Classical Record Producer Robina G. Young: Looking Back

By Bradley Bambarger <2010>

The best record producers share many qualities, though prime among them is being able to “get your ego out of the way,” insists Robina G. Young, one of the very best classical record producers, as well as artistic director of Harmonia Mundi USA. She adds: “My job is to help artists capture the best performance of their vision of a piece. Some artists need encouraging or even cushioning, while others need a gentle push. But a producer, even if she’s the label’s artistic director, is there to serve the artist, not the other way ’round.”

Young has produced some 400 recordings for Harmonia Mundi, and counting. For this interview, she was back at her company’s Los Angeles office after recording the Tokyo String Quartet and cellist David Watkin in Schubert’s String Quintet at Air Studios in London. But the producer wouldn’t be there long, as she would soon be off to a world apart: Goshen, Indiana, and the choir Conspirare singing spirituals in a Mennonite hall.

Raised in Yorkshire, England, Young balances her renowned acuity with whimsical charm, even approximating a routine by vintage British musical comedy act Flanders & Swann for the benefit of her American interviewer. Singing around the piano was a feature of Young’s childhood home, and she recalls: “My father was a radio engineer, too, so I grew up with some music always in the air. Moreover, it came via tube sound. I’m always after that sonic warmth in our productions.”

Trained as a keyboardist, Young joined parent company Harmonia Mundi France in 1979: Her first production was a solo harpsichord recital by William Christie, making for an auspicious debut. By 1982, she and her husband — René Goiffon, then export manager for HM France — came to L.A. to establish the HM USA subsidiary. With Goiffon an astute president (and eventual driver of the company’s world-music imprint), HM USA grew to produce one-third of Harmonia Mundi’s annual catalog. Young and Goiffon are “an ideal balance,” she says. “I’m Harmonia — he’s Mundi.”

It’s one of the Recording Academy’s shames that Young hasn’t yet topped her mantle with a Grammy Award for classical Producer of the Year — even though she has been nominated nine times since 1993. But her productions have won myriad individual honors. A recent highpoint centered on American post-minimalist composer David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, a setting of the tragic Hans Christian Andersen tale that won Lang a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Directed by longtime HM artist Paul Hillier, the album won a 2010 Grammy for Best Small Ensemble Performance.

Although the recording of The Little Match Girl Passion wasn’t a best-seller, it “was one of the most rewarding experiences you can have making a record,” Young maintains. “We knew we were capturing something that will continue to move people.” Looking back, Young notes a thread: “We’ve never gone for an easy buck. Harmonia Mundi’s culture is that we only put out things that are special. This has stood us in good stead. And being not just a record producer but also the label’s artistic director means that I have the privilege of only going into the studio with someone I greatly admire and often know very well. I’m a lucky girl.”

Handel: Ariodante

With Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the title role; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan, conductor

(Harmonia Mundi, 1996)

Young had a longtime working relationship with the late American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who died in 2006 at age 52). The producer helmed a version of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas starring Hunt Lieberson as the Queen of Carthage, and their series of Handel recordings form the core of the much-beloved singer’s discography. At the top of the list is Handel’s opera seria Ariodante with Hunt Lieberson in the title role.

“Lorraine was incandescent as Ariodante,” Young says. “It’s a smashing role — the character has seven huge arias. We recorded the opera in the town hall of Göttingen, Germany, after staged performances in a theater. The hall had good acoustics, and the singers were still right in their parts. They would stand in front of the microphones and act, giving the performances a theatrical edge. We did it all, three CDs’ worth, in just four days. It’s a challenge in making a strictly audio opera recording to get the excitement and movement across. You can only do that when people really feel the piece.

“Lorraine came totally prepared, knew exactly what she was doing, did it magnificently. She expected everyone around her to measure up to that standard. That’s not being diva-like in my book — it was helpful for me. I can imagine that as a co-performer it might have been intimidating to work with Lorraine, because her stage presence was riveting. She had star quality. Even now, I don’t think these arias have been bettered on disc. Her ‘Scherza Infida’ is absolutely heartbreaking, ‘Doppo Notte’ totally dazzling.

“Nic McGegan, the conductor and Handel Festival director in Göttingen, provided so much energy and expertise, all while enjoying himself. It wasn’t a walk in the park getting all that done in such a short time. But it’s one of the best things I’ll ever do. I don’t often play my own recordings, yet I will still pull out Ariodante when I need a boost.”

Tartini: The Devil’s Sonata

Andrew Manze, solo Baroque violin

(Harmonia Mundi, 1998)

Young also bonded on record with Andrew Manze, a specialist on the Baroque violin. Before Manze moved to conducting, they made essential discs that blended scholarship with an almost theatrical vibrancy; their catalog ranges from the “Phantasticus” school of early Baroque violin virtuosity to the later Bach, Corelli, Mozart and more, pairing Manze with keyboardist Richard Egarr, chamber group Romanesca and two top U.K. period-instrument orchestras, the English Concert and the Academy of Ancient Music. Young is partial to Manze’s strictly solo Tartini set.

“No offense to anybody else, but I consider Andrew far above anyone on the Baroque violin,” Young says. “He’s also a witty English gentleman. One of the reasons I treasure the Tartini is that it’s rare to work one-on-one with a string player. We did it at Skywalker Sound in Northern California. It’s a beautifully built studio, and because it’s in an isolated area, with no distractions, it was ideal for something as concentrated as 69 minutes of solo violin.

