Record  Producer  Robert von Bahr

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Robert von Bahr (born August 27, 1943). Swedish music producer and record company director.

Robert von Bahr trained as a music teacher and singing teacher at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and also studied law at Stockholm University. He worked as a music technician for the Stockholms Filharmoniska Orkester (now Kungliga Filharmonikerna) from 1968 to 1973, and as a gramophone producer since 1970. He founded the record company BIS in 1973, of which he is CEO. He is also founder and CEO of the music download service eClassical AB.

He is the son of civil engineer Lars von Bahr and Finnish ballet dancer Margaretha von Bahr née Wasenius (grand-daughter of Finnish music critic Karl Fredrik Wasenius). He is the half-brother of the Finnish pop singer Riki Sorsa.

Bahr received the UK magazine Gramophone's Special Achievement Award in 2020.

Robert von Bahr was in Chicago early in November of 1998, and spent a few minutes with me discussing his interesting and varied career.  Portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago two months later, and now, as he is about to celebrate his 80th birthday, I am pleased to present our entire conversation.

Bruce Duffie:   You are both founder and principal producer of BIS Records?

Robert von Bahr:   I am the founder and the owner, but not the principal producer any more.  I stopped producing last year after 600 CDs.
BD:   Why?

Bahr:   Because the organizational matters take so much of my time, and I have to make so many travels to all parts of the world.  There simply wasn’t any possibility for me to continue recording.  But I really do miss it.  Even some of my artists say that they miss it, but I think they are only trying to be nice to me.  [Both laugh]

BD:   How did you get involved in classical music?  Were you a fan of it from early childhood?

Bahr:   I was forced to play the piano when I was six, and continued to do that to thirteen when I rebelled, and started playing competition bridge instead.  Then I took it up again as a singer when I was eighteen, and got really involved by the age of thirty, because I started BIS.  That’s a very good way to get involved in classical music.  Starting a recording company really gets you involved.

BD:   But why did you record classical music instead of something perhaps more lucrative?

Bahr:   Good question actually!  I’m not sure that everything else is more lucrative, only when you get the hits.  But this is not the main thing anyway.  My expertise, if I have anything of that, is in classical music, and I want to continue.  That is where my interests lie, and I can’t do anything else.

BD:   At least what you do, you do very well!

Bahr:   At least I belong to the group of very few fortunate people that can make a living out of pursuing his passion.  Not so many people can say that.

BD:   Many people would want to know what goes into producing a record.  They see the name of the producer, and wonder what that person has done.

Bahr:   I can only speak for myself, but what has gone into that is an awful lot.  First of all, there is a lifetime of experience, but then everybody else would say that.  We do it differently, though.  When an artist comes to Sweden to record for us, first of all I make sure that the artist knows us very well, and the way to do that is for the artist to actually stay with my family.  They stay in my house, and work and live with my family, together with screaming kids and all that we have.  We all go into the sauna, and really share the family life for a while.  That means that we are actually getting to know each other on another level, rather than just a purely professional level, and that pays dividends when you get to the recording site.

BD:   Does that make them better artists, or just simply better people?

Bahr:   It is neither, nor.  It doesn’t make them better people.  It would be too cocky to say that.  It doesn’t make them better artists because they know their business.  It makes the relationship between producer and artist during the recording very much better, and that relationship is very important for the result of the recording.

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BD:   As producer, will you have set up a lot of things before the artist arrives?

Bahr:   No, not even that.  We arrive together.  Actually, the artist sometimes helps carry in the equipment.

BD:   But you’ve already made the decision to record this artist?

Bahr:   Oh, yes!  [Laughs]  We don’t just invite any Tom, Dick or Harry to come and live with us, and do a record!

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Maybe that’s the next great trio!

Bahr:   Well, it could be!  [Both laugh]  Of course, we have made the decision, and that decision is something we don’t arrive at lightly.  As a matter of fact, that’s the main hurdle to jump over.  But once we have made the decision, we go all out in trying to carry out the wishes of the artist, and the wishes of the composer.  We go all the way to make sure that the record is really going to be good.   One of the things is that we never go into studios.  Rather, we search high and low for a hall, or a locality which is suitable, and suited to the music in question.  That is half the battle.  Once you find a hall somewhere where you can record, where the music sounds fantastic by itself, without adding anything or detracting anything, then you have won it.  You don’t have to screw around with microphones too much because the sound is good from the beginning.  You get the sound, but before all of that, there is the artist.  If they feel comfortable about where they are standing, or sitting and performing, and if they feel comfortable with the ambiance of the hall, and with the ambiance between the producer and themselves, they will produce much better music.

