OBITUARY : John Pfeiffer

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On Thursday Jack Pfeiffer, the top-ranking executive record producer and the mastermind behind RCA's historical CD reissue programme, succumbed to heart failure at the offices of the Bertelsmann Music Group in New York. He lived long enough to learn that his 65-CD "Jascha Heifetz Collection" had been nominated for the 1996 Grammy Award - one of many that he received over the years.

A native of Tucson, Arizona, Pfeiffer was the quintessential gentleman: charming, good-humoured and with a fund of reminiscences that could keep you spellbound for hours. He was a pioneer of stereo recording, having produced astonishingly vivid twin-channel tapes as early as 1954, some four years before the advent of the Westrex disc-cutter and the commercial launch of stereo LPs. It was during this period that Pfeiffer and his team built up an impressive "pre-release" storehouse of stereo recordings, most of which remain in the stores to this day.

His first session at RCA was in 1949 as a control engineer during the Toscanini era, although subsequent work for the label embraced design and development, musical acoustics research, psychoacoustics and musical engineering. Pfeiffer's stereo triumphs featured such singers as Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Sherrill Milnes, Robert Merrill, Samuel Ramey and Jerry Hadley and he was still working with young artists right to the end.

I can remember his childlike excitement as he recounted one of the first stereo play-back sessions, with Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben blossoming into hitherto undreamt of two-dimensional hi-fi. "It was just an experiment," recounted Pfeiffer some 40 years later; "we didn't know what we were doing. It was a question of putting up microphones, listening and seeing if we could get an adequate stereo effect. The results were outrageously beautiful: the whole spectrum suddenly opened out before us."

Pfeiffer had a habit of summoning all and sundry for an impromptu demonstration of the new technology (RCA's executives especially), and yet his expertise lay not so much in manipulating advanced recording equipment as in knowing precisely where to place the microphones: his discerning ear made for exceptionally fine instrumental balancing, so much so that his best analogue recordings continue to hold their own - even in comparison with their newest digital rivals.

Pfeiffer's awards were numerous: aside from the Grammys, there was the Grand Prix du Disque, "Record of the Year" (from both Stereo Review and High Fidelity) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Jack Pfeiffer produced numerous television musical "specials" featuring the likes of Leontyne Price, Vladimir Horowitz and Mstislav Rostropovich; he was himself both a performer and composer (he constructed electronic devices used in the generation of his own compositions), but in recent years his greatest claim to fame was as Compilation Producer for a whole sequence of re-issued recordings, many of which he had originally produced himself.

One of the first and biggest of these was the 82-CD "Toscanini Collection", a mammoth retrospective that gathered together all Toscanini's RCA recordings from the period 1920-54 and added significant broadcast material that had not previously been released commerically. Pfeiffer's diligence, professionalism and care for detail meant that, for the first time ever, full justice had been done to the recorded legacy of this most charismatic and controversial of conductors.

Next in line were the RCA "Living Stereo" recordings, benchmark interpretations (Heifetz in Beethoven and Brahms, Rubinstein in Franck and Saint-Saens, Reiner in Strauss, etc) that Pfeiffer refurbished to optimum standards, smoothing, clarifying and re-defining in terms of the latest digital re- mastering technology. "Living Stereo" (a conceptual throw-back from the 1950s and 1960s) reproduced origianl LP artwork and booklet notes, embraced both the classics and so-called musical "cross-over" and seems set to continue, whereas the 65-CD, Grammy-nominated "Heifetz Collection" marked a further step forwards in culling material not only from the vaults of RCA, but from anywhere else that the "Violinist of the Century" happened to record - including EMI, American Decca (Brunswick in the UK) and other independent sources.

Pfeiffer actually crossed the Atlantic to talk to us about it, recounting one anecdote after another and in doing so, providing an invaluable thumb- nail sketch of a notoriously elusive musician. But then Jack Pfeiffer was habitually respected by the artists he worked with. He made them feel comfortable, secure and, above all, he allowed them to be themselves. Which is perhaps why his records always tell an authentic tale. He didn't intervene, he just let the performers do their thing, making sure that what we heard is what he heard, and what they played. One could not possibly ask more of a record producer.

Robert Cowan

John Pfeiffer, record producer: born Tucson, Arizona 29 September 1920; died New York 8 February 1996.