Bernard Coutaz, founder and general director of Harmonia Mundi, died of a heart attack last Friday in Arles at the age of 87.
Through his record label founded in the autumn of 1958, he raised the international profile of several artists including countertenor and conductor René Jacobs, Flemish conductor Philippe Herreweghe, German countertenor Andreas Scholl, and the American a cappella group Anonymous 4.
Prior to founding Harmonia Mundi, Coutaz had as a young man joined a religious order; as he confessed in an interview with BBC Music Magazine in 2008, he left because ‘I found obedience very difficult – I could not accept the opinions of my superiors, nor the order’s strict rules’. His attempt at a career in journalism ran aground for similar reasons. Coutaz then decided to set up his own record label both to be his own boss and also to ‘share [his] pleasure of reading or listening to music’.
The label was initially based in Paris, and its first recording, of Slavic liturgic chants, is still one of Harmonia Mundi’s bestselling titles. However its reputation was first established by a series of recordings of historic organs – a cost-effective project since, as Coutaz recalled, it involved driving around Europe in a small 2CV car with the sound engineer to churches in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal.
Then came the day when Coutaz, deeply impressed by a concert given by the English countertenor Alfred Deller in Avignon, ‘kidnapped’ him from his hosts and took him back to his own home where, over a light supper, he secured a contract with his first internationally-renowned artist. Deller’s renown in turn attracted other artists to Coutaz’s label, notably Jacobs and Herreweghe.
His widow, recording producer Eva Coutaz who has been Harmonia Mundi’s head of production since the 1970s, is to succeed him as general director.