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Tahra Records, Reclaiming Musical History

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Tahra Records, Reclaiming Musical History

Tahra Records, Reclaiming Musical History

Tahra Records, Reclaiming Musical History

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Rene Tremine and Myriam Scherchen are the founders of Tahra Records, a small label issuing well-received historical recordings of classical music. Independent producer Julian Crandall Hollick visits with the Paris-based couple.

(Soundbite of music)

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Tahra is a tiny classical music record company based in rural France. It's run by a husband and wife. And despite its small size, the label has won some of the classical music industry's most prestigious awards, outgunning many of the big multinational conglomerates that dominate classical music today. Tahra's records are historical recordings, often taken from 78s or tapes of decades-old radio broadcasts.

Independent producer Julian Crandall Hollick puts his love for classical music to work for free with Tahra's producers. He helps the edit the record company's liner notes. While working with them, he was able to listen in on the secrets of making great modern recordings from old technology. He sent this audio postcard of his time in Tahra's studio.

JULIAN CRANDALL HOLLICK reporting:

Walk into any record store and you'll find a whole section devoted to historical recordings.

Mr. DAVID HOROWITZ (Music Critic): Most of the recordings that come out--these historical recordings--are just cheapie pirates, and they sound lousy.

HOLLICK: New York music critic David Horowitz.

Mr. HOROWITZ: And as a critic, you know, I very seldom recommend them to people.

HOLLICK: With one exception.

Mr. HOROWITZ: There are quite a few Tahra recordings that I recommend--a great many of them, actually--because the quality of the sound is so good. And one of the things that I really like about Tahra is that I think they understand that there is a real issue with respect to the quality of the sound in carrying the performance across.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: In the late 1980s, Rene Tremine chucked in his job at the French national water company because he wanted to make records. He met Myriam Scherchen, daughter of a legendary German conductor, Hermann Scherchen. They set off for Leipzig to hunt down some old radio tapes that her father had made of Mahler symphonies in 1961. Leipzig Radio had the tape all right, but no one wanted to give the couple permission to issue the performance on CD. There was a lot of buck-passing, and then they got lucky. Someone at the orchestra took pity on them.

Ms. MYRIAM SCHERCHEN (Co-Founder, Tahra Records): You know, we were praying that she would be able to say yes, and she said, `Well, I've got to talk to the people responsible.' And she went back and in five minutes said, `Tell them to come tomorrow morning.' And, you know, it was really for us a miracle that we managed to go pick up the tape, go back to Paris and then find out if we could do the production.

HOLLICK: A month later, after engineers had done all manner of things to the tape, Myriam and Rene finally got to listen to it at 5:30 in the morning.

(Soundbite of Mahler symphony)

HOLLICK: Rene felt vindicated.

(Soundbite of Mahler symphony)

Mr. RENE TREMINE (Co-Founder, Tahra Records): In my opinion, in the live concert, there is much ...(unintelligible) life sometimes. (Unintelligible) sometimes, of course.

HOLLICK: Now Hermann Scherchen had many famous pupils and proteges, so the couple had an agenda. They knew which performance they wanted to reissue, and radio stations all over Europe had shelves of taped concerts gathering dust. But much of Tahra's success has also been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. For example, a decade ago, an Aladdin's cave of good-to-great radio recordings made in wartime Germany were unearthed in Moscow. They'd been stored away in a mine shaft since 1945. Incredibly, they were in good condition, so Tahra negotiated the rights to release many of them. Other times, radio engineers in Eastern Europe simply disobeyed orders.

Ms. SCHERCHEN: Some party members had ordered the authorities of the radio to efface, to delete this tape. And the engineer who was supposed to do it, he simply didn't do it. He put it aside and he hid it. So it was there, stored, you know, in a--and they found it again.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Now Rene and Myriam always seek out the original tapes, if they exist, and they pay for the rights. This is a previously unissued radio broadcast from 1977 of Cesar Franck's Symphony in D by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by the late Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin. In this case, it was the orchestra and Kondrashin's widow who held the rights.

(Soundbite of Franck's Symphony in D)

HOLLICK: Sometimes record companies such as Philips and Deutsche Grammophon are perfectly happy to see Tahra re-release one of their own LPs. For the multinational, a few thousand copies are financially not worth it. For Tahra, with a much lower break-even point, it makes both artistic and business sense.

(Soundbite of Franck's Symphony in D)

HOLLICK: But often the original isn't a radio tape or an early LP but an old shellac 78. Now it's surprising how much good music 78s contain if you can get a clean copy and know which needle to use to find the electric signal in the walls of the grooves.

Mr. SAMI HABRA (Artistic Director, Tahra): Pull back.

(Soundbite of keyboarding; musical tone)

Mr. HABRA: The beginning of each spike is too low, too low.

(Soundbite of keyboarding; musical tone)

Mr. HABRA: This needs to be emphasized. ...(Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of musical tone)

HOLLICK: This is Tahra's control room in Paris. They're remastering a 1940 recording of the Brahms 2nd Symphony.

Mr. HABRA: So the problem is to succeed in joining the sides and at the same time to give a bit more emphasis on the first note of each new side.

HOLLICK: 78s were recorded on wax lathes. A 78 lasted four and a half minutes, so performers accelerated or slowed down accordingly. Orchestras stopped, a new wax was placed on the recording lathe and then they started up again. Musicians often repeated that last note on the new side, recorded sometimes at a different volume. Today, 70 years later, Tahra's engineer Charles Eddi and artistic director Sami Habra have to make a seamless side join. So that means both equalizing the volume and making one note where there were two previously; not quite as easy as it sounds.

Mr. HABRA: We need to mount a third on the same note to be added to this, to get this (French spoken).

Mr. CHARLES EDDI (Engineer, Tahra): In other words, what we're doing here is we are improving digitally on both the limitation of their technology...

Mr. HABRA: On the recording. Yeah, that's right.

HOLLICK: Sami Habra.

Mr. HABRA: I have no doubt the conductor would be overjoyed in hearing this corrections. I mean...

HOLLICK: There's an infamous CD reissue of a 78 in which the conductor recorded one side at one speed, he got bored waiting for a new wax, forgot the tempi and restarted two minutes at half the previous speed. When the two sides were joined for CD and it was issued, critics marveled at the genius of the conductor.

Mr. EDDI: This is a perfect blend of the two chords, I think.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EDDI: This is the ...(unintelligible).

HOLLICK: When Eddi's made all the side joins on the computer, he'll download them onto a digital cassette for Habra to go through them at home with the printed score. Engineers often feared tape would distort, so they anticipated and lowered the volume beforehand. Now Habra has to suggest where the dynamics can be restored.

Mr. HABRA: It's not decibels that I'm really interested in; it's power. It's the sensation of power. Take any recording where there is no power, no tension, you could expand the dynamic range as you pleased, but then it wouldn't sound exciting because there is no tension in the music. You don't hear the tension in the music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Julian Crandall Hollick's portrait of Tahra was produced by Tina Morris and Fernando Ruiz del Prado.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

(Credits)

HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.

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