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James Mallinson


Originally published by The Times, September 4th, 2018, 12:01

James Mallinson: First record producer to win a Grammy for classical music who was known for his furiously scrawled notes and his discretion

The red light glows; the conductor raises his baton; the orchestra begins to play; a new recording is about to be made. The musicians make the music and the engineers adjust the microphones, but bringing them all together is the job of the producer. “It’s almost impossible to define what a producer does,” said James Mallinson, the first to win a Grammy award in the classical producer of the year category and the recipient of 16 in total.

“A producer in classical music probably combines what a film producer and a director does to some extent,” he explained. “It’s all about maintaining wonderful relationships with the artists, communicating between the artists and the technical people. You have to understand what the musicians are trying to do, and you also have to understand what the engineers are trying to do and be the interface between those two.”

Few did that better than Mallinson. He was particularly close to the conductor Georg Solti, many of whose recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra he was responsible for. Inviting the Chicago Tribune to a recording session of Brahms’s Symphony No 1 in 1979, Mallinson explained how he “strives for high quality” in the technical reproduction of the music.

From inside a control room surrounded by thickly padded walls he would listen intensely as the music was performed, directing the engineers to increase or decrease ever so slightly the volume on a particular microphone. Later the conductor and a handful of the musicians would listen to the “playback”, Mallinson furiously scrawling notes to indicate musical and technical changes for their second take.

Making records, Mallinson explained, was a rare marriage of the musical and the technical, and occasionally each would venture into the other’s domain. He could stand his ground with all the great names in classical music, ensuring that they produced the very best recording. Yet he would always do so “with discretion” he said, adding: “We do not tell each other what to do.”

James Bernard Mallinson was born in London in 1943. His father, Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Mallinson, was serving in Burma and young James spent his earliest years in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, with his mother, Peggy (née Nicholls), daughter of Horace Nicholls, the First World War photographer. He had a brother, David, who survives him, and a sister, Margaret, who predeceased him. After the war their father remained in the army and the family joined him in Cyprus, where Mallinson recalled swimming on the backs of turtles.

He was sent to prep school in Somerset, spending holidays in London with his uncle, the actor Anthony Nicholls. At King’s School, Bruton, he discovered that the library contained LPs and scores, and he taught himself to follow the music while a record was playing. A kindly physics master helped him to complete an O level in the subject in a year, providing a useful electronics background for his future career.

He spent a year travelling, mainly in France, where one Sunday he turned up at the St-Trinité church in Paris knowing that Olivier Messiaen would be playing the organ. A verger encouraged him to go to the organ loft, saying that Messiaen appreciated having a page-turner. He duly did so, turned the pages during the service and was then taken to the composer’s home for lunch.

At Trinity College Dublin he spent much of his time attending music classes, even though his only instrument was piano, and then not to a high level. He found work for a small recording studio in Dublin and helped as a sound engineer for local pop concerts.

While in Ireland he met Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, who became his long-term partner, but they never married. Michelle, who 20 years ago launched the Foods Matter website as a resource for people with food allergies, survives him with their son, Jonathan, who works in economic regeneration for the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.

After university Mallinson returned to the UK, did some supply teaching and wrote to Decca Records offering his services. At first he was rejected, but in 1972 an opening arose. One of his first jobs was with Solti on a recording of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Kingsway Hall. “Photographs of him at the time were always quite stern, intense, wild-eyed,” he told Gramophone magazine of the conductor. “But he wasn’t like that at all.”

Mallinson spent 12 years with the label, honing his craft at a time when its artists included Benjamin Britten, Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. He was sent to assist a colleague at the start of a monumental recording of all 104 Haydn symphonies conducted by Antal Doráti, but there was a falling-out and the project landed instead in Mallinson’s lap.

It was followed by a series of contemporary music for Decca’s Headline label that included works by composers such as Messiaen, Ligeti, Cage, Maxwell Davies (obituary, March 14, 2016), Birtwistle and Glass. Mallinson reckoned that the only classical musician of note he never worked with was Boulez. “We’re very concerned to keep the series fluid,” he told Gramophone in May 1974 when questioned about his plans. “Contemporary music is changing all the time and I’d like the series to reflect this.”

He left Decca in 1984 to go freelance and received offers of work from every significant label. “The big challenge obviously is where we place our microphones,” he explained to an interviewer when making a recording for LSO Live at the Barbican. “The positioning of those microphones is absolutely critical because 2cm can make a difference.”

Opera presented its own difficulties. “Recording opera in concert is the only way you can do it,” he said. “Trying to record opera on an opera house stage is impossible because singers are rushing around all over the place. There’s crashes, there’s bangs and there’s noise. And they’re never in the right place, they’re never close to the microphone, and so it doesn’t really work.”

He also had a somewhat more heretical reason. “I actually think that quite a lot of operas benefit from being listened to rather than watched,” he said. “You find that you focus simply on the music.”

Over the years Mallinson produced about 200 recordings and was instrumental in the launch of LSO Live, the London Symphony Orchestra’s in-house label. He was also responsible for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Resound label and in recent years recordings in St Petersburg for the Mariinsky Theatre. At the time of his death he had been producing a cycle of Beethoven symphonies for the Britten Sinfonia.

In what little spare time he had Mallinson was interested in everything to do with the internet, particularly helping Michelle to maintain her extensive series of websites, including shooting and editing videos. He had no religious faith, but was a devoted Remainer, even campaigning recently on the streets for a second referendum.

His passion remained getting the best out of classical musicians in the recording studio. “It’s not a job, actually,” he said. “I quite genuinely believe that I’ve never done a day’s work in my life. I’m blessed by the fact that I can do something I love. I can do it quite successfully, and even get paid for it.”

James Mallinson, record producer, was born on February 15, 1943. He died on August 24, 2018, aged 75