Herefordshire People: Hallé Orchestra, Elgar and The Banks of The River Wye

PUBLISHED: 16:57 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

Antony and Halle CD's

Antony and Halle CD's

What is the link between the Hallé Orchestra, Elgar, and an idyllic spot on the banks of the River Wye? Nigel Jarrett investigates.

When Antony Smith and Adrian Farmer travelled north from Herefordshire in a van to pick up a load of CDs it was the culmination of a plan to maintain the high standing of one of Britain's great orchestras.

A division of their Wyastone Estate company, located at Wyastone Leys between Ross and Monmouth, now manufactures and distributes worldwide the back catalogue and all new recordings of the Manchester-based Hall Orchestra. Among the first releases are recordings of music by Elgar - the Elgar Edition - which creates a felicitous link between Wyastone as the Hall's new commercial partner and a composer whose connections with Herefordshire on many levels, notably its hosting of the Three Choirs Festival, are part of British music history.

In 2007, while its new conductor Sir Mark Elder was raising the orchestra's playing to arguably unprecedented heights, the Hall's recording and distribution company, Sanctuary, ran into difficulties and was purchased by Universal. The Hall was in danger of being buried among Universal's multitude of acts, including pop as well as classical music. But Wyastone's approaches finally proved both irresistible and advantageous.

Once the deal had been concluded, business director Antony and music director Adrian boarded the van to collect the Hall's remaining discs and bring them back to the company's headquarters at Wyastone Leys to join the rest of the company's stock. The operation had begun.

Fifteen recordings from the back catalogue were issued last autumn. Following quickly in October were two new ones, including Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, a performance which continues to be praised as epoch-making - 'a Gerontius for our time', as one reviewer put it.

Wyastone Estate is an umbrella for a group of companies, including Nimbus Records, which itself has had a colourful history in the CD manufacturing and recording industry. With factories beside the Wye and in America, a separate division of the company makes discs from master copies and prints the booklets and inlays on demand for more than 140 pop, jazz and classical record labels.

Antony says: "We have nothing to do with recording the Hall. We are secondary to the relationship. Our skill is in printing the booklets, making the discs, and packaging them and shipping them to retailers and distributors all over the world."

The Wyastone-Hall partnership is based on a net profit share arrangement. The company takes care of manufacture and mechanical copyright and these costs are offset against sales. Profits are then divided between it and the Hall Concerts Society, the orchestra's controlling body.

"Elgar is always popular, but anniversaries have brought him back into the public imagination," says Antony. (It was the 150th anniversary of Elgar's birth in 2007 and the same for the Hall itself last year.)

"Anniversaries stimulate concert promoters and musicians to schedule works by a particular composer," he says. "Audiences are re-engaged and look to fill gaps in their record collections. Many classic performances are made in and for a different generation; and it is absolutely important that new voices should arise and say they can perform this music in the way they see fit, so it is true to what the composer wrote and also worthy of today's listener."

The new recording of Gerontius followed a Prom performance and a concert at the Hall's magnificent new home in Manchester, the Bridgewater Hall. It featured Bryn Terfel, soprano Alice Coote and US tenor Paul Groves, so the disc was keenly awaited. "It was big," says Antony. "It gave us the opportunity to re-market the entire Elgar back catalogue and emphasise that the orchestra under Elder was building on that catalogue and not just making one-off records. It is proving to be a great success. Overall at the moment we are exceeding every one of the Hall's sales expectations."

Nimbus Records is not as frenetically active as it was 20 years ago in a different form, when it lavished money on ambitious recording projects. Nimbus Records started LP production for its own recordings in 1977 and quickly gained a reputation for making high quality vinyl pressings. When compact discs arrived, it built the first CD factory in the UK and expanded rapidly until Nimbus Manufacturing had additional CD plants in Cwmbran and America, winning a Queen's Award.

In 2001 the company announced to a shocked record industry that it was going into receivership, blaming 9/11 and a collapse of US consumer confidence. The following year, the founders decided to 'redirect their efforts' and concentrate on the record label and the management of the Wyastone concert hall under the new name of Wyastone Estate.

But Nimbus is still winning awards and growing in a modest way with the launch this year of Nimbus Alliance, a platform for new musicians who cannot find a recording company to take them on as well as 're-housing' classic recordings that may have been deleted. Wyastone also organises a popular summer series of concerts at its riverside concert hall which attracts the world's leading musicians. The next one is planned for 2010.

As a maker and distributor of CDs recorded by others, Wyastone recently obtained rights to the entire Lyrita catalogue of British music and this year will be completing its re-release. It has been a comprehensive and courageous exercise, with many neglected composers re-surfacing, such as Gordon Crosse, Roberto Gerhard, John Joubert, Thea Musgrave and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, as well as performances of music by established names such as Michael Tippett, Lennox Berkeley and Malcolm Arnold.

Two new Hall releases early this year precede a continuing programme that will see five or six more appearing annually, based on the Hall's concert and performance programmes.

"We are at Bridgewater Hall when the orchestra performs, and also out and about in Manchester to make sure that our recordings are prominent in the city's stores," Antony explains. "The orchestra is commercially driven but has huge commitment to the city. And the Elgar recordings sit well with our commitment to English music. (Wyastone now handles discs by Red Priest, the colourful Baroque group, having acquired the rights to previous recordings in order to issue them on the Red Priest label. In the same way, the old Living Era label, another casualty of Sanctuary's demise, has undergone a Wyastone re-launch as Retrospective.)

"It's a fantastic coincidence to be handling the Elgar Edition; but if the Hall had come to us with a catalogue of Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner we would have been just as interested and excited," Antony says. "It's just great to be a British record company marketing British orchestras playing British music."

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