Alfred and Seymour

By Greg Barbero

Thank you for sending along the LPs. They brought back so many great memories, all the good times came flooding back like it was yesterday – and we know it wasn't yesterday, don't we. Yet I remember meeting in the hotel after a recording session in Vienna, and we entered the bar, and after looking around at the women in attendance, you said, “Geez, Alfred, a guy could do reeeeeeeel well in here.”
Alfred Deller to Seymour Solomon, September 1974, about the release of The Art of Alfred Deller on Vanguard

I was fortunate enough to be the steward of Vanguard Classics after the Solomon family sold the Vanguard Classics label to Artemis Records in 2003, following the death of Seymour Solomon. During that time, it was always my fervent wish to present a complete portfolio of the recordings of Alfred Deller. Time, economics and the marketplace all conspired against me to bring this project into the realm of reality. Thanks to the help of Musical Concepts, I began to work in earnest on this project in 2006 and 2007.

Soon after the Artemis purchase, I came to know Seymour Solomon. Though he had passed away six months prior, we inherited his filing cabinets, which were filled with business and occasional personal correspondence. Although he saw himself as a pioneer in technology and artistry, he also was a hard-headed businessman. His letters convey personal feelings about recordings, ocasionally tactful but firm notes to artists in response to entreaties for royalties or additional recording contracts, his wildly enthusiastic responses to making great recordings – and beating his competition to market with Vivaldi and Haydn.

Alfred Deller’s initial recorded career could only have happened at a label like Vanguard. Independent record labels, like most small businesses, live off of a connection between an owner and their obsessions. And Seymour Solomon loved baroque and renaissance music at a time when that was truly a unique obsession. Today’s landscape reveals concrete superhighways to Hildegard von Bingen where once there were mere cow paths.

Seymour’s devotion to Deller and Deller’s singular talent helped thrash out one of those very important early paths that led to the new road to early music. According to Vanguard legend, Seymour heard Deller sing a Purcell song on an HMV 78, was suitably impressed, but didn’t pursue the artist. Then Gustav Leonhardt suggested Deller for a recording, Seymour saw an opportunity, and a small cottage industry was born. Audiences responded to Deller, subsequently his consort, and Vanguard sold quite a few discs along the way: 50 LP releases between 1952 and 1967.

Considering how folk music was the DNA of Vanguard, even before the explosion of the Joan Baez driven sales of the 1960s, Deller resonated with Seymour Solomon on a musical and a personal level. Deller’s recordings of folk songs and madrigals fit in perfectly with how the company expanded in the 1950s, the only difference beging that Deller sang of English lads and ladies from many years past. The other recordings released by Vanguard at the time were from The Weavers and other folk artists who were establishing audiences at that time (“Wraggle Taggle Gypsies” may be the most recorded tune in Vanguard’s overall catalog.) What happened at Vanguard was a meeting of obsessions between Deller and Seymour Solomon – a love of folk music together with a love of the emerging new field of “early” music.

Wearing his hat as a businessman, Seymour had to be attracted to the small ensembles and devotees – they came cheap and wanted merely to put their music on tape. He could record several LPs worth of releases in one month in England or Vienna – for a fraction of the cost of an orchestral recording.

A perfect professional and personal partnership were Seymour and Alfred. In the vast archives left by Seymour Solomon, there are no letters that reverberate quite like Deller’s to him and Seymour’s responses to Deller. Deller’s jolly talent for letter writing is matched with Seymour’s more professional but incisive responses. There is even one that starts, “Dear Seymour: Don’t be shocked, but I am writing to ask for my release from my exclusive Vanguard contract!” (Which was granted – they had been discussing it for a few years.) And perhaps the most telling sign of a stronger than professional connection was that Deller’s rather regular requests for advances on his royalties were always granted and never second guessed.

One more moment illuminates their friendship and business partnership. My first introduction to the Deller/Solomon relationship occurred as I was reading letters while researching more information about a reissue on Vanguard, and I found a letter from 1962, where Seymour enthuses in capital letters to his brother about a recording he was making with Deller in Vienna:

It is possibly the greatest moment we have ever recorded with him…there is a duet with a baroque trumpet that is quite out of this world…the recording, as Alfred said, should be a real cracker!

This excitement was all for the first movements of Handel’s Ode on the Birthday of Queen Anne, entitled “Eternal Light”. It may just be the most transcendent recorded moment in the Deller Vanguard catalog and possibly the most imitated – in the small yet real counter-tenor industry, I now count four recordings of “Eternal Light”, available on recordings by the current crop of counter-tenors currently working.

And the last point goes not just to the man himself, but to the ensemble that he surrounded himself with. The Deller Consort, which appears with several different rosters throughout this recording, starts at the level of Deller’s talent, and works as both a supporting stage for Deller’s voice and a musical “atmosphere” that places the music in a brilliant context. The recordings selected here both showcase Deller’s voice but also the remarkable talents of the ensemble he created. The madrigals show off the group of singers as being technically unsurpassed and fully committed to the ensemble concept. Their contribution in the European vocal section of this compilation again finds them as a superlative group of accompanists, an ensemble that would today be regarded as the finest group of voices, a veritable “supergroup”. Yet they were all really explorers and pathfinders, all together on the good ship Deller Consort, led by a perfectionist but happy taskmaster.

It is a great honor and pleasure to share with music lovers the work of these two great men. One was an unparalleled vocalist who helped to create the “historical performance” world that is so important in today’s musical scene; the other a man who paved the way toward capturing important performances for posterity. Our profound thanks to both of them for endeavoring to toil in the mines and bring forth gold nuggets that we can savour for years to come.