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Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn, who died at his home on February 18, was a colossus of the record industry. Though active in all spheres of recording, he will probably be best remembered for his work in opera and with singers – his very last recording was Cecilia Bartoli’s CD, Maria Malibran.

Born on July 31, 1928 Raeburn was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford University. Having decided to work in the theatre, he gained an ASM job at the Mermaid Theatre at the time of Bernard Miles’ famous production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Kirsten Flagstad.

In 1954, he joined the Decca Record Company but, having won a Leverhulme scholarship for three years, he moved to Vienna to undertake research for a documentary study of Mozart. Though he didn’t complete his work, he nonetheless became an acknowledged authority on the composer.

In 1958 he rejoined Decca, becoming one of a legendary trio comprising himself, John Culshaw and Erik Smith – the chief architects of what came to be known as the Decca sound. They also produced some of the label’s earliest stereo operas, notably Peter Grimes, conducted by the composer, and the first complete studio recording of Wagner’s Ring, conducted by Georg Solti. The latter is still considered by many to be a benchmark version.

Raeburn’s first solo production, in 1959, was of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, with Leontyne Price and Sena Jurinac. Thereafter, he produced a host of fine operatic recordings, among my favourites an electrifying Turandot, starring Dame Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, and a superb Tosca, with Leontyne Price in the title role, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. He also produced the first of the Three Tenors concerts.

Away from opera, he master-minded Vladimir Ashkenazy’s cycles of the complete piano concertos of Beethoven and Mozart, established a close working relationship with Andr√°s Schiff and produced many Lieder recitals. His guidance and encouragement account for the mezzo Cecilia Bartoli’s phenomenal success, and for Angelika Kirschlager’s steady rise to stardom.

Raeburn’s outstanding achievements in opera derive from his ability to centre its drama, to conjure the theatricality at its core. “What I want to get onto the recording is a genuine theatrical atmosphere, because the theatre is the heart of opera,” he said.

He did so without gimmickry, though he was fully alive to all technical possibilities. He was, too, uniquely sympathetic towards singers. “I try to construct an environment where they can flourish, rather than impose any preconceived opinion or prejudice of my own upon them,” he said.

Sutherland considered him “a superb musician”. Pavarotti admired his “very serious musical intelligence – he understands the particular language of the voice, the interpretation and he is someone I could always trust and rely on”. Singers treasured his sense of humour and appreciated his sensitivity to their needs.

His remarkable career did not go unrecognised. The Vienna Philharmonic presented him with the Franz Schalk Medaille, an honour usually reserved for conductors. In 2002 he received the MIDEM Lifetime Achievement Award and at the 2007 Gramophone Awards a Special Achievement Award for his contribution to sound production. He was hailed as “one of the great heroes of classical music, a man of unswerving honesty, integrity and expertise”. Of how many in the business can one say that now?

David Blewitt

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