A four-decade friendship with Charles Gerhardt
by Robert E. Benson

For many years I had the pleasure of friendship with the late Charles Gerhardt. I first met him in April of 1950; I had taken the train from my native Chicago to New York to buy records (78s in those days!), and friends told me the best place to go was The Record Hunter. Once there, I asked the clerk if they had the Ferdinand Leitner recording of Beethoven's music for Egmont. He said they surely did, went right to the spot on the shelf where it was, brought it over to me and commented that it was a fine performance with good sound. We started to talk about orchestras and conductors. Right from the start we had a lot to talk about. Both he and I were admirers of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg. He said one of his favorite recordings was Mengelberg's Tannhäuser overture, with its perfect control and burnished brass. He asked me if I was going to hear the Mahler Eighth with Leopold Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic that weekend, and I said I couldn't - I had to get back home. He said it might be possible to get a private LP recording of the performance, was I interested? Indeed I was and a few weeks later it arrived.

Charles Gerhardt was a superb pianist, having studied privately
and at Julliard. He easily could have had a career as a concert pianist.

That very knowledgeable, competent "clerk" was Charles Gerhardt who at the time had not yet started his incredible career in the recording industry. He already had studied piano, written some original compositions, and attended both Julliard and the University of Southern California (I have a tape of him playing Rachmaninoff's Second with their orchestra). If he wanted, he could have had a fine career as a concert pianist, but he didn't want to limit himself solely to keyboard performance. His piano technique and astounding memory stayed with him all his life. Once when I was visiting him in London, after a trip to a recording studio, he sat down at the piano and played, with remarkable virtuosity, Liszt's Funérailles.


Gerhardt always used a baton. Here he is in a somewhat pensive mood.

Gerhardt's primary interest was the art of recording. He worked with RCA from 1951 through 1955 initially as as an engineer and editor, later on he was a producer/engineer. One of his first tasks with RCA was making 15 ips copies of many historic recordings editing out scratches so they could be issued on the then-new LP format. In 1955 he began working for Westminster Records where he stayed for five years until the company went out of business. He then got a job at Bell Sound, recording Eddie Fischer among other pop singers. Then there was a telephone call from George Marek who wanted Gerhardt to meet with him and representatives of the Reader's Digest, which turned out to be a remarkably productive collaboration that would continue for more than three decades.


René Leibowitz first recorded with Gerhardt in 1960 for the Treasury of
Light Classical Music
Reader's Digest album, and is seen here with Gerhardt at
1961 sessions with the Royal Philharmonic during which Gerhardt produced a
much-acclaimed Beethoven symphony cycle.

That chance encounter at the record store in New York was the beginning of a friendship that continued until Gerhardt's untimely death February 22, 1999, a few weeks after his 72nd birthday. Late in November 1998 he was diagnosed with brain cancer, and had surgery the first week in December. As I live in the Baltimore area and he lived in northern California, we didn't see each other very often but were in constant touch via email and the telephone. I visited him the second week in January 1999 about a month after his operation and he seemed to be doing remarkably well under the circumstances. But in mid-January he had a major relapse and spent the remainder of his days in the intensive care unit of the hospital in Redding.

For these many years I have watched -- and listened -- with amazement to recordings Gerhardt produced, conducted or arranged. Often he appeared in two or even three of these roles simultaneously. For more details about his career, read the adjoining articles, but it should be clarified that Gerhardt has made more recordings, either as conductor, producer or arranger, than anyone else. The first project he did for Reader's Digest was "A Festival of Light Classical Music." This was a 12-LP album he planned, produced and supervised in every way. It was on sale in more than 15 countries by mail order only and after just a few years had sold more than two million sets -- a total of 24 million LPs -- and that was just the beginning. Dozens of other albums followed, including pop music, mood music, light classics and, of course, classics. Gerhardt particularly enjoyed producing the Digest "Treasury of Great Music" album, a 12-LP set featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under some leading conductors of the time (1960's): Charles Munch in Bizet and Tchaikovsky, Rudolf Kempe in Strauss and Respighi, Josef Krips in Mozart and Haydn, Antal Dorati in Strauss and Berlioz, Fritz Reiner's Brahms Fourth, and Sir John Barbirolli's near-definitive Sibelius Second.


