and interesting one, and I’ve put a special page on the website where you can read about it and watch a video clip of Bernard Coutaz made when he received Gramophone's Special Achievement Award last year. This week though I’d like to mention a few key periods and events which make me smile and give you a taste of the enthusiasm and philosophy behind the label.

Citroën 2CV
Citroën 2CV

Coutaz launched the label in 1958 following a bet over a bottle of champagne. The first recording was of chants from the Slavonic liturgy at the monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium. It doesn’t sound like a very wise choice if you were starting a record label today, but it is still available and continues to tick through. However, crucially it did well enough at the time to launch the label and before long Coutaz had begun a collection of organ music focussing on historical organs all over Europe. He travelled the continent in a Citroën 2CV that carried all the equipment, a sound engineer and sometimes the organist as well! Some of the organs were in working order, others they repaired with bits of string and tape in order to make the recording. This series expanded to over 50 recordings and they also published magazines to accompany them.

Bernard Coutaz
Bernard Coutaz

The next major turning point came in 1965 when Coutaz and his colleagues went to hear (and kidnap!) the countertenor Alfred Deller. At the concert Coutaz instantly fell for his wonderful ‘new’ sound and went backstage afterwards to invite him for dinner. Deller thought he was the concert promoter and so accepted, and 80 odd miles and several hours later they arrived back at Coutaz’s house. Coutaz produced some eggs and some goats cheese, (and no doubt a few good bottles), and by 5 o’clock in the morning his enthusiasm had persuaded Deller to make records for Harmonia Mundi.

Since then they have never looked back and, while more and more majors are parting company with artists, Harmonia Mundi seems to attract them - offering a safe haven and a climate of genuine artistic creativity to musicians who simply want to get on with what they do best: making great music. In all, hundreds of musicians owe huge thanks to Coutaz, from the countertenors Alfred Deller and Andreas Scholl to the conductors René Jacobs and Philippe Herreweghe, as without him many careers would have taken a very different course, and in some cases may not have happened at all.

Assembled around his widow Eva Coutaz (who becomes head of the company) the whole Harmonia Mundi staff will enthusiastically strive to perpetuate its founder's legacy. And looking at the schedule for the coming autumn there are some fantastic recordings in the pipeline, including the Beethoven complete piano concertos with Paul Lewis, the continuation of René Jacobs’ Mozart Opera cycle with The Magic Flute, and a recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe from Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout. The end of an era for sure, but thanks to what Coutaz has achieved, a very healthy future beckons.

Philip Langridge, 1939-2010

I’m sorry to also have to report the death of the leading British tenor Philip Langridge, who died last Friday from bowel cancer at the age of 70. With his death the musical world has lost one of the finest tenors of his generation.

I saw him a number of times at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, where he portrayed the rare combination of a beautiful voice, wonderful musicianship, superb diction and a compelling dramatic presence on stage. He made a number of recordings and in addition to operas and oratorios he made a number of lieder recordings including a profound contribution to Hyperion’s Schubert Edition. He’ll be sadly missed.