Error processing SSI file

An interview with Robert von Bahr


BIS is 30 this year and the owner/engineer/music-lover Robert von Bahr has every right to be proud of his achievement. The entire CD catalogue is still available so if anything mentioned below appeals, you can get it.

My remit was to extract from RVB his owner’s perspective on the achievements of three decades so I started by asking about his approach to recording and how he paid his musicians and engineers. Do his orchestras get flat fees, royalties or what? Are engineers contracted per recording or for a series? Could he give me some idea of the costs for a typical recent orchestra recording? His reply not only answered my question but revealed some of his most fervently held beliefs about the availability of music to the public. As with all his (email) replies I have left editing to a minimum.

We do not pay flat fees, but try to form a partnership in the form of a goodly sized royalty portion for the Artists. This has several advantages: we are all getting paid from how the record sells, which in many cases is rather more than a flat fee would have been and, of course, we are able to do more daring programmes when the initial outlay isn't totally crippling.

We employ our own fulltime producers and engineers and, when we are overtaxed (I think he means the work load, not Sweden’s famous fiscal policy!), have a pool of their colleagues, all coming from Detmold in Germany, to turn to.

The real stumbling block, still, is the exorbitant fees that some publishers, luckily not all, are asking for letting someone take a huge risk in recording works that they don't always know themselves that they have. Not being content with cashing a large part of the copyright fees that we pay upon selling the CD, they want to have a huge fee for sending the materials (scores and parts) to us for the recording, materials that often are in such a condition that the recording has to be postponed or even cancelled. The asking price can very well be up to 55 Pounds Sterling per begun minute of music on CD - not that we ever pay that. For a 70-minute CD that alone would take care of all the surplus generated by the selling of the first 2 to 3 thousand copies. Knowing well that many CDs never get above this number this means that there is no money to start defraying the other recording and production costs, like travel, hotel, per diem payments, rent of hall, wear and tear of equipment, salaries to the producer and engineer, studio costs, editing and other trifles. This inevitably means that some very worthy composers simply cannot get recorded, at least not by us. This is not only a pity, it is scandalous, since there isn't basically anyone else to take up the slack!

Raising my head above the battlements after that volley had passed safely over (and I suspect the late Ted Perry of Hyperion is cheering from up above), I asked about the recording equipment that used to be carted to venues in the boot of a car, and that was in the days of huge, analogue Revox open-reel tape recorders. Why was it now necessary to fly, in his words, "half-a-ton", of kit to make recordings? What has changed to make a small DAT machine, or now a DVD recorder, inadequate? Who decides on the simplicity of his mic arrays? Does he arrange mics to match a philosophy of minimalism? Is the sound the thing, regardless of how many mics it takes? His response was both confident but unexpectedly humble for a man with such an engineering reputation.

This question is put to the wrong person. I still maintain that, given a perfect hall and superb musicians, minimal equipment is enough. Having said that, I must admit that my boys and girls are getting results out of the usage of this half-a-ton that I could only dream of. Frankly, as long as nothing is distorted or created by the engineer (and they don't do either) I don't care so much about the "how", only the "wow" that their expertise brings in CD after CD. They follow the main principles that I have laid down hard and fast, like no compression, an honest sound etc. But they go about it in a different way, and their results are generally superior, which has given BIS the reputation we enjoy today. I can only bow my head to their talent. The only credit I can take is that I chose them in the first place to work for BIS. And, yes, the sound is the thing, as long as there is no cheating going on.

Being of a certain age myself I asked if he ever still advertised audio warnings about the dynamic range of his CDs. Was it a marketing ploy and did it work?

No, I don't any more, but it was anything but a ploy. The very first CD I released was a Kroumata percussion group CD (CD-232). It had (and still has) a huge dynamic. It was played uncompressed on Australian Radio as an experiment, and my warning sign did indeed save me from a couple of law suits from irate people with wrecked equipment. So, yes, it worked!

