Gramophone magazine: a history – the 1970s

James Jolly
Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Digital recording arrives, and a trailblazing independent label starts up in Sweden

If the 1930s were a tough decade for the business, the 1970s presented their own challenges too, especially with the company having been robbed so recently of Cecil Pollard’s steady hand on the tiller. One of Anthony Pollard’s first major undertakings was to move printer: after nearly 40 years with Gibbs & Bamforth, who had been taken over by Associated Iliffe Press, and then by International Publishing Corporation, with a noticeable deterioration in quality, the decision was made to find a new company to look after Gramophone. Watmoughs – based in Idle (its working men’s club had one of the largest international memberships: who could resist being part of the Idle Working Men’s Club?), near Bradford – impressed by their professionalism and willingness to embrace change which, with the vastly altering landscape that essentially did away with traditional roles like typesetters, and so on, made them good partners for the future.

Poignantly, Sir Compton Mackenzie died on November 30, 1972, just seven weeks short of his 90th birthday and a few months before Gramophone’s 50th anniversary (April 1973). He’d written a lengthy piece that would form the Introduction to The Gramophone Jubilee Book, 1923-1973. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, a long-time reader of Gramophone, wrote a congratulatory letter for the magazine itself, which carried a facsimile of the first-ever copy of The Gramophone. This major milestone in Gramophone’s history attracted substantial coverage including on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review, Radio 4’s PM, Radio London and the World Service.

Leontyne Price on the cover of the July 1970 issue

After an audio red-herring in the form of Quadraphony – greatly impeded by EMI and CBS using one format, RCA another and Pye a third still (sensibly Decca, DG and Philips stayed well clear) – the next major development was digital recording technology. The Japanese company Denon was the pioneer, making the first commercial digital record in October 1972. Decca then followed, with an operatic aria album with the soprano Sylvia Sass, and then its hugely successful New Year’s Day Concerto 1979, the first live digital recording. EMI entered the arena with a Debussy orchestral works album featuring the LSO conducted by André Previn.

In 1973, one of the great independent labels, BIS, was launched in Sweden by Robert von Bahr. Great A&R – initially with a Scandinavian flavour, but now totally international – combined with superb sound recording put BIS on the map. Von Bahr’s ‘completist’ approach earned the label many friends very quickly, and projects that embraced the complete works of Sibelius, or the symphonies of Eduard Tubin, a composer little known outside his native Estonia, were early successes. (Nowadays, with projects like the complete Bach cantatas, recorded by Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki, BIS courageously embraces projects that the majors would cavil at!)

Gramophone February 1973

Pianist Glenn Gould on the cover of the February 1973 issue

Digital recording for LP release would lead logically to a new format that would maintain the sound in the digital domain from studio to speaker – and the first hints came from the Eindhoven HQ of Philips. On May 17, 1978, the company revealed its revolutionary 110mm Compact Disc which would be scanned by a laser, and with a capacity that was widely believed to have been determined by the duration of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (romantic notion though that is, it was sadly not true!). Once – and not wishing to repeat the lessons learned over quadraphony – Philips and Sony had overcome a number of patent rights concerning various elements involved in audio and video technology, the production of the CD and its players received the green light.

In the world of Gramophone a new initiative was launched, the Awards. A number of senior record company executives bemoaned the lack of an annual opportunity to celebrate the creativity of their industry, and who better placed than Gramophone to organise such an event. One of Gramophone’s contributors who took a major role in shaping the voting process of the awards was Edward Greenfield. During initial conversations, the concern was raised that if a particular company failed to win an award would toys be thrown out of prams. ‘Of course not!’ was the reply; needless to say, in the second year of the Awards, EMI only won two awards, one a historic reissue and the other a Melodiya release which the company distributed, prompting one senior EMI executive to boycott the event!

The voting process has changed little down the years. When the Awards started, the companies would nominate recordings for consideration (this was later abandoned, as it tended to be more driven by ensuring no one was left out rather than the critical reception of the recordings; nowadays the nomination process is based on Editor’s Choice albums, supplemented by any the jury want included). The Awards have become one of the classical record industry’s most respected arbiters of quality, and during its 45-year history has quite literally changed lives: Nigel Kennedy’s Recording of the Year win for the Elgar Violin Concerto in 1985 gave his burgeoning career a major boost (and a lift to sales of 10,000 copies immediately after the Awards), and, in 1987, The Tallis Scholars’ Gimell recording of Josquin Desprez, the first time an Early Music recording took Recording of the Year – by 1993 the album had sold over 100,000 units.