BD:   Once the sound is right in the hall, then it’s your job to capture that right sound?

Bahr:   Yes!

BD:   Are you always able to do so?

Bahr:   Almost always, yes.  I will be as cocky as that.
BD:   I always ask performers how they select which repertoire they’re going to perform.  As the producer and the owner of the label, how do you decide which pieces you’re going to record?

Bahr:   BIS has quite specific wishes on that point.  First of all, we have a lot of big huge cycles going on where we want to record every note the composer ever wrote.  Names include Sibelius [CD shown above], Vagn Holmboe the Danish composer (1909-1996) [CD shown below], and Kalevi Aho (1949 - ) [CD shown farther below] and
Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), both Finnish composers.  [See my interview with Rautavaara.]  We also have J.S. Bach, father and son, the son in this case being C.P.E. Bach, and a lot of other cycles where we are doing everything.  That takes care of a big part of our capacity.  Other than that, we usually to try to go for unknown works that have not been performed or recorded before, but is great music.  Or, in the case of music which has been recorded before, exceptional performances of some kind.

BD:   I would assume if it’s been recorded before, it hasn’t been over-recorded?

Bahr:   We even have that sometimes.  For instance, we are doing all the Bach Cantatas with a Japanese baroque orchestra.  The point there being that everybody thinks the Japanese can only copy, and that they have a fantastic technique but no soul.  In this case it is not true.  We have a fantastic orchestra, the Bach Collegium Japan [CD shown at right], and they can really do justice to these pieces better than anybody else on this planet right now.  I would like to think that music is the only language which can immediately appeal to anybody in this world, without any cultural barriers and without knowing the language.  Without knowing anything, you can still communicate somehow through music.  Therefore I very much like to mix cultures.  For example, Swedish people doing American music, or Germans doing Argentinian or Portuguese music, or Japanese doing German music, and so on.

BD:   Is your ultimate goal to find some record that sells six billion copies?

Bahr:   No!  The selling part of it is important, but it’s not my first goal.  The selling figures come last on the wish list.  They really do.  The main object for us is to make sure that whatever approach we have for the time-being, we are really doing the utmost with that artist and that location.  We make sure that nothing can be done better than that.  That is our ultimate goal.  Now, if the general public likes it, they will buy, and thereby we can make a living.  Fine, but that consideration comes last.  We do primarily what we like to do, and if the general public likes it, fine.  If they don’t like it, well, too bad!

BD:   But obviously you must guess right much of the time.

Bahr:   [Thinks a moment]  I would say that we have a bit of a feeling for that, but even with my experience of twenty-five years at BIS, it is impossible to guess right every time, or even the majority of the time.  We have had big failures, like our epoch-making C.P.E. Bach cycle of all his music.  We have eight volumes of his keyboard concertos, almost all of them being world premiere recordings, and all of them being fantastic music, wonderfully performed [CD shown below].  The critics just love it, but the general public does not.  So, we are not going home on that.  On the other hand, we have a Japanese counter tenor singing Japanese songs in Japanese, which has sold more than 50,000 world-wide.  I don’t mean only in Japan.  We have sold five or six thousand in the United States alone, because this little guy can communicate to people.  They instinctively understand what it’s all about, even though they don’t understand a word of it.

BD:   They just hear the sound?

Bahr:   The sound and the expression, and that message gets across cultural barriers somehow.  He can transform.

BD:   For the records that don’t sell, do you keep them in the catalogue hoping they might eventually sell?

Bahr:   We have never ever deleted any record in our twenty-five-year existence.  Doing close to a thousand CDs, every note we ever recorded is in stock on the shelves to be sold to whoever likes it.  We don’t delete.  Full-stop.

BD:   The LPs have been re-issued on CD, and now they’re available again?


Bahr:   That’s correct, though not on a one-to-one basis.  We have recompiled them.

