Obituary: Charles Gerhardt

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CHARLES GERHARDT would often remark that recording had nothing to do with reality, it was the art of illusion. He was a master illusionist within the record industry, a producer of extraordinary ability and energy, who was probably the most prolific in its history. He was also a fine conductor and arranger who remained known only to the record-buying public.

Born in 1927 and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Gerhardt began piano studies at the age of five. During the Second World War he served with the US Navy, in the Aleutians, off Alaska, and returned to study both music and engineering at the University of Illinois and the University of Southern California.

He joined the RCA record label in 1950, at the dawn of the LP era, and with the company still in its golden age. He worked as assistant engineer on sessions with Kirsten Flagstad, Wanda Landowska, Zinka Milanov and Vladimir Horowitz, and was then seconded to the Toscanini household in Riverdale to become RCA's liaison with their most important artist. Some fascinating taped conversations between Arturo Toscanini and Gerhardt still survive.

Gerhardt also engineered for some of the major pop artists of the period: Mario Lanza, Eartha Kitt, Perez Prado and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. His qualities as a future producer first emerged during the New York cast recording of The Boy Friend. Overblown Broadway arrangements had rendered the show almost unrecordable when Gerhardt, who was engineering, stepped in and sent most of the band home. He cut the scoring down to size, busked the rest, and the resulting record was a triumph.

He left RCA in the mid-Fifties to work for several smaller independent companies. When the call came from George Marek, head of RCA's classical division, he was ready to return as a fully fledged producer.

The entry of the Reader's Digest company into the mail-order record business was imminent and, in association with RCA, an extensive catalogue of new recordings was being planned. Gerhardt was Marek's choice to produce them. He arrived in Europe in 1960 to start work with "Wilkie" (Kenneth Wilkinson), the legendary chief recording engineer of RCA's then-affiliate, the British company Decca. It was the beginning of a partnership that lasted through 30 years and 4,000 recording sessions.

The work rate in those years was incredible. There was a flood of employment for London musicians; the first season's recording revenue alone was enough to ensure the survival of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Gerhardt's roster of conductors included Barbirolli, Boult, Freccia, Horenstein, Kempe, Leibowitz, Munch, Reiner and Sargent, and it still wasn't enough. Inevitably, he began to conduct himself. He had taken lessons in technique and was the recipient of invaluable advice from Jascha Horenstein. Now he began to learn on the job.

In 1964 Gerhardt asked the violinist Sydney Sax to assemble an orchestra of the highest class purely for recording purposes. Incorporated in 1970 as the National Philharmonic Orchestra, it drew on the finest players from the vast London orchestral and freelance pool. It became Gerhardt's orchestra of choice for the next three decades.

When the imperturbable George Korngold, son of the Hollywood composer, arrived to share production responsibilities, the time had come for Gerhardt to embark on his most cherished recording project: the 15 volumes of Classic Film Scores. Meticulously prepared, and performed with irresistible panache, this was the first major exploration of the film music of Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann, Alfred Newman, Mikls Rzsa, Dimitri Tiomkin and John Williams. The overwhelming success of The Sea Hawk in 1972 led directly to the first recording of a Korngold opera, Die Tote Stadt, which Gerhardt produced in 1975.

Gerhardt refused all invitations to appear in concert. He was a creature of the studio and he valued his privacy. It was part of his job to make other musicians sound wonderful, and he excercised his skills as arranger and conductor for Leontyne Price, Robert White, Julian Lloyd-Webber and James Galway. Gerhardt's version of "Annie's Song", which reached No 3 in the British charts in 1978, established the latter as the best-selling classical artist in the world.

Over the years "Chuck" Gerhardt had become a passionate Anglophile and the English had accepted him as one of their own. In 1986 he made a mistake: he retired, and moved from the Kentish countryside to Southern California. Within a year he was back at work and back in Kent. Finally, he returned to California, a reluctant tax-exile in his own country.

Every year he came back to record in London. In the digital age he had become a kind of splendid anomaly, a producer who was always out on the floor with the musicians; he knew that the essential elements of a performance could not be manufactured in the control room. He was unfailingly kind and generous with young musicians; to know him was to learn.

Among his last recordings is an account of Debussy's Prelude a l'apres- midi d'un faune so radiantly youthful as to bring a tear to the eye.

Charles Allan Gerhardt, record producer, conductor, and arranger: born Detroit, Michigan 6 February 1927; died Redding, California 22 February 1999.