Orchestras mourn one of the last great producers

Orchestras mourn one of the last great producers


norman lebrecht

August 28, 2018

The recording world has been shocked by reports of the death yesterday of James Mallinson, a Decca graduate who won the first-ever Grammy for a classical producer and went on to win 14 more. In the early CD heyday of 1982, he won four Grammys at a go.

We hear that James was taken to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead suffering from pneumonia and other complications, and sadly failed to pull through. There has been no confirmation yet from his family.

UPDATE: Decca have announced: We’re very saddened today to hear of the passing of James Mallinson, legendary Decca producer of the 1970s-80s. His 191 recordings included all of Mackerras’s Janacek operas, the Haydn symphony cycle with Dorati, many of Solti’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings and much more. An amazing legacy.

James Mallinson was a legend in studio. I have seen him stand up to the most fearsome conductors and face them down. He worked with Solti, Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Colin Davis, Prince Charles, you name it, he never backed down. He would rather lose a lucrative client than approve an unsatisfactory performance.

I first watched him at Gil Kaplan’s original Mahler Second in Cardiff, shepherding an avowedly amateur conductor through one of the biggest, toughest symphonies and doing it with such tact and precision that they remained friends ever after.

James was the originating producer of LSO Live, followed by Mariinsky Live and CSO Resound. He invented own-label orchestra recordings. We may not see his like again.

UPDATE: On behalf of his family, the LSO has regretfully to announce the sudden and unexpected death, last Friday, of James Mallinson, one of the leading record producers of the last 40 years. 

James learnt his trade with Decca, whose exclusively contracted artists in the 1970s included Benjamin Britten, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland, among many others. During his years with Decca he also recorded the first ever complete Haydn symphonies (all 104 of them) with Antal Dorati and a major series of works by 20th century composers including Messiaen, Ligeti, Cage and Maxwell Davies as well as Harrison Birtwistle and Philip Glass.
After he left to go freelance in the early 1980s he worked with all of the major record labels and with virtually every major classical artist of the late 20th century. By his own reckoning the only international name that he never actually recorded was Pierre Boulez. His recordings were highly respected, winning innumerable awards including no less than 16 Grammies. As the recording world changed at the end of the 1990s and into this century, James was already ahead of the curve, not only musically but technically. While he was instrumental in setting up the extremely successful orchestra-owned record labels including LSO Live, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Resound label and the Mariinski Live label with Valery Gergiev in St Petersburg, he also pioneered the use of SACD and other higher resolution recording and Surround Sound to get ever closer to the sound of a live performance. His most recent project was an ongoing Beethoven Symphony cycle with the Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Adès. 


James was a loving father to Jonathan, and a lifelong partner to Michelle. He loved them both dearly and continues to inspire them daily.


  • john humphreys says:

    Interesting – that amateur conductor was Gilbert Kaplin, an immensely wealthy business who devoted his non-professional life to Mahler’s 2 Symphony (he owned the score) and (as you remark) recorded it with the LSO in Cardiff having been taught to conduct the symphony virtually note by note. It’s a fine performance – I asked Denis Wick, Principal trombone of the LSO how come the performance was so good given that it was being conducted by a billionaire amateur who they’d never worked with before. “Listen my dear friend, if this guy pays you way above the Musician’s Union rate and puts you up at the finest hotels in Cardiff you play your heart out for him”!

  • The View from America says:

    It sounds more like Kaplan and Mallinson were partners in crime.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      I do not know what actual musical training Gilbert Kaplan received as a child but I do believe he could read music and read a score. And he had performed it many many times before making the LSO recording, so it is not as if Mr. Mallinson was a Svangali and fobbed off a fake on the public. Mr. Kaplan’s amateur status was much publicized at the time. The recording is a testament to an obsession to be sure.

      The Guide to the Resurrection Symphony that is part of the MCA recording certainly shows him (Kaplan) to be a perceptive analyst of the score. No other recording of the piece in my collection has such thorough notes, including LPs from back when note writers could be verbose as they pleased.

      Although it is not my favorite recording –the “opening of the graves” moment does not overwhelm — the MCA two-CD set is important for anyone interested in the score because just about each indicated change of tempo in the score (and it bristles with them) and important bit of orchestration is separately tracked. There is no better way for a student to patiently really dig into the symphony than to make use of the features of this recording.

  • paul moseley says:

    To add to Norman’s tribute I would add that James produced the first complete Haydn Symphonies set with Dorati, and all five Janacek/Mackerras/Vienna operas. That alone ensures him a place in classical recorded history.

  • Scott Burgess says:

    “Tact and precision” indeed. That describes James Mallinson very well, and this is a tremendous loss.

  • Michael Haas says:

    James Mallinson was also a wonderful colleague – totally without malice and encouraging to me, the new boy in town when I arrived in the late 1970s. I was lucky enough to be the assistant producer on the Janacek recordings and was horrified when Decca’s then head of A&R forced James out for the crime of being too successful. I’m very sad to hear of his death.