Polyhymnia celebrated its 10-year anniversary at the end of 2008, and to celebrate we created a SACD sampler and small booklet for our clients and friends, with highlights of our first 10 years as an independent recording company. Here is an abridged version of that chronicle.
The Philips Legacy and the Birth of Polyhymnia
The Polyhymnia story begins with the story of Philips Classics. The Philips Classics recording centre was founded in the Netherlands in 1950 to provide top quality worldwide recording services for the Philips Classics label, working with many of the world’s top classical artists. In 1971, the recording centre moved to a beautiful carriage house in Baarn, which was soon christened ‘Polyhymnia’, after the muse of sublime and sacred hymn.
By 1996 the CD market was in decline and PolyGram, the parent company of Philips Classics, decided that they no longer needed three recording centres (Decca in London, Deutsche Grammophon in Hanover, and Philips in Baarn), and discussed closing the Baarn centre. A small group of Philips Classics engineers immediately proposed starting an independent recording company. After more than a year of negotiations, PolyGram agreed to a deal, and the Philips Classics recording centre became home to a new independent company. Taking the villa’s name as its own, Polyhymnia International was established on October 15, 1998.
As Polyhymnia was starting out, DSD and surround sound developments were accelerating. Polyhymnia was intimately familiar with the birth of surround sound – after all, surround recording played a big role in the history of Philips Classics. Philips’ engineer Hans Lauterslager developed a six-channel experimental system during the time of Philips’ LP quadro recordings. In the digital age, Onno Scholtze and Erdo Groot made experimental quadro recordings for Philips Electronics’ MPEG development for DVD. In 1996 Philips Classics was asked by Philips Eindhoven to participate in the development of a new (now audio-only) standard. Together with Sony, Philips was developing a new format that was supposed to replace CD. This was the start of the SACD format, and of a very close and fruitful collaboration between Polyhymnia and the Philips SACD development team, a period described in more detail on the Super Audio Center website by Andrew Demery, one of the driving forces on that team (www.superaudiocenter.com/DemRep.htm).
Within a year the Philips Eindhoven team had built a prototype eight-channel DSD recorder, which they brought to several Philips recordings. After the first test recording with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting Schumann Symphonies, and a successful experimental recording of Dvorák Slavonic Dances in 1999, Philips decided to record a live concert with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which would become the first ever hybrid surround SACD release. This disc was introduced at the Berlin IFA show later that year, with great success. The capacity to record complete sessions in DSD was now available, and Philips and Sony supported record companies wanting to release recordings in the SACD format. Polyhymnia was at the forefront of the development of DSD and surround, and can take credit for having a hand in several hundred SACD recordings.
Our support for SACD has taken many forms, including our relationship with PentaTone, a classical music label devoted to releasing only hybrid multichannel SACDs. PentaTone was born out of the idea that surround sound would be a revolution in the recording business, comparable to the transition from mono to stereo, or LP to CD. In 2001, when PentaTone was founded, few classical labels were issuing surround recordings, and many of those issued were not top quality. Polyhymnia, with three of our former Philips Classics colleagues, believed that there was a market for high quality surround recordings.
PentaTone had quick success in 2002 after recording the music for the wedding of the crown prince of the Netherlands, which became an instant hit in Holland. This was followed by the recording of Peter & Wolf, and a new composition Wolf Tracks, with Sophia Loren, Bill Clinton, and Mikhail Gorbachov.
PentaTone also had the good fortune to license many wonderful quadraphonic recordings from Philips Classics. PentaTone’s manager Dirk van Dijk was personally involved in these remarkable recordings from the 1970’s, and saw them as a great addition to the PentaTone catalogue. All of these quadraphonic releases are painstakingly remastered by Polyhymnia (as 4.0 channels) to ensure that the unique qualities of these recordings are preserved.
Beginning in 1990, Polyhymnia engineers went many times to Russia, working for Philips Classics, to set up camp at the Kirov theatre and record with Valery Gergiev. When PentaTone started to record the Russian National Orchestra and the Bolshoi Opera Company in early 2003 Polyhymnia found itself back in Russia. Michael Serebryanyi, whom Erdo Groot had met back in 1991, had in the meantime started a new Russian Classical Label, Caro Mitis, and asked Polyhymnia to collaborate on his Russian recordings. Polyhymnia shipped one of its recording sets to Moscow, where it still resides. In the summer of 2003 Polyhymnia made its first recording for Caro Mitis, with the oboist Alexei Utkin and the Hermitage Orchestra, followed by projects with Pratum Integrum, harpsichordist Olga Martinova, pianist Igor Tchetuev and many others. Polyhymnia has already recorded 40+ SACD projects for Caro Mitis, with many more in the works. Polyhymnia now travels to Moscow and St Petersburg on a regular basis to work in the best venues, with great artists, to produce wonderful new Russian recordings, for Caro Mitis, PentaTone, and others.
In 2004 the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra chose Polyhymnia as their recording partner for the RCO Live label. RCO Live SACDs are recorded live in concert in the famed acoustics of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Polyhymnia’s RCO Live recordings are critically acclaimed, and have won several awards, including two Edisons and a BBC Music award.
