Norman Lebrecht on Hyperion

2005-08-10 / Evening Standard / Norman Lebrecht

The little label musicians love

Simon Perry is planning a trip to Baghdad. Not quite where you’d expect a small label owner specialising in vocal music and romantic pianism to place his records, but these are desperate times and they call for enterprising measures.

Last month, Simon Perry’s label Hyperion lost a million-pound lawsuit to a scholar, Lionel Sawkins, who claimed he owned copyright in a work by an eighteenth century French composer, Michel-Richard de Lalande, as a result of editing the score for performance. The case should never have come to court. A share of royalties in the Hyperion Lalande recording, or a cheque for a couple of thousand, would have sent Sawkins on his way whistling a sarabande. But Simon’s father, Ted, refused to pay ‘as a matter of principle’ and when Ted died of lung cancer in February 2003 Simon felt obliged to fight on as a matter of filial loyalty.

Nor did he fight alone. When he lost in the High Court, the classical committee of the British Phonographic Industry gave him £50,000 to go to the Court of Appeal, so far-reaching were the consequences for other labels and musicians. But Hyperion lost again, and the legal bill dwarfed all estimates, wiping out the company’s operating budget. The label has enough sessions in the can to last a year. After that, it may fall silent unless Simon Perry can find a way to fund future recordings.

An appeal, launched on the label website, has brought a flurry of cheques and, more hearteningly, moral support from eminent academics and musicians. A security guard sent a cheque for twelve pounds, apologising that this was all he could spare from his wage packet. Another envelope disgorged five grand.

Hyperion generates intense affection among classical listeners the world over for its esoteric mix of lesser works by great composers and discoveries by minnows. An American fan offered to buy all of its 1,100 recordings for Hyperion to deposit in countries that lack access to western culture. Perry is negotiating a first delivery to the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet, with help from local fixers and the British Embassy. He will do whatever it takes to put the company on its feet again after a catastrophe that would have driven most family businesses to bankruptcy.

It is 25 years this autumn since Ted Perry, driving an ice-cream van by day and a minicab by night to pay his artists, launched Hyperion from a warehouse in a remote corner of south-east London. To mark the quarter-century, Hyperion will rush out 25 recordings over the next couple of months, a flourish of defiance that outstrips the entire classical output of the three corporate multinationals, Universal, EMI and Sony-BMG.

Its new releases include little-played violin concertos by Kurt Weill and the Latvian Petris Vasks, quirky songs by the American Charles Ives, baroque music from Latin America, piano trios by Mendelssohn and arcane orchestral interludes by Janacek. One peek at the list and you see why Hyperion is so valued: it reaches parts of the classical repertoire that corporate labels never touch.

Over 25 years, Hyperion has not recorded a single symphony by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak or Mahler. But if you hanker after music by Enescu and Dohnanyi, played by the rising German cellist Alban Gerhardt, any half-awake record store assistant will tell you that the only label fervent enough to try such things is Hyperion.

Pride of place in its anniversary flush is Ted Perry’s supreme achievement – a 40-CD box of the complete songs of Schubert, never recorded before in their integrity. Organised over a dozen years by the accompanist Graham Johnson, the singers are the Lieder leaders of two generations. Some – Lucia Popp, Arlene Auger – are no longer alive; others – Janet Baker, Elly Ameling, Peter Schreier – are long retired. But the cream of the crowd are artists whom Johnson spotted as debutants and roped into his dream – Ian Bostridge, Simon Keenlyside, Christine Schaefer, Mathias Goerne. Their involvement adds continuity to historic authority and gives the Schubert compendium a unique place in the history of recording.

Now, it is being sold for a song – £200 the set, a fiver a disc. It won’t make a mint but it does make the resounding point that conviction and creative zeal are what count in recording, more than the demands of commerce and even commonsense. That, for me, is what Hyperion is all about.

Simon Perry has, I suspect, inherited the quixotic aspect of his father’s character. Ted never balked at big ideas or bucking trends. On hearing the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt play Bach on a modern piano, abjuring the academically-correct harpsichord, he signed her to record the complete works over ten years – and this at a time when major labels were tearing up long contracts. Hewitt, who completes the cycle this summer, is Hyperion’s top-selling artist and one of the busiest pianists on earth.

Stephen Hough, a British composer and pianist with a mind all his own, came to Simon with the most hackneyed and unHyperion suggestion – to record the four Rachmaninov concertos, done to death by every fingersmith of the past century. Ah yes, but Hough had studied the composer’s markings on his own performing scores and had come up with an approach that he felt was both authentic and radically different. Hyperbolically acclaimed by some critics as the best Rachmaninov ever recorded, it is the fastest-moving disc on Hyperion’s books, shifting 18,000 copies in the first five weeks of release.

Simon Perry chose the cover design – a photograph of Rachmaninov at the piano, cigarette dangling from his lips – and sent it for approval to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which hosted the sessions and covered the musicians’ fees. The cover came back with enthusiastic acceptance, and the fag airbrushed out by some PC commissar. Simon got on the phone and lost his rag. ‘The cigarette stays,’ he yelled. ‘This is an authentic recording, for heaven’s sake. The composer died of lung cancer.’

Somewhere in his mind was a memory of the day that Ted, taken to casualty after a minor road accident, was given two months to live when they saw shadows on his X-rays. Simon cannot let his creation die. Hyperion will enter its second quarter-century next month almost broke, rescheduling payments to lawyers, but energetically canvassing ideas that will open minds and extend horizons. It’s not about stars, and it’s not about money. It’s just music, pure and complex and infinitely rewarding.