Gerhardt with Antal Dorati at 1962 sessions for the Reader's Digest.  With the Royal Philharmonic Dorati recorded music of Richard Strauss ("Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome) and Berlioz (excerpts from Romeo and Juliet)

Early in his career with the Digest, Gerhardt met Kenneth Wilkinson, legendary recording engineer, who had worked extensively with Decca over the years including early recordings in the Concertgebouw. As "Wilkie" said to me when I met him in 1985, "I did 'em all!." He worked with Ansermet, Solti, Van Beinum and many other leading conductors over the years. Gerhardt and Wilkinson had an incredible rapport. Their goals were the same, and recordings they produced were distinguished by quality of performance and sonic excellence. From the early '60s on, Gerhardt had a residence in England which is where he did most of his recording, but always kept a home in the United State, primarily in New York but later in California.  Often when he was returning to the States after a period of recording sessions he would stop off in Baltimore and we would spend a few days listening to tapes of his newest recordings. As we listened he would make comments and often said in a soft voice, "Well...perhaps I was a bit over the top there??" And there would be a gentle laugh, as he knew he had done it right.


Gerhardt in 1969 on the West Coast in a
Reader's Digest recording session with Jo Stafford


In London Gerhardt met George Korngold, son of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and the two became close friends, collaborating on many superb recordings of film music. Gerhardt was particularly proud of his recordings for the RCA Classic Film Score series, and rightfully so. I remember the first time I heard the magnificent Sea Hawk and Robin Hood suites; really quite remarkable in every way. I treasure the evening he played for me his recording of Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2. This music was a particular favorite of his and he was proud of his recording. He showed me a letter from the composer in which Hanson praised Gerhardt's performance, the wonderful playing of the orchestra and the sonic quality. (The Hanson, along with other music of American composers,  is available on CD, Chesky CD 11).


Sir John Barbirolli recorded Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius with the Royal Philharmonic. Produced by Gerhardt, this is considered to be among the finest recordings of this music

Gerhardt loved percussion instruments, particularly tam-tams. One of his favorite recordings was the mono Columbia LP of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic with, as he described it, "wonderful dirty gongs." He always made sure that gongs were clear in all of his recordings, and on occasion added bass piano notes to give more pitch to the instrument, as he did in the last movement of Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz with Massimo Freccia and the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky CD 88). Gerhardt had met Freccia in 1951 in the billiard room at Toscanini's home in Riverside and made quite a few recordings with him.
 


Gerhardt with Rudolf Kempe at Digest recording sessions in 1964.  Kempe recorded a number of works for the Digest including Strauss's Don Juan and Respighi's Pines of Rome.

Gerhardt had great admiration and respect for the many conductors he worked with, beginning with Arturo Toscanini, with whom he worked for several years before the Maestro's death. It was Toscanini who suggested toGerhardt that he become a conductor. He did so for the first time at a Digest recording session when a well-known conductor was ill. The orchestra would have to be paid anyway, so Gerhardt picked up the baton  -- with highly successful results, the first of countless times when he would conduct a wide range of music from pop to Mahler. Gerhardt particularly enjoyed working with Fritz Reiner recording the Brahms Fourth, and the sessions with Charles Munch went particularly well. At the sessions for Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, Munch rehearsed just a few points in the score with the RPO, and they broke for a brief recess before the recording began. Some of the players were a bit concerned, telling Chuck that they needed more rehearsal before recording a "take." Munch overheard this and slyly said to them, "You're going to have to WATCH me, aren't you?" And they did. The result was a tremendously exciting performance of Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem, with only one brief remake. Gerhardt also mentioned to me that at the first playback, Munch was elated by the sound quality; Munch's RCA recordings surely are not of the sonic quality of his two Gerhardt-produced recordings.
 


Gerhardt first heardCharles Munch in concert at the University of Southern California concert.
A great admirer of  Munch, Gerhardt  was delighted when he agreed to record Tchaikovsky's
Francesca da Rimini and Bizet's Symphony in C. 


Gerhardt had a true meeting of minds with Jascha Horenstein, whom he admired above all conductors he worked with. He suggested to RCA that they record all of the Mahler symphonies with the venerable conductor.  Can you imagine the importance of that set, had it come to be?


