ANYONE who listens to classical music probably owns
at least a couple of records produced by John Culshaw. Between 1946 and 1967 he was the manager of the classical division of Decca Recording Company (aka London records). In this autobiography, nearly complete at the time of his death last year at age 55, Culshaw relates his professional encounters with conductors (Beecham, Solti, Karajan), singers (Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, Leontyne Price), performers (Clifford Curzon, Rubinstein), and composers (Benjamin Britten).
As a producer Culshaw was responsible for assembling musicians and singers, setting up recording schedules, overseeing engineers, placating spouses, maestros or bosses, and finishing the job on time and up to standards. During the period he worked for Decca--the present book ends just before he left in 1967 to become director of musical programming at the BBC--Culshaw helped transform a small, second-rate company into the most prestigious of European recording operations.
His special love being opera and vocal music, Culshaw recalls with particular pride the making of Solti's aurally- spectacular Das Rheingold, Karajan's sexual ecstatic Tristan und Isolde and Britten's moving War Requiem. Besides these high spots, he details the inner workings of Decca--it seems that none of its upper-level executives knew how a record was made--and recollects the antics of legendary musical figures.
Once conductor Ernst Ansermet played his recorded interpretations of Petrushka, The Fire Bird and The Rite of Spring for Stravinsky, at least 2 hours of music, during which the composer sat silently. "When the last note of the last work had sounded, even the taciturn Ansermet could not resist asking Stravinsky what he thought. 'I think,' Stravinsky said, 'there is something wrong with your pick-up.' " The musically meticulous George Szell, listening in on a piano concerto rehearsal with pianist Clifford Curzon and conductor Hans Knappertsbusch, sent a note to Curzon, "congratulating him on his performance, 'despite all that was going on around you.' " Recording a Mozart concerto, Rubinstein insisted that his piano "be relentlessly loud throughout, irrespective of dynamics, tone quality, or whatever Mozart might have written for the orchestra."
Culshaw's captivating, self-deprecating memoir concludes with a profile of the National Symphony's Mtislav Rostropovich in the early 1960s:
"I have never known anyone like Rostropovich, which is probably because there is nobody like him. A year or two earlier he had played virtually all the repertoire for cello and orchestra during a series of London concerts, and I came away convinced that he was indisuputably the greatest instrumentalist of our time. To my ear, he never made mistakes, either technically or musically, and his commitment to whatever he was playing seemed total. . . . In Kingsway Hall he worked as I had never, in all the years, seen an artist work before: he could hear, and wanted to correct, imperfections which were not always apparent to me or, I think, even to Britten. The orchestra observed all this with something like awe--yet he was not beyond turning to the first cellist and asking how he would bow or finger a particular passage. It was just a question of music-making, and nothing else (but nothing else) mattered."
This is an engaging autobiography by a man who was himself utterly mad about music. Readers who enjoy it should look up Culshaw's other books, especially Ring Resounding with its full account of Solti's recording of Wagner's Ring cycle.