Fifty years of BIS as Robert von Bahr, its founder, turns 80
An email conversation with Robert Barnett, Founding Editor, MusicWeb International
A person long familiar with the hurly-burly of the classical music recording industry and BIS in particular says: “Robert von Bahr is one of the most eccentric, respected, energetic, and creative people this industry has seen. He hides his light, largely because at nearly 80 (in August, 2023) – he’s working in the warehouse, packing discs at 3am before listening to a new master over his morning coffee. He’s not only still involved in the day to day running over the label…he is the label.”
“The label’s many landmarks include the complete Sibelius (the benchmark in the repertoire) and the Bach series by Bach Collegium Japan and [Masaaki] Suzuki (no-one else wanted to take a chance on a Japanese ensemble performing Bach, and the decision has paid off endlessly). He discovered and nurtured the careers of artists such as Martin Fröst, Yevgeny Sudbin (from a tape in the post!), and more recently BBC New Generation Artists, violinist Johan Dalene and pianist Alexandre Kantorow (both well on their way to stardom). He brought composers such a Schnittke, Aho, and Christian Lindberg to a global audience, and in January will release the first ever Allan Pettersson edition, every note the composer ever wrote. Pettersson was a life-long friend of Robert’s.”
“A passionate environmentalist, Robert was the first to introduce the eco-pak, and the BIS label is recognised for its commitment to exceptional sound quality…he has been known to completely re-record a project at vast personal expense, just to meet his uncompromising requirements (all BIS CDs are in fact SACDs, as Robert will frequently remind you!). He’s a remarkable man, with an extraordinary ear and has genuinely shaped recorded music throughout his lifetime.”
The Main Act
Robert Barnett: Please tell us about your early life and how this led you to music and recordings.
Robert von Bahr: Having had a Prima Ballerina Assoluta mother from a long line of musicians [her father was solo cellist of the Helsinki City Orchestra, his father was a viola player and a famous and feared music critic (if the singer had had in the top register what she so sorely missed in the low, one might have forgiven her for a total lack of a middle register … aouch!) and Sibelius’s first publisher to boot, andhis father was a composer and the one who served and supplied Sibelius with his first instruments], I kind of spent a big part of my time at the Finnish Opera, and thus was subjected to much music. This translated later into being part of several choruses – at one time I was a member of 13, which put a certain logistical strain on me, everything from different church choirs to more professional ones – indeed, my singing took me through ten years of University and Conservatory studies without a loan. I also supported myself by selling Swedish and Swiss silver coins for melting (they contained more silver value than their intrinsic value), and therefore undertook almost bi-weekly car trips to Basle (where I had a girlfriend), buying those coins. Since the coins took up very little space, I filled the car up with ReVox tape recorders, which I then sold to the people, ordering them in advance. Being member of all those choruses, I also bought two microphones and started to record our concerts, selling copies of the tapes to interested members, thus gathering experience in recording. One of the choirs was the Stockholm Philharmonic Choir, so I asked the CEO of the Stockholm Phil – Johannes Norrby – if I could start to record their concerts for an archive; he was interested, so I got a part-time job as recording engineer for the orchestra (I still have private high-speed originals of everything, the very young Barenboim, Segovia, Birgit Nilsson, Horenstein, Doráti etc, but they are locked in safely, until….).
RB: Which musical experiences – before you founded BIS – shaped your life – concerts, books, art?
RvB: A quite easy answer: the relationship with Dan-Olof Stenlund, a genius choral conductor, who taught me everything I know about the inner being of music, what to look for, how to understand the relationship between text and music. To sing the St. Matthew Passion under him, which I did yearly, was a lifetime experience. I was a member of all his choirs, and we formed a friendship that lasts to this day.
RB: What determined you to establish BIS?
RvB: When I married Gunilla, a top flautist, I wanted her to make records, so I sent a letter to all labels in Sweden, without an answer. Series 2 of the letters had a cassette with some tasters; still no answers. Series 3 had a copy of a Master Tape I had made of a recital record, containing everything from a piccolo concerto by Vivaldi to new commissions I had made. Now I did get answers, all negative, but being able to sort into three piles:
- Classical music – uninteresting.
- Unknown artist – uninteresting.
- Modern music – c’mon…
We got it released anyway, under truly horrible conditions; it sold really well, and the “label” wanted more. That’s when I took the decision to start my own outfit – clearly there was a need. So a big “thank you” to all those unresponsive labels!
RB: Why the name BIS?
RvB: My great-grandfather’s pen name as a critic, but Best In Show or Bloody Interesting Stuff work as well. BIS means repeat in Italian, and our aim is that people should listen to our records repeatedly.
RB: What now keeps you from moment to moment deciding to continue BIS?
