An anniversary in Arles

As Harmonia Mundi celebrates its 60th anniversary in style, the label is looking to the future, with new artists and fresh ideas, finds Rebecca Franks

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An anniversary in Arles
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We gather in a quiet cobbled road in Arles, surrounded by shuttered houses in soft yellow stone. A cellist sits between two trees, the leaves dark green. He starts to play JS Bach. Swifts fly overhead. The cello's notes seem to float up to join them, intertwining in a heart-lifting duet.

It's a special moment, apt for the occasion. Bruno Philippe is the cellist, one of the newest signings to Harmonia Mundi. The label turns 60 this year, and to celebrate artists have flocked to Arles. Conductors René Jacobs and Pablo Heras-Casado, harpsichordist Bertrand Cuiller and recorder player Maurice Steger are among the musicians who join Philippe and the production team for a commemorative photo (see below); others have given concerts over the past couple of days. This is the 'family spirit' that Harmonia Mundi prides itself on in action.

• An interview with Harmonia Mundi producer Martin Sauer

• Gallery: 40 years of the record label BIS

Arles is surely most famous for its association with Vincent Van Gogh - a few roads away you can find the scene immortalised in his Café Terrace at Night. But the southern French town has also been home since 1986 to the world's oldest independent classical label. From here have sprung countless memorable recording projects; two new celebratory box-sets trace the history and development of Harmonia Mundi, from the early days of historic organs and countertenor Alfred Deller to recent artists including Les Siècles and conductor François-Xavier Roth. You can read all about them in Andrew McGregor's column in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine.

• Bernard Coutaz (1922-2010)

If over the past 60 years, quality and loyalty to artists have helped to define the label set up by Bernard Coutaz, the coming decades may well be turned to reshaping the label for a new era. There is, says Christian Girardin, the label's current head, a challenge posed by the decline in the sale of CDs and the increase in less-profitable streaming. But he has faith that the company's underlying ethos - a belief in musicians coming back to the score, in being humble before the composer - can take them beyond the CD. 'I'm sure that at one time Harmonia Mundi won't only be a record label company but much larger,' explains Girardin. 'It's a brand, a spirit, a banner.'

This diamond-anniversary festival could well be a template for an annual event, with concerts in venues around Arles. If this first outing is anything to go by, it will be worth attending. The two harpsichord recitals in the Temple d'Arles, an unusual round 18th-century Protestant church, are intimate and engaging. There's intelligent JS Bach from Benjamin Alard, and sensitive Couperin from Bertrand Cuiller. And his performance of Royer's La marche des Scythes is brilliantly flamboyant and virtuosic. Two other concerts, in the Chapelle du Méjan and Salle du Capitole, showcase both the established stars of Harmonia Mundi and the new generation. Violinist Isabelle Faust is joined by Kristian Bezuidenhout for a period-instrument performance of JS Bach, Froberger and gutsy Biber. Pianist Alexander Melnikov then joins her for gleaming G major Brahms.

• Bertrand Cuiller plays Byrd

• Kristian Bezuidenhout plays Mozart

'It's very moving for us to be close to these kind of artists,' Philippe confides the next day. 'It's great for young musicians to be supported by this label, to be given a shot of a first recording.' Philippe joined the label as part of the first group of Harmonia Nova young artists last year, along with pianist Tanguy de Williencourt. They have released a disc of Beethoven and Schubert, and have just recorded Prokofiev. In Arles, they are joined by soprano Marie Perbost and harpist Anaïs Gaudemard, from the second year of Harmonia Nova.

Their afternoon concert 'Douce France' features arrangements, songs and miniatures by Fauré, Massenet and Debussy as well as more recent composers including Thierry Escaich and Guillaume Connesson. It's a delicious concoction, wonderfully performed. Gaudemard explains what Harmonia Mundi means to her: 'Audacious artistic choices, good quality, a lot of curiosity'. Here's to the next 60 years.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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