“In his liner notes, Andrew quotes a letter Tartini wrote that described how ‘The Devil’s Trill’ Sonata came to him in a dream: He handed his violin to the Devil, who played this amazing music. Tartini woke up in a sweat, tried to write down what he had heard. He maintained that it was a poor imitation of the music in the dream, yet he thought it was still the best piece he had ever written. Some have recorded the ‘Devil’s Trill’ with accompaniment; there is a very minimal ground bass indicated. Andrew made the case that Tartini wouldn’t necessarily have played a piece like that with such uninteresting accompaniment. So he opted for the solo challenge, an inspired notion.

“The key was managing the fatigue — it’s exhausting to play solo all the time, especially when you have the pressure of posterity; there isn’t one millisecond lacking in intensity. For me, this session was actually a nice change — I only had to follow one line of music at a time, instead of four or five things. One piece was in scordatura [an alternate tuning of the violin], and it was my first time working with that, where you’re looking at one note and hearing another. Later, Andrew and I did Biber’s ‘Rosary’ Sonatas: two CDs’ worth, and they’re all in scordatura. I miss Andrew not playing the violin much anymore, having gone over to conducting. But I’m not alone in that.”

Hildegard von Bingen: Origin of Fire

Anonymous 4

(Harmonia Mundi, 2005)

Known for their scholarship and purity of sound, the female a cappella quartet Anonymous 4 has put the most rarified music — European chant and polyphony as old as the 10th century — into the top reaches of the Billboard classical chart since the early 1990s. They even had a hit when stepping out with Americana spirituals on the album Gloryland. Young has been the group’s studio shepherd for virtually their entire journey. A vogue for the visionary music of Hildegard von Bingen produced several best-sellers, but none were more in tune with the spirit of the 12th-century abbess than Anonymous 4’s Origin of Fire.

“Hildegard was quite a gal,” Young says. “She didn’t just compose; she wrote theological texts and was an herbalist. She was ahead of her time, a self-possessed woman. We recorded in a chapel at the Christian Brothers retreat in Napa, California. The album includes some of Hildegard’s most beautiful and ambitious music. It just soars if you have the right acoustic, as we did. You can practically see the shape of the lines: The music is like a gothic building — it goes up and down in beautiful waves.

“Anonymous 4’s repertoire is very rare, sometimes music that hasn’t been heard for centuries. This makes it a challenge before the sessions because you can’t just buy a record to hear how it goes. You have to really learn it from the score. But I didn’t make my career in the line of producers doing Beethoven and Brahms. I cut my teeth with HM France doing things that had never been recorded before, working from manuscripts. That’s exciting, even freeing.

“Anonymous 4 always concentrate on crafting their justly famous vocal blend. But when you hear the individual girls’ voices while they’re warming up, they are quite different. But the sum of the parts is so much greater. They work hard, rehearsing in minute detail — and that sort of blend doesn’t just happen. They are four dedicated musicians. And their solidarity is strong. It’s like with a string quartet: You can’t not get along — you deal with things and get on with it.”

John Tavener: Eternity’s Sunrise, etc.

Andrew Manze, violin; Patricia Rozario, soprano; Academy of Ancient Music; Paul Goodwin, conductor

(Harmonia Mundi, 1999)

A blend of the ancient and the modern, John Tavener’s orchestral-vocal work Eternity’s Sunrise revolves around themes of love, death and faith in the beyond — as do this album’s accompanying pieces, including the moving Funeral Canticle. Aptly, they were recorded in an otherworldly space: the City of London’s Temple Church, where bodies of 12th-century Knights Templar are buried beneath stone effigies on the floor. Tavener, 66, has said that this album is his favorite recording of his music, for the sensuality, intimacy and “quality of longing” achieved by the Academy of Ancient Music’s gut strings (senza vibrato), Baroque lute and archaic winds and percussion.

“At first, I was scared stiff working with a living composer, let alone someone of the stature of Sir John Tavener,” Young recalls. “Yet he turned out an absolute lamb. John knew what he wanted, but he was so charming and encouraging of everyone’s talents. I have worked with Arvo Pärt now, too, and they share those qualities. I wish I could’ve had George Frideric Handel on some sessions! It would have made things a lot easier. Or perhaps not. He was supposed to have been jovial, but tempestuous, too. Supposedly, he got so mad at one of his sopranos that he threatened to hang her out the window by her feet until she sang something his way…

“At John’s behest, though, we did have to experiment. He wanted the solo violin to be especially ethereal in Song of the Angel. We achieved that by putting Andrew Manze down the church away from the orchestra. John loved that sort of thing. This was the first time he had written for period instruments, and John was enthralled by their sound. Gut strings are less forgiving than steel strings, but that means these players are better musicians for it, making the most of the challenges with a light technique.

“We had to space the orchestral players between the effigies of the knights on the Temple Church floor. It was very atmospheric. You’re dealing with music that is about death, the afterlife and things spiritual, and there are all these ancient dead guys under the floor. No one tripped over them, I’m glad to say.”

(Originally published in the winter 2010 issue of Listen magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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