20 March 2014

Prelude for string orchestra (Gerald Finzi)

For several years, it has to be said, Arthur Richard Itter, who died on 1 March, was the bane of my life. He was a charming, friendly and invariably interesting bane, to be sure, but while the adjectives are important qualifications the noun is the only appropriate one I can think of. And it occurs to me that he would have said I was the bane of his, and he would not have qualified the noun.

He was cremated today (I am actually writing this later but it is backdated to the appropriate date), and as we took our seats in Slough crematorium the Finzi prelude for string orchestra was playing. The Lyrita recording, of course. Afterwards we left to the strains of the Tallis Fantasia - naturally, the Lyrita recording, conducted by Boult (as was the Finzi)

Richard's influence on British classical music is impossible to understate. He recorded pieces that would have struggled to get an airing otherwise - at least in the vinyl era. He gave young performers breaks, including Yo Yo Ma's recording of the Finzi cello concerto, although I met a well-known pianist once at a Jaques Samuel Christmas party (and that is a story in itself) who complained bitterly that he had recorded a concerto for Richard many years earlier which had never seen the light of day - he'd been paid, of course, but it had done nothing for his reputation. It is available on CD now.

I first encountered Richard as a client of the firm for which I was then working, and in those days (the mid-nineties) he was always called Dick. Over the telephone I formed a picture of a tall, bald, rather gaunt and ascetic figure. I offered once, in the days before e-mail (which Richard never embraced anyway) to drop a document off at his house, as I was at the time accomplishing my commute to work by driving along the M4 to the outskirts of London before taking the Tube, but he was clearly not happy about my visiting him.

A few years later he approached me out of the blue to become a trustee of the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust. I was at one of the several crossroads with which my life seems to be littered: so was he. His sister Margaret had died, as had his accountant, and they, in addition to him, were the other two trustees. He said he'd felt that I had a deeper interest in the music than most, and I thought it sounded like an interesting and indeed exciting opportunity. No money, of course, but I thought being involved in a classical record business would be enormous fun, and fun would be a nice thing to have.

It was at this moment, as I recall, that he told me he was no longer Dick: the way he put it to me, again according to my recollection of 16 years ago, was that it was not an appropriate form of address for the proprietor of a classical record label. Richard it would be from now on - until the eulogy at his cremation, given by a friend from his childhood.

I met him, finally, at his house in Burnham. He was not tall and far from gaunt, though he was bald. His disposition was by default happy and smiling, but when he became impatient about something a different side to his character emerged - as I suppose it does with all of us. Unfortunately the history of the Trust, which seemed at that first meeting to promise so much, involved a great deal of impatience. The trust existed principally to preserve and promote British music dating from the century ending in 1960, with a direction that this should be accomplished by financing Lyrita recordings: but Lyrita was no more than a trading name of Arthur Richard Itter, and the trust therefore - unintentionally - a device for putting money, free of tax, into one of his pockets prior to being transferred to the other. It was predicated on the ownership of the label passing to the Trustees, and that in turn was predicated on the proprietor's early demise: I knew that his father had died young, but I had not realised he had done so in his early thirties, as had Richard's grandfather, and he was convinced that the same heart ailment would get him. Indeed, in his plans he predeceased his sister, and her death had thrown everything up in the air. The Trust had been designed to work in quite different circumstances, and the efforts we all made to find a way to apply the Trust's funds, now swollen by Margaret's bequest, made relations fraught. One new trustee, Richard's accountant, gave up and resigned. Richard was persuaded that the main stumbling block was that the beneficiary of the Trust was a trustee and therefore money could never be applied to the Trust's main purpose, so he too resigned (leaving me and Colin Matthews as the last trustees standing) but used his privileged position under the trust deed as Founder to thwart whatever we tried to do. Eventually, and sadly, and unnecessarily, relations were broken off and the Trust justified its existence by making a few grants to worthwhile projects - the Stanford Society, a recording by the Barbirolli Quartet, and a concert at the Cheltenham Festival. In the end, Richard struck a deal with the Wyastone Trust, licensing the Lyrita business to them which led to a flood of new Lyrita releases, including the above-mentioned piano concerto, and with great relief Colin and I passed over the trust to them lock, stock and barrel. At last it could spend money on Lyrita recordings without benefiting the founder.

I could not imagine what life must have been like for Richard, in that large house with its magnificent music room. It had been built after his father's death, when his mother and sister and he moved from Peterborough where Itters Brick Company was a major local business, his father had been mayor, and a park still bears the family name: what memories it must have had for him. He never to my knowledge left it: I don't know that he owned a car, but as the garage was full of CDs I suspect not. I offered to drive him into London once, to take him the London premier of Colin's Pluto (preceded, of course, by Holst's suite) at the Proms, but he demurred. Perhaps he didn't want to promenade (but I would have splashed out on seats had he accepted!).

Recent history shows that Wyastone - Nimbus, to use the trading name under which they are better-known - did him proud, though history has not yet recorded, as I believe to be the case, that they organised the funeral. His legacy is extraordinary, and there is more to come. In June there will be a new Lyrita release, a completely new recording, a piece from which was played by Andrew McGregor on Radio 3 in his tribute to Richard (though he seemed merely to read the statement issued by Wyastone). And I still look forward to hearing the Chinese Symphony, by Bernard van Dieren, even though I am assured by people who know that as a piece of music it is not worth it.

After the cremation we repaired to the house of an old friend of Richard's sister. The eulogist offered to lead the convoy, which was long as most people had driven themselves. The journey took us through the centre of Slough, and it was only a few minutes before a bus had infiltrated the convoy, a few cars back from the head, and then stopped (as buses do). When it moved on again our leader was out of sight. I continued to follow the car in front as it made a left turn then doubled back round a mini-roundabout, suggesting that the driver was lost. At a set of traffic lights I took the opportunity to ask the driver, who turned out to be Lewis Foreman whom I knew through the Trust, if he knew where he was going, and he confirmed that he didn't. Behind us was Siva Oke (proprietor of SOMM, another classical label, whom I also met through the Trust and have encountered a few times since, including entertaining her to lunch a year or two ago). Via the Wyastone switchboard I made contact with Antony Smith, who did know where he was going, and I arranged to meet him in the car park of a pub where we had once had lunch after a meeting at Richard's house. Eventually we reached the wake. The moral of that tale is that one should never rely on an octogenarian baron of the Holy Roman Empire to get you to where you want to be, even if his name is Taxis.

The Wyastone guys had even thought up the perfect finishing touch: a Lyrita CD featuring a documentary which Lewis Foreman had made a few years ago, Andrew McGregor's tribute, and the music from the cremation. How much, I wondered, would a Lyrita collector pay for that? It's an academic question: it is not for sale. It is a memento of a very significant part of my life, and a reminder of a man whom, although he richly deserves the description I applied to him in the opening words of this posting, I liked a lot.