Wishing to give a fellow old-timer every opportunity to ride my hobby horses I asked if, since he started with a Revox, did analogue still hold any attractions, or was it genuinely dead for him? Is SACD real progress in sound quality or a marketing bandwagon he has to ride? Why has he not gone for DVD-Audio, or indeed Digital Theatre Sound (DTS) or Dolby Digital? Could he foresee a BIS 7 or 10-channel carrier one day? His answers gave no succour to the "Golden Ears" who still hate digital, and might give an anonymous executive somewhere a red face.

I am so old that, when I started, there was no alternative. Digital recording, as it stands now, is genuinely better. It is nice to be able to reproduce exactly what the musicians do, without having pre- and post-echoes or tape hiss to worry about. If you reduce levels in order to avoid the echoes the huge dynamics of some musicians could then neither be stored nor reproduced. Now the DSD system (Direct Stream Digital, employed on "true" SACD issues wherein old-fashioned CD-type Pulse Code Modulation is not used) seems to be able to give the "analogue" touch to a digital system, and it really does sound better. This is easily ascertained if you compare the SACD and CD tracks on the identical programme. I feel it is a real step forward. Listen to Track 5 of BIS-SACD-1078 with the ethereal music of Takemitsu. In the CD version the piano sounds great, albeit a little earthbound - nothing to think about, until you put on the same track in the SACD stereo version. The piano is all of a sudden totally free-floating, truly tones from Heaven. If nothing convinced me before, this did.

We are not closing the doors to anything, but we won't follow anything for gimmickry reasons. We will advocate - and use - systems that we feel make an appreciable difference to the discerning listener, but we will not compromise artistic quality or concentrate on anything but the music simply in order to be able to write some new numbers on the sleeve. I am still livid that our agents made the thumbs down on our multi-channel St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Collegium Japan under Suzuki. This multichannel recording (not released) was deemed unsaleable, since it was recorded in 16 bits. What idiots! Without even listening to the results, I was told point blank that such a recording, to have the slightest chance, must be 24 bit/a zillion Megaherz. I maintain that this recording, made in the incredible atmosphere of the Shojin Church in Kobe in Japan by our superb engineers beats any 24-bit/192 Megaherz studio recordings on the market hands down, if you just listen to it. The market, however, seemingly has decided that visual numbers, not aural results, are the important thing. Oh dear!

(I wonder if Classic Web could start a petition to "anon" asking for this recording to please be released in multichannel. The opinion of Robert von Bahr is surely of greater significance than that of some bean-counter. Oh dear too, or two! )

Since the question was an obvious one for 2003 and I had not, at the time of writing, seen the above vigorous response, I pushed on. Did he foresee ever going in for video recording, DVDs of quartets playing the complete works of X, or whatever?

No, we are burned children. I did produce two Laser Discs. They are really good, but we very nearly did go bankrupt in the process. We can produce wonderful aural results with two, or even one person, to produce and to engineer. With video, it seems that a couple of dozen is the bare minimum. And they keep telling the musicians how to stand, where to go, how to look, basically they do anything to bring the musicians' minds away from the music. No, thank you.

It is not all about technology and I wanted to ask about the company, above and beyond the history in the 30th anniversary press releases. How many people do BIS employ? He used to be a one-man-band. Now he is a company what is his role personally?

We employ thirteen people, yours truly included. My role is to lead the company, try to steer everybody's enthusiasm between a certain conservatism and zest for novelties. On a more day-to-day basis, I handle the ordering, invoicing, and, yes, the complete packing and warehouse work, which keeps me in a real good shape physically. I also do the bookkeeping and the paying of invoices, which makes me very popular with our creditors. I still do the extremely critical proof listening, with marked-up score in one hand and recording protocol in the other, to any product we release. I am involved in the negotiations and have final say-so in the programme committee. I also change tyres and do some of the cleaning. I enjoy being the figurehead and (metaphorically one assumes!) cashing in on the admiration for the wonderful work of my staff and our artists. It is indeed a good, albeit hard, life.

What inspired him to start making records? Was it, I wondered, a wish to record a work, or a musician, or to prove he could do it well? His answer was as pithy and simple as it was impressive.

