There are plenty of conductors who can be less than endearing, but my first-hand experience of Richard was that, even when time was short and things were not going as he hoped, he was never flustered or nervous. Yet he was much more than a safe pair of hands, as I discovered early on in his career, for I was responsible for Richard’s first recordings for a major company. He made his first commercial recording for the small Prelude label around the time I joined RCA Records in 1975 as head of the UK classical department. Keen to expand RCA’s penetration in British music, I began looking for a talented young conductor to work in that area. I had heard of Richard, then 26, Director of Music of St Margaret’s, Westminster (he was also a fine organist) and about to be appointed chorus-master of the London Symphony Chorus. His agent at the time, Helen Jennings, introduced us and, having outlined my plans, his enthusiasm convinced me that I had possibly found the man I was looking for.
Thus it was that the first two records Richard Hickox made for a major label, RCA, were with the Westminster Singers, of Masses by Edmund Rubbra and William Byrd. The Rubbra disc was astonishingly successful – notably in France, to the surprise of just about everyone at RCA. It has recently been reissued by Chandos, dubbed from disc (the last time I saw the tape was at the Eisenhower Center in London about a dozen years ago). Richard's total grasp of this music and his extraordinarily adept demeanour at the sessions (which Rubbra attended) reinforced my belief in his qualities. I produced recordings of him conducting his Richard Hickox Orchestra of Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 36, 37 and 38 (quite superb performances) and English music (including Richard Arnell's brilliant Classical Variations, Op. 1 and Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending with Erich Gruenberg), but the tapes were not released at the time and remain unissued. I had engaged Brian Couzens and his Chandos team to be sound engineers for these sessions at the Henry Wood Hall; this was the first time Richard recorded with Brian. After I left RCA in 1978, Brian set up Chandos Records and ten years later Richard made the first of his more than 280 records for that label. By then, his gifts had become widely appreciated, having recorded for Argo, EMI, Pickwick and ASV (a very good Beethoven Symphony cycle with the Northern Sinfonia, formerly available from Sanctuary; he also conducted the composer's five piano concertos with Cristina Ortiz for Pickwick).
Mention of the Beethoven symphonies and concertos should disabuse the commonly held belief that Richard was only a ‘British Music Specialist’. Of course he performed and recorded a lot of British music but he was also excellent in what one might term ‘standard’ repertoire. There was a notably penetrating account of Fidelio with the English National Opera about ten years ago, outstanding appearances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and concerts in a wide range of repertoire with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, of which he was Chief Conductor for many years. Appointments in mainland Europe and in the United States attested to his burgeoning international reputation with many of the world’s leading orchestras, allied to his Music Directorship of Australian Opera, a post recently extended for four more years. All of these achievements demonstrated a personal appeal, a breadth of repertoire and deep professionalism that makes the suddenness of his passing the more disturbing.
Richard’s greatest and most lasting legacy will be his recordings, of which he made close on 300. The vast majority of these were for Chandos, an association that lasted until the day he died, and which includes such truly great performances as those he gave of Britten’s War Requiem (in 1993 he had conducted the chamber orchestra in that work, with Rostropovich directing the main forces); Delius's A Mass of Life (at the time of a truly overwhelming performance at St Paul’s Cathedral, part of the City of London Festival); the greatest performance I can ever hope to hear of Delius’s Violin Concerto with Tasmin Little at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester a few years ago; and operas by Britten and Walton. Other really fine Chandos releases include a complete cycle of Rubbra symphonies and others by Vaughan Williams and Malcolm Arnold – alongside similar issues so numerous that the serious music lover will have his or her own favourites.
As someone who knew him for over 30 years and followed his career with the greatest interest, I can honestly say that I never heard him give a performance that was less than very good, and was very often considerably more than that. We owe him rather more than we might think, perhaps, and I imagine that, as time passes, his loss will be felt increasingly keenly. Richard Hickox is survived by his wife, the mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen, and his three children, Tom, Adam and Abigail.
- This article was written for International Record Review and published in the January 2009 issue
- It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
- International Record Review