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Committed to Record: An Appreciation of Walter Legge

Committed to Record: An Appreciation of Walter Legge

We now take it for granted that we can walk into a store and find multiple recorded interpretations of the great musical masterpieces, make a few clicks on a computer to order CDs online, or hear a variety of performances on YouTube and other websites. It is hard to imagine a time when recordings of the standard repertoire didn't exist at all. That the record industry at one time flourished and created an abundance of recordings is due to the efforts of a number of visionaries, most of whom were never known by music enthusiasts.

One producer who revolutionized the art of recording classical music was Walter Legge, referred to as both "the autocrat of the turntable" and "a midwife for music." From his role as an assistant producer at HMV in London in the 1930s to his pioneering work as an influential producer at EMI from the 1940s through the1960s, Legge is responsible for a vast array of celebrated artists in groundbreaking recordings that are as cherished today as at the time the performances were first issued.


Walter Legge was born on June 1, 1906, in London. His favorite toy was an old reproducing cylinder machine, and after attending his first opera at the age of seven he knew that he would want to work in music, though the idea of being a performer didn't particularly appeal to him. Why spend time practicing when you could listen or read? After his father bought him a relatively large selection of records for his twelfth birthday, he took to saving his allowance so that he could buy more. He would visit several shops over the course of a week or two, listening to different interpretations of a certain aria before spending his seven and sixpence. Legge had no formal music training and taught himself to read and listen attentively, and his discriminating taste and perfectionist ears were well developed through this comparative listening.

The writings of eminent critic Ernest Newman helped Legge to hone his understanding of music and its language. He claimed that he best day of his life was when he borrowed Newman's monograph Hugo Wolf from the library: "his magical prose writing in winged phrases of songs I had never heard or even heard of sent me searching for gramophone records of them." His disappointment at not finding any such discs led him to write to record companies, who politely informed him that there was no public demand for recordings of these works. This would prove to be a defining moment both for Legge and the future recording industry, for, as he put it, "from that moment I set my heart on getting into a gramophone company so that I could put such things right."

Early employment

In 1929, Legge began working for the His Master's Voice label (associated with HMV stores,with the same famous logo of the dog Nipper listening to a gramophone record). He was let go after three months because he had been too direct in verbalizing his disagreements about the Recording Department's policies. However, less than a year later he was back as the head of the newly created Literary Department, writing album notes and press releases foreach new issue. Although his relationship with the Recording Department had improved, his suggestions were declined as being financially unfeasible.

Subscription society

In 1931, however, Legge came up with a brilliant suggestion that would change the course of recording history: a subscription service could collect the necessary funds to allow for the recording of important works not yet on disc. The company would only produce the records after the money had been collected from enough interested subscribers to cover costs and ensure a suitable profit. His first proposal was, not surprisingly, the songs of Hugo Wolf.

To appreciate Legge's efforts, it is important to understand the context of recording in this era. At the time, records were made of thick shellac and spun at 78 revolutions per minute, which meant that each side of a record could hold a maximum of five minutes of music. Therefore, longer works had to be spread out over several records listened to in sequence to piece together a complete work. This is similar to the initial years of YouTube, when videos were limited to less than ten minutes in length and longer films had to be divided into several clips. Because a sonata, concerto, or symphony would consist of several discs, there was a considerable expense for both the manufacturer and consumer.

EMI Records Ltd., which came to include the labels HMV, Columbia, and Parlophone, required thirty shillings—a sizable sum of about sixty pounds today—from each of 500 people to guarantee the production and release of the Wolf recordings. Within a few months of the plan's announcement in the autumn of 1931, that quota had been surpassed, with 111 payments coming from Japan alone. In April 1932 the first series of Elena Gerhardt singing Wolf lieder was issued.

Legge's second series was The Beethoven Sonata Society, for which the great pianist Artur Schnabel recorded all of the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Landmark recordings

Edwin Fischer

With the success of The Wolf Society recordings, the Society series broadened its scope to cover a wider range of the repertoire previously neglected by the gramophone. Legge's second series was The Beethoven Sonata Society, for which the great pianist Artur Schnabel recorded all of the Beethoven piano sonatas. The first set of Opp. 78, 90,and 111 was released in June 1932, and over the following three years, 80,000 pounds were spent on the first three volumes of these records—the equivalent of millions today—in the middle of the Great Depression. The fifteen volumes covering the thirty-two sonatas were completed in 1939.

Overlapping with this series from 1933 to 1936 was Edwin Fischer's legendary traversal of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier—Busoni's proposal in the early 1920s to record the cycle was rejected, and the series started by Harriet Cohen and Evlyn Howard-Jones was never completed. Both Schnabel's and Fischer's ground-breaking cycles have been regularly reissued on LP and CD, and they are rightly hailed as classics of the gramophone. Other land-mark Society world-premiere recordings included three volumes of Bach organ works played by Albert Schweitzer, Bach's cello suites with Pablo Casals, Beethoven's violin sonatas with Fritz Kreisler accompanied by Franz Rupp, twenty-nine Haydn quartets played by the Pro Arte String Quartet, orchestral works of Delius conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, several Sibelius symphonies and tone poems, and a 1936 concert performance of Mahler's Das Liedvon der Erde conducted by Bruno Walter.