RvB: My “missionary” streak. The word of honour with BIS is “choice”. Unless a piece of music or result of an artist’s work is disseminated, they are dead. At the time, the only way to present those was to record them on phonogrammes. It is still the same, even though in later years other ways of disseminating music and artists have come to the forefront. But we have to give people the choice to like, dislike, or be indifferent to what we do. One way of doing that is to release records. I will never forget the almost antagonistic reaction to my first attempt – see above – and want to provide a way for new artists and composers to grow. In this we have been extraordinarily successful.
RB: People talk today about “the soundtrack of my life” – let’s interpret that as your twelve favourite recordings:-
- Vivaldi Four Seasons with Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque ensemble – pure genius
- Sibelius Violin Concerto, original version with Kavakos, Lahti SO and Osmo Vänskä
- The Passion of St Tomas More by Garrett Fisher
- Kalevi Aho’s Flute Concerto with Sharon Bezaly, Lahti SO and Osmo Vänskä
- À la Russe with Alexandre Kantorow
- Romantic Trombone Concertos with Christian Lindberg, Bamberger Sinfoniker and Leif Segerstam
- Beethoven Trios with the Zimmermann Trio
- St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki
- Liszt Transcendental Etudes with Haochen Zhang
- Takemitsu Complete Piano Music with Noriko Ogawa
- Du Puy’s Bassoon Concerto with Bram van Sambeek, the Swedish CO and Alexander Ogrintchouk
- The absolutely incredible SACD with music by Alkan, played by the top barrister Paul Wee
- The Beethoven Piano Concertos with Ronald Brautigam, the Kölner Akademie and Michael Alexander Willens
- Haydn with the Chiaroscuro Quartet.
- As No 13 (I know, it is No 15, but I cannot strike any of the above) I have to add the piece I want to “hear” at my funeral: The Rouse Flute Concerto with Sharon Bezaly, the Stockholm Phil and Alan Gilbert.
RB: Your favourite (SA)CDs in the BIS catalogue that have NOT been big sellers or conventionally successful?
- Some of the above (my personal choice has nothing to do with being successful)
- anything with the Chelys Viol Ensemble
- the music by Kalevi Aho, Alfred Schnittke and Sebastian Fagerlund
- the fantastic musicianship by Clas Pehrsson, Dan Laurin, Jakob Lindberg, Michael Collins, Carolyn Sampson, Clare Hammond and Yevgeny Sudbin, and many more.
RB: What are your thoughts on reviewers and review magazines, online and paper?
RvB: That people should more understand that a reviewer’s voice is but one voice and one set of opinions from one human being, with more or less taste and knowledge to back it up. No review is the truth, because there is no truth, just opinions. That said, there are reviewers and reviewers – very many are quite knowledgeable and being able to write interestingly, even when they don’t like the result, and for them I have a deep admiration (not an easy job, that) all the way down (and I mean DOWN) to aberrations like a certain Editor of a certain US bimonthly magazine (not Fanfare), who managed to “review” 2 records of music by Kalevi Aho (one not by us and also containing music by other composers) with a review that is, verbatim,: A completely uninspired composer, whose music is stultifying – and just gets worse as the years go on. Full stop, that was all. Not a word about the artists, not a word about the other composers. For such things I can only have a total and absolute disgust.
RB: What is your approach to decisions on which music / artists to record?
RvB: Discussions with the artists and/or composers. My taste … and I have a very broad one.
RB: Does BIS do joint work with radio stations, along the lines of CPO and German/Swiss stations?
RvB: No, we do our own sh*t ourselves.
RB: Long term series – inexorable or just slow? Nystroem (systematic or ad hoc) – opera “Herr Arnes Penningar”
RvB: I like series and completeness, and we have undertaken editions of several composers and are working, slowly or not, towards completion: Sibelius, Aho, Schnittke, Tubin, Pettersson, Bach vocal, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn piano, Holmboe orchestral, Jón Leifs, Nikos Skalkottas, Grieg, Mahler, etc etc.
RB: One-offs like Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony – not continued? Atterberg operas …
RvB: More interesting stuff available and only one life to get through them.
RB: What’s your view about recording of concert-hall live events – record them there and then or go into the studio after the concert?
RvB: We want our records to show the utmost an artist can do with the works – that is rarely happening in live events.
RB: What about sales of BIS recordings to audiences at concerts?
RvB: Gladly, if allowed
RB: Does BIS get involved in licensing recordings to budget and other labels – Brilliant Classics? IMP?
RvB: Can … and has happened on a few occasions, especially with Brilliant.
RB: Looking back to the days of the LP – are there any of the BIS vinyl issues that have never made it to CD?
RvB: From our own recordings – no.
RB: What do you think about streaming and downloading?
RvB: Excellent way to make that “choice” happen.
RB: What should be the philosophy of music labels as applied to the relationship with musicians – commercial and collegiate and caring?
RvB: I can obviously only speak about BIS, and we lay a very big importance just about the personal relationship to artists. Each artist accepted by BIS is – or should be – for the long haul and together we plan for the career and development of the artist, also taking into account the composers we try to favour.
RB: Artists whose careers you have furthered – discovery, risk and development and taking wing to other labels?
