Decca has released the sad news of the death of Christopher Raeburn, one of the greatest classical record producers in history, only a matter of days after the death of one of his long-term colleagues, the legendary sound engineer James Lock.
Between them, the pair notched up just under a hundred years of service for Decca, had been instrumental in creating the label's sonic and artistic identity and been behind many of the Twentieth Century's greatest recordings.
It seems particularly sad that this news comes only shortly after announcements of upheaval at Universal that many have interpreted as sounding the death knell for Decca as a label with its own identity.
Raeburn was appointed the company's Director of Opera Productions in 1975 and remained employed as a Recordings Producer until 1991. He was responsible for many of the great recordings that form the foundations of the recorded opera catalogue and helped Decca feel able to appoint themselves 'The Opera Company', an epithet that has quietly slipped off their boxed sets and promotional materials over the last decade.
Raeburn was an early authority on the performance of Mozart operas in the eighteenth century and spent three years on a Leverhulme Scholarship in Vienna researching the subject shortly after his first becoming employed by Decca in 1954.
John Culshaw wrote of the legendary Vienna Philharmonic Ring cycle which was recorded by Decca starting in the late 50s and on which Raeburn was also involved. Raeburn's own projects, such as Solti's Rosenkavalier (recorded in 1968), were carried out with just the same lofty aims, many of which were made clear in an artical written for Gramophone at the time: the music and the composer's wishes were to be put ahead of everything; practical or financial hurdles were negotiated and invariably overcome with a mixture of idealism and sheer ingenuity. The casting was inevitably luxurious – in the Rosenkavlier a young Luciano Pavarotti sang the Italian Tenor and Anton Dermota the Landlord – but never superfluously so. Recording was not seen as an inferior record of a performance in the theatre, but was to be thought of as a musically and dramatically satisfying alternative in its own right.
Other recordings made by Raeburn and Lock include the famous Fille du Regiment starring Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti, Karajan's Madama Butterfly with Pavarotti and Mirella Freni; Sutherland's second Lucia di Lammermoor; Solti's recording of Lohengrin with Jessye Norman and Placido Domingo; Christoph Dohnanyi's double-bill of Wozzeck and Erwartung with Eberhard Wächter and Anja Silja.
Although John Culshaw was the producer of Solti's famous recordings with Birgit Nilsson of Salome and Elektra, Raeburn and Lock headed the large team of producers and engineers that worked on the culmination of Solti's series of Strauss opera recordings, the multi-award winning Die Frau ohne Schatten set down in 1989 and 1991.
The opera's creators saw it as the 'last Romantic opera', and in retrospect it's difficult not to see this recording as the last great product of a culture at Decca of artistic idealism, seemingly free of compromise, whose greatest aim was to serve the composer and the work.
Tributes have been flooding in for both men and Christopher Roberts, President Classics & Jazz, Universal Music Group International made the following comment, attempting also to allay wide-spread fears for Decca's future.
'Christopher and James' legacies are incalculable as both worked for decades on hundreds of recordings that will always be listened to and enjoyed by millions of people. Their work for Decca will live on, as will the work they did for so many musicians and musical organisations all of whom found their guidance and support invaluable. Everyone at Decca is committed to producing great recordings for future generations and in so doing will honour their memory and contribution to the company. Our thoughts and condolences go out to both families at this time.'
Mirella Freni paid tribute to Raeburn 'as one of the finest recording producers in classical music... I doubt there has been anyone with a better set of ears, a more total dedication to music and the gift to speak so constructively and honestly with artists.' Joan Sutherland also paid tribute to Lock, whom she described as 'brilliant, able to capture our sound as if we were on stage giving a live performance'.
With a joint legacy running into hundreds of recordings – many of them still peerless in the catalogue – both Lock and Raeburn will live on for as long as there's still an appetite for great music recorded with great skill and unflinching artistic integrity. Music-lovers everywhere hope that promises to honour their memory with further commitment to recorded opera in particular will come to fruition.
By Hugo Shirley