Walter Legge (June 1, 1906 – March 22, 1979) remembered on the anniversary of his death

EMI producer Walter Legge, 1906-79 (photo: EMI Archives)EMI producer Walter Legge, 1906-79 (photo: EMI Archives)

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 Symphonies Klemperer (EMI) Buy from Amazon

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

Mozart Horn Concertos Brain; Karajan (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

Wagner Tristan und Isolde Furtwängler (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.

His first contributions to our magazine were in October and November 1928 (signed H. Walter Legge), an appraisal of Titta Ruffo; then in June 1929 ‘A Treasure Trove of German Recordings’. In September 1942 came a profile of Gerald Moore, in June 1943 an obituary of Leslie Heward. Most of his subsequent contributions were obituaries – of Cebotari, Neveu, Lipatti, Dennis Brain, and Klemperer (whose 75th birthday he also celebrated in these pages). More recently he wrote, for The Times ‘Saturday Review’, a fascinating account of the formation of the Philharmonia Orchestra (part of a projected autobiography – how I hope that more of it exists!) and for the American journal High Fidelity a lively piece about pirate recordings, entitled ‘Piracy on the High C's’ (it was later reprinted in an English paper).

Beecham had finally in 1938 taken Legge out of musical criticism and into artistic administration. So it was that, when the Second World War began, Legge was equipped to flourish in his ENSA job of organizing concerts for troops and war-workers: he knew the repertory, could prevail upon the goodwill of the finest musicians available (because he knew them all and had made records with many of them); he had learned organization and was not too proud to delegate work to efficient, dedicated colleagues, many of them women who adored him even when they had seen through him. He was a charmer, a smart dresser, a generous and delightful host, an irresistible conversationalist, and perfectly ruthless in the pursuit of his own ends which nine times out of 10 were connected with the art of music, and his contribution to it. He never spared others because he never spared himself – I have been told, and can believe, that during all his years with EMI, he never took a holiday at the firm's expense.

Walter Legge's best arrived surely after the conclusion of the Second World War. He had remained on the staff of EMI, and in 1945 was sent to the continent to recruit new talent for that company's musical roster. That was how we came to hear Karajan and Schwarzkopf, Welitsch and Seefried and how, in subsequent years, Columbia was to issue the classic records on which Legge's fame as producer is based (a good many have now also emerged on the HMV label, such as the Christoff 78s reissued recently in a box). That trip across the Channel and others later did much for the HMV slogan, ‘Greatest Artists, Finest Recording’ – even with hot competition from the vastly enlarged postwar Decca, the parting of HMV and Columbia with their respective American counterparts RCA and CBS, and the resurgence of Deutsche Grammophon.

For Legge's musical quest one element was lacking, a virtuoso British symphony orchestra with whom he could make the records that would set new standards of musical perfection, and show London concert audiences the meaning of an unforgettable musical experience. In 1945 the existing London orchestras were suffering from wartime deprivation and a good deal of anno Domini, spiritual as well as physical: the finest orchestra in the country seemed to be John Barbirolli's refurbished Hallé. So Legge invented the Philharmonia, first as a string quartet which he coached to near-perfection, then as a string orchestra (drawn from the flower of the young RAF Symphony Orchestra) and finally as the Philharmonia Orchestra whose debut concert, a Mozart programme, was conducted by Beecham in Kingsway Hall, the Methodist church which he favoured for its acoustical excellence (and to this day a recording studio much in demand). If Beecham intended the Philharmonia to be his new orchestra, he was disappointed: since 1939 Legge had become an autocrat too self-willed to collaborate durably with another of the same kind, even an old friend, colleague and mentor. Beecham went off and formed his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Legge's Philharmonia in due course found its principal conductor in Herbert von Karajan, replaced now and then by such maestri as Furtwängler, Toscanini (his only return to Britain after 1939), Cantelli, and later de Sabata, Dobrowen, Klemperer and Giulini, to name but a few.

