The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Label News: Chandos goes to Naxos

  14th March 2024

14th March 2024

With the recently announced acquisition of Chandos Records by the founder of Naxos Records, Klaus Heymann, another leading independent classical label has passed to a larger company. Just last year, both the Swedish label BIS and the British firm Hyperion were snapped up, by Apple Music and Universal Music respectively. The press release issued to confirm the situation with Chandos spoke of a ‘synergy’ between Chandos and Heymann’s team, and stressed that ‘the label will remain independent long-term’. Chandos is currently run by Ralph Couzens (son of its founder, Brian Couzens), who ‘will remain responsible for running the company’, and its recording schedule will be uninterrupted.

All three of these independent labels – Chandos, BIS and Hyperion – could be said to be victims of their own success. BIS, with its strong emphasis on Scandinavian and Nordic music, had cemented its place in the market even before such ambitious projects as the recording of the complete music of Sibelius (including fragments and early versions), and all of Bach’s sacred and secular cantatas with Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan. Hyperion initially made its mark in lesser-known British music, but expanded to forge close relationships with such artists as Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin, as well as outstanding releases of early music (notably Handel and Purcell) and longer-term projects like the often revelatory Romantic Piano Concertos series.

Chandos started when Brian Couzens – who had previously engineered recordings for both Classics for Pleasure and RCA – set up his own record label in 1979. The timing was perfect: Chandos was one of the first independent classical labels to embrace the digital revolution, and soon became renowned for its unique, brilliantly engineered ‘Chandos Sound’. From Baroque repertoire, through lighter fare to neglected rarities, it too developed close bonds with leading artists such as Neeme Järvi, Vernon Handley, Richard Hickox, Tasmin Little and Collegium Musicum 90.

While Hyperion’s reputation was greatly enhanced by the landmark 1982 album of music by Hildegard of Bingen, ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ from Gothic Voices, Chandos’s ‘breakthrough’ moment came with more traditional repertoire: the critically-acclaimed series of Tchaikovsky symphonies recorded by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic. Chandos has made a particular impact in two areas: British music (including the complete symphonies of Vaughan Williams, Arnold and Bax) and film music, the latter reflecting Brian Couzens’s background as arranger for Ron Goodwin on such movies as 633 Squadron and Where Eagles Dare.

More recently, Chandos’s Music in Exile series and discs of music by Coleridge-Taylor, Amy Beach and Florence Price have demonstrated a commitment to moving with the times and helping to unearth neglected repertoire. Its partnership with conductor John Wilson – particularly with his hand-picked Sinfonia of London – was an astute move that has been lauded with critical superlatives, particularly in British music and the orchestral works of Ravel. With a release schedule of forty to fifty albums a year (that’s almost one release per week!), Chandos’s plans continue to be ambitious, and we wish them every success in their new ‘home’, particularly if the promised independence goes hand-in-hand with a sustained vision for the future.

The situation with all three of these labels raises the question of independence and distinctiveness in a market where critical and commercial success inevitably entails the need for larger resources and longer-term security. Whether these firms’ core identities will survive their recent takeovers is something that only time – not a couple of years, but a decade or so – will tell. With the major labels (Sony, DG and Decca, and Warner) increasingly reliant on star names, surefire commercial successes, crossover repertoire and ever more extensive reissue bundles, it’s the smaller companies that have continued to take the more adventurous decisions, unearthing neglected works and forging long-term partnerships with artists young and old. More than occasionally, it’s the ‘small fish’ – often under umbrella organisations like the Belgium-based Outhere Music, home to Alpha, Arcana and Ricercar among others – that have come to the rescue of an industry which has sometimes looked moribund and at risk of losing its way. As champions of adventurous programming and enduring creative partnerships, the independents are needed as never before.

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