The wish to put Sweden on the musical map. The wish to not let unknown great artists and composers remain so.

I questioned his claim to keep the whole catalogue current. Was it really true and how did he do it? What sort of numbers does he press in a run? Would Hybrid Multichannel SACD/CD make a difference to the size of pressing runs? He was trenchant.

I don't only claim to do so - we do it. It is quite easy - when a CD has sunk under the least permissible stock quantity, I repress. The minimum run is 300 CDs with the understanding SONY DADC in Austria, which is quite adequate if a CD sells some 2 or 3 copies a year. The new form of a Hybrid SACD/CD doesn't make a difference in principle. We always make sure that we have enough on stock to meet any normal order, and with the excellent service of DADC we can easily and efficiently repress, should need arise.

Wanting a recent exemplar I asked about a favourite BIS issue of my own. How many CDs of Jon Leifs Saga Symphony (BIS CD 730), had he sold worldwide as an example of a typically BIS "eccentric" issue? Adding that I had spoken to a couple of Icelandic players who claimed to be wearing earplugs during that and some of the other pieces! A nice story resulted.

This particular CD did achieve something of a cult status in Japan thanks to Nagaoka-sensei, the guru of Classical music and stereo equipment in Japan. Nagaoka-sensei was actually quite hard of hearing in his later days, and usually cranked up the volume quite loudly. When I released the Saga Symphony, I advised my agent to go personally to him, put on Track 4 something like after 2'35, let Nagaoka-sensei fiddle with the volume, and then make a run for it. After 20 sec the house fell apart, and Nagaoka-sensei emerged from the rubble, a beatific grin over his face, with a glowing review to follow. I think this CD doesn't have all that much left to reach 10 thousand sales, which, for a CD of this type, is really very good indeed.

I would add my own plug to that of Rob Barnett elsewhere on this site – this is a superb disc and essential listening for those not of a nervous disposition. Do be careful with the volume setting first time though!

BIS liner notes are normally superb. Long, detailed and well written. What does he do to ensure this when so many of the majors clearly no longer bother, if they ever did. Once upon a time a certain Andrew Barnett seemed to do everything, both notes and typography. Is this sort of "cottage industry" approach still current?

Oh yes, and Andrew is still involved with every BIS CD and still writes the texts to most Sibelius CDs. However, not even he can do everything any more, and we have a stable of writers that really have a genuine interest for the music. Some artists are also very literate; Christophe Sirodeau with his lengthy notes on Skalkottas' music comes to mind. Today Leif Hasselgren (a musician in his own right and a Japanese speaker, among other things) and William Jewson make sure that we get the goods on time and that the quality is what is needed. If no one else can write it, they go ahead and do it themselves. Consistency is the name of the game. In David Kornfeld, whenever he manages to convince the Crusty Old Boss of another change from tradition, we have a brilliant designer.

I almost wished I had not asked the next one. Why does BIS not have a bargain label, at around £5 for example. Even though he emailed his responses I could hear his tone of voice all the way from Sweden!

Why should we sell top quality for bargain prices? I think it is a sorry state of affairs when everything is basically given away. We want the Artists to earn from their craft, and we want to be able to meet the payroll every month. Ample recording time without stress, a sympathetic but demanding producer, a genius engineer, very large post-production work, good texts. They all cost money. If people want top quality, they have to pay - there are no shortcuts.

What is his view on the long-term viability of classical recording? Has the current withdrawal of the majors made life better or worse for him?

We have been inundated with offers from also quite well known rejects. That is the time to test the loyalties of a label. We have so far, with very few exceptions, preferred to continue with our old stable of established BIS Artists. Consistency. Classical recording will of course stay. However, legalised home copying doesn't make things easier for us.

On less contentious ground I asked about the label’s repertoire. How did he choose the music to be recorded? Was he very market driven? His issues of, for example, Jon Leifs, I suggested, having bought all of them and which I admire greatly, lead me to suspect him to be a man of risky enthusiasms. His response was short but suggests a lot may be to come.

What I like, given that the publishers don't stop it, we record. Simple as that.

