Late summer 1947: it is uncharacteristically hot and dry in Lübeck as Helmut Walcha undertakes Archiv Produktion’s first recordings. He performs a selection of favourite organ works by Bach on the small organ in the church of St. Jakobi. Walcha and his wife have been put up at the vicarage, where they sleep on camp beds. Issued with special ration cards, the organist can purchase extra food “for heavy labour”. This means the couple can eat at least one meal a day in a restaurant. Apart from that, they rely on the potatoes which Erich Thienhaus, the recording producer, has hoarded.

From these modest beginnings emerged a record label whose effect has been like that of a beacon of light on the world of early music. The first recordings, released on 78 rpm shellac discs, were so successful with both press and public that it was decided to record the complete organ works of Bach with Walcha. The project, announced in the Bach anniversary year of 1950, was completed in September 1952. The recordings are still available on CD today.

Other early pioneers included August Wenzinger and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, who made the first ever recording of the complete Brandenburg Concertos on original instruments, and Safford Cape, who directed his ensemble Pro Musica Antiqua in a revelatory LP series of medieval and Renaissance music. Now, some 66 years later, over 1,000 recordingshave been released on the Archiv label, encompassinga range that defies any brief summary. They include large-scale projects like the cycle of Bach cantatas for the church year with Karl Richter, the label’s leading light in the 1960s and most of the 1970s; the first Bach Edition; wide-ranging surveys of the music of Handel and Telemann; the complete Mozart piano concertos (with Malcolm Bilson and John Eliot Gardiner); the complete Mozart symphonies (with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert); and the Beethoven symphonies (also with Gardiner, conducting his extravagantly named Orchestre Révolutionnare et Romantique). In the 1990s Gardiner completed his survey of later Mozart operas, and Paul McCreesh and Marc Minkowski brought new depth to the label’s catalogue of, respectively, Handel and Rameau recordings; in the last decade, Alan Curtis’s series of Handel opera recordings has broadened considerably Archiv’s opera seria range. Most recently, the Ensemble Plus Ultra’s 10-CD survey of the sacred works of Victoria, released in the 400th anniversary year of the composer’s birth in 2011, won the prestigious Gramophone “Early Music” Award.

Another characteristic of Archiv has been the exploration of non-European repertoires, as evinced in 1970s recordings of gamelan music from Bali and Java. Among other traditions, that of Gregorian chant has long played a significant role in the label’s output, starting with recordings made with the monks of the Benedictine abbey at Beuron in Bavaria in 1953. The anthology of music of the “Gothic Era” with the Early Music Consort of London under the direction of the charismatic David Munrow is unforgettable. Bruno Turner, around the same time, led London’s Pro Cantione Antiqua in an equally well-received series of recordings of music of the Franco-Flemish School. Also in the 1970s, Camerata Bern under Thomas Füri brought attention to the music of Zelenka and of the Mannheim and Early Viennese schools. The list would not be complete without mention of Konrad Ragossnig’s extended survey of lute music and the Ulsamer Collegium and Ensemble Eduard Melkus’s stimulating review of dance music from the Renaissance to Biedermeier. French clavecin music was the early focus of Kenneth Gilbert’s Archiv career, and Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln contributed significantly to our knowledge and appreciation of Baroque chamber music in Germany, France and Italy before embarking on recordings of Bach and his family that still resonate today. Certain works, like the Bach Passions and B minor Mass, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and 1610 Vespers, have become closely identified with the label, and have been recorded by successive generations of Archiv artists, each offering original solutions and fresh insights into these masterpieces.

This aspect of the Archiv catalogue underlines its origins as a kind of musical research institute, responsible for preserving the sounds of original instruments (beginning with north German organs), and documenting (initially) the heritage of German Baroque music. Who does not recall with affection the creamy yellow covers of the early years, with their sober blue type, bereft of all illustrative cover art? In those days, the seriousness of the enterprise was reinforced by the cherished index cards enclosed within each LP sleeve, containing detailed information about the works recorded, the instruments employed and the musical editions used. From the label’s very inception, its mission has been the discovery of new works and the rediscovery of neglected or forgotten pieces, as well as offering historically informed performance practice. That tradition continues to this day. At the same time, the special qualities of individual artists, from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ralph Kirkpatrick and Pierre Fournier to David Munrow, Sir Charles Mackerras and Magdalena Kožená, have lent a special lustre to Archiv Produktion throughout its history.

In 2013 Archiv Produktion has been relaunched with a series of new releases, from the soprano Anna Prohaska, violinist Giuliano Carmignola and the choral group Tenebrae. The year also provides the occasion and opportunity to review the achievements of this path-breaking label and to offer  a 55-CD box celebrating the 66 years of the label. 2014 sees the release of three 4-CD sets with recordings by August Wenzinger, Walter Gerwig and the choir from the Erzabtei Beuron. Furthermore the new recording of Handel´s Orlando under the baton of René Jacobs, Pablo Heras-Casado´s album El Maestro Farinelli and the album From Spain to Eternity by the Ensemble Plus Ultra have been released.

(David Butchart)