The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The well-named Nonesuch Records turns 50 –– and keeps being a pioneer in music from budget baroque, electronic music and contemporary classical music to folk, ragtime, rock and world music. | September 14, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

If you judge solely by the size of an operating budget and the number of albums released in a year, Nonesuch Records surely does not rank among the industry titans like Deutsche Grammophon, Decca or Sony Classical.

But what the label does, it does exceptionally well.

Of late, I am especially taken with Nonesuch because they feature two of my favorite pianists -– Richard Goode and Jeremy Denk (below) –- and of one my all-time favorite singers, soprano Dawn Upshaw, as well as the great Kronos Quartet.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Here is a link to the label’s website with forthcoming releases and a list of recording artists:

In addition, I find the sonic engineering Nonesuch provides is also top-notch. Much as I loved the old Emerson Quartet, when it moved from DG to Sony, it received inferior sonic engineering that favored an echoing or overly resonant ambient sound. Myself, I prefer a clean and close-up microphone that lets my own living room provide the performance space acoustics.

Anyway, I was listening to National Public Radio Wednesday afternoon last week and heard this terrifically informative report on the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch, which is based in New York City and the anniversary of which is being celebrated with special concerts and special releases.

The story particularly emphasized the foresight of the label’s longtime top boss Robert Hurwitz (below, on the left next to Kronos violist Hank Dett and producer Judith Sherman, who also recorded the world premiere commission of the Pro Arte Quartet centennial at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.)

Using his own taste and instinct, Hurwitz anticipated the best-selling popularity of electronic music, Cuban music, ragtime music and many other genres. (Below in an interview he did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that can be found on YouTube.) One person, it seems, can make a huge difference.


I do wish Hurwitz had offered a fuller explanation of why the wonderful and cheap budget recordings of Baroque music and early music that Nonesuch issued in the 1960s and 1970s -– the ones with the great art on the covers and the ones that hooked so many of us on relatively littkle-known works as well as masterpieces –- have not been remastered and reissued on CD.

Old Nonesuch cover

But in any case, the NPR story provided a fascinating look at how a record company continued to expand and branch out – not by following listeners’ tastes and desires, but by ANTICIPATING them. It is kind of like what happened with Sony and the success of the Walkman.

Some things you just cannot judge by polls and surveys, no matter what the branding and PR experts say. They take personal vision and leadership and risk-taking. That is what the Nonesuch way.

Anyway, here is the link to the NPR story. I hope you find it compelling as The Ear did.




  1. It is regrettable that the above report focuses so much on the latter-day history of the Nonesuch label, and that, in what space it gives to its earlier history, it quite ignores the most interesting personality in making the Nonesuch imprint in classical music.
    That person was Teresa Sterne. Trained as a pianist, she moved away from public performing to running the Nonesuch classical activities. She was a strong-willed but very enlightened personality. She not only drew skillfully on recordings to be obtained from European labels, but she initiated a lot of original recording activity from American performers and groups. She brought the young Joshua Rifkin into his first performing work (ranging from history-making Bach to the first serious attention to Scott Joplin).
    The reasons are not clear to me, but she was abruptly dismissed from Nonesuch, leaving her adrift and in search of new activities up to her untimely death.
    I protest any effort to efface the memory of this remarkable woman, whom I enjoyed knowing personally.
    — John W. Barker

    Comment by John W. Barker — September 14, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    • Hi John,
      As always, you make great points.
      It would indeed be interesting to know of the real story behind her dismissal.
      Wanna bet it has to do with profits and business?
      Maybe someone who reads your comment will know.
      We will see.
      I admire your friendly loyalty.

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 14, 2014 @ 11:41 am

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