On the Record: A Deep Dive on SFCM’s New Label, Pentatone
A selection of triumphs from this award-winning label and its catalog of recordings.
By Alex Heigl
It can be hard to know where to dive in with a back catalog as impressive as PENTATONE’s, but that’s where Sean Hickey comes in.
Appointed the head of the label—now a part of the groundbreaking alliance between SFCM and management company Opus 3 Artists—in February, Hickey is a composer himself and a member and committee chair of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who studied jazz guitar in college and graduated with a degree in composition and theory from Wayne State University. (His most-familiar work in the Bay Area may be Terroir, which appropriately for the wine reference in its name, had its West Coast premiere at Festival Napa Valley in 2018 after debuting at Lincoln Center in New York in 2016.) This spring, Hickey spoke to the SFCM Newsroom recently for a top-down view of Pentatone's distinguished release history.
Most recently, in the first of a growing number of projects in tandem with the Conservatory, Pentatone will release an album recorded by the National Brass Ensemble—which reformed for the first time since 2014, at Davies Symphony Hall on June 20 —featuring the world premiere of new works by Emerging Black Composer Project winner Jonathan Bingham and Arturo Sandoval, along with Richard Strauss’ Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare and a new arrangement of music from Richard Wagner by SFCM professor and SF Symphony Principal Trombone Timothy Higgins.
Pentatone will continue to operate as an independent company, but will now have the advantage of using SFCM’s state-of-the-art recording studio in the Ute and William K. Bowes Jr. Center for Performing Arts, giving it a foothold on the West Coast. Aside from giving students a firsthand look at how a world-class record label operates—with all of the attendant opportunities for internships and other collaborations—Pentatone’s pool of engineers and musical talent add to SFCM’s deep roster of educational resources.
From the prestigious label's first productions to its GRAMMY awards and recent Gramophone Label of the Year and International Classical Music Awards Label of the Year accolades, here's where to start with Pentatone.
Founded in the Netherlands in 2001, Pentatone’s first year as a label was dominated by their recording of all the music played during the Royal Wedding of Prince Willem Alexander and Princess Máxima in February 2002 in Amsterdam. One highlight from the record, which went triple-platinum on the Dutch market, is Carel Kraayenhof’s beautiful performance of Astor Piazolla’s “Adiós Nonino” on bandoneon, which moved Princess Máxima to tears hearing it live.
One of the very first productions Pentatone ever mounted was a recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which contained a positively international array of talent: Mikhail Gorbachev and Sophia Loren narrate the Prokofiev selections—conducted by Kent Nagano— while Bill Clinton can be heard on a new composition, “Wolf Tracks” by Jean-Pascal Beintus. Each narrator designated a charity to receive their royalties from sales of the CD, and the recording was awarded a GRAMMY in 2004, for Best Spoken Word Album for Children, the first to ever go to either a former U.S. President or a Russian orchestra.
In 2004, Pentatone cemented a long-running relationship with star violinist Julia Fischer. She went on to record violin concertos by Khachaturian, Prokofiev & Glazunov in 2004, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in 2006, and a complete recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in 2005. Those three releases would become the opening volley of Pentatone's vinyl releases starting in 2017.
A rundown of Pentatone's greatest hits wouldn't be complete without Marek Janowski, who has conducted nearly 50 recordings for the label. For their 10th anniversary as a label, Pentatone launched an ambitious goal: A complete recording of Wagner’s 10 mature operas totaling 32 hours of music across 32 discs, with the same orchestra, choir and conductor—even the same producer—within a period of two and a half years.
“To do a Ring cycle is just about the biggest thing you can do from a production standpoint, from the conducting, to the music—learning, singing and recording,” Hickey said. “There’s only three, maybe four recorded Ring cycles in history, and ours is the only one in the 21st century.”
Pianist Mari Kodama is another of Pentatone’s longtime artists, and she joined in their ambitious completionist spirit with her recording of all 32 of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s piano sonatas, a project that began in 2003 and wrapped up in 2013. Beethoven fans can also check out Philippe Herreweghe’s recording of every one of the composer’s symphonies, released in 2011.
John Corigliano, an iconic American composer with a number of connections to SFCM faculty, won two GRAMMYs—Best Opera Recording and Best Engineered Album—for his The Ghosts of Versailles (English libretto by William M. Hoffman), part of the American Opera Series.
The Metropolitan Opera had commissioned the work from Corigliano in 1980 in celebration of its 100th anniversary, with the premiere scheduled for 1983, though Corigliano and Hoffman, who took inspiration from the 1792 play La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother) by Pierre Beaumarchais, ultimately completed the work in seven years, premiering it at the Met in December 1991.
But until recently, the work was only available as a filmed performance, released variously on VHS, LaserDisc and DVD over the years, with Pentatone’s highly acclaimed release of the Los Angeles Opera's 2015 production scooping up the GRAMMYs.
Commissioned by the world-renowned Santa Fe Opera in collaboration with Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, and The Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University with support from Cal Performances, the music for the one-act opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was composed by SFCM’s own composition faculty Mason Bates, with a libretto by Mark Campbell.
After selling out its initial run at Santa Fe Opera, the opera was hailed as “a triumph” by The Washington Post, while San Francisco Chronicle raved about its “breathtaking inventiveness and dramatic power—a true fusion of sound and subject matter.”
The Recording Academy agreed: Bates and Campbell’s work was awarded the 2019 GRAMMY Award for Best Opera.
Pentatone secured their largest sync placement to date for a scene in The Father, for which Anthony Hopkins was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor. The scene—in which Hopkins is actually seen holding the Pentatone release of Les Pêcheurs de Perles with Les Cris de Paris, the Orchestre Nationale de Lille and Alexander Bloch—represented a personal moment for the actor, the film’s director Florian Zeller explained to the Sundance Institute.
“One day [Hopkins] told me, ‘One of my favorite pieces of music is this aria,’ and he told me this story: When he was 30 years old, he was doing a play in the UK. and one night he heard that music for the very first time. He came back to the hotel where there was a piano and he started to try to find the melody. He drove everyone crazy, because it took him something like three days to find the melody. He told me, ‘I have always dreamt of making a movie with this music in it.’”
That same year, Pentatone was awarded Label of the Year by the International Classical Music Awards.
Pentatone continues to uphold its stated mission of “presenting a diverse range of world-class artists ... captured in exceptional sound,” and the music world has not stopped taking notice.
In May, Brahms Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 performed by Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and maestro Herbert Blomstedt was given a Diapason d’Or in Diapason Magazine’s June 2022 issue. (The "Golden Tuning Fork” win is comparable to the Gramophone Awards.)
The summer accolades continued to roll in as Mahler’s Fourth Symphony by the Czech Philharmonic and its Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov received a five-star review and was picked as an Orchestral Choice in BBC Music Magazine in July. Just the previous month, the magazine awarded Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson's contemporary opera Blue (performed by the Washington National Orchestra under Roderick Cox) five stars as well.
The Czech Philharmonic is also one of the nominated ensembles for the Gramophone Classical Music Awards’ 2022 Orchestra of the Year, the only one of its prestigious awards decided by the public. (Voting is open until September 7!)
In a smaller musical setting, Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe will be releasing the second record in his exclusive relationship with Pentatone, Lost & Found, in August. His previous release, 2021’s Camino, received a five-star review in The Guardian in September, and earlier this year, Shibe was awarded the Leonard Bernstein Award by Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe as part of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival.