Itter Broadcast Collection

An overview The Itter Broadcast Collection by Adrian Farmer, Trustee, Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust

The earliest surviving example in Richard Itter’s archive of home recordings of BBC broadcasts is dated 27 May 1951 – a recital of operatic arias by the soprano Sena Jurinac. He continued to make daily recordings up to 1985, after which it lessened, eventually stopping completely in 1996. Specifically, what we now call the ‘Itter Broadcast Collection’ contains 450 twelve-inch acetate discs, most of them cut on both sides, and 800 10½ inch reels of ¼ inch tape. Thankfully Richard left several handwritten lists of the items recorded. The earliest of these is in a handsome watermark bound volume, with its opening pages intact and still bearing copperplate lists of receipts and purchases made in 1892 by his grandfather’s Itter Brick Company.

The first few years of recordings are fully documented with a date, time (down to the hour), BBC channel, repertoire and performers. The transmitter was always the experimental FM unit at Wrotham from which he could also pick up early stereo broadcasts from his home in Burnham.  Richard even kept clippings from the relevant Radio Times, and in an emergency these now very fragile survivors can be useful. From 1958 the lists were largely abandoned and thereafter recordings are noted on the outside of tape boxes in pencil shorthand that has faded over the years.  There is a folder of papers, compiled some years after the event, with spidery writing covered in corrections, excisions, and cryptic commentary. After seven years work our spreadsheet of the contents of this huge archive remains a work in progress, currently running to 2,309 entries.

Initially it was perhaps a grown man’s luxury hobby. Richard was already an amateur recording enthusiast, offering his services to local music organisations. He had a disc cutting machine, and to this he added a tape recorder almost as soon as they became generally available. He had a serious, but not widely informed, interest in Classical music which would famously give rise to Lyrita Recorded Edition in 1959. 

As his Lyrita label grew Richard narrowed his interest in BBC broadcasts to solely British music. But the repertoire from the earliest off-air recordings is international, and ranges freely through important events; symphonic premieres at the South Bank, major BBC studio projects, visiting star soloists and conductors, UK Festivals, particularly Edinburgh, and the Opera Houses, especially Glyndebourne – which he attended annually. We never had a clear answer to the obvious question: did he ever listen to these early recordings? But we guess probably not often. It seems that in the beginning the ‘doing’ was the thing.

As far as we can tell virtually everything was actually recorded on tape. The subsequent cutting of certain items to acetate discs was a method of ‘archiving’ that enabled him to erase and reuse his tapes. We came to this conclusion after the initial transfer sessions when it was notable that every movement was fitted carefully and completely onto discreet sides, that there were no awkward breaks, and no missed first notes. This would be something impossible to achieve so consistently when recording live onto disc.

As I write this article we have just transferred the last of the acetate. Our archivist Norman White, and his colleague Adrian Tuttenham, will not be altogether sorry. The process has been rewarding but technically challenging, requiring parallel tracking arms, wet pickups, reverse turntables and modern software intervention to get the best out of each disc. Something as simple as a persistent groove jump can take several hours to capture. It was not that the discs were in bad condition, most of them were unplayed, but they were all 60 years old, and variable enough to require individual treatment.

Of course, with hindsight, we might wish Richard hadn’t used the disc cutting machine at all, that he had bought more tape, and that the many recordings not selected for disc archiving would still exist. When I look at his pencilled catalogue, and the hundreds of recordings crossed through, erased, I cannot suppress a sigh.  But, from time-to-time we do find treasure lurking quietly, unexpectedly, at the back end of a tape marked for a destruction that never came.

The acetate process stopped in 1959, and thereafter the off-air archive takes on a distinctly educational function. No longer just archiving for fun, Richard was using the BBC as his primary discovery tool, listening for the composers he liked, noting the performers that were associated with those composers, and prompting him to seek out important gaps in the catalogues of HMV and Decca. We find many examples of BBC broadcasts leading directly to a commercial Lyrita recording very often with exactly the same artists.

During Richard’s life these archive tapes were sent to Abbey Road for transfer. But since the archive has been housed at Wyastone Leys, and a dedicated transfer suite established there, we have had about four big tape transfer sessions in each year, of about 10 days each, when Mike Clements and I will work on tapes that we hope will contain the listed items. It is impossible to say if we will ever transfer the entire collection. Choices have to be made about the commercial worth of any eventual CD release. Up to now we have concentrated on transferring the earlier recordings - up to 1970 - since they have acquired the most ‘historic’ value, and are less likely to have been preserved in the BBC’s archive or captured by other ‘off-air’ enthusiasts.

But we are all too aware that unless we at least audition every tape we can’t be sure what we might have missed. Unfortunately this is not so simple: these tapes are also more than 50 years old and were stored in a series of big cupboards in a summerhouse extension in Richard’s house. The environment was not dreadful, but it was generally a bit damp, too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and with no air circulation at all. The varied effect of the ageing process can lead to tape shedding, mould growth, and a sticky residue that has to be cured by baking. It never takes less than 30 minutes, and sometimes several hours, work on each tape before Mike can produce a sound. Initially we thought it would work best to spool through each tape and find the particular piece marked for transfer. But we soon learnt that there could be even more interesting material present that was not indicated in the catalogue, or on the tape box. Now we transfer the tape whole and do the extraction later.

Each session brings moments of elation and despondency. The piece you want is there, but the first two bars are missing, or the BBC announcements have been chopped off so that you can’t be absolutely certain who is performing. Sometimes the signal simply drops out for 10 seconds – particularly if Richard was recording a stereo rather than a mono broadcast - or the cross-talk from an earlier programme has not been completely erased, and keeps breaking through. But sometimes ‘THERE IT IS’, the Premiere of that Concerto that we didn’t find on tape 595, is here, spliced onto the end of tape 376!!

This example from a recent session is typical: there are five tapes spread non-sequentially across the archive and referenced in the catalogue with the single entry ‘Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage’, no date, no performers. The first tape launched into Act 3, Janet Baker unmistakable as Sosostris, so Del Mar in a studio recording from 1965. Very exciting. However, the next tape marked ‘Act 1 & 2’, was an immediate disappointment, as we heard the announcer say ‘And here comes Bernard Haitink to conduct this performance live from the Royal Opera’, skip to 1996. In trepidation, hoping for the best we tried the next … this time it is Scottish Opera, Pryce-Jones, 1988. The fourth tape had no Tippett at all, but a very nice performance of Bantock’s Pagan Symphony, BBC Philharmonic/Downes (1984), and, a completely unexpected performance of Kenneth Leighton’s 2nd Piano Concerto, composer at the piano (1965). And the 5th tape, fingers crossed for Del Mar 1965, but no, more Haitink.  It is possible, likely even, that the missing parts of the 1965 performance will be there somewhere …

We have so far released some 40 titles from this collection and the current year should see another 10 added. It would be impossible to claim that this is an entirely commercial activity. Only a few releases will ever pay for themselves, since the costs of release, the licence from the BBC, and required payments to the Musicians Union, are considerable. But then again Richard wanted it to happen, pushed for it in fact. As he left the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust sufficiently well endowed to enable his wish to become real we, as Trustee, are more than happy to preserve lives performances and repertoire that might otherwise exist only in books.

Prior to his death Richard Itter worked closely with Adrian Farmer and his colleague Antony Smith, the Directors of Nimbus, to modernise the Lyrita Trust, and to carry out its objectives which continue to be the recording of British Music.

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