RvB: Actually, most artists you can find on the BIS label. Obvious examples are – among others and in no particular order except for the first two, to whom I have been or am married – Sharon Bezaly, Gunilla von Bahr, Dan Laurin, Christian Lindberg, Jakob Lindberg, Ronald Brautigam, Paul Wee, Martin Fröst, Osmo Vänskä, Yevgeny Sudbin, Alexandre Kantorow, Can Cakmur, Haochen Zhang, Zimmermann Trio, Christian Poltéra, Noriko Ogawa, BCJ, Masaaki Suzuki, Bram van Sambeek, Håkan Hardenberger, Øistein Baadsvik. All of these – and then some – have been discovered by me and been given a helping hand to the fame they are presently enjoying. Only one – Martin Fröst – has defected, after some twenty years and as many records.
RvB: A very good idea, since it gives the listener a possibility to “get all”, often at a sharply reduced price.
RB: How did the momentous BIS Sibelius Edition come to be ? Which individual Sibelius BIS discs was/were the tipping point that brought you to say: ‘we will have a Sibelius Edition’?
RvB: The family history (see above) and Andrew Barnett’s (probably the world’s biggest Sibelius cognoscente) enthusiasm. The three most extraordinary works are the Violin Concerto in the original version (still a bestseller), the Fifth Symphony again in its original version and The Wood-Nymph, all world première recordings.
RB: BIS standard design decisions
RvB: As now. An essential part is the BIS eco-pak … more anon.
RB: Why did BIS make the migration from CD to SACD hybrid?
RvB: Because I would feel lousy, not offering the best sound the artist has produced to the listener. I cannot understand why this system didn’t break through. The cost for the additional item to enable CD players to play SACD hires and surround is less than a pound sterling.
RB: What thoughts do you have on Green initiatives, global warming and indeed on the packaging of CDs?
RvB: As can obviously be seen from the BIS packaging, we employ (Sharon Bezaly’s invention) the BIS eco-pak, which only uses eco-friendly, completely certified reused materials, eco-glue, water-based varnish and no plastic at all. A side effect is that it weighs 42% less than the awful plastic packaging, and therefore saves transport fuel. More expensive than the plastic case, but the environment is worth it.
RB: Have you ever recorded and issued things you especially believed in – or simply wanted to hear?
RvB: All the time. This is what we do.
RB: Any lessons to your younger self?
RvB: In some cases, I was too tough on the artists at the recording sessions. One left the recording in tears, contemplated giving up (but the record is good!!). He is now a world No. 1 star on his instrument.
RB: What lessons do you have for today’s aspirants to establish and make a success of a classical music label?
RvB: Frankly, I don’t believe it is really possible today to start a classical music label and make it a success. Without a decent back catalogue, recording costs are too high (unless they let the artists pay) …. the income from streaming is too small.
RB: Are there other labels and people in the industry that you particularly respect?
RvB: Yes, four:
- Klaus Heymann (Naxos)
- Charles Adrianssen (Alpha)
- Bernard Coutaz (Harmonia Mundi)
- Manfred Eicher (ECM)
All four are totally engaged in music, with the vision and entrepreneurial skills to “make it happen”. Great characters! Wish the new generation of label leaders were of this ilk; we oldies are dying out (well, one is already dead, his life’s work all but destroyed).
RB: The extent to which you avoid clashes of artist / repertoire with other labels. How is this done?
RvB: Unless it is a completely unknown composer touted by someone else, I don’t really care. If the music is good enough, the world can stand multiple versions of the same work.
RB: What is the rationale behind the BIS non-deletion policy?
RvB: In my view this is a moral, not a financial, issue. The artists have worked themselves silly to produce the very best they can possibly do, and so have we on the other side of the microphones. To let their products then die, “just” because they aren’t performing sufficiently well, would, in my view, be a betrayal of them and of the music they had performed. Another point of view is their earnings. Since most of the artists get paid through royalties, it is one thing if the records are there and don’t sell (bad luck for all of us), but, if the records aren’t there, then they cannot even theoretically earn anything, and that’s not on. A final viewpoint is that we have an absolutely stellar reputation with our distributors, as we invariably can deliver 100% of their orders immediately, as opposed to almost any other label, with a much lower fill rate. Times are getting more difficult, but we’re holding out and BIS is probably the last man standing in this respect.
RB: How do you see the label evolving in ten years’ time and then in thirty years’ time?
RvB: Wish I’ll be there – I am 80 now. I believe that – with the plans for the future we now have – BIS will be much bigger and even more respected as time goes by.
RB: It seems unlikely that you would have this in contemplation, but are you considering retirement?
RvB: NO! When I retire, it is because I am being retired.
RB: Do you have a succession plan for BIS?
RvB: Yes. Reveal it? In good time, in good time…
Click here to read an interview which Dave Billinge conducted with Robert von Bahr in 2003 to mark the 30th anniversary of BIS