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HARMONIA MUNDI : The Fancy Classical Firm on the Other Side of the Tracks

October 25, 1987|HERBERT GLASS

It's situated practically under the Santa Monica Freeway, near the confusingly busy intersection of Robertson and Venice boulevards, cheek by jowl with a typesetting shop, a floral designer and a wholesale butcher. A few steps away there's an almost unobstructed view of the vast noodle factory which is the neighborhood's landmark and principal employer.

The wags among the inhabitants call the area "Beverly Hills South." In reality, it's a low-rise, relatively low-rent, light-industrial pocket of Los Angeles-almost- c ulver City at its most functionally anonymous. An unlikely location for a fancy musical enterprise with the flossy name of Harmonia Mundi U.S.A.

The operation is the joint responsibility of a quick-witted, highly strung woman from the north of England named Robina Young and a pensive Parisian named Rene Goiffon, whose measured remarks tend usually to convey a sense of foreboding.

Both are in their early 40s and veteran staffers of parent company Harmonia Mundi France, one of Europe's most respected highbrow, high-tech recording companies.

HM U.S.A., in the mere 5 1/2 years of its existence, has pulled a switch on the notion of European conquest of the New World, basing their activities not on the presumption of Americans' cultural naivete, but rather on respect for their artistic discrimination.

The company has made its impact neither through crossover repertory nor the Classical Top 40, but with such esoterica as Bach organ music, piano compositions by the contemporary American Milton Babbitt, the orchestral output of British post-Romantic Arnold Bax, medieval choral works and Baroque music in period-instrument interpretations.

The peculiar, rather elitist glamour of HM U.S.A. has been achieved without a single Itzhak, Kiri, Luciano or Vladimir on its roster. Rather, there's a Robert (pianist Taub); a couple of Nicholases (conductors McGegan and Herreweghe); at least one Rene (in this instance, Clemencic, scholar, conductor and virtuoso on antique wind instruments); an Alfred (surname Deller, the late British countertenor); and a Hildegard: the 11th-Century German abbess-composer, of all people.

With that partial lineup, Harmonia Mundi U.S.A. is able to support a rather astounding statistic: It is responsible for about 20% of the titles of all classical compact discs found in American retail outlets.

In other words, approximately 1,000 of the 5,000 available classical titles are either made (i.e., recorded) or distributed by HM. Not the same as 20% of the gross, but hugely impressive nonetheless.

HM U.S.A. embraces a broad, untraditional musical mix that has been gobbled up by an audience more affluent than numerous, "a clientele"-- Goiffon pronounces it the French way--"of professional people: physicians, lawyers, scientists and, of course, musicians."

Young, her British-accented tones readily rising in pitch, adds, as if expecting to be challenged, "Ours are serious listeners, not people who use recordings to provide background noises." With the sound, say, of Babbitt's jagged pianistic musings or a florid aria from a rare Baroque opera of Lully in mind, one hesitates to doubt her word.

Before any credit can be given Young and Goiffon for all of this bounty, they are quick to point out that the major share of HM U.S.A.'s business remains the distribution of recordings rather than their production.

The trend, however, is beginning to go a bit more toward their own American-made material, such as their recordings of the excellent San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and its conductor, Nicholas McGegan, which Young personally produces.

HM U.S.A.'s distribution is, in fact, not limited to French or American Harmonia Mundi products. Among the success stories in which Young and Goiffon have played a part is that of Britain's Chandos label.

Chandos' original--and hardly diminished--appeal was for listeners at the technological high end of recording.

But the richly detailed Chandos sonics have always been allied to offbeat repertory, by the likes of British composers Bax, Elgar and John Ireland; ballet music by Respighi (ever heard of his "Belkis, Queen of Sheba"?--neither, one would guess, had many of the 10,000 customers who have plunked down upwards of $15 for a copy of the CD); orchestral works of the Irishman Sir Hamilton Harty (better known as a conductor); and the first CD set of the complete Prokofiev symphonies, led by the rising Soviet emigre conductor Neeme Jarvi.

Some of HM U.S.A.'s biggest names are on another label they distribute, Orfeo, a German company recently resurrected after its president walked off with a few million marks of the firm's assets, creating the kind of scandal in Europe one thought possible only in the American megabuck world of pop.

Orfeo's artists include conductors Colin Davis, Rafael Kubelik and Carlos Kleiber, singers Margaret Price, Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Edita Gruberova.

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