Early this summer I was privileged to be invited to a beautiful, scenic setting in the south of France for a family gathering. It wasn’t my family, I was a mere guest at this home. But in many ways, I feel like I’ve long been a guest of this family – not at their home perhaps, but through being invited to enjoy and engage with their life and work, to follow their journey, over many years and through many, many revelatory recordings. The family to which I refer is the record label Harmonia Mundi, and the cause of the celebration their 60th birthday, marked by the launch of a festival held in chapels and small venues throughout their home, the historic town of Arles.
When choosing a Label of the Year, we ask ourselves several questions. Which label has conveyed a creative vision that weaves through their output of recordings, expressing both coherence and courage in their approach to A&R? Which has led us towards music we might not otherwise have heard, or introduced us to artists who have impressed us and from whom we wait with great anticipation for what may follow? And, perhaps most importantly of all, which label has made records we’ve simply thoroughly enjoyed? Harmonia Mundi has excelled in all these areas, earning itself a fair number of Editor’s Choices throughout the year as it has done so – not to mention this year’s Orchestral Award.
The label has come a long way from when its founder Bernard Coutaz set out to make recordings of historic organs, most of which had never been captured by microphones (indeed, pre-dating the growth of interest in historical performance practice which makes such endeavours more commonplace today). Milestones that followed included luring Alfred Deller to the label (after, it is said, a long post-concert evening of fine food and wine, and not a little subterfuge!), and the building of long-term partnerships with such pioneering figures as René Jacobs, William Christie and Philippe Herreweghe.
Long-term partnerships: if anything defines Harmonia Mundi for me, it’s that. In more recent years, some of the most pivotal and fruitful have been with some of the most thoughtful musicians of their generation, the likes of violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov. The sort of artists whose serious, focused and undemonstrative approach to art feels like the antithesis of the superficial glitz and glamour that pervades so much of today’s world. Artists who, release after release, invite us to follow their journey and to share with us something new.
Like all long-standing businesses – and a record label is, let us not forget, a business that needs to sell its products to customers – Harmonia Mundi has seen much behind-the-scenes changes, in 2015 finding itself part of the wider and multi-genre PIAS group. It seems to be a supportive home – and one whose admiration for its recent acquisition feels very evident – and so under the stewardship of HM label head Christian Girardin, the perception for the record buyer will only have been one of continuity.
One of the concerts at the Arles festival featured Faust and Melnikov, as well as period keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout. To join the audience in the small auditorium was to eavesdrop on music-making between friends. And as Harmonia Mundi navigates a future in which the way we buy and listen to music is changing radically, let us hope that it’s that family spirit – including, crucially, the nurturing of the young, as evidenced through the newly launched harmonia#nova series – along with, of course, life-affirming musical excellence, that will continue to be its constant guide. And let us wish one of classical music’s most cherished labels a very happy 60th anniversary. MC
Here are just a few of Harmonia Mundi's highlights from 2017-18:
Ensemble Aedes; Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth
'François-Xavier Roth teases a much more expansive opening than Monteux, a slow burn leading to an ecstatic first choral entry. He is often more languorous, the performance nearly four minutes slower than the Decca account. However, Roth attacks the ‘Danse guerrière’ with more vim and also whips up a faster bacchanalian finale. With fine choral contributions from the Ensemble Aedes, this new recording is highly recommended.' Mark Pullinger (June 2017)
The Birth of Opera at the Medici Court, 1589‑1608
Including music by Allegri, Brunelli, Buonamente, Caccini, Cavalieri, Fantini, Gagliano, Malvezzi, Marenzio, Orologio, Peri and Striggio
Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon
'Pichon and Pygmalion rise to this challenge magnificently. Speeds are finely judged, the sense of vocal and instrumental ensemble is well balanced and there is some impressive solo singing, including Luciana Mancini’s carefully wrought rendition of ‘Lassa, che di spavento’ from Caccini’s L’Euridice. Elsewhere there is some spectacular improvised instrumental ornamentation (just occasionally a little exaggerated), while the whole is expertly underpinned by a rich array of continuo instruments. The fruits of an ambitious and carefully researched project, these records come encased in a beautifully presented illustrated hardback book, with three essays and the texts of the vocal works translated into English, French, and German.' Iain Fenlon (Awards issue, 2017)
The Heath Quartet
'It’s all captured by Harmonia Mundi in transparent and natural recorded sound which easily encompasses both the quietest sul ponticello whisper and (a Heath Quartet speciality) ringing full-ensemble chords that glow from within. Newcomers to the Bartók quartets will find this a sincere, imaginative and splendidly played entry point; old hands will quickly find 101 new reasons why these extraordinary works rank among the supreme achievements of 20th-century music.' Richard Bratby (September, 2017)
Chopin Études, Op 10 Liszt Réminiscences de Don Juan, S418 Schubert Wanderer-Fantasie, D760 Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrushka
Alexander Melnikov pf
'Melnikov’s prevalent richness of detail, unforced but precise rhetoric and exquisite sense of colour are skilfully captured by the engineers. His interpretations warrant the attention of professionals, even as they promise enduring pleasure for lovers of the best piano-playing.' Patrick Rucker (April, 2018)
Paul Lewis pf
'Highlights are many but the B minor Sonata (No 32) is special indeed, Lewis relishing its chewy textures, never smoothing over its edges, which makes the moments where there’s a softening of tone all the more effective. In the final Presto he doesn’t go hell for leather but instead offers a grim determination that connects it clearly to the first movement.' Harriet Smith (May 2018)
Isabelle Faust vn Kristian Bezuidenhout hpd
'Can I find fault with this set? No, I cannot. It’s an eloquent and beautifully recorded homage to the composer and demands to be in the collection of all Bach lovers post-haste.' Harriet Smith (March 2018)