Gramophone magazine: a history – the 1980s

James Jolly
Thursday, January 18, 2024

The arrival of the CD gave the classical record industry a much-needed boost

The 1980s both opened and closed with major consolidations within the classical record sector. PolyGram, which from the early 1960s had under its umbrella both Deutsche Grammophon and Philips, purchased Decca in 1980, though for the next couple of decades or so, the three labels would continue to operate independently: DG from Hamburg, Philips from Baarn in The Netherlands and Decca from London. In 1988, Sony acquired CBS Masterworks Records (formerly Columbia Masterworks), renaming it Sony Classical in 1990. The other major US label, RCA Victor, and its main classical imprint, RCA Red Label, would be acquired by the Bertelsmann Music Group in 1987, and it too would become part of Sony a decade later.

A new major arrived in 1989 with the establishment of Warner Classics International, part of WEA. Established by Ramon Lopez, and led by Peter Andry – who during a long career had worked for Decca and EMI (as President of the International Classical Division) – Warner Classics was the umbrella under which Teldec, Erato, Nonesuch, Finlandia and NVC Arts would thrive. (One of the company’s first major achievements was a set of the Beethoven symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Gramophone’s Orchestral Award winner, as well as our Recording of the Year, in 1992.)

The arrival of the CD in March 1983 was probably the last major technological innovation launched off the back of classical music – the 75 minute-plus duration, the lack of surface noise and the expanded dynamic range were benefits obviously appreciated by classical music enthusiasts. DG led the way, with Herbert von Karajan who had recorded Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie as a test pressing to show off the new medium, famously declaring that ‘Everything else is gas light’. His ambassadorial role in the launch of CD, combined with his colossal sales figures, helped establish the medium.

Gramophone April 1988

Karajan on the cover of the April 1988 issue

Gramophone got behind CD from the start – not without criticism from the high-end hi-fi sector – because the benefits for the classical music enthusiast were obvious, and the March 1983 issue marked a milestone in the magazine’s history. Key reviewers were provided with updated hi‑fi (the magazine had long supplied Quad amplifiers and B&W speakers to its writers) as well as CD players. Review copies were obtained from the PolyGram labels, CBS, RCA, Erato, Chandos and Nimbus, and 49 CDs were reviewed by Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton, Richard Osborne, Lionel Salter and William Chislett (the magazine’s longest-serving critic).

Gramophone March 1983

The arrival of the CD was marked in the March 1983 issue

Gramophone readers were not slow in acquiring CD players – or offering opinions of the new medium through the letters pages. One topic that did exercise both critics and readers was playing time. Quite a few of the first tranche of releases were about 35-40 minutes in length which simply replicated an LP (though, ironically, the introduction of DMM pressing meant that in the LP’s twilight days, side lengths could be impressively long with no reduction in quality – Deutsche Harmonia Mundi’s release of the four Brahms symphonies conducted by Günter Wand on two LPs was quite a statement!).

The arrival of CD, and the move to digital recording, not only saw the major companies’ sales figures look impressive, but it helped raise the status of the independents hugely. Brian Couzens’s Chandos Records – one element of whose philosophy was its focus on superb sound, with a particular emphasis on warmth and bloom experienced in the best seat in the house – were early adopters of the CD, signing up to PolyGram’s manufacturing programme right at the offset of the medium. Engaging Mariss Jansons to record the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic proved a milestone in the company’s fortunes, and then partnering with that indefatigable record-maker Neeme Järvi saw the British indie take on the majors. The gap between a ‘major’ and an ‘independent’ was becoming increasingly hard to define.

Podcast: celebrating Gramophone's Label of the Year, Chandos, with Ralph Couzens and Brian Pidgeon

Hyperion, founded in 1980 by Ted Perry – an industry veteran with a vision – quickly became one of the glories of the UK record scene. Perfect musical taste and judgement, allied to first-class production values (has Hyperion every released a less-than-perfect record/CD sleeve?) and a roster of superb artists has won it a huge international following. ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ from Gothic Voices, from 1985, was one of the label’s first and biggest critical and public triumphs, and demonstrated Perry’s sure-handed A&R skills. But it was his courage and ambition – since taken up by his son Simon – that proved such a winning formula. The complete Schubert songs, the piano works of Liszt, the Romantic Piano Concerto series, the exquisitely curated collections masterminded by Graham Johnson and much more have had music-lovers signing up for the long term.

Hyperion Records: 20 unmissable recordings

In the UK, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group lured the classical head of the UK wing of EMI, Simon Foster, away to start a classical label. Foster’s A&R credentials needed little introduction to avid collectors, and he started putting together an impressive roster of artists. Virgin Classics issued its first releases in April 1988, and the catalogue grew rapidly – to 120 recordings two years later, four of which had already secured Gramophone Awards – Britten’s Paul Bunyan from the Plymouth Music Series and Philip Brunelle, The Prince of the Pagodas conducted by Oliver Knussen, ‘Venetian Coronation’ from Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli ensembles, and Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges conducted by Kent Nagano. (Virgin Classics would be acquired by EMI in March 1992, and ultimately subsumed into Erato.)

