Remembering Brian Couzens
Brian Couzens, founder of independent classical music label Chandos Records, passed away Friday 17 April 2015.
One would have to look back a good 25 years to fully grasp the historic importance of Chandos Records and the significant influence of its founder, Brian Couzens, who built up a catalogue whose enormity and freshness remain as staggering today as they ever did. Chandos Records were the precursors of the golden age of the independent CD, which today is transforming into something new and uncertain. It is clear that Couzens' work was not just for his own benefit; since 1979, he set the standard for independent classical releases over the next 35 years (along with his competitor Ted Perry from Hyperion Records, and Robert von Bahr, founder of BIS).
The Chandos recipe combined uncompromising audiophile sound quality with making the most of progress and newly-available digital facilities; with pride in its British identity and tirelessly defending Britain’s musical heritage; and with a passion for Russian music and the sound of an orchestra. Brian Couzens was not an executive producer – of whom, it could be said, there are far too many – and nor was he the kind to pretend to know how to read music whilst hiding behind a mixing desk: he was a practical man, who was always at work, hands-on, everywhere he went. One might wonder about the extent of his personal relationships (or lack thereof) with some of his most vigorous and prolific artists; most likely they involved the mutual respect that exists in the coming together of great minds.
Brian Couzens realised his vision with artists who, like him, were real Stakhanovites in the studio - people like Neeme Järvi, Richard Hickox, Howard Shelley, Alexander Gibson, Bryden Thomson, Guennady Rojdestvenski, Lydia Mortkovitch and Yuli Turovsk. With these colleagues (and so many more), with this insatiable appetite for discovery, this desire to push the limits of the repertoire which the big names were (and are still) happy to rehash over and over again, Couzens made and expanded an incredible catalogue. After all this time, we are returning to this catalogue, in particular to the first fifteen years of the label, in the form of three Qobuz playlists which offer a grand tour of these treasures, including almost six hours of music in total. The catalogue is so vast, so original and full of gems, that it was very hard to make a selection.
Two other labels from the same period, the so-called golden age of the CD, belong to the same class as Chandos. First of all, Hyperion, which began at almost the exact same time, with certain common traits (above all, that British flavour), but also with some rather different characteristics: a greater early focus on ancient and baroque music, and a marvellous capacity to produce often more refined, exquisite recordings – in particular the splendid piano records. Hyperion is, one could say, as important as Chandos, without drawing an equivalence between them. There was a time when they were rivals, but they now complement each other to form a snapshot of this era in music recording with BIS lying just behind – a label which is also of a considerably high quality, with superlative sound quality and innumerable orchestral records. Naxos, another significant name in classical recording, came some time later, launching at the start of the 1990’s, but are not necessarily the innovators that Chandos, Hyperion and BIS were – and still are.
All of the above comes together to show that Chandos, all things considered, is perhaps the most vast of the three labels. Perhaps a little conservative but incredible nonetheless – particularly in terms of symphonic music. However, when crisis broke, the finances dried up somewhat and Couzens and his team were forced to recruit less expensive orchestras in order to continue, by any means necessary, their voyage of discovery – all whilst maintaining their trademark high sound quality. Help came in the form friends in illustrious orchestras, who lead Chandos to concert halls in Detroit, Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark, amongst others, in their quest to hear new repertoires as played by these ensembles. In the 1990’s Chandos Records boasted 12 to 16 new releases a month – approximately one record every two days – almost half of which was symphonic repertoire, featuring orchestras including the Chicago Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. In terms of English music, repertoires supported by the trusts of deceased composers which likely helped to balance the books. Above all it was the great symphonies which made Chandos what it is today, amongst which are the first complete recordings of the works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich – which surely would have been quite an event at the time!
Chandos was buzzing with energy: the quality of the recordings was impeccable, as were the accompanying booklets. Chandos worked as a well-oiled machine with more than 50 people in their Colchester offices and virtually no reliance on freelance workers, even on the sleeves. Visiting the Chandos offices in the ancient Essex town, you could instantly see the high production quality of records that were being snapped up by music lovers all over the world. Abroad, fans were mocked for what was considered to be an overtly-English taste, as well as for the ornate Chandos sleeves which were a stark contrast to the black sobriety of a certain well-known French label. But Chandos succeeded where the French independent classical record industry was never able to, recording the greatest orchestras in the world, recording English music like no French label ever recorded French music, unearthing rare works, world-firsts every week...
And behind Chandos, there was Brian Couzens. We should be clear: Couzens did get it wrong from time to time – doubtless just like any who work for pleasure, he would occasionally make compromises for an artist or an orchestra. Making mistakes now and then is always the mark of a great producer, who creates things that may be new to their audience. He was neither very talkative nor showy - he was wrapped up in his recordings, choosing to delegate the commercial work. He produced and produced...in the end, what does it matter if Couzens was not himself a showy man; his label was his life, a label which in many ways was the model for so many others to come.
The whole Chandos catalogue is available digitally on Qobuz, either for download or streaming (the latter only if you're a Qobuz Sublime subscriber), subject to certain restrictions from the label itself. Chandos is one of the biggest audiophile catalogues in the world, since its creation. The sheer number of spectacular recordings made selecting just a few a difficult task indeed, but we hope that these playlists can serve as starting points to an extensive and incredible catalogue.
Mirages (Messager, Debussy, Delibes, Delage, Thomas...) Sabine Devieilhe Gramophone Editor's Choice