Walter Legge (June 1, 1906 – March 22, 1979) remembered on the anniversary of his death
The legendary EMI producer left a still-unmatched legacy of classic recordings
Tuesday, March 22 marks the anniversary of the death of the record producer, impresario and journalist Walter Legge. To mark the occasion we revisit the obituary written by The Times critic and Gramophone contributor William Mann in April 1979. And as a reminder of his staggering contribution to the record catalogue, we precede it with a dozen of Legge’s finest productions for EMI, each one a gramophone classic.
Beethoven Fidelio Klemperer (EMI) Buy from Amazon
Mahler Symphony No 2 Klemperer (EMI) Buy from Amazon
Mozart Così fan tutte Böhm (EMI) Buy from Amazon
Mozart Die Zauberflöte Klemperer (EMI) Buy from Amazon
Puccini Tosca de Sabata (EMI) Buy from Amazon
R Strauss Der Rosenkavalier Karajan (EMI) Buy from Amazon
R Strauss Capriccio Sawallisch (EMI) Buy from Amazon
Verdi Requiem Giulini (EMI) Buy from Amazon
Verdi Falstaff Karajan (EMI) Buy from Amazon
I am sure that all readers of Gramophone are aware of our huge debt to the life and work of Walter Legge; hardly a month goes by without some testimony in these pages to his excellent, often pioneer, work in recording between the 1930s and 1970s. Many may also know of his unremitting insistence on superior standards of musical performance, outside as well as inside the recording studio, based on careful selection of performers and intensive, super-intelligent rehearsal. It affected concert life and the opera house, abroad as well as in the United Kingdom.
He was not a conventionally trained musician: he did not play a musical instrument, nor compose or sing. Once, legend has it, he was persuaded to conduct an orchestra at a rehearsal, and the result was surprisingly disastrous. But as a musical coach he was nonpareil, able to realize the potential and artistic viewpoints of other musicians by his deep understanding of scores, and his feeling for the particular quality of each artist's musical personality. That, he was eventually to realize, represented his particular creative musicianship amid the musical life of his time. He fulfilled it to the hilt, for many years and in several musical areas.
Those who knew him and his work may first think of his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a good, even prominent, soprano in Germany and Austria before he met, artistically transformed, and married her, then continued to assist her in the perfection of the vocal art which, above all, most engaged his sympathies. Just as he metamorphosed Schwarzkopf from a good into a great singer, so he fulfilled the artistic potentialities of musicians as various as Ginette Neveu, Dennis Brain, Dinu Lipatti (they all died young, but artistically had been made immortal through Legge's musical inspiration), as well as Karajan, Christoff, Gobbi and many others.
Side by side with his passion for artistic standards went a crusade for broader musical repertory – though chronologically it came first among his public successes. He had begun in 1927 as what we now call a sleeve-note writer for HMV's classical albums, standard symphonic works such as then monopolized the attention of record companies outside the single-disc repertory. In 1931 he persuaded HMV to record more risky musical fare for publication on a subscription basis in limited editions. First came a Hugo Wolf Society. Wolf's songs were hardly at all known to the British musical public, though Ernest Newman had published a pioneering monograph on the composer as early as 1907, and some singers, notably Elena Gerhardt, championed Wolf in their public recitals. As an aspiring music critic Legge was much influenced by Newman's writing and had already made friends with him. When the Wolf Society came into being, Gerhardt sang the first volume and was involved in some later ones; Newman provided the exemplary annotations for all volumes. As if to ensure that there would be enough subscribers, Legge formed the London Lieder Club in 1932, also to broaden the familiar repertory, and build larger, more knowledgeable audiences for that branch of music. An offshoot of these activities was another book on Wolf which Legge initiated in collaboration with Frank Walker; eventually Walker had to write it himself, but Legge did much original research for it during the 1930s, interviewing relatives and friends of Wolf who were still living – even then, his command of foreign languages was outstanding, particularly in German (he could assume numerous regional accents when relating anecdotes).
Among later Society recordings initiated by Legge were those devoted to the songs of Kilpinen (an enthusiasm which, alas, he persuaded few to share), the works of Sibelius, a composer then enjoying a fanatical vogue eventually to solidify into level-headed appreciation; Delius – doubtless influenced by admiring friendship with Beecham – as well as such favourites (though commercially dangerous for a record company in the 1930s) as Bach's Wohltemperierte Klavier, and his cello suites, string quartets by Haydn, Beethoven's violin sonatas and piano sonatas, Monteverdi's madrigals, albums of harpsichord music interpreted by Wanda Landowska, and the Mozart Opera Society which gave us the Da Ponte operas as performed at Glyndebourne under Fritz Busch and Die Zauberflöte recorded in Berlin under Beecham. Since 1932 Legge had been writing music criticism for the Manchester Guardian, but in 1938 Beecham invited him to be his assistant artistic adviser at Covent Garden and Legge crossed the tracks. It was a loss to my part of the profession: Legge's reactions to music were perhaps more biased, or prejudiced, personally and emotionally than a true critic's should be. But his knowledge of the repertory was profound, he experienced music to the full, and he was a cogent, vivid writer who could describe a performance, orally as well as on paper, with brilliant verisimilitude. He chose words scrupulously, and never allowed his strong sense of humour to lapse, even when he had been most moved. He learned well from Newman and Beecham, but his literary style was his own, as established readers of Gramophone will know.