Thursday, August 26, 2004

Putting the Record Straight

I've been rereading Putting the Record Straight, the autobiography of John Culshaw, who was the head of classical artists and repertoire for Decca records in the '50s and '60s. He's best known for producing the first complete recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle, conducted by Georg Solti, as well as most of Benjamin Britten's recordings of his own music, many recordings of Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, and so on. Culshaw's specialty was the recording of 19th century opera; his opera recordings became famous for the "interventionist" approach he took as a producer: not only using radio-style sound effects to suggest unseen actions, but using stereo to "stage" the action (so as a character crosses from stage right to stage left, his voice crosses from one speaker to another), and giving the orchestra more prominence, and a richer sound, than it could ever have in a theatre. Culshaw, like Glenn Gould, was a proponent of the idea that recordings were not just substitutes for the live performance experience, but a separate medium with separate rules; his best opera recordings sound nothing like a live performance, but they have an atmosphere and a power that make them sound like a complete experience of the work, rather than just an everyday opera performance without the visual element. His best recording, and for that matter Georg Solti's best recording, is probably the 1961 recording of Strauss's Salome with Birgit Nilsson: the orchestra is balanced forward and the voices are farther back than they normally are in opera recordings, and the use of aural effects, stereo staging, and unusual tricks (like bringing Salome's voice closer at the very end, to create an aural suggestion of the fact that, in Culshaw's words, "she is completely alone except for the severed head she is fondling") add up to the most bloodcurdlingly nasty, emotionally draining Salome you'll ever hear. After Culshaw, no record producer would record an opera this way, which is one reason why opera recordings tended to be so boring after Culshaw.

The autobiography is a mixed bag. Culshaw died without completing it, and the material he had written was assembled into its current form under some often-misleading chapter titles; the material was not well-edited, so the book has a lot of repetition and unresolved stories that it wouldn't have had if Culshaw had lived. Also, Culshaw had already written a book, Ring Resounding, about his most famous recording, so a lot of his best stories aren't in the book. Culshaw, who published several novels and at one point considered becoming a full-time writer instead of a record producer, writes well and he has a lot of entertaining stories to tell about the record business and the artists he worked with. (There's even some plain old gossip, like Culshaw's revelation that Karajan didn't want orchestra members to stand up because "he could not stand to be in the presence of tall people unless they were sitting down.") But there's also a remarkable amount of axe-grinding in the book, much of it directed at the de facto head of Decca's classical department, Maurice (or Moritz) Rosengarten.

Rosengarten is an interesting figure about whom, unfortunately, not much seems to be known apart from what was written in this book. He was a Swiss businessman (and an Orthodox Jew) whose main business was jukeboxes and other types of equipment; he was also the Swiss distributor for Decca records, and he somehow got the idea that Decca could and should compete with other companies in the recording of international classical artists. He financed Decca's move from a purely English company to a company that recorded all over Europe and eventually in America; he personally signed dozens of famous artists (and others, like Solti, who eventually became famous), and got the Vienna Philharmonic under exclusive contract (though this wasn't as big a coup as Culshaw makes it sound; the VPO was essentially second-rate at the time Rosengarten signed them -- this being after WWII -- and they only gradually regained their former stature). Culshaw admits that Rosengarten was "adored by the recording crews" and that he had a self-deprecating sense of humor and was a good family man -- but otherwise, he spends much of the book recounting Rosengarten's shady negotiation tactics, his timidity about taking any risks, his lack of interest in "music as such." There's a whiff of genteel British anti-semitism in some of this (sometimes it seems like British writers have a tendency to portray a Jewish businessman as a Shylock type), and there's little doubt that Culshaw had some kind of personal resentment that caused him to tee off on his former boss. Others who worked for Decca at the same time had better things to say about Rosengarten; Gordon Parry, the engineer on the Solti Ring, gave Rosengarten a lot of the credit for the excellence of that project and of the casting in Decca's opera recordings in general. Certainly Decca's classical department was never the same after Rosengarten's death in the mid-'70s (the company collapsed and was taken over by PolyGram not long after).