Though the Awards have been streamed on a number of platforms, most notably by Medici TV, the ceremony reached its largest audience in 1997, when the event was broadcast on ITV reaching almost 2.5 million music-lovers. Hosted by Jill Dando, and featuring the LSO as the ensemble for the evening, the truly stellar line-up of artists – many of whom performed – included Luciano Pavarotti, Msistlav Rostropovich, Andreas Scholl, Murray Perahia, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Antonio Pappano, with presenters including Sir Paul McCartney, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Christopher Lee, Darcy Bussell and The Rt Hon Sir Edward Heath, MP.

The 1970s witnessed the arrival of a new generation of reviewers: vocal specialists Alan Blyth (who also wrote for The Daily Telegraph) and John Steane (who would write a quarterly column starting in July 1974), Elgar authority Jerrold Northrop Moore, Sister Mary Berry (who focused on medieval music and plainchant), Andrew Lamb (who wrote about operetta), Richard Osborne (my tutor at Bradfield College, and later the author of books on Rossini and Herbert von Karajan), Michael Oliver (one of the jewels in BBC Radio 3’s crown as the incomparable presenter of Music Weekly), Arnold Whittall (contemporary music), John Duarte (guitar music), Nicholas Anderson and Iain Fenlon (Baroque music), Robin Golding on the Viennese classics, Gordon Reynolds (organ and choral music) and Ivan March (who, with Edward Greenfield and Robert Layton, wrote the Penguin Guide, and championed the cassette).

Gramophone in the 1970s: Timeline

January 1970 Decca starts project with the Philharmonia Hungarica and Antal Dorati to record all of Haydn’s symphonies (completed in 1974, and taking up 48 LPs)

April 1970 Philips releases Berlioz’s Les Troyens under Colin Davis

September 1970 DG marks the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with a Beethoven Edition in 12 sets and 75 LPs

October 1970 Classics for Pleasure launched

October 1970 Decca releases its first musicassettes

October 1971 DGG/PPI re-group to form PolyGram

April 1971 Decca buys L’Oiseau-Lyre

April 1971 Nimbus Records is established by Numa Labinsky (aka Shura Gehrman) and Michael Reynolds

August 1971 Philips demonstrates its VCR (videocassette recorder) machine in London (production models follow in the spring of 1972)

January 1972 Alec Robertson retires as Music Editor of Gramophone

March 1972 Quadraphonic discs released by EMI and CBS (using SQ system), by RCA (using CD-4) and Pye (using QS)

October 1972 Malcolm Walker appointed Editor of Gramophone

October 1972 Denon makes first commercial digital recording (Mozart’s Hunt Quartet with the Smetana Quartet)

November 1972 Sir Compton Mackenzie dies aged 89

September 1973 BIS Records founded by Robert von Bahr in Sweden

March 1975 Goddard Lieberson retires as President of CBS Records

October 1976 Enigma Classics launched by John Boyden

October 1976 JVC announces VHS cassette system in Japan

January 1977 Telarc Records founded in the US by Jack Renner and Robert Woods

November 1977 First releases from Nimbus Records

February 1977 First Gramophone Record Awards: Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová (Decca) named Recording of the Year

May 1978 Philips announce Compact Disc Audio for early 1980s

July 1978 Decca makes its first experimental digital recording, ‘Sylva Sass sings Dramatic Arias’

January 1979 WR Anderson dies aged 88

January 1979 Decca makes a live digital recording of the New Year’s Day Concert with Willi Boskovsky and the VPO

March 1979 Press demonstration of Compact Disc Digital Audio in Eindhoven.

March 1979 Walter Legge dies at the age of 72

June 1979 EMI makes its first digital recording – André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra in Debussy orchestral works (it goes on to win a Gramophone Engineering Award)

July 1979 Sony Walkman launched in Japan

November 1979 First releases from Brian Couzens’s Chandos Records

March 1979 Press demonstration of Compact Disc Digital Audio in Eindhoven, The Netherlands

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