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Review - Series 1 2002

‘Coup d'Archet was originally founded in 1997 to make available to discerning music lovers a number of lost recordings by the legendary Hungarian violinist, Johanna Martzy’.  This is the opening statement on Glenn Armstrong's website 

I would be less than honest if I didn't confess that I know Glenn well...  I have great respect for what he does and the absolute care he lavishes on all of his projects.  I know this because we've had discussions in the past on what he would and what he wouldn't offer to his clients. 

Our many conversations have enlightened me to trials I could never have imagined.  Indeed this article owes much to hours spent on the phone.

Unfortunately for all of us, there are recordings that he has uncovered in various archives in Europe that are just not up to the standard he requires for public release. 

Sometimes an archived recording was cut directly to lacquer, an acetate if you will, that had already seen more than its fair share of plays.  Other times the oxide had begun to fall off the tape in the canister, or maybe the engineer of the day simply wasn't up to snuff.  Sometimes the tapes had disappeared entirely, stolen or 'borrowed' many years ago.  While of course some of these problems could be partially cured by a trip into the digital domain, this was never an option for Armstrong, a staunch advocate of analogue reproduction. 

Searching, finding, and listening to these recordings is only the tip of the iceberg.  Believe me.  Perhaps the most difficult job he has is negotiating with the Broadcasting companies who own the tapes.  I've heard a variety of stories and some of what he goes through is just a nightmare I wouldn't want to be involved with. 

No one handed him a golden key that would open all the doors.  Every contact at every stage was personally made. He told me recently that he had received an email from a Frenchman interested in embarking on a similar venture asking for every shortcut and contact, and all aspects of the licensing process.  Glenn's reply was simple: "Ceci est une blague, n'est pas?"  (This is a joke, right?)  Similarly he controls every part of the production process, from editing the liner notes to designing the artwork for the jackets.

In '97 vinyl was still fighting for its life.  Armstrong was alone in presenting unknown classical music on LP.  For that very reason, he says, he was taken in hand at the Abbey Road and at the factory.  The day the Hayes factory closed in April 2000 was a bitter one.  It was for him a magical place.  The search for a pressing plant as good was to take some time and would delay the next LPs by almost a year. 

Armstrong is one of those perfectionist types when it comes to the production of his releases.  Initially, Coup d'Archet (stroke of the bow) released seven recordings of fabulous material never before available by the great Johanna Martzy.  They won acclaim and awards from the critical music press. 

It cannot be over emphasised that Armstrong does NOT reissue previously released material.  All the recordings he has released are first time releases (obviously they were, for the most part, aired once or twice a few decades ago - but they have never been made available to the public any other way). 

When he could find no more suitable Martzy material he looked for other artists who had been similarly passed over by history and the recording industry.  He was not interested in seeking out the popular greats because he felt there was already more than enough on the shelves.  Did anyone really need another Milstein recording?

The next three releases moved the project into the French artist genre, an area unknown to all but a few exceptionally knowledgeable collectors.  Two wonderful recordings by the great French pianist and pedagogue Yvonne Lefébure featuring Ravel and Beethoven and a stunning LP of Bartók and

Prokofiev sonatas with Michèle Auclair playing violin with Jacqueline Robin (better known by her first husband's name, Bonneau) at the keyboard were met with public indifference. 

While Martzy was marginal, her cult following was significant and sales were comfortable.  Lefébure and Auclair (or was it Bartók and Ravel?) were clearly not going to recoup their costs through the traditional sales route of international distributorships.  Armstrong was offering the music but the world at large wasn't interested.  So after ten releases with the original formula his thoughts turned to re-evaluating his business strategy.  Taking a leaf out of Walter Legge's book he decided that a small edition available only by subscription would be the way forward.  He knew that such a radical shift would alienate much of the following he had built up, but he had no choice if he wanted to survive. 

This was the birth of L'Archet d'Or (the golden bow).  This annual series is a strictly signed and number-limited edition of 250 sets. PERIOD.  When they're gone ... they're gone.  And I know they have been selling.  The first series of four recordings, issued in the later quarter of 2002, has been a resounding success in the collecting community and contains: 

OR I - Jeanne Gautier/Yvonne Lefébure - Mozart Sonata for Violin and Piano K379 (31.5.59)
Jeanne Gautier/Aimee Van De Wiele - Bach Sonata No.5 in F minor for Violin and Harpsichord (24.05.59) 

OR II - Jeanne Gautier/André Levy - Ravel Duo for Violin and 'Cello (27.5.61) 

OR III - Jacqueline Eymar - Mozart K332/Chopin Funeral Sonata (10.02.62) 

OR IV - Camilla Wicks/ Isidore Karr - Encore Pieces; Sicilienne, von Paradis; Shimcas Torah from Baal Shem, Bloch; Slavonic Dance No. 1 in G minor, Dvorak/Kreisler; Malaguena, Sarasate; Banjo and Violin, Kroll; Sonata No. 12, Paganini; Romanian Dances, Bartók/Szekeli (12.2.51) 

Who, I can hear you all cry, ARE these people??  I sympathise, because less than a decade ago I didn‘t know them either.  With the exception of Camilla Wicks (ah!) all the artists featured are among the greatest French instrumentalists ever. 

I'm not going to go into the performance value of these recordings.  They are all, in my opinion, at the top of the charts.  These are treasures I have listened to often since receiving my set and I am very excited about the forthcoming releases (especially the Bundervoët Ravel which Glenn assures me is the most 'sublime and poetic' reading he has ever heard).  Series 2, which I am told will be arriving in September, will include the following: 

OR V - Marcelle Meyer: Mozart piano Sonatas /Fantasy/Adagio (1953/56). 

OR VI - Jeanne Gautier/Nadine Desouches: Stravinsky/Ravel/Martinu (1.1.56); Jeanne Gautier/Lelia Gousseau: Roussel Sonata No.2 (13.4.57). 

OR VII - Maurice Maréchal/Cecile Ousset: Beethoven op 5.2, Brahms op 38, Cello Sonatas (1.1.58/13.10.59). 

OR VIII - Agnelle Bundervoët: Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit/ Debussy Images Book 1(1959). 

The jackets are works of art, hand pulled silkscreen prints folded and glued by hand.  Attention to detail even includes the Mylar outer sleeves, which accompany each LP, sealed with coloured tape that matches the individual jacket.  All four LPs are housed in a beautiful purple clothbound slipcase. What more can I say?  Subscription price is £300. 

Sounds like a lot of money for four records.  I guess it is.  But you haven't heard the records!  All I can say is that these performances are astonishingly wonderful.  The playing is absolutely at the highest level of musicianship.  The sound quality is truly remarkable.  The clarity and fidelity of the instruments is startling. 

Armstrong continues to have the lacquer masters cut at Abbey Road and the manufacturing by Pallas GmbH, Germany on 180gram virgin vinyl.  Oh, and of course all recordings are 100% analogue and monophonic. 

Oh, lest I forget, one of the gems in the first series is the rarely recorded Ravel Duo for violin and violoncello … this with Gautier and Levy.  There was a previous recording by this legendary team available on an 8" Le Chant du Monde recording (LDZ - M 8145 French only issue).  It has recently sold at public auction (May 2003) for in excess of £1600.  Those who have had the opportunity to compare the two issues, myself included, feel the AO issue the superior recording and performance … by wide margins. 

The entire presentation from the beautiful jackets, the slipcase, the detail, would be a bargain at twice the price.  This is not to be missed ... because you will be sorry if you do. 

Richard S. Foster hi-fi+ issue 24 2003
Coup d'Archet