A colleague in the same profession as John recently remarked that a good producer has, for the duration of a recording, to assume the role of an artist’s best friend. John West’s gift for friendship ensured a bond with the artists who loved him that went beyond mere professional artifice. Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the vast majority of whose recordings he produced in that artist’s last decade, once said that he would follow him to the ends of the earth, and John treasured the rare test pressings of the 1940s and 1950s that Menuhin bequeathed to him. His insights into the personalities as well as the musical qualities of those with whom he worked inspired the affection of artists as diverse as the violinist Tasmin Little, soprano Dame Felicity Lott and the pianist James Rhodes. Many became close friends and delighted recipients of hospitality at the York home which John shared with Louis, his partner of over 40 years.
Born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England, John West attended the local grammar school before reading music at the University of York under the eclectic supervision of Professor Wilfrid Mellers. After graduating from there in 1972, he taught music at Nunthorpe Grammar School in York until the late 1980s when my partner Peter Avis, an old friend of John’s, suggested that he drop in on some recordings I was producing. Even then it was clear that his natural empathy and infectious musical skills would make an ideal producer.
Perhaps it would be facile to attribute John’s relaxed but plain-speaking style of production to his north-eastern roots, but artists, whether of the ‘diva’ variety or those uneasy with counterfeit flattery, responded readily to such integrity, expressed as it was with gentleness. Words, and therefore time, were not wasted: a West session was rarely in danger of over-running. James Rhodes writes that ‘he was never dictatorial, always open-minded, able to put across suggestions in a way that seemed encouraging and helpful rather than judgemental’.
John was also a respected and liked colleague, as recording engineers Andrew Mellor and Mike Hatch (who considers John and Lou two of ‘the most wonderful human beings I have met’) will testify. As an editor, the human touch – and his sense of humour – frequently surfaced in margin notes he wrote in my production scores which I’d marked up with editing instructions. ‘I sense midnight oils being burned here’, he once scrawled against a particularly ill-judged choice of take.
A lifelong non-smoker, John was diagnosed with lung cancer over a year ago, and it was a great disappointment to him not to be able to complete the last stages of post-production on a project for Signum Classics of the complete Poulenc songs with, among others, John Mark Ainsley, Sarah Fox, Felicity Lott, Christopher Maltman, Ann Murray and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, all singers who particularly enjoyed working with him. The catalogue is nevertheless full of fine West productions, including the Beethoven and Elgar symphonies with Menuhin (Warner and Virgin Classics respectively), several CDs with Jeremy Backhouse’s Vasari Singers (EMI), contributions to Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series and much, including Dvořák symphonies, with Libor Pešek and the RLPO (Virgin). Actors, too, responded to his human qualities and clear involvement. On a visit to York some years back, I found him editing a recording of Peter and the Wolf on which he had worked with Sir John Gielgud. A difficult edit was for the moment defeating him, and he was in tears. But not, I soon saw, because of frustration, but as a result of the veteran thespian’s recounting of the duck’s demise. I like to think that Gielgud would have been touched.