BD:   That makes better use of the CD?

Bahr:   Yes.  The LPs were too short, and we had a lot of mixed programming.  So we tried to streamline the programming so that it fits better together on the CDs.

BD:   Are you happy with the technology that is being used today?

Bahr:   Yes, basically I am, because I don’t really believe in technology as such.  We have gotten to the stage now where you cannot really improve the sound very much more.  We have tested 24-bit recordings against 16-bit recordings, from exactly the same sound source, recorded differently.  We are very, very, very hard put to hear a difference, even though we can listen A to B, and hear the same thing immediately one after the other.  We can hardly distinguish them.  The main thing is, and where you really can gain all of it, is if you use the right location.  That makes a huge difference from a good recording to an indifferent recording, or even a bad recording.

BD:   You just want great sound of great music?

Bahr:   Yes, and you get that through completely different means.  That is not to say that we don’t record 24-bit, but it doesn’t mean a thing.  What does mean a thing is where and how we record it.
BD:   Do you only record great music?

Bahr:   No, but we try to.
BD:   What is it that makes a piece of music great?

Bahr:   You cannot answer that in a generalized way.  It’s individual.

BD:   Then what does it mean for you?

Bahr:   I only know that when something really hits me, and grabs my heart and shoves it around, that is when a piece of music is great for me.  That same piece of music may be completely unimportant to some other person, and vice versa.  Something that leaves me completely cold may strike another person as wonderful.  It is a matter of what you like and what you don’t like.  If you are calm during a fantastic performance of something, or if you just hear it while you are at dinner, in that case I don’t think you are really listening to it.  I’ve even had professional reviewers who have said that they have actually reviewed a record while standing in the shower!  [Both laugh]  Now, come on!

BD:   [Philosophically]  Maybe your record got them cleanest!  [Both continue laughing]  I usually ask this question of performing musicians, so let me ask it of the professional technological musician.  What is the purpose of music?

Bahr:   To evoke feelings, and transmit feelings.  If a piece of music is good, especially if the performer is good, they can evoke feelings without the hindrance of a cultural barrier.  A case in point is Yoshikazu Mera [CD shown at right], the counter tenor I was talking about earlier.  When I first heard him sing, it was at a party in the middle of the night.  He stood up on a chair, and sang.  I had absolutely no clue what he was singing about, because at that time I didn’t know Japanese too well.  Even so, I was completely sober because I don’t drink alcohol, and tears starting running down my cheeks.  Somehow, in spite of the language problem, he transmitted a feeling and a condition to me that instinctively made me understand that this was something completely tragic, which it was.  I don’t know how he did it.  Some people are born with the ability to make music.  When you can be touched to a certain degree, even if it’s negative touch, the more the better.  You may hate something, and that’s okay.  I just think that you shouldn’t be indifferent.  If you listen to something and you’re indifferent, then it wasn’t worth it.

BD:   The performer must evoke feelings of some kind?

Bahr:   Yes, I strongly believe that.

BD:   Besides making records, do you also go to live concerts?

Bahr:   Yes, I do, and that is in spite of my profession!  [Laughs]  I am able to wear different hats.  Music should be enjoyed at live concerts, however that isn’t the ideal world.  You can’t.  There’s no way that everybody can enjoy all kinds of music anywhere in the world, so a well-produced recording is the next best thing.  But if you do have an alternative, go to the concert.

BD:   I’m the same way.  If I’m giving a lecture, I have a record with me, and I will say,
This is plastic.  The concert is the real thing.

Bahr:   Yes, agreed.  The plastic can be made better or worse, but I completely agree with you.

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BD:   Did you enjoy producing records?

Bahr:   Yes.  It’s my sadistic or masochistic streak, I suppose.  [Much laughter]  I did enjoy it.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to produce records, either for your company or for another label?

Bahr:   First of all, know what you’re doing.  Producers basically have to have perfect pitch.  They have to have full control over the technical part of it, and this includes reading a score, knowing the score, and knowing the music backwards before they start even thinking of producing it.  Once you have those skills, then you need to get to know the artists.  Try to put yourself in the artist’s place.  Try to figure out how they feel, what they feel, and how they feel it.  Try to attune yourself to their feelings, and then go and make the music.  It’s very very difficult, and it takes a lot of time.  You have to be some sort of a chameleon, changing yourself, and changing colors.  You need to do this while still keeping your integrity, and the integrity of the score and the composer.

