Hyperion is planning to celebrate its 25th anniversary with another instalment of Ex Cathedra's Latin American baroque, writes Terry Grimley...
The 21st century has proved tough for the classical music recording industry, with the major international labels dramatically cutting staff and recording schedules.
Much of the pace has been set by small independent labels, of whom Chandos and Hyperion are the two outstanding examples in the UK. But Chandos has just slashed its staff by more than half, while Hyperion is counting the cost of losing a much-publicised court case arising from a CD featuring Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra.
This calamity centred on a difference of opinion with musicologist Lionel Sawkins over whether using a performing edition of music out of copyright entitled the editor to a copyright payment. The legal system backed Dr Sawkins, both in the initial court case and a subsequent appeal.
For a company with a staff of just 12 already facing challenging times, the consequences of this brush with the law looked potentially terminal. But Hyperion is looking forward to celebrating its 25th anniversary this autumn with a raft of releases including its first collaboration with bright young Russian conductor Ilan Volkov, a repackaged box-set of its epic set of Schubert's complete songs - and a new CD from Ex Cathedra.
"We have £8-900,000-worth of recordings in the can," says director Simon Perry, whose late father Ted Perry launched Hyperion in October 1980.
"We work on a nine-month-toayear turnaround and we have plenty of releases to issue up to June, then maybe there'll be a slight hiatus in the number of releases. There could be two or three years of struggling, but as long as we survive, that's all I care about."
The label was born out of struggle, Ted Perry driving a minicab at night to support his family as he was getting it started. He was actually driving it when he heard a concert by Gothic Voices which inspired one of Hyperion's earliest and biggest hits - a collection of music by the 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen, A Feather on the Breath of God.
Its knack of capturing arresting sounds like this may explain why Hyperion's discs have been sampled by artists like Bjork and Orbital, as well as commanding great loyalty among serious music fans, not just in the UK but around the world. It has recorded huge areas of previously untouched music, particularly in the British and early music categories.
How far the court case has blown Hyperion off course remains to be seen. Damages and appeal costs have just been agreed, and other legal costs have still to be added up. But already admirers are rallying around.
"Shortly after the appeal decision people started to send us money. The first chap sent me £50 and said Hyperion has enhanced my life, which really took me by surprise. Many other people said we've been buying Hyperion for years, how can we help?
"We decided to set up an appeal on our website where people can buy a record and add a bit more or make a donation. All that money goes to new recording projects, it doesn't go towards legal fees.
"As soon as we did that some chap in America gave us $6,000 and someone in Britain gave us £5,000. Most of the donations have been £10-20, a few have sent £100, and it all adds up. It has saved a couple of projects already."
One anonymous American donor bought $5,000 worth of discs with the request that they should be sent somewhere where music is not readily available. This has developed into a project to place a complete catalogue of current Hyperion releases - 1,200 discs - in a library in Baghdad.
Ex Cathedra's pioneering disc of Latin American baroque music proved a big hit on Classic FM, and according to Simon Perry its followup, Moon, Sun & all things, released in September, is even better.
"It's a real fun, happy record. We'll continue to record as much as we can with Ex Cathedra - we like them!" he says, dispelling any fears that the court case might have soured the relationship.
Ex Cathedra is not the label's only Birmingham connection. The CBSO, with pianist Stephen Hough, has twice won the prestigious Gramophone Record of the Year award for contributions to Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series, the second time for a box set of Saint-Saens's complete concertos, conducted by Sakari Oramo.
Orchestral recordings, particularly expensive, have been early casualties. But the label is releasing one disc this month of music by Janacek, from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under its new conductor, Ilan Volkov. With a second already in the can, this is a relationship Perry is looking forward to developing.
Legal debts aside, what are the prospects for Hyperion in its second quarter-century?
"It's getting harder. There's so much product out there now - records used to stay in the shops for six months, but now they're dropping off quickly.
"It's getting more difficult to find retail outlets, so a lot of people are turning to the internet. They'll do whatever it takes to find what they want if it's not in the shops. They won't say I can't find it so I'll go and buy Madonna instead."
Could downloading music from the internet be the way forward for labels like Hyperion?
"I would be foolish not to show an interest in it. At some point in the future we will have to offer downloads, it's just how we go about doing it.
"I've wanted to be able to offer our deleted recordings. I don't like it when someone calls and say you say this is deleted, how do I get it? Downloading would be perfect for that."
Chandos is already offering downloads at a modest 40p per track on its website, and Hyperion will be soon be giving it a trial in North America.
"That's just to test the water. But I think the demand will be low for the moment because most Hyperion collectors are serious collectors. We spend a vast sum of money on each recording to get the best possible sound, and because it's all compressed I don't think downloading offers that."
* For more details, visit hyperion_records.co.uk.