Back in 1983, there was an air of gloom at EMI Classics. Every other label was gearing up for digital and EMI was, as usual, last. (You can read about those grey days in my book, Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness/The Life and Death of Classical Music).
Record sales were in a slump, as usual, and a chunk of the market was being bitten off by EMI’s budget label, Classics for Pleasure.
‘Why not start a mid-price label?’ said one bright spark.
‘What’s that?’ growled the suits.
‘Young and nearly-known artists, recorded on the cheap in popular rep. Low risk. We can’t lose much on it.’
‘Oh, all right then.’
That, more or less, is how the Eminence label came into being. In the UK, at least. I don’t remember it going on international release.
It’s now being reissued in a 30th-anniversary edition, 50 CDs … in a very heavy box. There you go: yesterday’s discard is today’s icon. PR blurb below.
Featured artists include
John Mark Ainsley · Philip Fowke · Monica Huggett · Peter Hurford · Della Jones
Simon Keenlyside · Nigel Kennedy · Stephen Kovacevich · Piers Lane · Keith Lewis
Tasmin Little · Felicity Lott · Malcolm Martineau · Jane Parker-Smith · Joan Rodgers
Anthony Rolfe Johnson · Bryn Terfel · Barry Tuckwell · Elizabeth Wallfisch
Raphael Wallfisch · Willard White · Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Chilingirian Quartet · Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge · English Chamber Orchestra
Hanover Band · London Philharmonic Orchestra · Vasari Singers · Vellinger String Quartet
Serge Baudo · Mark Elder · Andrew Litton · Vernon Handley · Sir Charles Mackerras
Karl Anton Rickenbacher · Franz Welser-Möst
In the days when new recordings were full price and collectors on a budget had to confine themselves to reissues, EMI’s Eminence label was a bold and appealing venture. Eminence launched careers: most notably Nigel Kennedy’s, with his Gramophone Record of the Year-winning disc of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, but it also nurtured many other great musicians near the start of what would prove to be illustrious careers (such as Tasmin Little and Franz Welser-Möst) and captured others in their prime, such as Vernon Handley and Sir Charles Mackerras. With brand new recordings of a range of rare and classic repertoire, and captured with uncompromisingly good engineering, Eminence blazed a trail that many other labels followed. Here are many of the label’s finest recordings, united for the first time, and at a price that stays true to its founding philosophy of making great music available to the widest possible audience.
The end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s saw the introduction of digital recording, initially promoted on vinyl LP before becoming the staple technology of the new CD format, which first appeared in the UK in the spring of 1983, having made its debut in Japan in the autumn of 1982. Foster realised that many excellent analogue recordings risked being deleted because they were not recorded in the new format, such as Eugen Jochum’s cycle of the Beethoven symphonies recorded with the LSO. Thus, just as Classics for Pleasure had been brought into existence to exploit the classical market created by Music for Pleasure, a new label was created to exploit this tranche of EMI recordings, selling at a higher price point than Classics for Pleasure, namely two pounds ninety-nine pence. The name given to the new marque, which made its debut in June 1983, was EMI Eminence. This title had been carefully selected to give the label an appropriate resonance with EMI’s various international branches.
From the beginning, the Eminence catalogue featured analogue stereo reissues from the EMI catalogue alongside new digital recordings, such as Mackerras conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in the Dvořák String Serenade (CD26). The impact of Eminence reissues was often maximised with new remasterings for well-loved recordings such as Sir Malcolm Sargent’s 1957 stereo recording of The Planets, and Otto Klemperer’s 1963 account of the Symphonie fantastique, which was recut to avoid a side break within movements. But it was new releases that put Eminence on the map, and most notably the recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with Handley and a young Nigel Kennedy (CD30) which wonGramophone Record of the Year in November 1984.
The production of Classics for Pleasure’s and Eminence’s recordings was gradually placed in the hands of the producer Andrew Keener and engineer Mike Clements, after McCann and Foster moved on within EMI. Often working under the title of Mr. Bear (an apocryphal name of now uncertain origin), Clements had hitherto been better known for his work on popular music sessions. The partnership of Keener and Clements, and later with the engineer Mike Hatch, was to become a major symbol of audio quality for Eminence releases.