The Classical CD Choice Interview: Jonathan Cooper at Chandos

At Chandos Records, there are three parts to the work of the talented JONATHAN COOPER: Record Producer, Sound Engineer and Audio Editor. He will be celebrating 25 years of continuous service next August (2018) having returned in 1993, but he did do a year there prior to that as the 3rd “sandwich” year of his degree, which he spent working out in the industry before returning to University to do his Final year.
We fired several short questions at him about the many superb discs he has been involved with at Chandos.
What are the peculiar challenges of your job?
One of the challenges of producing is working with different artists who are all very different personalities; some don’t need much input, others want lots of guidance, some need cajoling and encouraging, other need pushing a little to get the best out of them. When working with someone for the first time, it can be difficult to gauge what feedback to give to help them give their best performance.
Are there things you find particularly pleasurable and others which are onerous?
One of the most pleasurable things is being able to witness an artist develop over the course of a long-term relationship with Chandos. I’ve been very lucky to watch Edward Gardner’s approach to recording with an orchestra change gradually over the last ten years or so, and watch his assuredness and self-confidence grow.
You’ve been with Chandos Records for 25 years, Jonathan – what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the classical recording industry in that time?
The most significant changes have been the computerisation of the editing process, and more recently the move to online distribution of recordings. I’m perhaps fortunate to be too young to have ever had to edit with analogue tape and razor blades, when I first started at Chandos we were using the Sony PCM-1630 system which recorded onto digital tape, on larger versions of video cassettes like VHS. Editing using this system was very slow and there were quite serious restrictions as to what edits could be attempted. Our first computer editing system arrived in 1996 and it has all developed from there – now we can edit just about anywhere in a phrase, and we have tools to remove noises without affecting the music. With the increase in the use of the internet and growth of access to broadband, the move to online distribution was a natural one – but do records exist anymore?
All this computerisation leads also to the onerous task – but very very necessary – of making sure that all the data we now generate is properly backed up and archived somewhere; but this task is the same for anyone using computers!
Have you encountered recording artists over the years who take a great interest in what you do – or others who take your work for granted?
In my experience all artists take some interest in how the sound they are making is coming across through the microphones — it is unusual not to have to make some adjustments after the first balance test. Some artists do come to record with a very specific sound-picture in their mind, and it can be challenging to realise their vision.
Chandos Records is famous for its superlative sound and its commitment to the SACD surround sound medium.  What are the principal differences between recording in surround sound and in stereo?
For Chandos, there isn’t too much difference when we record; we have a trusted technique which we’ve developed over the years which lets us do both at once on a session. It is amazing when making the surround version how much difference to the listening experience the rear and centre channels make; when you listen to them on their own it sounds like not much is going on, but mix them in and it really lifts the sense of space and bass response.
Of the discs you’ve worked on over the years, which do you remember most fondly?
I’ll always remember my first project as producer back in 2006 very fondly – the Korngold string quartets with the Doric String Quartet. It was their first disc for Chandos so we all had reason to be very nervous. They are incredible musicians and have the most amazing work ethic and it’s absolutely wonderful music, even more astonishing when you consider Korngold was in his twenties when he wrote the first quartet.
Another favourite disc is Louis Lortie’s first Faure recital. We recorded it at Snape Maltings concert hall which is one of my favourite venues, and Louis was on superb form. The Prelude from the suite from pelleas and melisande is over 5 minutes long, and it was just a single take – there was no need to do anything again, it was so beautifully moving.
What’s your next disc project?
This week I’ll be starting work on Edward Gardner’s next release with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, a disc of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt, coupled with the Piano Concerto with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The disc will be released in January 2018.