On 4th October 2023 the prestigious Gramophone Awards took place in London, and BIS was awarded the accolade of ‘Label of the Year’ - a welcome recognition in our 50th year. James Jolly, editor-in-chief of Gramophone magazine announced that BIS 'honours imagination, quality, flair and prodigious talent in a way that not only expands the riches of the recorded catalogue but does so in a way that greatly enhances the breadth of our musical world.'
Gramophone added 'The roster of artists who contribute so beautifully, and so regularly, to the Swedish label’s treasurable catalogue is among the finest to be found. But what really stands out is just how personal each release feels – the exploratory choice of repertoire, the perfect partnerships between musicians. Listening to a BIS album feels like being a privileged witness to creativity at its most inspired and inspiring. Or, for that matter, like sitting in the best seat in the house, such is BIS’s commitment to the very highest possible quality of recorded sound.
During the awards ceremony, flautist Sharon Bezaly gave a captivating and assured performance of the third movement of CPE Bach’s flute concerto in D minor, accompanied by the London Mozart Players, and pianist Yevgney Sudbin and his daughter Bella took to the stage to perform an enchanting arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. The impressive collection of award nominations for the label included pianist Paul Wee for his blisteringly virtuosic album of Beethoven and Mozart piano transcriptions - an astonishing feat for an amateur pianist, the Gringolts Quartet performing Schoenberg, Pascal Rophé with an album of music by Ravel, and Saint-Saëns piano concertos from Alexandre Kantorow. BIS violinist Nurit Stark took home the Gramophone award in the Instrument Category, for her scintillating all-Hungarian programme of violin and viola music.
The question of how to transport my first LPs to the shops. On the subway in Stockholm, I had to buy an extra ticket for each suitcase, until I took a closer look at the regulations… A pram was allowed free of charge, and there was no mention of it needing to be occupied by a baby, so instead I packed my LPs in a pram and sailed through for free. Swedish TV got to hear about it and the story appeared on prime-time news. After that, BIS was a known factor in Sweden.
The sensational Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson. Knowing her from my days as a recording engineer with the Stockholm Phil, I sent a letter to her, asking politely if she might want to record for this start-up. Some months later she called me up and agreed. At the recording, I was a nervous wreck. Upon noticing, she approached me asking: Mr. Von Bahr, you seem nervous? Well yes, I replied - very much so. She responded: Let’s make it easy - if I sing like a pig, I request you to tell me exactly that. We’re doing this together, as a team, and by the way, please call me Birgit. Plain sailing after that – the bigger the artist, the easier to deal with – it’s often like that. Her record created all of BIS’s international distribution in one fell swoop.
The Four Seasons with Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble – one of the first period instrument ensembles. After two days we had it in the can, a very good result indeed. However… there were patches of not 100% togetherness and some improvisations that were better suited elsewhere. So I asked if we should REALLY go for it – a unison YES came, and we spent another four full days and nights perfecting it. This version is still regarded as one of the very best of all time, and is selling like hotcakes to this day.
The Sibelius Violin Concerto, the original version. After many years of discussions with Sibelius’s family, permission to record the original version of the violin concerto was finally given, under the condition that a Finn would be the soloist. Recording time was arranged, but even the best violinist in Finland was unable to negotiate its immense difficulties, and after two days we were forced to give it up. New negotiations took place, and we were allowed to record it with the winner of the Sibelius Competition, a then-young Leonidas Kavakos. However, even he balked at a passage in the second movement that he considered unplayable. Temperaments somewhat flaring, I made it clear from my part that the original, not the ossia, had to be played. Leonidas said he would look at it again during the break, and immediately afterwards he put it down on the first attempt. The recording is still one of BIS’s best-selling albums and the introduction to our Sibelius Edition, the most thorough Edition in the history of recorded music.
The start of the Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki era. We were contacted by them, wanting to record all Bach’s Cantatas. My knee-jerk reaction was the same as everyone else’s – incredulity – but when they invited me to Japan to hear for myself, I was immediately bowled over. The results are uniquely good and in my honest opinion, exceed all other versions. The work to launch this cycle, however, was difficult. People had the same preconceived ideas as I had, and it took two full round-the-world trips for me to persuade distributors, reviewers and promoters to even listen to them. Now, of course, they are the touchstone standard that all others are measured against, and the BCJ/BIS saga is anything but over. A new Box with Bach’s vocal music will be released during this 50th Anniversary year.
The Passion of St. Thomas More. An odd record, but one that is totally indicative of what BIS stands for – CHOICE. I was sent a ‘master’ of an unknown work by an unknown composer – Garrett Fisher, offering me to publish it. The work is mesmerising – kind of Pärt but ‘pre-Pärt’ meditative, soul-cleansing and soothing. Only one problem, neither the recording itself, nor some of the artists were up to BIS’s standards. So I decided to invite some of the ensemble to Sweden, adding my ‘own’ musicians to the mix, to make a proper recording. They gathered in my home, where they stayed for a good week, rehearsing and then recording in a fantastic acoustic in a small church in the middle of nowhere. Was it worth the huge outlays? Financially – no, certainly not. Artistically: yes, many times over. This is what we do, this is what we stand for.
Nordic Spell. The first culmination – out of many – with one of the best musicians I have ever heard, Sharon Bezaly, who now doubles as my wife. We commissioned three concertos from three Nordic composers. It is well known that when you commission, you get what you get, mostly OK, sometimes worse, rarely top-notch. But this time we were incredibly lucky – all three works are some of the best in the genre, and the record has been a rip-roaring success, with Sharon going on to play the Aho Concerto all around the world – the artistic value of this is immense.
Trio Zimmermann. It is quite astounding that our small Swedish label has been able to attract world stars like Frank Peter Zimmermann, with his colleagues Antoine Tamestit and Christian Poltéra, to record for us. These gentlemen believe that artistic quality is more important than money, and BIS stands for precisely that, this time in the shape of Hans Kipfer as producer. As a matter of fact, this super-ensemble has recorded everything they set out to record for us, and both Frank Peter and Christian are continuing their respective solo careers with us, when they could have chosen any label to do so. Pride!
Alexandre Kantorow. Through our decade-long relationship with Jean-Jacques Kantorow, we came to listen to a tape with of his son performing Liszt concertos, and our jaws dropped – a 17-year-old playing with the wisdom of generations, coupled with a technique and musicality belying his age. We were all stunned, and immediately signed up this indecently gifted musician exclusively. Some years later he participated in the Tchaikovsky Competition, which he won hands down, including the seldom awarded special prize. His career has been rocketlike – as I write he is travelling back from receiving the rarely given Gilmore Prize, on his way to concerts with the Berlin Phil, and then back to the US for his Carnegie Hall debut. I am so proud that we at BIS immediately recognized him for what he was and what he could become, before his stratospheric rise to stardom.
Chiaroscuro Quartet. Another world-class ensemble that has cast its vote with us, the Quartet now records regularly for us on their period instruments, garnering such plaudits that even I am stunned. It is a great feather in our cap that such musicians choose BIS to have their visions fulfilled in the most authentically artistic way possible.
50 years of BIS, 80 years of me. BIS has now become part of Platoon, Apple’s artist and creative services company, where our family of artists will be even better served and our legacy will continue to grow. As proud as I am of this milestone, I am even more proud of the fact that the entire personnel of BIS, including me, have been retained. We all look forward to a future, filled with new music and artists in golden sound from this increased force in classical music.