BD:   You serve the score and the composer?

Bahr:   Yes.  I have to because some artists are not honest.  Some artists do not do what it says in the score.  They do their own thing instead, and that I don’t abide.
BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You let them go to other labels?

Bahr:   [Smiles]  Well, they will not have a future with me.  We have the principle that if we can’t see eye-to-eye after a recording is made, and if for some reason I have to say that this cannot be released on BIS for any reason whatsoever, I give the tape to the artist, free of charge.  They get all our work, and all our costs free of charge.  We let them do what they want with it.  The only condition is that neither my name, nor BIS’s name is going to be mentioned anywhere.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  Do they show up elsewhere???

Bahr:   They do, and without naming names, they certainly have appeared on many prestigious labels.

BD:   Does it frighten you that maybe one or two of them really sell well?

Bahr:   No, I don’t care!  I really don’t care!

BD:   Integrity is foremost with you?

Bahr:   Yes, yes, it is.  I wouldn’t take on the recording just because it sells.

BD:   But you won’t reject a recording you feel is good if it will sell six billion copies?

Bahr:   Certainly not!  I’m not stupid!  [Much laughter]

BD:   What advice do you have for the record-buying public?

Bahr:   Try please not to listen to recordings while you’re in the shower, or while eating.  I think that listening is a very active job. Please try to listen to it in peace and calm.  Let yourself be transformed, if you like.  Let yourself be caught up with the music.  Let yourself get feelings about it.  Don’t be ashamed if you start crying, and don’t be ashamed if you start vomiting.  Just get some feelings out of it.  Relax and enjoy it, or not enjoy it, but please let the music speak to you.  Also, be a little more adventurous!  There are so many really good composers and artists out there who are not established, but are often extremely good.  It is so easy to go into the shop, and say,
I want the Albinoni Adagio, and you might give me the Beethoven Five while you’re at it.  Actually, those are not bad music at all, but there is so much else that is really worth having, and they are quite evocative, provocative, and even erotic sometimes.  Go for that.  Give it a chance!

BD:   Have you ever thought of selling two-for-one?  If you buy something familiar, you’ll get something unfamiliar, which will maybe unlock the door to your next series?

Bahr:   We haven’t done that so far.  We have sometimes done a sampler for the catalogue which then has gone to show other unknown music, and invariably those recordings are selling very well after that.  It is the threshold to cross to see what can we get, and what one can find if you are adventurous.

BD:   Is it your job to be the showcase and the platform for all of these things?

Bahr:   It’s my job to be the medium for it.  It’s my job to try to select the good artists and the good composers, and it is also my very great pleasure that BIS has now become so famous
I almost said infamous!for having really good quality, so that very often people are willing to give unknown music or artists a chance just because it’s appeared on BIS.  They might not like the music, but they won’t be let down, and that is something I will really fight for continuing, and being able to uphold.

[Here we stopped for a moment to take care of a few technical details, and then continued our discussion.]

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

Bahr:   Definitely yes.  I’m a very happy man.

BD:   Good.  I’m glad to hear it.  It shows in your records.

Bahr:   Thank you.

BD:   One last question.  Why is it called BIS?

Bahr:   My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a rather famous music critic in Helsinki, Finland, at the turn of the century.  He was also a composer, and was actually Sibelius’s first publisher.  Unfortunately, he went bankrupt in the business, and we are trying not to do that.  [Laughs]  Anyway, his pen name was Bis.  It is what the Italians shout when the tenor has sung his high C, and wipes his forehead of sweat, and thinks,
Thank God, it’s over!  Then they start shouting ‘bis’, and he has to do it all over again.  It means ‘repeat’.  All French telephones have a button which says ‘bis’, and I think it’s quite nice to know that all French people have a direct line to me!  [Much laughter]  It’s also easy to pronounce , and it’s short to write.  It’s international, and all languages can pronounce it well.  It’s a wonder that it hasn’t be taken before.

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.

Bahr:   Thank you for having me here.  I’m really honored to be part of your station.


See my interviews with Neeme Järvi, and Christian Lindberg

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 3, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.