interview: Martin Anderson from Toccata Classics

Martin Anderson is the founder of a recently started classical music label, Toccata Classics. He has been a music writer for some years and also started a music book publishing company. In the chat below we get a fascinating and rare insight into aspects of making a new label. And, as well as that, you might get to learn a little something about composers from the Baltic.

Toccata Classics
Toccata Press

Mstation: I think a lot of people might get a headache just thinking about starting a classical label with visions of pressing plants and large orchestras sitting in expensive studios for days. But I guess it doesn't have to be like that. What do you think is the most crucial aspect of the thing after a love of the music itself?

Martin Anderson: In my instance, because I want Toccata Classics to concentrate on music that deserves to be on CD but has somehow escaped attention, it is a knowledge of the repertoire itself -- which composers warrant investigation, where to find (say) Reicha's piano music and string quartets, which musicologist's brain to pick, and so on. In close on thirty years of writing on music, I've built up a decent knowledge of the major gaps in the recorded repertoire, starting from the Renaissance on. There are 700 Lassus motets and forty Palestrina masses that have yet to be recorded. Nanino was good enough to succeed to Palestrina's post but there's almost nothing by him in the catalogue. There's any number of fine eighteenth-century Bohemian composer awaiting recording, let alone their contemporaries from further-flung climes (Kurland, for example, where there was a thriving musical life). What about all the forgotten Romantics, like Adolf Jensen and Waldemar von Baussnern and Ferdinand Thieriot? Or English composers like Algernon Ashton and Percy Sherwood? Julius Roentgen wrote an unbelievable amount of wonderfully crafted, instantly appealing music, before you turn to other Dutchmen like Danil de Lange or Jan van Gilse. What about the forgotten French symphonists, like Andre Gedalge? Basically, I waited for other labels to bring out the music I wanted to hear until I couldn't wait any longer!

I was careful in my preparation, though. Although the idea had been marinating passively at the back of my mind for years, I decided to take the plunge three years ago, and I have been preparing ever since. I knew that, once I launched, I was hardly going to be able to keep abreast of what I was going to have to do -- and I also have a publishing company [] to run and my writing to keep up, as well. So I made sure that my larder was fully stocked with recordings before I ventured out into the cold blast.

It's true that at times over those three years I would think, ooh er, what am I getting myself into -- but the nearer you get to the launch, the less time you have to worry: you just have to get on with it. Of course, it's also a steep learning curve: knowing the recording industry only as a semi-insider (as a critic, in my instance) doesn't tell you the half of what you need to know to get a company off the ground. By the same token, lots of people in the industry itself -- Klaus Heymann of Naxos, Ted and Simon Perry of Hyperion, Simon Foster of Avie -- have been kindness itself, ready with advice and with patient answers to what might appear to them bloody obvious questions. As for expense, you don't have to pay the standard rates of the London orchestras to make orchestral recordings these days. My first orchestral recordings were made in Kazakhstan with a crack string orchestra based there augmented by the best local wind players. It was murder to co-ordinate the project across such a distance, but it looks like the effort will have paid off: we have some sparkling recordings -- of R. O. Morris (the complete orchestral music), Myslivefcek and Adrian Cruft, all conducted by Gary Brain. And because because Toccata Classics will be specialising in rare repertoire, I also managed to inherit a few recordings which were too far from the mainstream to find a label but which were perfect for me.

Picking your segment is certainly one important thing and I understand your area will at least partly be Scandinavian composers. Would you like to tell us a little about them and why you think they have been largely missed?

It's true that I have written a lot on Nordic and Baltic composers, not as a deliberate initial specialisation, as opposed to music from other countries: it's just that, as you learn more about a subject, you get drawn more deeply into it. If you take (say) Norwegian or Estonian composers, you have two fantastically rich musical cultures which are as good as unknown, and not only outside their national borders: at home as well. Take the Catharinus Elling Violin Concerto, for example, published in Oslo in 1908. It lies right in the middle of the Romantic tradition, and audiences who warm to the Glazunov and Bruch would gobble this one up if they ever got a chance to hear it. Same with early-twentieth-century Estonians like Artur Kapp and Heino Eller, and contemporaries like Erkki-Sven T/o/or and there are some very promising younger composers there, too, like Mats-Matis Lill and T/unu K/urvets.

