An interview with Martin Sauer

'In general artists don’t make recordings to make money': the German record producer, who has six Grammy awards and over 600 recordings to his name, reflects on his illustrious career so far

Published: June 18, 2018 at 3:50 pm

How long have you worked with Harmonia Mundi?


I am part of the furniture. I’ve been part of Harmonia Mundi since 2001, and I did recordings for them much earlier with René Jacobs. I also founded the Teldex – ex-Teldec – studios in Berlin with some colleagues. What Abbey Road was for EMI, Teldex is for Harmonia Mundi. I’ve recently come back to what I think I do the best, which is producing recordings. Many of my artists are the elder generation of the Harmonia Mundi label: conductor René Jacobs, violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, who have now been with the company more or less since I joined.

• Isabelle Faust chats about Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto

• Alexander Melnikov discusses Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues

• René Jacobs on Mozart's Idomeneo

How many records do you currently produce a year?

Probably 30 or 35 records. Harmonia Mundi is now producing a lot. I see that they are developing artists. People like Isabelle started as young artists and are now international stars. Or the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, who are now active all over the world. This is work that many record companies do not do anymore. As long as we can try to keep this family spirit, that’s something extremely important. We want to make something together with artists.

How would you describe the relationship between a producer and an artist?

It’s like the relationship between a doctor and patient. There’s this kind of medical secret. There’s real confidence. It’s different with each artist. In general artists don’t make recordings to make money or because they want to be remembered for the next hundred years. They want to do something different from their normal routine. From time to time the artist says let’s dig a little bit deeper. Violinist Isabelle Faust, keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout and pianist Alexander Melnikov are the kinds of artists who do version after version, and listen and ask me what I think.

How much do you like to edit?

My personal philosophy is that it’s not a question of saying you should edit as little as possible. If you record a musical sound, it’s already manipulation of the sound. Sound is meant to disappear. You fix it. That’s against the nature of the sound. Then there is no rule that says you cannot somehow treat the sound in the best way. A CD is a commercial thing which people buy, and it has a duty to be as good as possible.

Which have been your favourite recording projects for Harmonia Mundi?

The Schumann concerto project is one of these happy projects where I say it was exactly the right thing to do. I didn't know the Violin Concerto, and when Isabelle then started playing it, this was something I was deeply touched by. This piece is so beautiful.

• Isabelle Faust plays the Schumann Violin Concerto

I'm proud too of what we achieved in all the Mozart operas with René Jacobs. We had this very special idea to do these German operas like radio plays, to have dialogues with music, with noises, the birds and the closing doors in The Magic Flute and so on.

When Jacobs wanted to do the St Matthew Passion, I had done Nikolaus Harnoncourt's second version years ago, so I said we’ll have to find something different. Jacobs started researching and came up with an idea. In the church in Leipzig where the piece was premiered, the choirs weren't standing left and right but front and back. This was then a real challenge for the recording team to work out how to do it. We did it in our studio in Berlin. That was the time of SACDs when it could really be done in the round. Today this is one of the things that didn't work out unfortunately. No one really cares about SACD now, which is a shame.

• René Jacobs conducts JS Bach St Matthew Passion

• Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts JS Bach's St Matthew Passion

• Mozart's Idomeneo

How else has recording technology changed during your career?

The digital recording process and editing has changed life considerably. When I started I still cut tapes. We had big rolls of tape. I don't want to see that back. I have to say all of this is huge progress. I'm really happy and thrilled that it exists. It's not my personal pleasure to edit as much as possible. It's in the service of the artists and the music. You can renovate small noises. Surround sound would be something great but the time is not ready for this right now. It's going the other way, downsizing everything.

What are your recording secrets?

We have a huge collection of old microphones. This really makes a difference. We had the luck that we could take everything that had been in the Teldec studio since the late 1950s. So we have 30 or 40 old lamp-driven microphones which are of a quality that has never been achieved again. They did certain things in the 1950s and used certain materials that we don’t have today. When we travel we take modern microphones. But when we record in Berlin we use these old microphones. They have a certain warmth.

Are there any dream recordings you would still like to make?


Not really. I have been extremely lucky to have done a lot of things. Look for a producer who has had the chance to record Bach’s St Matthew Passion twice. This is one of the pieces you dream of doing once. I’ve done it twice. I’m always discovering things. I knew the Schubert Octet but I wasn’t dreaming of recording it, but I’m so happy that I have had a chance to do this beautiful music with Isabelle Faust. I’ve done the complete Beethoven piano sonatas with Daniel Barenboim for Deutsche Grammophon and with Paul Lewis for Harmonia Mundi. I’ve recorded Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – that I could it again, as it’s the kind of thing that never comes out how you really imagine. I’m now doing the complete Beethoven String Quartets with the Cuarteto Casals. What more can I ask for. I’m a really very satisfied producer.


Rebecca Franks
Rebecca FranksJournalist, Critic and former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine

Rebecca Franks is the former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine and a regular classical music critic for The Times. She is currently writing her first children's book.

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