Remembering Record Producer James Mallinson

James Mallinson confers with Sir Georg Solti during playbacks for Mahler's Symphony No.3 in Chicago's Orchestra Hall in November 1982, from the CSO Archives

Legendary British record producer James Mallinson, whose close to five decades of work with Decca/London, Telarc, and the labels of the major orchestras in London, Chicago and St. Petersburg, died unexpectedly on Friday night, August 24. He leaves behind, in addition to his beloved wife and son, an estimable recorded legacy that earned him no less than 16 Grammy Awards and 49 Grammy nominations.

John Atkinson remembers attending Decca sessions in the late 1970s and early 1980s where James held forth as producer. Telarc's famed producer/engineering team of Elaine Martone and Bob Woods, who hired Mallinson as a consultant from the mid-1980s to early 1990s, counted him as a great and dear friend. Everyone from Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim to Valery Gergiev and Bernard Haitink had stories to tell.

As Martone explained by phone, just one week after she and Bob had last spoken with Mallinson, "He took a stand for what he believed in. He would go toe-to-toe with a conductor, and he worked with the best—in his estimation, all the superstars except for Pierre Boulez—and tell him exactly what he thought. He'd be tactful and diplomatic about it, but he would have a distinct point of view about interpretation, and he was interested in the best possible performance."

Honing his craft with Decca during the period when its artists included Benjamin Britten, Joan Sutherland, and Luciano Pavarotti, Mallinson recorded all 104 Haydn Symphonies with Antal Dorati, and a major series of 20th century works by Messiaen, Ligeti, Cage, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, and Glass. After he went freelance in 1984, he worked with all the major labels. As the record industry changed, Mallinson was central to the establishment of orchestra-owned labels LSO Live, CSO Resound, and Marinski Live. He also pioneered the use of SACD and high-resolution surround in orchestral recording, as exemplified by the ongoing issues from those labels. His most recent project was the Britten Sinfonia's ongoing Beethoven Symphony cycle, conducted by composer/pianist Thomas Adès.

According to Martone, "I occasionally referred to him as Sir James, because he was extremely knowledgeable musically. He was impeccably prepared, and had no room for nonsense. If you had your act together, James could not have been a more wonderful collaborator. Musically, he knew exactly what worked.

"Bob and I stayed with him when we were recording Mahler, and he'd always have an opinion about the way to it should be done. It was always fun to spar with him. He had a very brilliant mind, and would love to engage in dialog about music and politics. You liked to be around him because he was interesting and full of life, brilliant, fun, quirky, and super progressive."

The oft-controversial critic Norman Lebrecht was characteristically more explicit in the short tribute on his website, Slipped Disc. "I have seen him stand up to the most fearsome conductors and face them down," he wrote. "He worked with Solti, Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Colin Davis, Prince Charles, you name it, he never backed down. He would rather lose a lucrative client than approve an unsatisfactory performance.

"I first watched him at Gil Kaplan's original Mahler Second in Cardiff, shepherding an avowedly amateur conductor through one of the biggest, toughest symphonies and doing it with such tact and precision that they remained friends ever after."

After some prodding, Martone shared a similar story. "In the latter part of his career, he worked with Gergiev. He would not let him get away with things that were off the wall, and would explain to him why something wasn't okay. They got into some real knockdown fights. But he kept going all out and got Gergiev to make some really great recordings, because Gergiev would listen. He brought out the best that anyone could do."

Woods and Martone first hired Mallinson to help them expand Telarc into a worldwide label whose repertoire and artists reflected that stature. Wood recalled with fondness that, thanks to Mallinson, Telarc was able to work with André Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic to pair Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Four Last Songs (with Arleen Auger) on a single disc. ("It was a thrill to hear from the musicians that it was most accurate representation of their orchestra they had ever heard.") Mallinson also paved the way for Telarc's best-selling Wagner disc with Lorin Maazel, The Ring Without Words, and Charles Mackerras's recordings of all 41 Mozart symphonies.

Pull out your Grammy-winning recording of Haitink's CSO recording of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, or the Decca issues of Solti conducting Mahler, or Del Tredici's Final Alice or a host of others, and raise your platter in tribute to one of the great recording producers of our time.

Art Dudley's picture
Like all the great producers, we'll be talking about him and admiring his work decades from now, shaking our heads and trying to get younger listeners to believe us when we tell them that giants once walked the earth . . .
Axiom05's picture

James Mallinson was responsible for some wonderful natural sounding recordings. I fear that we are not far the from day when there are only a handful of producers/engineers that really know how to make a recording of acoustic instruments. Most of today's recordings have a closer resemblance to Frankenstein's monster that an actual musical event. A tragic loss.

Robin Landseadel's picture

All the record producers I knew and worked with would make for some mighty fine poker players. Getting through a session without giving a clue as to what you're really thinking is the most important tool in a fine record producer's toolbox. Mr Mallinson must have developed some high-level negotiating skills in order to be that open with his clients. RIP.

Note to Axiom05, I wouldn't worry nearly as much about good sound, that will take care of itself. My worry is that musically literate folk like James Mallinson are/will be fewer and further between and will be increasingly rare as music creation becomes increasingly computerized and automated.

lauratammys's picture

thanks to him we now have, which is the greatest band of 21st century. you can't argue that he produced some great music throughout his career