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Jesper Buhl, Danacord

Article in 'Gramophone Explorations', vol. 1 no. 1:

Jesper Buhl, Managing Director of Danacord, is a record enthusiast of the first order: in fact, it was his frustration with record companies' apathy that inspired him to found his own label in 1979.

If there's anyone out there who feels jaded by the increasingly pressured business of classical CDs, I'd recommend a healthy dose of Jesper Buhl. Denmark's "man about CDs" inaugurated the Danacord label back in 1979 "as a protest against the current industry". He'd been studying piano at the Royal Danish Academy, needed some cash and took a job in a local record store. "I found myself looking out for records that didn't actually exist," he said, "and 1 asked the record companies why these records hadn't been made. "There would be no interest in them," they told me, "we'd be lucky to sell any!" So I thought, why not try and do it all myself? Then, I asked the companies' advice. "No way," they said, "don't even think about starting your own label ...". So I reckoned that if they had said that to me, they'd probably have said the same sort of thing to anyone else who wanted to start a record company. Hence the fact that for many years I had the market to myself."

Buhl's first project involved Finn Viderø, a famous Danish organist who played Nielsen's Commotio to the composer but who never took the work into the recording studio. Buhl managed to locate an eight-track cassette `test' recording which Viderø himself thought highly of and was happy to see released. It was a considerable success. Buhl now smiles gratefully as he contemplates a catalogue of some 400-500 issues, with the better part of 200 currently available on CD. Subsequent releases included a huge series devoted to Lauritz Melchior and historical live recordings taken from the archives of Danmarks Radio featuring the likes of Gigli, Landowska, Horowitz, Busch (Adolf and Fritz), Stravinsky, Fitelberg, Malko, Milstein and Serkin - semi-official `bootlegs' beautifully engineered (although the music, for the most part, consists of fragments). Nielsen's music was writ large: a Helios Overture under Fritz Busch, excerpts from the Sinfonia espansiva under Launy Grøndahl and, most impressive of all, a virtually complete Fifth Symphony under a conductor who was a colleague of Nielsen at the Royal Theatre and who brought Parsifal to Denmark, Georg Høeberg. The recording was made during February 1933 and will shortly reappear in the sixth and final volume of Danacord's "Carl Nielsen Collection". But that's not all. "We've discovered a recording of the Second Symphony that Thomas Jensen made during the German occupation of Denmark," says Buhl excitedly, "and because shellac was in short supply at the time, only one copy was pressed - and that went to Jensen himself. The metal parts were subsequently destroyed but this single set has survived. And what's really interesting is that, 12 or so years earlier, older members of the orchestra had played the symphony under Nielsen himself."

Still, we're jumping the gun a little. Buhl's `interim' projects have been both varied and plentiful. Nielsen has been handsomely represented by an historic collection that embraces the symphonies, chamber works, operas, choral works and piano music, much of it taken from precious - and invariably good-quality - radio broadcast tapes. Danacord also issued the very first edition of Ignaz Friedman's complete recordings (a five-LP set) and the first set of Buxtehude organ works to be based on the original manuscripts. During the same period, Buhl released recordings of music by a Danish late romantic `unknown', Rued Langgaard (1893-1952). "Danish Radio had broadcast two of his symphonies - the Fourth and the Sixth - plus the astonishing Music of the Spheres and we were able to bring them out on disc, thanks to the Langgaard Foundation." Buhl regrets that Danish musicians, like those of other small countries, tend to undervalue the music of their own composers: "and so I knew that if I wanted to record all 16 Langgaard symphonies, I'd have to bring them out of Denmark. I wanted to have fresh eyes look them over." He describes the Langgaard story as "the opposite of Hans Christian Anderson: Langgaard started out as a beautiful swan and ended up an ugly duckling! He was always looked upon in that way." An objective view was sorely needed, so Buhl contacted the Lithuanian conductor Ilya Stupel. "I showed him the scores without telling him who had written them, and he said, `I haven't a clue who this is ... It might be Richard Strauss or even Franz Schreker.' Stupel was conducting one of the best orchestras in Poland; it had just been renamed the Arthur Rubinstein Orchestra, and when I contemplated what I wanted to do I felt as if I was looking at the moon and asking NASA for a place on the next space-ship! Record 16 symphonies on seven CDs`? It would cost at least as much as four rain forests, and there was I with just enough money for a bus ticket!" Buhl being Buhl, he made the `impossible' happen: three and-a-half years and 16 symphonies later, he could proudly announce the success of the venture, although with a certain regret that a critical minority seemed not to understand the true nature of the music. Other Danish rarities that he's recorded include a huge, Nielsen-soundalike Symphony by Poul Schierbeck and the four symphonies of Victor Emanuel Bendix, "a friend of Nielsen and a pupil of Liszt. We've recorded them in Russia under Mravinsky's assistant Yevgeny Shestakov."

