Brahms 'Vier ernste Gesänge' and Schumann 'Dichterliebe'
Shura Gehrman was both the founder of Nimbus Records and an extraordinary singer. These recordings were made in the early 1970’s and they were the culmination of a period of intense study of the scores and of surround-sound recording techniques. Gehrman the singer had many passionate advocates and some equally assertive critics. He had a profound and encyclopaedic knowledge of the human voice which he used to create a vast range of colour in performances with a unique emotional intensity.
The author Colin Wilson offers a personal tribute to the founder of Nimbus Records who died on January 28th 1994.
Count Numa Labinsky- better known to the musical world as the bass Shura Gehrman - possessed an almost hypnotic power over those who came into close contact with him, including the entire staff of Nimbus Records. I came to know him by chance, through a meeting with his accompanist and chief assistant Adrian Farmer at a 'musical weekend in Torbay'. I had been buying Gehrman's records ever since the first boxed set of French and German songs, and had been deeply impressed. Gehrman's real name, Adrian told me, was Numa Labinsky, and he was the founder of Nimbus Records. But it was important to keep this secret: critical reception of his singing had so far been good, but if it were generally known that he owned Nimbus, he would inevitably be accused of starting the company to launch his own records. (In fact, he had refused to record for 15 years after founding Nimbus.)
When I was asked to write an article about Lieder singing, I asked Gehrman for a few biographical details. By return I received a cassette that supplied me with rather more than I had expected. It was incredibly frank and extraordinarily amusing - reticence and discretion were completely foreign to his nature. As I came to know him - he astounded the locals in our village by arriving in a helicopter - I realized that this openness was also the key to his singing. In the days after the end of the Second World War, he had studied singing in Paris under Proust's great friend Reynaldo Hahn, who belonged squarely to the great nineteenth-century tradition that regarded 'expression' and understanding as more important than purity of tone. Since that time, Gehrman argued, expression has been woefully neglected in favour of supposed technical skill, producing a kind of anaemic, blameless conformity that passes for control. Such conformity was alien to Gehrman's character.
Gehrman's father, a Russian nobleman, fled from Russia soon after the revolution. Shura was one of twin brothers born in 1925 in Birmingham, where his father ran a jewel lery business. The death of his twin when he was seven was the first great trauma of his life, and he became deeply withdrawn in a manner reminiscent of the young Proust. His mother, a practicalminded French woman, found this incomprehensible. At the age of 15, after his father's suicide, he ran away from home in France, hitchhiked to Birmingham, and persuaded his father's agent to allow him to live in an empty house and provide him with a few pounds a week for food. When his family later joined him there, he had already established himself as a singer in the Birmingham musical world. During the war, he preferred to work down a coal mine rather than join the army, and continued to give recitals in the evenings, as well as studying acting at the Birmingham Rep under Sir Barry Jackson, who described him as his worst pupil.
Alienated from his family, detesting bourgeois existence with all the passion of a born artist, he founded Nimbus Records in 1957, in partnership with two brothers, Michael and Gerald Reynolds. Incredibly - considering his romantically introverted disposition - he built this up into a success until (in recent years) it has become one of the world's largest manufacturers of CDs.
For a man who inherited a serious liver complaint from his mother, and who spent much of his last ten years in pain, he was remarkably energetic and productive. It was under his impetus that a superb concert-hall was built at Wyastone Leys, the home of Nimbus Records, which he hoped to build into a Glyndebourne or Aldeburgh - an intention the Reynolds brothers are still determined to carry out. His unfinished autobiography and his poetry show that he was a naturally gifted writer, while the paintings he produced in the last year of his life are as powerful and individual as Schoenberg's. His records reveal a poet who responds deeply to the words, and a voice of astonishing range and power; he was a great interpreter of Fauré, Duparc and Ravel as well as of Mussorgsky. While British critical opinion has always been mixed, his admirers regard him as one of the greatest Lieder singers of the century and have no doubt that it is only a matter of time before this is generally recognized.
Published in the Gramophone, April 1994