Opera + Classical Music Features

Hyperion at 30

For some time the prophets of doom Norman Lebrecht, for instance have circled around the classical music recording industry, labelling it a spent force. Clearly somebody forgot to inform Hyperion Records of this, as the independent label has this October reached 30 years of service to collectors. So what is the secret behind Hyperion, its success and its long standing critical acclaim?

Much of the credit can be laid at the feet of the sadly departed Ted Perry, whose vision created the label in 1980. Perry was managing director until 2003, since when the directorship has passed to his son Simon, who has ensured the label’s commitments continue.

Named after the Greek father of the sun and the moon, Hyperion has come to represent a byword for musical excellence and exploration. Since 1980 they have maintained a steadfast commitment to new or unexplored repertoire, as well as letting an increasingly starry artist roster loose on classical music staples. Future plans, for instance, include the completion of Angela Hewitt’s cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas.

In their three decades, Hyperion’s achievements are long and formidable. It would be impossible to cover them all here, but among the most impressive is a complete edition of the piano works of Liszt, all recorded by Leslie Howard in the course of 57 volumes but still in a state of continuation through more recent discoveries. Under the stewardship of accompanist Graham Johnson they have also recorded every Schubert song, in a series devised to present the very best Lieder interpreters (Dame Janet Baker, Lucia Popp and Thomas Allen), alongside a group of fledgling artists, later to become stars in their own right (Christine Schaefer, Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne). The success of this has led to a wonderfully recorded and presented collection of the complete Schumann songs, while projects to record those of Richard Strauss and Brahms have not taken long to bear fruit.

Another secret of Hyperion’s success has been their use of successful records as a platform to finance risk-taking. A case in point here is the album of music by the 12th century abbess Hildegarde von Bingen, recorded by soprano Emma Kirkby and Christopher Page’s peerless early music ensemble Gothic Voices. Entitled A Feather On The Breath of God, the CD was bestowed with awards left, right and centre following its release in April 1985, winning Gramophone magazine’s Record Of The Year. Perry was often heard to refer that “St Hildegard of Hyperion” would pay for his new enterprises!

So what of the label’s risk taking? Within instrumental music, their highest profile project has been the Romantic Piano Concerto; a series of 52 releases at last count. In its course Hyperion have brought to light seldom heard gems from Paderewski, York Bowen and Stenhammar, putting them in to context alongside established greats of the era, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Sans and Mendelssohn. Among their many orchestral discs of note have been a comprehensive and unprecedented series devoted to the unsung Sir Granville Bantock, backed up with discs of Scottish composers Hamish MacCunn, Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Frederic Lamond, with even more obscure backwaters including the music of Ildebrando Pizzetti and Victor de Sabata.

Choral music has long been a staple of their repertoire. The now-disbanded Corydon Singers made a string of defining discs in the 1980s and 1990s, recording repertoire as varied as Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Bernstein and Mendelssohn. The Cardinall’s Musick, conducted by Andrew Carwood, have just scooped this year’s Gramophone Record Of The Year for the completion of their edition of William Byrd sacred works, while Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton, continue to dazzle with their discoveries of choral music from Eastern Europe. And that’s before we even consider the discs from leading cathedral choirs, with St Paul’s, Westminster and Winchester all weighing in with impressive contributions.

Commitments to new music have been judicious, with Robert Simpson given unrivalled exposure through cycles of his symphonies and string quartets, the powerful music of this former BBC employee given a platform as never before. Meanwhile the label’s propensity to produce the unexpected even in this area has yielded a recording of Stockhausen’s Stimmung under Gregory Rose, Lowell Liebermann piano concertos with Stephen Hough, the label’s new composer of the moment, Gabriel Jackson, and a fine quartet of Ives symphonies conducted by Andrew Litton.

The label’s early music coverage is of the highest quality, with ensembles such as the Kings Consort and the Parley Of Instruments opening our eyes to lesser known lights of the Baroque. The former ensemble has shed new light on the sacred works of Purcell, Vivaldi, Handel and Monteverdi, while the latter’s English Orpheus series has examined the Baroque music of this country like never before.

It is in the music of this country that Hyperion plays perhaps its strongest card. Which other label would offer you discs of Stanford Piano Quintets, Bax chamber works or a survey of Howells choral music? The English Anthem a survey of church music from this country over the last three centuries may not sound like an enticing proposition for the atheists, but it contains some remarkable music from these shores, as does the Psalms Of David series.

Currently on the Hyperion roster are stars of today and tomorrow. At their peak are artists such as pianists Steven Osborne and Marc-Andr Hamelin, baritone Gerald Finley and the Florestan Piano Trio, while instrumentalists on the rise are violinist Alina Ibragimova, the Leopold String Trio and pianist Danny Driver. That’s before we even mention the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and their principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, or viola player Lawrence Power.

All this constitutes just a snapshot of the label’s achievements. Even after an unseemly court case against composer and editor Lionel Sawkins ended in 2005 with the label having to foot a legal bill of 1 million, they regrouped, scaling back their recording projects until such time that they were ready to go again. Since they regained full fitness, as it were, it has been difficult to spot the join between old and new, with the new releases list for October boasting reissues of 30 of their most influential discs.

These can be found on their website, a remarkable tool that provides a preview of each track of every Hyperion release, along with booklet notes and biographical information. It is an easy place to while away the hours but could lead to an altercation with the bank manager if it has the desired effect!

So it’s a happy birthday’ to Hyperion. While they may not be the only independent classical record company pushing forward in these difficult times for the industry, they are certainly at the very front of the line and are owed a vote of thanks, both for the new music they continue to unearth and the old music they tirelessly re-evaluate. Here’s to another 30 years!

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