Celebrating Early Music and Early Music Performance

In 1950, an Austrian immigrant named Peter Fritsch, who had become an A&R executive at the Musicraft label in New York, realized his dream of starting his very own record label. Lyrichord began life in a landmark brownstone in New York's far west Greenwich Village - then still a neighborhood primarily of waterfront workers and their families. He and his wife Theresa, launched the label with a ten thousand dollar grand prize that Theresa won in a jingle contest for the Lipton Tea company. The operation was initially devoted to LP releases of under represented classical music, but the proprietor's vision and curiosity were also engaged by what later became known as World Music. During the 60's, interest in ethnic music began to attract more general interest and the future of this aspect of the label's catalog was assured. Throughout these years however, Fritsch continued to focus on unique Early Music and later classical repertoire as well, and over time established a well-respected catalog of Renaissance polyphony, and 20th century organ and chamber music repertoires.

Peter Fritsch,  founder of Lyrichord

Peter Fritsch's son Nick took over the firm in 1988 and he launched a formal imprint devoted to Early Music in 1994. The LYRICHORD EARLY MUSIC SERIES (LEMS) quickly became a vital force within a specialized genre, a genre that continues to find an increasing audience today. "In the early '60's," he recalls, "LYRICHORD acquired Experiences Anonymes, a small audiophile label founded by Beverley Merrill, who had invested some $100.000 dollars into the production of definitive realizations of Medieval and Renaissance music. I knew that the artists on these recordings were among the cream of the crop of the new American Early Music Revival, as virtually all of them were also associated with Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica . One afternoon in 1992,1 got out one of these master tapes and heard the voice of the legendary countertenor, Russell Oberlin. Far from a striking me as an obsolete or quant interpretation of a then misunderstood period of music, I knew I was hearing a voice of extraordinary, universal beauty and power. I spent the better part of a year remastering these rare stereo recordings and the LYRICHORD EARLY MUSIC SERIES was born."

The Russell Oberlin reissues met with a rapturous reception and the LEMS catalogue expanded to include new recordings of similarly vivid performances. A loyal customer base was attracted by widespread praise from the print media, heavy airplay and word-of- mouth. One highlight includes The ARTEK Ensemble's first-ever American cast performance of Monteverdi's complex and luscious early baroque opera, "Orfeo", conducted by Gwendolyn Torn. The LEMS is also the home of Schola Discantus, who is noted for the crystalline purity of their performances of 15th and 16th century Franco-Flemish polyphony. The group's conductor, Kevin Moll, retrieves ancient scores out of the realm of theory via detective work coupled with the latest software. Still another outfit, Frederick Renz’ New York’s For Early Music, weaves garlands of gleefully profane 14th century dances with Crusades-era Arabic underpinnings on "Istanpitta". Rare keyboards such as Richard Troeger’s Bach on Clavichord series, Shawn Leopard and John Paul’s amazing Lautenwercke recordings, and even revival-era harpsichords shine on Paul Wolfe’s “When They Had Pedals” historic recordings of Frescobaldi and Handel Suites, as well as Bach’s Toccatas by harpsichord great, Fernando Valenti. More recent recordings include Bach’s solo cantatas performed by one of the opera world’s greatest stars, soprano Elizabeth Futral, performing with the Washington Bach Consort. Another soprano and baroque specialist who has established an unrivaled international career is Julianne Baird. She performs on several LEMS releases, including several with the dynamic keyboardist Elaine Comparone, who also founded and directs The Queen’s Chamber Band and The Queen’s Chamber Trio. Comparone is one of the most successful new baroque players to make the transition into the cyber world of YouTube, receiving thousands of views and converts to the baroque, on her various YouTube videos. Other ensembles of note on Lyrichord include The Amadeus Baroque Ensemble and Orchestra conducted by Valentin Radu, the Amor Artis Orchestra and Chorus, directed by Johannes Somary

The LEMS artists differ widely in their repertoires and philosophies. The one common thread is that each scholar is also a gifted interpreter and thus is able to inhabit as well as accurate his or her milieu. Period detail is not the sole consideration. Works that have proven hardy enough to foil oblivion tend to lose their bloom when handled with bloodless rectitude. The LEMS artists have attained a balance of accuracy and virility that has earned the admiration of Early Music devotees while also fostering the interest of beginners.

Though the elder Mr. Fritsch passed away in 2004, and Lyrichord went through several rough years do to distribution problems, while traversing the financial mine field that the new century laid at the feet of the entire music industry, Nick is still plugging away, now with US physical distribution by the City Hall Records in San Rafael, CA, and digital distribution through IODA, to all the major download sites, such as iTunes, both in the US and elsewhere, as well as through Naxos’ Classics Online” download site. “Though physical recordings sadly are tending to become less and less viable, as costs increase and sales decline, the silver lining is that the download world, which is virtually made for deep catalog labels such as Lyrichord, continues to expand. I am determined, in addition to releasing new productions, to making every recording my father released available again in the digital domain. That a vast array of such interesting recordings now has the means to again see the light of day, and be appreciated all over again, is the fulfillment of a dream I have fostered for 25 years.” Nick says.

In addition to releasing recordings both from the past and present, Nick has spent the last two years producing a series of 22 45 minute highly acclaimed podcasts about Early Music, with Lyrichord artist, the renowned countertenor Jeffrey Dooley serving as co-host for most of the shows.  Nick and Jeffrey discuss aspects of Early Music, performance practice, as well as technical aspects of period instruments and history, using examples from the LEMS catalog as examples. Fritsch says, “Some labels do podcasting that uses a single release as the subject of a program. While we do that on some occasions, we felt it would be a lot more interesting and informative to discuss aspects of Early Music, - both how it is performed and received today, as well as in the past – drawing on the LEMS catalog to serve as examples. In this way, one show might include tracks from as many as four or five contrasting or related Lyrichord recordings. It makes for a lively exploration of the subject, rather than something that resembles a pre-programmed laborious recitation of liner notes. Also, Jeffrey’s vast personal working knowledge of Early Music and performance as well as artists, is a great asset to these shows. To hear recount first hand, his stories and experiences with the likes of his musical mentors Alfred and Mark Deller, colleagues Newell Jenkins, Julianne Baird, Johannes Somary, Joshua Rifkin, and dozens of other early music pioneers over the last thirty years, really adds a richness and texture to the conversations that simply would not exist otherwise.”  In addition to co-hosting by Dooley, some shows feature guest appearances by other noted working Lyrichord artists such as Elaine Comparone, John Ostendorf, Jerry Willard and others.”

“Podcasting is a terrific way to not only share the music we have on Lyrichord, but to convey what we think is exciting, surprising, and engaging about it. The shows take an enormous amount of time to prepare and edit, but once a show is done, it is out there for whoever want to listen to it. And as long I keep it out there, will be able to be accessed by those interested in the subject for many in years to come. This is an aspect of the new technology that I find incredibly exciting!”

-Christina Roden and Nick Fritsch