For many years I had the pleasure of friendship with the late Charles Gerhardt. I first met him in April of 1950; I had taken the train from my native Chicago to New York to buy records (78s in those days!), and friends told me the best place to go was The Record Hunter. Once there, I asked the clerk if they had the Ferdinand Leitner recording of Beethoven's music for Egmont. He said they surely did, went right to the spot on the shelf where it was, brought it over to me and commented that it was a fine performance with good sound. We started to talk about orchestras and conductors. Right from the start we had a lot to talk about. Both he and I were admirers of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg. He said one of his favorite recordings was Mengelberg's Tannhäuser overture, with its perfect control and burnished brass. He asked me if I was going to hear the Mahler Eighth with Leopold Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic that weekend, and I said I couldn't - I had to get back home. He said it might be possible to get a private LP recording of the performance, was I interested? Indeed I was and a few weeks later it arrived.
Gerhardt's primary interest was the art of recording. He worked with RCA from 1951 through 1955 initially as as an engineer and editor, later on he was a producer/engineer. One of his first tasks with RCA was making 15 ips copies of many historic recordings editing out scratches so they could be issued on the then-new LP format. In 1955 he began working for Westminster Records where he stayed for five years until the company went out of business. He then got a job at Bell Sound, recording Eddie Fischer among other pop singers. Then there was a telephone call from George Marek who wanted Gerhardt to meet with him and representatives of the Reader's Digest, which turned out to be a remarkably productive collaboration that would continue for more than three decades.
René Leibowitz first recorded with Gerhardt in 1960 for the Treasury of
Light Classical Music Reader's Digest album, and is seen here with Gerhardt at
1961 sessions with the Royal Philharmonic during which Gerhardt produced a
much-acclaimed Beethoven symphony cycle.
That chance encounter at the record store in New York was the beginning of a friendship that continued until Gerhardt's untimely death February 22, 1999, a few weeks after his 72nd birthday. Late in November 1998 he was diagnosed with brain cancer, and had surgery the first week in December. As I live in the Baltimore area and he lived in northern California, we didn't see each other very often but were in constant touch via email and the telephone. I visited him the second week in January 1999 about a month after his operation and he seemed to be doing remarkably well under the circumstances. But in mid-January he had a major relapse and spent the remainder of his days in the intensive care unit of the hospital in Redding.
For these many years I have watched -- and listened -- with amazement to recordings
Gerhardt produced, conducted or arranged. Often he appeared in two or even three of
these roles simultaneously. For more details about his career, read the adjoining
articles, but it should be clarified that Gerhardt has made more recordings, either
as conductor, producer or arranger, than anyone else. The first project he did for
Reader's Digest was "A Festival of Light Classical Music." This was a 12-LP album
he planned, produced and supervised in every way. It was on sale in more than 15
countries by mail order only and after just a few years had sold more than two million
sets -- a total of 24 million LPs -- and that was just the beginning. Dozens of
other albums followed, including pop music, mood music, light classics and, of course,
classics. Gerhardt particularly enjoyed producing the Digest "Treasury of Great
Music" album, a 12-LP set featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under some
leading conductors of the time (1960's): Charles Munch in Bizet and Tchaikovsky,
Rudolf Kempe in Strauss and Respighi, Josef Krips in Mozart and Haydn, Antal Dorati
in Strauss and Berlioz, Fritz Reiner's Brahms Fourth, and Sir John Barbirolli's
near-definitive Sibelius Second.
Gerhardt loved percussion instruments, particularly tam-tams. One of his favorite
recordings was the mono Columbia LP of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, with Dimitri
Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic with, as he described it, "wonderful
dirty gongs." He always made sure that gongs were clear in all of his recordings,
and on occasion added bass piano notes to give more pitch to the instrument, as he
did in the last movement of Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz with Massimo Freccia
and the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky CD 88). Gerhardt had met Freccia in 1951 in
the billiard room at Toscanini's home in Riverside and made quite a few
recordings with him.
Gerhardt had great admiration and respect for the many conductors he worked with,
beginning with Arturo Toscanini, with whom he worked for several years before the
Maestro's death. It was Toscanini who suggested toGerhardt that he become a conductor. He
did so for the first time at a Digest recording session when a well-known conductor was ill.
