A Conversation with Jonathan Wearn:
He Ain't in it for the Money, or:
In Search of an Occasion
BY DAVID HURWITZ
No one could accuse Jonathan Wearn, director of, well, everything at Opus Magnum records, of bowing to commercial pressures. "My first job in this business was with Philips. I made nineteen records back in the 60s of organists playing their own music. I alwavs liked things that don't sell. That was an award-winning series that sold thirty-five-forty copies. It was the first job I was fired from." Accepting an offer from Carlos Chavez, Wearn traveled to Mexico City and began making the first intemational recordings of local orchestras and artists. "One of the very first discs was a collection of Mexican orchestral music issued by Vox, called Huapango lt was one of the first recordings made on the old Soundstream system. I've reissued it with an additional work byRudolfo Halffter, Don Lindoro de Almeria, taken from a live performance. That was a very special occasion. The composer had just died, and his widow was in the audience at the concert."
In fact, a sense of occasion is a quality that Weam pursues in all of his work-not just live performances. "What's important to have is first great music, then great sound, then marketing and all that stuff. " Even though this means recording live, or under less than ideal conditions, as with Bernstein's "Berlin Wall" Beethoven Ninth Symphony? "I loved that. lt was one of the most moving things I saw him do. lt was like the Michel Block First Noctume (Chopin) and my Carmina (Orff) -- live and just extraordinary."
But once the musical experience is in place, Weam relentlessly pursues sonic realism. And he's equally relentless when criticized in this regard. "I use a twenty-bit D-to-A converter, which means that you can actually hear two oboes instead of one. I've also got a brand new Sony 7050 DAT recorder, and no one else in the country has one, as far as I know. And I don't think I'm biased about this since I think that some of the most important recordings in the past twenty years have been made by Dorian. I respect their work immensely. And their equipment! Nobody in the industry has that equipment." So when he's chastised for supposedly undermiking the strings, Weam is understandably defensive. When I noted that under live conditions strings are invariably inaudible during afortissimo, he exclaimed, "I'm so glad to hear you say that. You don't stick an audience in the bowl of a cello."
Similarly, Wearn feels that many reviewers listen on inferior equipment. His solo harp recital with Georganne Cassat is a case in point. "A lot of people will say it's distorted. But I don't make records for ghetto-blasters. I don't think you'll hear another recording of a harp that sounds like mine."
Over the years, Weam has built up strong ties to artists unfamiliar to many in this country, but particularly to pianist Michel Block. "I think he's probably one of the greatest pianists that live-one of the few. He no longer plays in public. He teaches and records. He absolutely can't stand conductors, for example. And yet he has a tremendous reputation among pianists almost as a guru of the keyboard." I mentioned that I was absolutely chilled by what could only be called the Gothic intensity behind Block's rendering of the Chopin Second Sonata, and that a prominent critic, pianist, and colleague of mine had been highly impressed as well. "Michel is like that. He's simply one of the most spiritual people I know."
Block features prominently in Opus Magnum's upcoming release plans. "We're doing Bach's great organ preludes and fugues in Liszt's transcriptions, Beethoven sonatas opp. 14, 19, and 3 1, a lovely record of French music (Ravel, Poulenc, Faure, and Franck), and a complete WellTempered Clavier. " I expressed my interest in hearing another WtC on the piano. "Then I must make you a tape. Have you heard of Samuel Feinberg?" I hadn't. "He was a Russian pianist, died in '62 1 think. He gave us the most stunning Well-tempered Clavier ever recorded. I have the records. Of course they're old and scratched and sound terrible. But every voice sings with perfect clarity-better than Glenn Gould." Melodiya, take note.
At one point in our talk, I expressed my admiration for the playing on his recording of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. "That's because we took thirty sessions to make it. The conductor (Herrera de la Fuente) I wasn't satisfied, so they kept doing it until he said it was right." But doesn't this work against the all-important sense of occasion? "Not necessarily. Many of these so-called provincial orchestras are full of first-class players. And they don't record all that often, so they have tremendous enthusiasm, and they give their best. And de la Fuente is the dean of Latin conductors. A first-class artist. He has been compared to the likes of Furtwangler, not by me but by you people.
"There are times when I will accept a less-than-perfect take, especially of a live recording, to preserve the thrill of the moment. I had a take of the end of my Carmina Burana without the audience applause, but it just wasn't as exciting. So I left it as it was. I'm issuing a Gershwin album that has a live recording of the Concerto in F, among other things, that we also did in three separate sessions. Yet it is the live performance that I will use, primarily, for the finished product. It's a damn good recording. By the way, I am very honest about my source material. If there are audience noises, or the clicking of television cameras and whatnot, I say so clearly. I think that for most people the musical experience will more than compensate for any minor distractions."
Upcoming productions include a Berlioz Requiem ("We're going to have all sixteen timpani"), a "stunningly gorgeous" cello concerto by lbarra with cellist Carlos Prieto [see my review just wait until you hear his Beethoven!"), and of ("if you thought his Chopin was something, I of this fine artist elsewhere in this issue], piano music of Franck and Beethoven with Michel Block ("If you thought his Chopin was something, just wait until you hear his Beethoven!"), and of course more Mexican composers.
Finally, I asked Weam to make a statement summarizing what he felt he was trying to achieve with O.M. records. "I think the world is filled with extraordinarily boring contemporary records that are made in five minutes and sound like it. And there are just one or two companies around the world, like Dorian, like O.M., like Marquis, that spend infinite care on making an absolutely superb musical production, as opposed to an audio spectacular. The world is full of young producers, and even younger critics (present company excluded, right'?), and absolutely correct musicians, who make, produce. and criticize non-musical events, and force them down our metropolis-oriented ears. And sadly, we've become accustomed to it. Almost gone are the davs of the wonderful Tom Frost, Walter Legge recordings of yore. that were created with love and dedication and respect tor the music itself. That is what a few of us are trying to do in the industry today. A voung pianist for a niajor label boasted to me the other day of a rehearse-record session of a twentv - minute concerto in forty-five minutes. That's not the way to make music. Most of our recordings take forty hours, not forty minutes. And those with musical ears will very quicklv hear it."