As for other Buhl `private passions', there's Anton Rubinstein's Fourth Piano Concerto, with the young Russian pianist Oleg Marshev, again under Stupel. "Marshev was not doing any recordings at that time because the Soviet Union had recently broken into pieces. He had just signed a contract with Melodiya." Buhl had Marshev tape virtually all of Prokofiev's piano music and I have to concede that it's probably the best set available. Another estimable pianist currently in the Buhl camp is Geoffrey Douglas Madge (remember his Busoni on Philips?) and the Danacord catalogue now boasts his renditions of the Medtner and Gershwin pianoconcertos, not to mention his contribution to eight dazzling volumes of "Rarities of `Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum", a positive windfall of unusual miniatures featuring the likes of Marc-Andre Hamelin, Bengt Forsberg, Sergio Fiorentino, Hamish Milne, Stephen Hough, Michael Ponti, Idil Biret, Alexei Lubimov, Bernard Ringeissen ... you name them!).

Among the most distinguished of Danacord's principal artists is cellist Erling Bløndal Bengtsson. "I still consider him one of the best living cellists," says Buhl, and I'd certainly concur. He was at the big Cello Festival at Manchester a few months ago and, according to Buhl, "countless visitors were complaining because they couldn't get into his master classes. The truth was that all the other cello professors had beaten them to it! Not long ago we were recording Kodaly's great solo sonata. You know that the last movement is virtually unplayable. Anyway, we recorded it, we went back, made a few `corrections' - and then Bengtsson came out and said "I want to do it once more, just for fun!" And that's the version we use on the record: it's twice as fast as the ones he did before, and there's not a single edit!"

Buhl has now released a ten-CD collection of Danish violin concertos. "The recordings were made between 1965 and 1972, and feature Kai Laursen, for many years leader of the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra and one of the finest violinists you could imagine. He's one of those rare musicians who prefers the comforts of home and family to the `big time'. It was in the mid-1960s that he started to record for Danish Radio - more or less every Danish violin concerto in existence, from the time of Weyse up to around 1950: that's approximately 27 works in all. We've now had permission to publish these recordings and they're going to come out both as separate CDs and as a big box. The sound is fantastic for the time and the conductors involved include Mariss Jansons, Ole Schmidt, and so on."

Underway is a series devoted to the recordings of the great Danish tenor Aksel Schiøtz (ten `well-crammed' volumes in all, eight now released). Danacord's earliest successes included five LPs of Schiøtz material that had, up to that point, never been released on vinyl, but now Buhl has another treasure up his sleeve. "About a month ago [during April], I just happened to be talking to a Swedish journalist who told me that Aksel Schiøtz had given a concert in Sweden during the Second World War. It consisted of various Handel arias, with Mogens Woldike conducting. I asked him whether the concert had been recorded and he told me that it hadn't, but - and this is really exciting - a sound engineer had, for some strange reason, recorded the rehearsals. Now we've discovered a 20-minute sequence, including three items in fantastic sound."

Jesper Buhl is incorrigible: so many ideas, so much energy, and - most important of all - so much genuine love of music. Spend a couple of hours in his company, and you want to rush home and listen to every available Danacord CD. That's salesmanship.

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