Bernard Coutaz, the founder and patron for the past 52 years of Harmonia Mundi, has died aged 87. The recipient of Gramophone’s Special Achievement Award at last year’s Awards (you can watch a video we made at the time, below), Coutaz was a visionary leader of a company he built into an international concern, with outposts in the UK, the USA, Germany and Spain.
Based, since 1986, just outside the Provençal town of Arles, on the edge of the Carmargue, Harmonia Mundi belied its rural setting and worked with a dynamism that included operating a major distribution network (of books as well as CDs and DVDs) and opening a chain of boutiques across France (and into Spain) that offered its own CDs and those from its distributed labels in an ambience of style and calm.
Coutaz had originally envisaged a career in the church but it was the music of the baroque that actually determined his future. An early project was the recordings of historic organs, and an encounter with the English countertenor Alfred Deller led to a series of recordings that have been a staple of the HM catalogue ever since.
Harmonia Mundi, under Coutaz’s leadership and with his former wife Eva heading the company’s A&R, maintained the philosophy of allowing artists to grow creatively and always over a number of recordings (no one was ever signed for a one-off project). And the loyalty that Harmonia Mundi showed its artists was returned with many long-term relationships – conductors Philippe Herreweghe and René Jacobs have recorded for the label for years, and both remain key to the company’s roster.
I once asked Bernard Coutaz “Why Arles?” The minute the words had passed my lips I realised what a crass question it was. Bernard didn’t reply – he simply looked round; out of the open window up the long plane-tree lined driveway, at a swimming pool partly hidden behind a high hedge with the Provençal sunlight twinkling on its surface, at the cool solidity of the thick walls of this large farmhouse. Could there be a more perfect setting for creating a label that has brought so much magic to so many people?