The best record producers share many qualities, though prime among them is being able to “get your ego out of the way,” insists Robina Young, one of the very best classical record producers as well as artistic director of the record label Harmonia Mundi USA. She adds: “My job is to help artists capture the best performance of their vision of a piece. Some artists need encouraging or even cushioning, while others need a gentle push. But a producer, even if she’s the label’s artistic director, is there to serve the artist, not the other way ’round.”
Young has produced some four hundred (and counting) recordings for Harmonia Mundi. For her Listen interview, she was back at her company’s Los Angeles office after recording the Tokyo String Quartet and cellist David Watkin in Schubert’s String Quintet at London’s Air Studios. But the producer wouldn’t be there long, as she was preparing to head for a world apart: Goshen, Indiana, and the choir Conspirare singing spirituals in a Mennonite hall.
Raised in Yorkshire, England, Young tempers her acuity with a whimsical charm, even reenacting a routine by vintage British musical comedy act Flanders & Swann for the benefit of her American interviewer. Singing around the piano was a staple of Young’s childhood home, and she recalls: “My father was a radio engineer, too, so I grew up with some music always in the air; moreover, it came via tube sound. I’m always after that sonic warmth in our productions.”
Trained as a keyboardist, Young joined parent company Harmonia Mundi France in 1979: Her first production was a solo harpsichord recital by William Christie — an auspicious debut. In 1982 she and her husband — René Goiffon, then export manager for HM France — came to L.A. to establish the HM USA subsidiary. With Goiffon an astute president (and eventual driver of the world-music imprint), HM USA grew to produce one-third of Harmonia Mundi’s annual catalog. The husband-and-wife team are “an ideal balance,” she says. “I’m Harmonia; he’s Mundi.”
It’s one of the shames of the Recording Academy that Young hasn’t yet topped her mantle with a Grammy Award for Classical Producer of the Year — having been nominated nine times since 1993. But her productions have won myriad individual honors. A recent high point centered on American post-minimalist David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion — Lang’s setting of the tragic Hans Christian Andersen tale won him a 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Led by longtime HM artist Paul Hillier, the album won a 2010 Grammy for Best Small Ensemble Performance.
The Little Match Girl Passion set wasn’t a best seller. Yet it “was one of the most rewarding experiences you can have making a record,” Young maintains. “We knew we were capturing something that will continue to move people.” Looking back, Young notes a thread: “We’ve never gone for an easy buck. Harmonia Mundi’s culture is that we only put out things that are special. This has stood us in good stead. And being not just a record producer but also the label’s artistic director means that I have the privilege of only going into the studio with someone I greatly admire and often know very well. I’m a lucky girl.”
Young had a longtime working relationship with the late American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who died in 2006 at age fifty-two). The producer helmed a version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Hunt Lieberson as the Queen of Carthage, and their series of Handel recordings forms the core of the much-beloved singer’s discography; at the top of the list is Handel’s opera seria Ariodante with Hunt Lieberson in the title role.
“Lorraine was incandescent as Ariodante,” Young says. “It’s a smashing role; the character has seven huge arias. We recorded the opera in the town hall of Göttingen, Germany, after staged performances in a theater. The hall had good acoustics, and the singers were still right in their parts; they’d stand in front of the microphones and act, giving the performances a theatrical edge. We did it all, three CDs’ worth, in just four days. It’s a challenge in making a strictly audio opera recording to get the excitement and movement across. You can only do that when people really feel the piece.
“Lorraine came totally prepared, knew exactly what she was doing, did it magnificently. She expected everyone around her to measure up to that standard. That’s not being diva-like in my book; it was helpful for me. I can imagine that as a co-performer it might have been intimidating to work with Lorraine, because her stage presence was riveting. She had star quality. Even now, I don’t think these arias have been bettered on disc. Her ‘Scherza Infida’ is absolutely heartbreaking, ‘Doppo Notte’ totally dazzling.
“Nic McGegan, the conductor and Handel Festival director in Göttingen, provided so much energy and expertise, all while enjoying himself. It wasn’t a walk in the park getting all that done in such a short time. But it’s one of the best things I’ll ever do. I don’t often play my own recordings; still, I will pull Ariodante out when I need a boost.”
Tartini: “The Devil’s Sonata,” etc.
Andrew Manze, solo Baroque violin
(Harmonia Mundi, 1998)