Savvy and Serendipity

Avie Records marks ten years in partnership with its artists.
By Bradley Bambarger

The raison d'ętre of Avie Records, an independent record company, isn't a distinctive artist-and-repertoire vision or a unique sound or look. What Avie has is a very twenty-first-century business model. After the contraction of the classical record market, there were countless musicians — veterans and newcomers, major players and niche talents — who wanted to release recordings but didn't want the responsibility of running their own labels (or for their records to be seen as vanity productions).

Avie aimed to fill that need, primarily handling the packaging, manufacturing, distribution, sales and marketing of an artist's recording, but sometimes the A&R supervision and record production, too. The company partners fifty-fifty with its artists, and unlike the traditional record-business way, the musicians retain ownership of the masters and copyrights. Avie is a service company, with the brand focusing more on the artist than the label.

Avie is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, and the past decade has seen the company produce some two hundred fifty albums. Composer-harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock — once a flagship artist of Deutsche Grammophon's early-music imprint, Archiv — turned to Avie to release recordings of Bach chamber music and Rameau keyboard works. He also raised the money to fund his revisiting of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos with a handpicked ensemble; the Avie release was a best seller.

When the major labels long associated with guitarist Julian Bream declined to release a documentary film on his career, Avie was glad to take on the DVD — and another best seller resulted. The company has had many other big hits, from late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's final Handel recording to former Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord's light-classical fare.

Such veterans as pianist Imogen Cooper and Baroque violinist Monica Huggett have albums in the Avie catalog, as do mid-career artists like cellist Antonio Meneses and pianist Andreas Haefliger; then there are such promising young talents as violinist Augustin Hadelich and guitarist Mattias Jacobsson. The early-music ensemble La Serenissima, led by violinist Adrian Chandler, has virtually grown up with Avie, releasing eleven albums. Avie has associations with orchestras, too; Germany's WDR Sinfonie-Orchester Köln has released Shostakovich symphonies and an entire Brahms cycle under conductor Semyon Bychkov via the label.

Avie is run by two music-business veterans (who are life partners, too): British native Simon Foster and American-born Melanne Mueller. Both are formerly of the major-label classical business and split their time between the U.K. and the U.S. Although the collapse of brick-and-mortar retail and the recent Eurozone troubles have presented challenges to Avie, "keeping ourselves a small, focused operation has helped," Mueller says.

Success has been bred from "a combination of serendipity and savvy," says Foster. "We have a lot of experience in sniffing out good things, fresh ideas."

J.S. Bach
Brandenburg Concertos
European Brandenburg Ensemble
Trevor Pinnock, conductor (2007)

As a sort of sixtieth birthday present to himself, conductor- harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock revisited Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, which he first recorded with his English Concert in 1982 to great acclaim for Archiv/DG. The new set of concerts led to this recording with a select ensemble of players from various generations and countries. Pinnock said the goal was "to cut through any narrow preconceptions of period style." The result was overly familiar music made utterly fresh, with textures piquant, the phrasing warm, and tempos as natural as breath. Even the most jaded listener might fall for this.

Julian Bream: My Life in Music
Directed by Paul Balmer (2003) (DVD)

After Segovia, Julian Bream is the most iconic of classical guitarists, famed not only for mastering the standard repertoire but expanding it — having commissioned and/or premiered works by Britten, Walton, Takemitsu, Henze, Brouwer and Malcolm Arnold, among many others. That's not to mention the Englishman's exploration of the lute and his championing of John Dowland. My Life in Music is one of the most engaging and complete classical documentaries ever; the DVD includes charming interviews with Bream and priceless footage of him hustling Stravinsky and improvising with Ali Akbar Khan, plus an hour's worth of complete performances of Britten, De Falla, Villa-Lobos and more.

Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, Takemitsu, Satoh
Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Li Jian, piano (2004)

Although she made several starry discs for RCA in the nineties, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers has since followed a more interesting path as a free agent. With this album, she traces the long line of mutual influence between French and Japanese composers; the program ranges from the prewar sonatas of Debussy and Ravel to the evocative soundscapes of Toru Takemitsu's Distance de fée and Somei Satoh's Birds in Warped Time II. The centerpiece and highlight is Messiaen's early Thčme et variations, a marvel of energized melody. If the Takemitsu isn't as dreamy as it should be, the Messiaen benefits from the violinist's rhythmic verve.