In the late 1940s and 1950s Philharmonia concerts were red-letter days for their audiences, revealing string playing of a voluptuousness and clarity unrivalled even in Vienna or Philadelphia, woodwind of a balanced sweetness and sensibility not to be heard anywhere else, magically euphonious brass (though without the frizzing, audacious brilliance that only American players then seemed able to produce). The programmes were sometimes considered overcautious, rarely straying from standard repertory. Legge's musical enthusiasm remained adventurous, but within a 19th- and early 20th-century spectrum, with J S Bach and Walton, say, as extremes, but without interest in Baroque or dodecaphonic music. His occasional forays into modern music, such as that of Carl Orff, showed a lack of sympathy with the post-Schoenberg world: to be generous, Legge liked the music which his public would favour, on records as at concerts. He drew us gladly to unfamiliar Loewe and Liszt, even to Medtner (an enthusiasm of the Maharajah of Mysore who for three years in the 1950s was Philharmonia's patron – the only one), but preferred to draw us more deeply into Brahms and Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner and Richard Strauss.

From the time when, early in the 1950s, he asked me to write programme-notes for the Philharmonia Concerts Society (concerts by its eponymous orchestra, just then in its great era under the youngish Karajan, and recitals by various superior artists, chiefly Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau), I was at the receiving end of Walter's formidable critical appraisal. Not a word of mine, nor a mark of punctuation, but was subjected to his piercing investigation, alternatives suggested at the speed of sound, explanations always given with total conviction. He wanted, I realized, to make my writing worthy of Arrau and Klemperer and Schwarzkopf (he also taught me how great records are made, and much else, but that is another story).

Side by side with the concerts went the gramophone records; many of them just recently returned to the catalogue – the Callas records, the Verdi Requiem under de Sabata, the Tristan und Isolde with Flagstad conducted by Furtwängler, those delicious Viennese operettas of Johann Strauss and Lehár, the Fidelio and Zauberflöte conducted by Klemperer; the Mozart operas conducted by Giulini, the 1951 Bayreuth recordings of Walküre (maddeningly only the Third Act) and Meistersinger under Karajan who also conducted a stunning Falstaff and Rosenkavalier, as well as Ariadne auf Naxos for Legge, and a classic Hänsel und Gretel; and then the inspired account of Strauss's Capriccio under Sawallisch, the Così fan tutte conducted by Böhm with Schwarzkopf and Ludwig as the sisters. But there are also great recordings of chamber music and symphonic works that Legge masterminded: think only of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Klemperer, crowned by the Ninth for which Legge formed his champion Philharmonia Chorus trained by the incomparable Wilhelm Pitz.

He had many outside interests, including billiards, gardening and gastronomy, but his temperament did not allow him to relax for more than an hour or so at a time. All that may explain why he was disliked by many people who had worked with him and were unable, or unwilling, to live up to his demands, people who thought that ‘good enough will suffice’, or that second-class music doesn't need first-class treatment, or that every tradesman needs a day off. They resented his quest for perfection, and therefore resented him; so when, some 10 years ago, I made use of an available channel to urge that Legge deserved a knighthood or some other regal honour, the reply came that he was too much disliked in influential circles. The best, as they say, is the enemy of the merely good.

All that marvellous activity ended in 1964 when EMI and Walter Legge decided to part company. Subsequently he disbanded the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus which had flourished largely on account of their recording commitments for EMI. The orchestra and chorus survived by making themselves independent and self-governing. Walter retired to Switzerland and France, continued to watch over the career of his wife, keeping her artistry and vocal condition in marvellous state, promoting concerts, occasionally supervising recordings, but not really continuing the work which he could do like no other person. There was a hint of it in the master-classes which he gave with Schwarzkopf, he contributing as much as she, and in his writings. It is the greatest shame that nobody employed this vigorous, brilliantly artistic mind in another administrative job for he had more years to fill valuably with his experience, knowledge and abundant imagination. Even so his achievement is huge, his contribution to 20th-century music certain to survive for many decades.

William Mann

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