There are numerous works Gerhardt wanted to record. He would have liked to do a complete Glière Ilya Mourometz, one of his favorite works, but was able to do only a truncated version of the second movement, included in the Digest set "Nature's Music." He wanted to orchestrate and record more of the Debussy preludes and Ravel piano music. At the time of his death, he was orchestrating some piano music of Lecuona. He had heard the BIS recording by Thomas Tirino, was impressed by the pianist's virtuosity and musicianship as well as by the music itself, and started to orchestrate "Ante El Escorial," "an impressionistic tone-painting of the magnificent structure built by King Philip II in Madrid." We can be certain that Gerhardt's orchestration would have been magnificent, had he lived to complete it.

Stokowski was idolized by Gerhardt, who had a huge collection of his recordings and attended numerous concerts. On a number of occasions Gerhardt worked with Stokowski, including the early stereo version of RCA's 1954 recording of Menotti's Sebastian) and Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet ballet suites.  Here he is with Stokowski in 1961 during Walthamstow sessions for the RCA "Inspiration" album. Stokowski was to participate in a Digest recording of  Tchaikovsky's  Symphony No. 5, but union restrictions prohibited this.

It is frustrating to say the least to imagine what might have been -- and it must be equally frustrating to RCA to look back and realize they ignored, for the most part, Gerhardt's suggestions -- which would have been very profitable for them. Once the Classic Film Score series was launched in 1972, with remarkable sales figures, one would think CFS would be a continuing series. All 15 LPs in the series were best-sellers, remaining on the charts for months at a time, and the fact that they constantly remained in the catalog indicates they were selling well. Gerhardt suggested many additional LPs for the series including "The Women" (Classic Film Scores for the Great Hollywood Actresses), "Dodge City" (Classic Film Scores for Westerns by Max Steiner), "Frankenstein" (Classic Film Scores for Horror Films), and "Things to Come" (Classic Film Scores for Science Fiction Films). He also planned LPs devoted to film music of Victor Young, Elmer Bernstein and Sir William Walton. For a comprehensive commentary on the Classic Film Score series, read the article on this site. 


On several occasions Gerhardt was involved in recording sessions with Artur Rubinstein; this photo was taken in 1961 when Rubinstein was recording Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Max Wilcox produced the recording but Rubinstein wanted Gerhardt to be there as Walthamstow Hall was new to Wilcox. Gerhardt also did the setup for Rubinstein's set of Beethoven concertos with Barenboim conducting.

Gerhardt also wanted to record large-scale symphonic suites of operas by Strauss, Korngold, Puccini and Wagner; left-hand concertos of Korngold, Ravel and Prokofiev (with Earl Wild); an LP of Korngold arias sung by Anna Moffo (when she was in her prime); and, to commemorate the bicentennial, the first complete recording of Porgy and Bess (Leonard Bernstein had expressed an interest in conducting it). And in 1974 Gerhardt wanted to record a new Elektra with Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek and Christa Ludwig with Karl Bohm conducting. RCA turned thumbs down on all of these. Their loss -- ours, too!

Sir Malcolm Sargent also participated in the Treasury album and is
seen here with legendary recording engineer Kenneth Wilkinson (right)


Gerhardt's artistry lives on in his recordings. Chesky has released five CDs: two volumes of "Light Classics" (CD 102, 108); "Hollywood Screen Classics" (CD 71), a coupling of Ravel's Bolero, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and his own arrangement of an extended suite from Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (CD 35); a collection of American music including his definitive performance of Hanson's Symphony No. 2 (CD 112), and his only all-digital Chesky CD, a Wagner collection (CD 161). A superb collection of film music is available on Varese Sarabande (VSD 5207). There are hundreds of other recordings issued only in various Reader's Digest packages, unavailable to the public as most of the sets are discontinued.   Let us hope eventually many of these will be issued by some enterprising company.

The author, Bob Benson, with Chuck Gerhardt in Guardian care facility
in Redding, California, January 1999, about a month before Gerhardt's death

Reader's Digest issued in the Fall of 2000 a 3-CD set of Gerhardt recordings called "Themes of Love.  The first CD contains short works of Debussy, Hanson, Holst, Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Donizetti, Satie, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Rodrigo.  CD 2 offers music of  Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Walton, Brahms, Mozart and Ravel plus an assortment of music for films. The third CD consists  music for Broadway and films.  For ordering information contact The Reader's Digest