As it happens, my first Baltic releases will be not Estonian but Latvian and Lithuanian: a CD of works for string orchestra by Pfiteris Plakidis, and two of music by Vladas Jakubfonas, a Lithuanian student of Schreker who emigrated to the USA; one of chamber music and another of a cappella choral works.

Why composers like them should be neglected is easy to explain: you need musicians to champion them. Look at Eduard Tubin, now recognised as one of the twentieth-century's major symphonists. Until Neeme J/Srvi persuaded Robert von Bahr to record Tubin on BIS, it seemed that Robert Layton was the only person outside Estonia to have heard of him. A lot of the composers of central Europe had their careers disrupted by the Nazis and were scattered to the four corners. They lost their part in the national traditions that might have nurtured them and given them a springboard, they lost their champions. And then, under the Soviets, what chance for individualism? There's a whole generation of composers to be rediscovered and not only in eastern Europe: people like Hans G/*l and Heinrich Kaminski and Artur Willner and Julius Burger whose careers were blighted by Hitler. There's a phenomenal amount of music waiting to be discovered.

Some of the big labels have tended to plunder the repertoire and view "product" output as an excercise in marketing and packaging rather than what musical purists might like to see and hear. What sort of attitude does your label have?

Obviously, the music is the main thing: you have to give your customer interesting repertoire, in reliable performances, recorded in good sound. But the packaging is important, too. My view is that if you are charging full price for a CD, you have to give good value for it. So my booklets contain extensive notes, presented to the same standards as the books I produce as Toccata Press, and there are full translations in French and German. And if I'm releasing a recording by a composer from another country, I'll try to have the notes also in that composer's language; for example, the forthcoming CD of Ferenc Farkas' wind quintets has the full text in Hungarian.

As for plundering the repertoire, I am going to leave the standard stuff alone: if a piece of music is already adequately represented in the catalogue, I'll leave it alone. Of course, if the only recording doesn't do the music justice, or if I am subsuming it in a larger project, or it appeared on a local label with no international distribution, that's a different matter. I've already turned down several suggestions that would have been musically interesting but which would have weakened the profile of Toccata Classics as a vehicle of discovery. So I think the musical purists will feel safe with me!

One of the crucial things for a small label must be getting the CDs into the shops. What's your plan?

Well, into the shops as part of the passage into people's homes. Obviously, I'll be servicing the retail trade in the normal manner, and RSK, my UK distributor, seems to be doing a good job of getting the stuff out there. I've also had heartening expressions of enthusiasm from some of the few brave independent retailers still out there. But it is in the nature of this particular beast that I can't expect viable volumes of sales through the retail trade you can't blame a shop for thinking twice about stocking, say, August Alexander Klengel's 48 canons and fugues. So I'm setting up a thing called the Discovery Club. The idea is that, because I can guarantee some 95% certainty that you won't have the stuff I'm releasing in your collection already, the Discovery Club will allow you to signup for the categories of music you especially enjoy by period, scoring, area of origin, etc. and receive them at mid-price instead of full price. You'll pay a small annual membership fee, and then ahead of every batch of releases, you'll get an e-mail to say, this is what's coming out, click here for a listen, click here if you want to cancel it, click here to hear the other releases and here if you want them as well. The idea is to build up a sort of mutual support group: it brings down the cost for my regular customers, and it gives me a safety net for the kind of obscure repertoire that won't stand a chance in the stores. As far as I'm aware, no other label has tried to capture the loyalty of its consumers in this way because, I guess, no other label can as good as guarantee its collectors that its output will be new to them. I'm unlikely to be able to bring out more than two or three CDs a month, in any case: the market can't absorb more than that. And I don't see it as trying to outflank the retail trade; it's complementary. Anyway, I don't see why the idea couldn't be adapted to engage the loyalty of the retail trade. We're all in this together!

Thanks a lot, Martin.

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