Polyhymnia’s work with the Concertgebouw Orchestra led to another exciting development: the construction of a permanent recording studio in the Concertgebouw. With about 900 concerts per year, attracting nearly a million visitors, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw is the busiest concert hall in the world. It is also one of the busiest recording venues: all told more than 200 recording days per year for radio, TV, and SACD. The plans for a permanent recording studio in the Concertgebouw date back at least twenty years, but only materialised in 2006 when Polyhymnia forged a partnership with the Concertgebouw and radio recording companies Dutchview and Broadcast Facilities Nederland. Polyhymnia led the construction of two permanent control rooms, one of which is fully equipped for high-resolution surround recordings using Polyhymnia’s own state-of-the-art electronics. The studio is linked to the Media Park in Hilversum by a dedicated fibre optic cable configured as a lossless multichannel audio and video link. This studio is now used for all of RCO Live recordings, as well as nearly all radio recordings in the Concertgebouw. Radio recordings from the Concertgebouw are now recorded and broadcast in surround.
In 2005, former Philips Classic colleagues Kevin Kleinmann and Martha de Francisco contacted Polyhymnia about possible live recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach for the Ondine label. Needless to say, this was an exciting prospect: the Philadelphia Orchestra has a legendary history both in concert and on disk, but had not recorded for many years. The new recordings were made possible by a landmark agreement with the musicians union for live recordings, the first of its kind in the US. This agreement was soon copied by other orchestras, and has led to a resurgence of orchestral recording in the US.
The recordings were extremely challenging for all involved: in contrast to most ‘live’ recordings there were no patch sessions, but the expectations were still high. The initial recording with Maestro Eschenbach was made in the autumn of 2005. To date there have been eight releases, including Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5 & 6, Mahler Symphonies Nos. 2 & 6, and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5.
Bach Cantata Pilgrimage
In the late 1990’s, when Polyhymnia was just starting out, Sir John Eliot Gardiner came up with the audacious plan to perform, and record live, all of Bach’s surviving 199 church cantatas, starting on Christmas Day 1999 and finishing on New Year’s Day 2001. The concerts would take place throughout Europe, with the cantatas being performed on the liturgical days for which they were written. Locations would include many of the churches where Bach worked and where the cantatas may originally have been performed.
Despite the obvious challenges, Polyhymnia, working together with Eurosound (a Dutch location production company), offered to record some or all of the Pilgrimage. In December 1999, while Everett Porter was in London for another recording, he received the unexpected news that Gardiner wanted Polyhymnia to record the Pilgrimage, starting at the end of the month. Everett immediately called his colleagues with the exciting and terrifying news. Polyhymnia had just over two weeks to organise a mobile recording truck for a year, plus recording teams for over fifty projects, most taking place in unfamiliar churches, with little time for preparation.
The first recording took place on Christmas Day in Weimar, and was broadcast live on TV. New Year’s Day 2000 was spent in Berlin, and then it was straight on to Leipzig and beyond. Recording teams and musicians varied from week to week, and the schedule was sometimes brutal, but the project stayed on course with the steady guidance and vision of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and producer Isabella de Sabata.
In 2005, post-production began on the recordings, which would eventually be released as approx. thirty 2-CD sets The very first release of the resulting series was honoured as Gramophone’s Record of the Year. The post-production of this amazing recording experience is now drawing to a close, and Polyhymnia will be sorry to see the end of it. It’s been one hell of a ride!
During the last ten years, Polyhymnia has invested heavily in perfecting our remote recording sets. These are a combination of tried and true analogue electronics and state of the art digital gear. The beginning of the recording chain is particularly vital, and is still best served by great analogue electronics, starting with the microphones. In order to do this we have had to look closely at the technical requirements of a recording. We replaced the electronics in hundreds of our microphones with our own custom electronics, complementing the unsurpassed microphone pre-amplifiers built at the end of the Philips Classics time, and the high-resolution AD and DA converters developed for SACD.
Polyhymnia’s pursuit of perfection extends to monitoring on location; you need to be able to hear what you’re doing to make a great recording. Our sets include everything needed to create a good monitoring environment (stereo or surround) on location, including acoustical treatment, B&W Nautilus speakers, and modified power amplifiers.
Our modular sets support all sample rates from 44.1 kHz to DSD, 8 to 48 channels, are easily transported, and quick to set up and break down. They’re also bullet-proof: no matter what fails, we will always be able to complete a recording.
Polyhymnia’s proud to have three of the best-sounding postproduction studios we know of – anywhere! These studios, completely isolated from each other and the outside world, were originally built for Philips Classics in the early 199s, and later modified by the acoustician Ben Kok. Monitoring is via B&W 801 & 802 Nautilus speakers, and our own custom surround controllers. Each studio includes a Merging Technologies Pyramix workstation, capable of working at any sample rate from 32 kHz through DSD and DXD. We’re a long-standing Pyramix beta site for Pyramix, and are constantly refining our postproduction systems and techniques.
Studio 2 is equipped for transfers from analogue tape, from 1/4” to 1”, using rebuilt Studer A-80 transports, completely rebuilt Dolby units, and our own custom built playback electronics. We will get every last bit of quality out of existing analogue tapes!
We have recently expanded our network and storage, and are now able to keep all of our projects, recordings, and post-production media online, enabling projects to be seamlessly transferred between the studios. A second server, located in a separate building, provides backup. This system provides instant access and safe, redundant archiving.
For more information:
Polyhymnia International B.V.
P.O. Box 473
Tel: +31 35 548 0660
Fax: +31 35 543 2550