by Neville Cohn
Not quite 80 years ago, a young employee – Walter Legge – of His Master’s Voice records came up with an idea to boost sales: a limited edition of HMV recordings of German lieder, all by Hugo Wolf, and these would be made available only to those who became members of the Hugo Wolf Society. Top liners such as Elena Gerhardt, John McCormack and Alexander Kipnis made these recordings. Most of the piano accompaniments were by Coenraad Bos. It was a revolutionary idea at the time. Those sets are now collectors’ items.
Cyrus Meher-Homji in Monte Carlo
Years later, there was another good idea at the dawn of the LP era: advertisements arrived by post offering an LP with accompanying booklet at a knockdown price. The writer, as a schoolboy growing up in provincial Cape Town, recalls the enthusiasm with which thousands ordered their first long playing records. But the recordings were of third rate musicians and the recorded sound was terrible. So, what ought to have been a clever and effective entree to the LP world was a fizzer.
The thought and care lavished on the first initiative and the slapdash nature of the LP venture exemplify the best and worst of the recording world.
A very much more recent development is the Eloquence series of compact disc recordings that are reaching an ever-growing number of listeners.
The brainchild of Cyrus Meher-Homji, these recordings are not only invariably of high standard but the product of the most careful consideration in relation to what works share the same disc.
Meher-Homji, whose energy and enthusiasm are bywords in the industry, works tirelessly to find, and present to best advantage, the cream of recorded music. Most, but not all, the material, would originally have been recorded on LP – but there are also tracks from as far back as the 78rpm shellac era. Unsurprisingly, the care lavished on Eloquence CDs has drawn favourable comment from leading figures in music journalism.
Tully Potter, author of the newly published book on Alfred Busch and contributor to several leading classical music publications, points out that “before I ever had anything to do with Cyrus Meher-Homji, I used to bring back copies of Eloquence CDs from my trips to Australia. The label seemed to be very well directed, with elegant, attractive packaging and good engineering, and it restored useful recordings to the catalogue”. As well, Potter makes the point that it is “difficult to explain to the modern record executive constantly talking about ‘product’, that many of us really love records.
“We loved 78rpm discs, we loved LPs and we have grown to love CDs. When we speak to Cyrus, we know instinctively that he is one of those rare people in the record industry who shares our enthusiasm.
“The CD explosion has been extraordinary, providing us with an unheard-of wealth of available music. Although I constantly hear irritating technocrats foretelling the death of the CD, I think it will see most of us out; and Eloquence will continue to please those of us who prefer something tangible to a mere download.”
With the unquenchable enthusiasm and optimism that he brings to his constant search for ever more material for the Eloquence range, Meher-Homji reminds one, in a sense, of Heinrich Schliemann. That famed archaeologist tracked down the golden treasure of ancient Troy and sent the naysayers, those who said it was a pipe dream, a wild goose chase, packing. Certainly, there’s musical gold in the LP and 78rpm treasures that Meher-Homji, a latter day musical Schliemann, has rescued from virtual oblivion.
Rob Cowan, Gramophone critic and BBC Radio 3 broadcaster, says:”There’s a common gripe amongst collectors in the UK about CD manufacturers and their planning staff: why do they keep re-issuing that same old material and, even more perplexing, why do they insist on coupling what they do reissue so badly?
“Then along comes Cyrus Meher-Homji and suddenly it seems that all our prayers are being answered at once………well, not all maybe, because his influence can’t extend beyond the Universal stable!
“Here is someone who is willing to cast a careful and knowing eye across back catalogues not merely in search of ‘big names’ (though they often feature on his schedules) but in the interests of the longer-term collectors whose vinyl days are over and who yearn to revisit a favourite recording that has long been deleted.”
Cowan points out that Ernest Ansermet’s 50-year-tenure as head of the Suisse Romande Orchestra yielded an avalanche of recordings, performances “notable for their logic, clarity, musical intuition, authentic feeling and, not infrequently, a sense of excited involvement.“ Now, Meher-Homji is doing sterling work in getting this musical treasure trove to a new audience.
Eloquence CDs are competitively priced. Meher-Homji says the low cost “attracts students especially, as well as the casual buyer. People shopping for Eloquence anecdotally seldom buy just a single CD. They feel courageous enough to flick through the range and purchase a handful.
“Retail price is $10 for a single, $15 for 2-CD sets up to $30 for 5-CD sets. By way of comparison, a single “full price” CD ranges anywhere from $24 to $38”, says Meher-Homji.
Getting Eloquence CDs from an idea to a place on the retail shelf is hugely time consuming – “sourcing the material from the archives, ordering the masters, often checking LP copies for timings where they don’t exist for older masters, commissioning the liner notes (and sometimes using the original LP notes), proofing the booklet, checking the masters with very keen ears”.
Meher-Homji points out, too, that almost 90% of his work on the Eloquence range is done after hours and at home. “There’s simply not the time to do it at work. In a sense, it’s my contribution to the record industry – sometimes at the expense of a life!”
Sales statistics speak for themselves. Over the last decade, an average of over 200,000 Eloquence CDs have marched off the shelves each year.
Meher-Homji is that rarity, an ideas man who has the capacity to bring those ideas to fruition.
Consider this: For some time now, those who attend opera productions at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth have had good reason to think well of the Eloquence series as Meher-Homji has ensured that an Eloquence CD featuring highlights of whatever opera is on, is available, as well as programmes, in the theatre foyers. For growing numbers of opera lovers, the CD is as much about the opera experience as anything.
Extolling Meher-Homji’s skill in compiling CDs – in relation, say, to Ansermet’s vast recorded output, Cowan writes: “Now there have been other Ansermet series around but only Cyrus has the imagination to – for example – produce a Prokofiev double-pack that includes both the mono and stereo versions of the ‘Classical Symphony’, interpretations that are chalk and cheese. All you need to do is play the first minute or so on both recordings to realise that. Most secondary exploitation’ managers would have chosen one or the other version, leaving you to follow your own curiosity, often at great expense.
“That’s the big difference”, writes Rob Cowan. “Cyrus’ CDs are well-planned, well filled, invariably well annotated and full of little unexpected extras, such as the (hitherto) unissued tracks on his Kirsten Flagstad CDs.
“But more than anything, they are the work of a man who cares, who has the collector’s interests at heart and for that reason has earned himself many well-deserved accolades. Long may he thrive.”