The orchestra would have to be paid anyway, so Gerhardt picked up the baton
highly successful results, the first of countless times when he would conduct a wide range
of music from pop to Mahler. Gerhardt particularly enjoyed working with Fritz Reiner
recording the Brahms Fourth, and the sessions with Charles Munch went particularly
well. At the sessions for Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, Munch rehearsed
just a few points in the score with the RPO, and they broke for a brief recess before
the recording began. Some of the players were a bit concerned, telling Chuck that
they needed more rehearsal before recording a "take." Munch overheard this and
slyly said to them, "You're going to have to WATCH me, aren't you?" And they did.
The result was a tremendously exciting performance of Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem,
with only one brief remake. Gerhardt also mentioned to me that at the first
playback, Munch was elated by the sound quality; Munch's RCA recordings surely
are not of the sonic quality of his two Gerhardt-produced recordings.
Gerhardt first heardCharles Munch in
concert at the University of Southern
California concert. A great admirer of Munch, Gerhardt was delighted when he
agreed to record Tchaikovsky'sFrancesca da Rimini and Bizet's Symphony in C.
Gerhardt had a true meeting of minds with Jascha Horenstein, whom he admired above
all conductors he worked with. He suggested to RCA that they record all of the Mahler symphonies
with the venerable conductor. Can you imagine the importance of that set, had it come to be?
There are numerous works Gerhardt wanted to record. He would have liked to do a complete
Glière Ilya Mourometz, one of his favorite works, but was able to do only a truncated version of the second movement, included in the Digest set "Nature's Music." He wanted to orchestrate and record more of the Debussy preludes and Ravel piano music. At the time of his death, he was orchestrating some piano music of Lecuona. He had heard the BIS recording by Thomas Tirino, was impressed by the pianist's virtuosity and musicianship as well as by the music itself, and started to orchestrate "Ante El Escorial," "an impressionistic tone-painting of the magnificent structure built by King Philip II in Madrid." We can be certain that Gerhardt's orchestration would have been magnificent, had he lived to complete it.
It is frustrating to say the least to imagine what might have been -- and it must be equally frustrating to RCA to look back and realize they ignored, for the most part, Gerhardt's suggestions -- which would have been very profitable for them. Once the Classic Film Score series was launched in 1972, with remarkable sales figures, one would think CFS would be a continuing series. All 15 LPs in the series were best-sellers, remaining on the charts for months at a time, and the fact that they constantly remained in the catalog indicates they were selling well. Gerhardt suggested many additional LPs for the series including "The Women" (Classic Film Scores for the Great Hollywood Actresses), "Dodge City" (Classic Film Scores for Westerns by Max Steiner), "Frankenstein" (Classic Film Scores for Horror Films), and "Things to Come" (Classic Film Scores for Science Fiction Films). He also planned LPs devoted to film music of Victor Young, Elmer Bernstein and Sir William Walton. For a comprehensive commentary on the Classic Film Score series, read the article on this site.
Gerhardt also wanted to record large-scale symphonic suites of operas by Strauss, Korngold, Puccini and Wagner; left-hand concertos of Korngold, Ravel and Prokofiev (with Earl Wild); an LP of Korngold arias sung by Anna Moffo (when she was in her prime); and, to commemorate the bicentennial, the first complete recording of Porgy and Bess (Leonard Bernstein had expressed an interest in conducting it). And in 1974 Gerhardt wanted to record a new Elektra with Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek and Christa Ludwig with Karl Bohm conducting. RCA turned thumbs down on all of these. Their loss -- ours, too!
Sir Malcolm Sargent also participated in the Treasury album and is
seen here with legendary recording engineer Kenneth Wilkinson (right)
Gerhardt's artistry will live on through his numerous recordings.
has released five CDs: two volumes of Light Classics (CD102),108), Hollywood
Screen Classics (CD 71), a coupling of Ravel's Bolero, Tchaikovskyk's Romeo and
Juliet and his
(CD 35); a collection of American music including his a definitive performance
of Hanson's Symphony No. 2 (CD 112), and his only all-digital Chesky CD, a Wagner
collection (CD 161). A superb collection of film music is available on Varese
Sarabande (VSD 5207). There are hundreds of other recordings issued only in
Reader's Digest packages, unavailable to the public as most of the sets are
discontinued. Let us hope eventually many of these will be issued
by some enterprising