Eva Coutaz, who for more than four decades at the highly regarded record label Harmonia Mundi shaped the careers of musicians, rehabilitated forgotten composers and expanded the taste of record collectors, died on January 26th in Arles, France. She was 77 years old.
Jean-Marc Berns, the label’s marketing director, said the cause was complications of kidney failure.
Mrs. Coutaz came to Harmonia Mundi in 1972 at the invitation of her founder Bernard Coutaz, whom she would later marry. Her first job was to monitor the public and organize concerts to promote the label’s artists, but she quickly demonstrated her business acumen and artistic sensitivity.
Ms. Coutaz had long-term relationships with a stable of musicians that included some of the leading figures in early music, including countertenor Alfred Deller and performer-conductors René Jacobs, William Christie and Philippe Herreweghe. She later brought another generation of recording stars with her, including the violinist Isabelle Faust, the pianist Alexandre Tharaud and the baritone Matthias Goerne.
Starting in 1975, as production manager, she built up a catalog with more than 800 recordings. After her husband’s death in 2010, she became the company’s managing director and stayed in that position until 2015 when she sold the label.
In its most prolific form, Harmonia Mundi released more than 50 new recordings a year. Industry publications often crowned it Label of the Year, and collectors trusted it as a guide to hidden treasures and insightful interpretations of the classics. Harmonia Mundi albums, with their beautifully designed covers and thoughtful liner notes, stood for a listening culture that was both meticulous and meditative.
Ms. Coutaz is “the great leader” behind the label, Christie said in a telephone interview. As a businesswoman, he said, she could be “tough as old boots”.
“She had a strong will and an exceptional sense of rightness about the repertoire,” he added. “And she would take risks.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, these risks paid off in a market that was borne by renewed interest in early music and historically sound interpretations. Ms. Coutaz, for example, recognized the market potential of the French baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier at a time when his talent lagged far behind the popular appeal of her German and Italian colleagues, Christie said.
Costly productions of unknown oratorios and operas remained a gamble, and Ms. Coutaz lit some projects against her own better financial judgment. In a radio interview in 2018 with the Belgian broadcaster RTBF, she spoke about a recording of the opera “Krösus” by the north German baroque composer Reinhard Keizer under the direction of Mr. Jacobs – a footnote in music history books.
“I thought it was a loss for us,” she said. But she was so excited about the music that she said to herself, “I want to record it – it would be a shame if people didn’t hear it.” “Croesus” sold more than 25,000 copies, a triumph for classical music.
Mr. Jacobs said Ms. Coutaz promoted his conducting career when he was mainly known as a countertenor. After he became famous as an advocate of baroque music, she asked him to record Mozart operas. His Harmonia Mundi recording of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” was awarded a Grammy in 2004 and became a bestseller.
“She pushed me to keep going,” he said.
Eva Schannath was born on February 26, 1943 in Wuppertal. Her father was a carpenter. After attending a Roman Catholic school in Düsseldorf, she began an apprenticeship as a bookseller. Eager to experience France, she went to Marseille as an au pair in 1964, then worked first in a bookstore in Montpellier and then for a cultural center in Aix-en-Provence.
There she met Mr. Coutaz in 1972, who was then head of Harmonia Mundi from Saint-Michel-l’Observatoire, a remote village in Provence. Mr. Coutaz founded the company in 1958.
Jean-Guihen Queyras, a boy who was studying cello, lived in a nearby hamlet and his parents became friends with the couple. His first impression of a Harmonia Mundi recording session was when he was 10 years old when Ms. Coutaz invited him to work on the organ bellows for Mr. Christie in a tiny Romanesque mountain chapel.
Years later, Mr. Queyras joined the label as a soloist. “What was different from other labels was their vision and their very human and organic way of bringing musicians together in a way that really feels like family,” he said.
He remembered her strong emotional reactions to music. “Sometimes she would talk to you after a concert and you could see there were tears,” he said. “She really did it all out of pure, intense love for music.”
Eva and Bernard Coutaz worked closely together even though they married, divorced, and remarried. They didn’t have any children. Information about their survivors was not immediately available.
The couple moved the label to an old farmhouse in Arles in 1986. It became the creative and logistical center of a company that employed more than 350 people at its height. His influence spread through subsidiaries in Spain and the United States, a publishing branch, and a network of record boutiques.
In the early 2000s, the rise of streaming began to force the recording industry into crisis, forcing painful cuts at Harmonia Mundi. In the radio interview, Ms. Coutaz spoke of a 70 percent decline in CD sales over a period of 10 years. She warned that high-quality studio recordings would become a thing of the past with falling revenues. “If digital sales aren’t monetized, the moment will come when you can no longer produce,” she said.
In 2015 she approved the sale of the Harmonia Mundi catalog to PIAS, a Belgian group of independent labels. She stayed on as a consultant for another year to maintain the quality. In 2018, Gramophone, a leading publication for classical music, was named Harmonia Mundi Label of the Year.
In reflecting on Ms. Coutaz, Christie said his generation knew a recording industry that is run by “strong-minded and dedicated individuals with an exceptional sense of the rightness of their operations and the creation of markets.”
“And she stood out among them.”