Early output

Supervising his first sessions as Society recordings took place, Legge worked with a number of other musicians before the war, among them the great pianist and Busoni pupil Egon Petri. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham admired Leggeso greatly when they met in 1934 that he wanted the twenty-seven-year-old to produce all of his recordings from that point forward and had him appointed as his Assistant Artistic Director for two seasons at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

During the War, Legge found himself responsible for EMI's complete classical output, though recording activities were cut back and limited to domestic artists. He also accepted an invitation arranged by Beecham to take over ENSA (Entertainment National Services Association),which provided concerts for British troops, and he arranged concerts by renowned artists who travelled in less than ideal circumstances to share their artistry with an appreciative audience.

Postwar -The Philharmonia

Otto Klemperer owes his reputation to Legge's willingness to hire him when his career had stagnated; they worked together from the early 1950s until they parted ways at Legge's retirement in 1964.

After the success of the Philharmonia Quartet that he formed during the war, Legge founded the Philharmonia Orchestra in October 1945. His goal was to have an orchestra with style (not just a style) and without a principal conductor, and to that end he recruited the best musicians he could find to fill its ranks, most of whom were still enlisted in the service.The legendary Dennis Brain was the first horn.

In 1946, Legge entered a mutually beneficial relationship with conductor Herbert von Karajan, who helped build the Philharmonia into the premier orchestra of its time with his dynamic style and exacting precision, prior to his being named music director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1955. To accommodate Karajan's desire for more rehearsals than unions would allow, Legge would program concerts after recording sessions, resulting in phenomenally polished playing both in the hall and on record and in a unified band of musicians who responded well to all of the conductors on the podium. Among these were the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, Sir Adrian Boult, and Josef Krips, while newer names included Guido Cantelli, Igor Markevitch, Alceo Galliera, Issay Dobrowen, and Walter Susskind. Otto Klemperer owes his reputation to Legge's willingness to hire him when his career had stagnated; they worked together from the early 1950s until they parted ways at Legge's retirement in 1964.

Philharmonia concerts, 1949-1950. The Lipatti concert was reprogrammed as the pianist was too ill to travel and perform, and his scheduled recording of Bartok’s Third Concerto with Karajan was replaced with Karajan’s reading of Bartok’s Music for Strings and Percussion.

An educated patron

A great boon for Legge's mission—and for the piano world particularly—came in 1946 when he received a letter from Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the Maharajah of Mysore (a city in the state of Karnataka in India), an educated man with a wide knowledge of Western Classical music and a particular interest in Russian music, specifically Medtner. This time it was Legge's turn to communicate the economic reality that recording such music would be a financial impossibility for the company. The Maharajah flew Legge to visit him, all expenses paid.

Upon his arrival, Legge met a man who in his early twenties had inherited his role on the throne before he could go to New York to study with Rachmaninoff, who had accepted him as a pupil. The Maharajah agreed to provide sufficient funds to ensure the recordings of an array of Russian works, including the Medtner piano concertos and some of his songs and chamber music—the composer himself was the pianist in the 1947 recordings of his three piano concertos. The Maharajah also agreed to provide 10,000 pounds a year for three years to help support the Philharmonia Orchestra and their concert society.

The best of the best

Dinu Lipatti

With the Maharajah's generous sponsorship, Legge was able to move effectively towards his goal: to "make records that would set the standards by which public performances and the artists of the future would be judged—to leave behind a large series of examples of the best performances of my epoch." He set his sights on recording the best-established artists of the time as well as the most promising of the younger generation. Already working with legendary pianists including Backhaus, Gieseking, and Fischer, he signed newer talents such as Dinu Lipatti, Geza Anda, and Witold Malcuzynski. In Lipatti, Legge had found a kindred spirit who shared his view of recording: to create an everlasting testament of great music in the form of a perfect performance. Unfortunately, illness and a lack of foresight led to Lipatti's potential in the studio not being fully realized before he died at the age of thirty-three in 1950. A similar fate befell violinist Ginette Neveu, who made legendary discs of the Sibelius and Brahms violin concertos with the Philharmonia: her death at thirty-one in a plane crash in 1949 was a tragic loss to the music world. Other instrumentalists on Legge's roster included violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Pierre Fournier, and French horn Dennis Brain.