Hans Gál
Complete works for piano
Leon McCawley, piano (2005)

Avie has partnered closely with the estate of Hans Gál (1890-1987). The Austrian composer wrote hit operas in the 1930s, but was one of many musicians to never recover career momentum after being driven out of Europe by Hitler. Gál escaped to the U.K., teaching and helping to establish the Edinburgh International Festival. Much of his music — from solo piano pieces and chamber music to concertos and symphonies — lay unperformed and unpublished for decades. Avie has worked with various conductors and instrumentalists to disseminate Gál's music on record; with this three-CD set, the composer's piano works have a razor-sharp advocate in Leon McCawley. This collection includes the Bachian 24 Preludes and 24 Fugues, the latter of which Gál composed as a ninetieth birthday present to himself.

George Frideric Handel - Arias
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano;
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Harry Bicket, conductor (2004)

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel album on Avie — arias from the oratorio Theodora and opera Serse, plus the early cantata La Lucrezia — was one of the beloved singer's last great recordings, issued not long before her death at age fifty-two. Characteristically, the mezzosoprano's performances are stylishly acute and strikingly dramatic; the period-instrument accompaniment by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is state-of-the-art.

George Frideric Handel
Six "Cello" Sonatas
The Brook Street Band (2006)

The Brook Street Band, a British periodinstrument chamber collective, has released a series of imaginative Handel discs via Avie, none more enjoyable than this set of his six "Cello" Sonatas. The title quotes stem from the fact that Handel never wrote cello sonatas; these were transcribed from the originals for recorder by harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley, who partners with cellist Tatty Theo. The music is wonderfully tuneful — typical for Handel, some melodies are recognizable from other of his works — and played with earthy relish.

Jacques Ibert
Persée et Andromčde, La Ballade de la geôle de Reading, et cetera
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg
Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor (2002)

Although not the most high-profile item in the Avie catalog, this disc devoted to French composer Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) is one of the most enterprising. Just after World War II, composer Henri Dutilleux described Ibert as "the most authentically French of contemporary composers," praising his gift for subtle, color-rich orchestration. Unfortunately, Ibert was also unfashionable in a postwar era of high modernism. Performed and recorded with a keen sense of atmosphere, the disc combines the lovely short opera Persée et Andromčde of 1929 with a dark-hued tone poem inspired by Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol and a ballet extract, Saraband pour Dulcinée

John Jenkins
Six-Part Consorts
Phantasm (2006)

British viola da gamba consort Phantasm has recorded albums for multiple labels, including its sets of Purcell and Gibbons. Along with a hit Gibbons disc and a collection of sixteenth-century English music called Four Temperaments, the group's Avie relationship has yielded two albums devoted to the consort music of English composer John Jenkins (1592-1678). Influenced by John Dowland and William Lawes, the rich fantasies, pavanes and in nomine pieces in this set of six-part consorts were aptly described in the day as full of "divine raptures," "pathetical stories" and "sublime discourses." It's hard to imagine them played better than they are here by Phantasm.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Dances, et cetera
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Vasily Petrenko, conductor (2010)

Never mind Rachmaninoff's symphonies, the composer's orchestral masterpiece is the dark, dramatic tone poem Isle of the Dead, a deeply moving work that shows the twentieth-century Romantic at his most modern. Russian-born up-and-comer Vasily Petrenko, working wonders as chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic, leads a ravishingly played and produced performance that blends swirling, surging power with raretextural transparency. At twenty-one minutes, it's quicker than some, but Petrenko's urgency doesn't shortchange the phrasing. He does rush some in the Symphonic Dances triptych, but capping the disc is an account of the early tone poem The Rock that's as persuasive as any.

Tudor City
New York Polyphony (2010)

Avie has been eager to form partnerships with young American artists, the singers of New York Polyphony among them. Following a well-received disc of Christmas-themed music (I sing the birth), New York Polyphony — countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Geoffrey Silver, baritone Scott Dispensa, bass Craig Phillips — released Tudor City, which combines works by English composers from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries (Dunstable, Lambe, Taverner, Tye, Tallis, Corynish, Byrd) with four newly commissioned pieces by Liverpool native Andrew Smith (born in 1970). The production is highly atmospheric, having been recorded in Manhattan's vast Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the singing beautiful yet organic. Smith's pieces often reference the English tradition, fitting in seamlessly.

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