Gramophone October 1985

Jessye Norman on the cover of the October 1985 issue

Over in the States, the Cleveland-based Telarc label was pursuing a similar sound-driven recording policy to Chandos, spearheaded by Robert Woods and Jack Renner. Robert Shaw’s recordings from Atlanta set new standards – their Verdi Requiem from 1988 took Gramophone’s Choral Award – and the label’s productions featuring the Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony and Pops, as well as European ensembles like the LSO and Vienna Philharmonic make for an impressive catalogue.

In 1987, a new kid on the block appeared from Hong Kong, Naxos, the brainchild of Klaus Heymann. It would shake up the classical market as rarely before: a label that offered a vast range of music at a price that anyone could afford. The majors were complacent, even though PolyGram did try to buy the young upstart (EMI had actually been doing something similar with its hugely popular Classics for Pleasure label), and Naxos grew very fast and very impressively without the immensely expensive infrastructure that would hamper the big companies.

The decade ended with one of the best-selling albums for many years, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the ECO and Nigel Kennedy. Released in 1989, the album became the fastest-selling classical recording of all time, and has to date sold over three million units.

At Gramophone, Anthony Pollard briefly resumed the Editorship from Malcolm Walker who’d been in the hot seat since 1972. Quita Chavez, an industry veteran who’d previously worked for CBS and Philips, took up the post of Editorial Manager, and then Editorial Consultant. A passionate music-lover, she was a regular at Covent Garden and when a Beethoven Ninth, recorded live in London’s Queen’s Hall in May 1937 under the baton of Furtwängler, came in for review in 1985, she announced that she’d been there and was part of the vocal audience cheering at the end!

Gramophone February 1989

Mitsuko Uchida on the cover of the February 1989 issue

Christopher Pollard would become Editorial Manager in 1984 and two years later Editor, bringing his considerable enthusiasm to a role that he’d been exposed to since childhood.

In 1986, Ivor Humphreys joined the magazine initially to support the Audio Editor John Borwick, a role he himself stepped into two years later. But not only did he contribute elegant, musically-driven audio reviews (he is a fine flautist) but he would ensure that the reviewers’ hi-fi equipment was in tip-top condition. He also played a huge role in moving the magazine towards the new world of electronic publishing. It’s hard to recall how we published the magazine just 35 years ago with typeset galleys literally stuck onto page grids with cow gum to create the layouts, followed by a late-night dash to Kings Cross to deliver our day’s work to the late-night train to Bradford.

Gramophone in the 1980s: Timeline

January 1980 Malcolm Walker steps down as Editor and Anthony Pollard returns to the post

January 1980 The Decca Record Company is acquired by PolyGram

April 1980 Death of former Decca producer, John Culshaw, aged 55

May 1980 Engineer Kenneth ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson retires from Decca after 49 years’ service.

June 1980 The Sony Walkman is launched in the UK (initially called the Stowaway).

October 1980 Ted Perry’s Hyperion Records issues first recordings

March 1981 First releases from Academy Sound and Vision (ASV), founded by Jack Boyce and David Gyle-Thompson

April 1981 Gimell Records founded by Peter Phillips and Steve Smith to release recordings by The Tallis Scholars, one of the first ‘own labels’

January 1981 Compact Disc conference held in Salzburg

May 1981 Christopher Pollard joins Gramophone, the third generation of the family to work for the company

March 1982 Capriccio label is founded by Winfried Amel

October 1982 The CD is launched in Japan

March 1983 CD is launched in the UK

March 1983 Marco Polo Records launched in Hong Kong by Klaus Heymann

September 1983 The CD is launched in USA

September 1983 The mid-price EMI Eminence label is introduced

January 1984 The last recording sessions are held at Kingsway Hall in London: Puccini’s Manon Lescaut with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting the Philharmonia (DG)

June 1984 Nimbus opens the first CD manufacturing plant in the UK

February 1985 James Jolly joins Gramophone as Editorial Assistant

September 1985 Philips launches LaserVision

December 1985 The RCA Corporation, including its record division, sold to GE

February 1986 Ivor Humphreys joins audio team of Gramophone

February 1986 Chesky Records founded by Norman and David Chesky

May 1986 EMI opens Swindon manufacturing plant

May 1986 RPO Records launched by ASV, an early example of an orchestra ‘own label’

December 1986 Bertelsmann acquires 100 per cent of RCA-Ariola to form BMG, the Bertelsmann Group

March 1987 CD-Video demonstrated by Philips, Philips and Du Pont Optical and PolyGram

April 1987 PolyGram beomes wholly owned subsidiary of NV Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken

May 1987 Naxos Records founded in Hong Kong by Klaus Heymann

July 1987 First pre-recorded DAT cassettes appear on the Capriccio label

September 1987 BMG Classics established

October 1987 Sony launches R-DAT digital tape recorders in Europe

December 1987 First edition of the Gramophone Good CD Guide

January 1987 Sony acquires CBS Records and Norio Ohga becomes President and CEO

April 1988 Ivor Humphreys becomes Audio Editor of Gramophone

April 1988 Virgin Classics launched, with Simon Foster as MD

September 1988 Chandos releases pre-recorded DATs

February 1989 First releases from Collins Classics

February 1989 Taiyo Yuden announces CD-R recordable CD

May 1989 Peter Alward appointed VP A&R, EMI Classics

December 1989 Arthur Haddy, late Technical Director of Decca, dies at the age of 84

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