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The label that no-one wanted is making its comeback…. in a coffin

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).

Lebrecht mmmlebrecht life and death

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.

eminenceeminence

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.

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Comments

  1. Brian Pidgeon says:

    Norman, the other name that should certainly not be forgotten for her fantastic work on behalf of the Eminence label was Trish Byrne. Thanks to her we have the Mackerras Beethoven and Tod Handley VW cycles recorded during my time with the RLPO.

  2. Your book, incidentally, is kept in the “business” section of my local library (Huddersfield), not the classical music section (which has its own room and is well stocked with books and recordings). I mentioned this to the librarian, but they said there was nothing they could do about it: all their books come ready classified. They just put them on the shelf. (Which makes me think they do the same in all the other libraries……..) Unsurprisingly, given its obscure location – it was nestled next to a guide on accountancy – it had not been taken out for a number of years.

  3. I seem to recall that EMI was one of the first, if not *the* first classical labels to start recording digitally with an album of Debussy with the LSO and Previn in 1978 or 79.

    • Not so. Philips and Decca were first. Read the book.

      • Herbert Pauls says:

        Denon (Nippon Columbia) released digital recordings even earlier, did they not? There are a bunch from the early 1970s. I remember seeing CD reissues of these when I was working in a record store around 1990.

      • I read Life and Death a few years ago but I don’t recall specifically what it said about when digital recordings first happened in the classical music world and I don’t have the book anywhere near where I am for reference. I do seem to recall though that Decca’s first digital recording was the 1979 New Year’s Day concert in Vienna. So they did it a little earlier than EMI whose Debussy album I mentioned above came later in 1979 but that doesn’t leave EMI that far behind. I certainly don’t think they still hadn’t embraced digital recording in 1983.

        • BTW, DG made their first digital recording in December of 1979 – Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto with Kremer and Maazel in Berlin. So it appears that 1979 was the year in which most major labels went digital. Does anybody know when Philips and CBS (IIRC they were still CBS at the time, Sony only took over at some point in the 80s) started recording digitally?

  4. Norman, I was wondering if you still maintain – as you do in the book above – that the classical music recording industry has “died”. I don’t have enough expertise to know one way or the other, but a lot of people simply think it has changed. Instead of there being a small number of dominant labels, each employing a small number of high profile orchestras and star players, we now have a large number of labels and a correspondingly large number of recording artists. The market, in other words, has gone from being “oligopolistic” (a few big beasts earning fat profits) to being very competitive (lots of suppliers barely covering costs). The records still come out and they are often very cheap, and the public has more choice than ever – a choice of orchestras from around the world, a choice of instrumentalists, a choice of labels, a choice of composers. Claiming that the industry has died, so this argument runs, simply conflates the decline of major labels with the decline of the industry.

    Well, that is the argument…….

    Great book, by the way. A really terrific read – immense fun if you love classical music.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Totally agree. Even Norman’s own reviews are frequently very positive about new recordings, from labels big and small. There is no shortage of good or great recordings, though not necessarily for all music.

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