Christopher Raeburn: Record producer who formed close and productive associations with the greatest opera singers of his day
Thursday 26 February 2009
Christopher Raeburn was a legendary record producer, specialising in opera, who worked for the Decca Record Company for his whole career and was responsible for a vast repertoire of pioneering recorded productions with the leading singers of the day.
Born in London in 1928, Raeburn was the second of seven high-achieving children from a large musical middle-class Hampstead family of German-Jewish extraction. His paternal grandfather had come from Frankfurt in 1882. His father, who was a QC, had changed the family name from Regensburg to Raeburn during the First World War. He was educated at Charterhouse and, from 1948-51, at Worcester College, Oxford. Before Oxford he did his national service – in the army – serving in Palestine at the end of the British mandate. He entered Oxford with a choral scholarship, but read history.
When Raeburn was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Gramophone magazine in 2007, his acceptance speech vividly outlined how he had first encountered music: "It was as a teenager that I discovered Gramophone. The school library subscribed and at the end of each month each copy was sold off for a penny and I was able to start my collection of Gramophones. In wartime it was a very slim magazine but I remember the excitement of reading about the new Dido with Joan Hammond and the wonderful recording of The Planets with Boult and the BBC. It was this Planets set which really got me hooked on recording and at home I rigged up a console with two turntables and was able to play the automatic couplings without a break."
At Oxford he spent much time in theatrical activities, and afterwards became an Assistant Stage Manager at Bernard Miles's Mermaid Theatre. Switching to music, he joined the Decca Record Company as a musical assistant, but left when he was awarded a Leverhulme Scholarship to study Mozart operas in Vienna. He spent three years living in Vienna, engaged in musicological research and constantly attending the best performances musical Vienna had to offer.
Thus, soaking himself in Viennese orchestral and operatic traditions, he heard all the great artists of the day. Later, in 1969, when writing about recording Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, he reminisced about how he attended George Szell's rehearsals and performance of this score in Salzburg in 1949, where it made its first real impact on him. His Mozart researches allowed him to contribute hundreds of unpublished documents to Otto Erich Deutsch's Mozart: a documentary biography (1965) and in the same year he edited a revised and illustrated edition of W. J. Turner's Mozart: the man and his works (originally published in 1938).
While in Vienna he was engaged by the celebrated Decca producer John Culshaw to assist with the recording of Richard Strauss's Arabella, one of the first stereo opera recordings, in which he had to supervise the stage movement of artists who were then accustomed to working to a specific microphone. He continued to work on and off for Culshaw in Vienna, including on Franz Léhar's little-known operetta Giuditta and Wagner's Die Walküre.
In January 1958, he rejoined Decca in the Classical Artists Department. He was already a recognised Mozart authority; his session work reinforced his experience and he became a producer in the now legendary team headed by Culshaw. Culshaw wrote about him: "He ... must have assisted in more operatic recordings than anyone in the world. Some people thought he generated too much intensity, but if he did it was a fault on the right side. He was popular with the artists, and an exceptionally hard worker; his knowledge of opera in particular was vast, although, interestingly, I don't think he cared much for Wagner." Already in 1958 he was part of the Decca team recording in Rome, getting through five operas that year.
Working for Decca, he was soon promoted to senior producer, and in 1975 he became Director of Opera Productions. In 1980 he was designated Director Artists and Repertoire (Opera), and formally retired on his 63rd birthday in 1991, though he continued to work as a freelance.
After 1980 he shared an office with Paul Myers, who was his opposite number looking after the non-operatic repertoire. Myers described him as wonderful company, full of anecdotes and with a huge sense of humour. With his concerns for theatre he would work with his casts during sessions, articulating meaning and expression. At the end of the day he would slip notes under famous singers' doors giving them points to note for retakes on the following day. He worked to the artists' strengths and tried to bolster insecurities – he called it "musical midwifery" – and his singers adored him, his younger singers later in his career seeing him as a father figure. The mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli would not work with anyone else. She was among the later singers he brought to Decca when young, and it was her programme of music associated with one of the stars of the early 19th century, Maria Malibran, that was his last production.
As a Culshaw protégé he was punctilious about sound effects in opera recordings, and spent a great deal of time getting the detail right. He regarded "the recording as an end in itself and not a mere aural reproduction of a good performance in the theatre, but at the same time to maintain the sense of drama and even enhance it".
Perhaps his most high-profile job as far as the wider public was concerned was the original Three Tenors Concert in Rome, and such legendary recordings as the Sutherland/Pavarotti/Caballé Turandot, Karajan's Madama Butterfly, Solti's Die Frau ohne Schatten and, later, Arabella with Kiri te Kanawa. He worked with a wide conspectus of singers – all the most celebrated Decca vocal artists of his time were produced by him, and many became close personal friends, from Teresa Berganza to Placido Domingo, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiuarov, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi and Angelika Kirchshlager.
The tenor, the late Luciano Pavarotti, remarked: "Christopher was always like a beautiful wise old man, even when he was very young! He is a hero on the other side of the recording process. We have to be able to put all of our trust in the producer. CR had a very serious musical intelligence, he understands the particular language of the voice, the interpretation and he is someone I could always trust and rely on. He had an incredible personality and sensitivity."
Raeburn also worked with a roster of famous instrumentalists and conductors including András Schiff, Zubin Mehta, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Kyung-Wha Chung. He produced Vladimir Ashkenazy's cycles of the complete piano concertos of Mozart and Beethoven. His recordings received many industry prizes and awards, but he was possibly proudest of the Franz Schalk Medaille, given by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – an honour usually reserved for conductors. In 2002 the musicians' organisation Midem gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2007 Gramophone magazine did the same.
His role demanded fluent German and Italian – he tended to speak Italian for pleasure and German for business. Indeed a colleague described his loud and declamatory German as having an Oxford accent. "In an earlier age" his Decca colleague John Dunkerley remarked, "with his declamatory style he would have been an actor-manager".
His eldest daughter, Alexandra, describes him as a devoted father who constantly took his children to leading musical events, so that they were brought up thinking it normal to visit Glyndebourne and Salzburg in the best seats, attend rehearsals, and have leading operatic stars calling as family friends. Indeed his three daughters had as godparents Leontyne Price, Tom Krause and Marilyn Horne. A friend of his early days in Vienna was Lilli Skauge, but they lost touch, only meeting again in the late 1970s, long after his divorce. They took up their relationship again, the ensuing marriage lasting over 20 years.
He was someone who enjoyed good health, so his final illness when it came was unexpected, and from diagnosis last November until his passing, was swift – he did not want invasive medical intervention and he died peacefully in his sleep, his family around him. His longstanding friend Anthony Pollard, of Gramophone magazine, said he was "a man of whom I never ever heard anyone speak ill".
It is unlikely any recording organisation will again work at such a supreme level of artistic and technical achievement in so long-standing and systematic a way. Christopher Raeburn's death marks the final passing of a glorious musical age in which the leading record companies, but especially the Decca team, recorded opera in Vienna, Rome and across Europe.
Christopher Walter Raeburn, record producer: born London 31 July 1928; married 1964 Pamela St Clair (marriage dissolved 1970, three daughters), 1980 Lilli Skauge (marriage dissolved 2001, one stepson); died Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire 18 February 2009.
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