Still, there's also no doubt that a lot of the stories Culshaw tells are accurate, and that a lot of Rosengarten's negotiation tactics were... well... not illegal, but certainly not Marquis-of-Queensbury rules. One story Culshaw didn't get around to telling in full was about the American tenor James McCracken, whom Rosengarten signed to a contract with relatively low royalties, in exchange for a promise that he would be first choice for the tenor lead in various operas. When McCracken (frustrated with being given hardly anything to record) later sued the company, and got access to a bunch of Rosengarten's memos as part of the lawsuit, he discovered that Rosengarten had promised him the lead in operas that he knew Decca wouldn't be able to record; one memo suggested promising McCracken La Forza Del Destino, on the basis that a decent cast for that opera wouldn't be avaiable to the company for years to come. Of course, that kind of thing is par for the course in pop music, which is the real fun of the book: reading about a time when classical recording wasn't just some subsidized, under-promoted corner of the record industry, but a big chunk of the recording industry, with all its attendant hardball tactics. And isn't it amazing, from our current vantage point, that a businessman would have thought that there was money to be made in classical recordings -- and that he was right? As Culshaw writes:

There was no doubt at all that classical recordings were expected to be profitable. The generally held idea that classics are subsidized by popular recordings is at the least misleading. The real difference is between long and short-term investment... a classical recording -- especially of a large-scale opera -- may cost a small fortune and may not recoup its costs for many years, but if it is any good at all its life as a money-maker is good for anything up to fifty years, when the copyright expires.

The most infamous bit of axe-grinding in the book is Culshaw's account of Solti's recording of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Jussi Bjoerling was hired to sing the tenor part, and he was fired from the recording, which was then abandoned until the next year, when Carlo Bergonzi took over (and sang superbly; it's an excellent recording that's unfortunately out of print). Bjoerling died not long after that abortive recording, and as Culshaw tells it, he was fired for being disruptive and probably drunk. By all other accounts from people who were at the recording session, Bjoerling was not drunk, and the problem was a conflict between him and Solti. Essentially Culshaw didn't do enough to resolve the conflict, and let the situation deteriorate to the point that the recording couldn't go on any more; the story in the book can't help but seem like an attempt to cover up for this by unloading the blame onto the dead tenor. But it does show, in the words of one industry professional, that a record producer "must combine the ears of a conductor with the negotiating powers of a top diplomat." When he falls down on diplomacy, the result can be disaster.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review of Culshaw's book. To add to the story about Bjoerling, not only did Culshaw put undue blaim of Bjoerling for the initial collapse of the recording, but he later goes through a peculiar bit of guilt transference in his tale of how von Karajan coldly announced Bjoerling's death.

Unknown said...

How unfortunate that tales of Bjorling's drinking are almost always mentioned by people writing about him. He had a drink problem but the number of times he had to cancel because of this were few and far between. He remains one of the greatest of the great and it is a pity that such a flaw is often exagerrated.

Anonymous said...

For almost fifty years I've been thinking about this Bjoerling/Solti/Culshaw story that deprived us opera lovers of the definitive recording of "Un Ballo in Maschera" and of enjoying the historic studio undertaking of the tenor part by one of the members of the inmortal trilogy Caruso/Gigli/Bjoerling.That summer of 1960 Bjoerling had been around Europe recording Verdi's Requiem with Reiner and Fledermaus with Karajan with no problems at all. How come these two men of such intelectual rank,Solti and Culshaw,were unable to acknowledge the greatness of Jussi Bjoerling,despite his alledged drinking problems, and fired him and lost the oportunity of making a recording for the ages, is something I will never understand. How could they believe that Bjoerling could simply be interchangeable with Bergonzi, or Del Monaco, or whatever? How could Solti in 1960, in an ascending stage of his career,having just recorded "Das Rheingold" with Culshaw,administer such a blow to the greatest tenor alive and his millions of fans all over the world ? How could DECCA/LONDON tolerate this disrespect??

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Actually, Anonymous, I think at that point in their respective careers I prefer Bergonzi's Riccardo to Bjoerling's. But even if you disagree (as I presume you do), the recording's flaws don't have much to do with the tenor casting.