With opera and song having been Legge's first love, his vocal recordings feature a "Who's Who" of Europe's greatest singers of the era. He recorded Christa Ludwig, Anna Moffo, Kathleen Ferrier, Irmgard Seefried, Ljuba Welitsch, Kirsten Flagstad (who premiered Strauss's Four Last Songs with Furtwängler leading the Philharmonia), the legendary Maria Callas, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whom he married. Hans Hotter, Guiseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi,and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau found themselves recording lieder, opera, or both under Legge's careful supervision. Opera recordings were made in Vienna, Bayreuth, and London, while lieder performances were made under pristine conditions at EMI's Abbey Road studios in London.


Legge's self-assured style and uncompromising vision yielded outstanding results but did not always win him friends amongst his colleagues. His acid tongue could get him into trouble, his success bred jealousy amongst his peers, and his dedication to high ideals was often misread as hunger for power. With classical music less of a priority in the era of the Beatles, there was less of a budget for his work. Legge unsuccessfully explored recording options in the U.S. for the Philharmonia, which had lost a number of key players to the BBC and was no longer at its best. When that failed, he attempted to disband the orchestra, a move that the players and conductor Otto Klemperer rejected. They renamed themselves the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and Legge broke ranks with them and left EMI.

Although he officially retired in 1964, Legge continued to produce his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf 's recordings (including her final sessions at Decca, EMI's main competitor) and to give masterclasses with her. Never having had the best health, Legge died in1979 at the age of seventy-two.

A rich legacy

Geza Anda's 1953 debut album, produced by Walter Legge.

A recording session under Legge's supervision, wrote British musicologist Edward Greenfield, was always an event: he was "part impresario and musical dictator, part musicologist, part inspirer, part socializer and bon viveur, part technician but above all enthusiastic music-lover and the possessor of acute ears, the ideal appreciator and listener."  The hundreds of hours of legendary performances of the highest artistic and technical standards he brought into being communicate volumes not only about the exceptional artists he worked with but also about his unique skill set and extraordinary musicianship and vision.

Piano fans in particular have much to treasure. Amongst the illustrious artists and celebrated recordings Legge produced are the following:

​Dinu Lipatti: The three hours that Legge recorded of Lipatti are among the most esteemed piano recordings ever made. These include consummate readings of the Grieg and Schumann concertos, Bach's Partita No. 1 and selected transcriptions, Mozart's Sonata K. 310, Chopin's waltzes and third sonata, and Liszt's ​Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104, ,as well as a performance of Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso that defies description. A handful of concert recordings have added to his scant discography.

​Geza Anda: Well known for his Bartok and Mozart recordings on the DG label, Anda produced discs with Legge in the 1950s that capture his best playing in phenomenal sound. His 1953 debut record features preeminent readings of Schumann's Etudes Symphoniques and Brahms's Paganini Variations, and his Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals with his compatriot Bela Siki (a Lipatti pupil) is marvelous. His reading of the Delibes-Dohnányi Waltz from 'Coppelia' is one of the most charming piano recordings ever made.

​Solomon: The best of the many recordings the British pianist Solomon made with Legge include a glorious wartime Brahms's Handel Variations, powerful postwar accounts of the two Brahms concerti with the Philharmonia, a magisterial Bach-Busoni "Wachet Auf!" and several Beethoven sonatas, among them an outstanding "Hammerklavier." The Scriabin concerto recorded at the request of the Maharajah of Mysore was only released after the pianist's death and is not a faithful representation of his artistry.

​Artur Schnabel: It is thanks to Legge that we have Schnabel's recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas. He also produced the great pianist's final sessions, among them Beethoven's concertos 2 through 5 with the Philharmonia, as well as his last recording, Schubert's complete impromptus.

​Edwin Fischer: Fischer's magical Well-Tempered Clavier owes its existence to Legge. The later sessions that Legge supervised include an account of Bach's three-piano concerto together with pianists Denis Mathews and Ronald Smith, as well as a legendary "Emperor" Concerto with Furtwängler conducting.

​Benno Woiseiwitsch: The great Russian pianist Moiseiwitsch recorded with EMI for nearly three decades, and Legge oversaw a number of his sessions, including the one which produced his greatest ever recording, made in one take at the end of an already complete recording session: the Mendelssohn-Rachmaninoff 'Scherzo' from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which features remarkably fluid phrasing and mind boggling voicing.

​Walter Gieseking: ​Gieseking's prodigious output under Legge includes his acclaimed recordings of the complete Debussy and Ravel piano music and the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas. Among his finest performances, however, are some solo recordings from 1951 never released on CD in the West, including Bach's Partita No. 6, Handel's Suite No. 5, and four crystalline Scarlatti Sonatas.

​Egon Petri: Many of Petri's best recordings in the 1930s were overseen by Legge, among them spaciously phrased Schubert-Liszt transcriptions of remarkable depth and lyricism (Gretchen am Spinnrade being particularly beautiful) and a passionate reading of Liszt's second concerto.

Many thanks to Countess Lavinia de Korgelay, Alan Sanders, and Jacques Leiser for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

​All quotes in this article from the book ​On and Off the Record: A Memoire of Walter Legge ​by Elisabeth Schqarzkopf. University Press of New England, 2002.

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