Has he plans to record anything else major? He has done the yawning gaps of the catalogue, Martinů, Nielsen, Leifs, Skalkottas, Holmboe etc. Was he intending to record the entire repertoire as we suspect Naxos is trying to do? His reply is deserving of our greatest respect and parts of it might well be material for his obituary, in 200 years time of course.

Give me another 200 years or so, and see... Seriously, we won't touch anything major, unless there is a very specific reason to do so (Bach in Japan, van Beethoven with Vänskä). Why should we, when there are so many huge talents waiting to be discovered (as we discovered Schnittke, Holmboe, Skalkottas etc)? I do feel like a missionary. People must be given the choice. If they then choose not to, that's OK, but if they didn't even have the chance to reject, that's a sorry state of affairs.

Commercially what are his big successes? And what are his personal favourite recording achievements, repertoire and/or performance? Would he admit to a real turkey or two?

Well, our 4 Seasons (BIS CD 275) is the best out there and sells in appropriately large numbers. The Bach from Japan has established itself as the leader of the pack. The Sibelius cycle; artists like Christian Lindberg, now, and Sharon Bezaly is coming on very strongly. I don't really have personal favourites, since I immerse myself fully in any new product, but, were I to single out any specific CD, maybe "The Passion of St. Thomas More" by the totally unknown Garrett Fisher from Seattle (BIS-CD-1158). I got what was presented as a CD Master, ready to go to the presses, listened, got totally hooked on this meditative music but on neither the performance nor the recording. So I persuaded the composer and two other musicians to come to Sweden, together with a handpicked gang from here, living in my home, rehearsing for a week and then Ingo Petry made the best sound in recorded history of a sublime rendering of a magnificent work. Yeah, it is an OK CD.

Duds? Oh yes. They have appeared on a lot of very prestigious labels, since we make a habit, if we should not want to release a recording, to offer it free of charge to the artist to do with it whatever he or she wants, as long as BIS is not mentioned. One of them even won a "Best CD of the Year" award. So is it still a dud? Names? Sorry, no. On the BIS label? Of course we have had our downs, but basically only in the past. Since the artists are very much alive I don't feel called upon to exemplify.

What a diplomat! What, I asked, is his commercial and artistic view on great recordings like the Shostakovich Symphonies conducted by Barshai being sold in supermarkets for knockdown prices? This brought a further piece of trenchant comment.

It cheapens the whole perception of recorded music, since Joe Public cannot differentiate between a simple Radio run-through and a carefully planned and executed recording. Of course a radio tape can be of high voltage, as Barshai proved, and a separate recording can be a total dud, but generally speaking the extra costs and extra work result in a better product, and those costs have to be borne by someone. That Brilliant Classics have succeeded in their wholesale attitude towards cheap, more cheaper, most cheapest, is their good luck, but, seen in the greater perspective, it cheapens the Industry, and when will you see, say, the Holmboe symphonies from Brilliant?


Finally, on the issue of Shostakovich, I enquired; did he expect to finish the symphonies with Maestro Wigglesworth? I have a Welsh friend who gets very fired up on this topic of the ex-Artistic Director of BBC NOW and I was keen to find out. And incidentally had any people commented on the astounding dynamic range achieved in his CDs of Nos.7 and 10 (BIS CD 873 and 973/4) Did his listeners appreciate this much reality?

His parting shot left me without any need to find a way of finishing this report so I would like to thank Robert von Bahr very much indeed for his long and fascinating responses to my questions.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you BIS, 30 Years Young!!

Yes, we will complete the Shostakovich cycle, but not in the UK. Yes, we get a fair share of comments, many of which admittedly complain that the listener has to sit with the hand on the volume knob. For me that is utterly uninteresting. We don't create - we reproduce what Shostakovich wrote and how Mark interprets it, that's all. If someone doesn't like reality, well, there are enough labels who provide nicely balanced, easy-on-the-ear, no-risk mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte wall-paper recordings. Their names are not BIS, of that I can assure you!

Dave Billinge



Error processing SSI file

Return to Index

Error processing SSI file