John McClure, a producer and engineer who helped shape some of the most celebrated classical recordings of the 20th century, including acclaimed sessions with Bruno Walter, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein, died on June 17 at his home in Belmont, Vt. He was 84.
His death, after a brief illness, was announced by his family.
Mr. McClure was neither a classically trained musician nor a formally trained technician. He studied piano at Oberlin College in the late 1940s but dropped out. He learned to operate a recording console at Columbia Records in the early 1950s and stayed.
“The impostor continues undiscovered,” he sometimes said to those close to him, a self-effacing wink at his lack of traditional qualifications.
Yet his skill was undeniable. Late in life, after a long run as director of Columbia Masterworks and a diverse freelance career that began in the early 1970s, he kept his Grammy Awards in a box in his barn in Vermont.
Mr. McClure’s career cut across genres. He made strong-selling recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; worked with Dave Brubeck, Joe Williams and other jazz artists; recorded Peter, Paul and Mary; and helped engineer the string parts for Pink Floyd’s 1979 concept double album, “The Wall.”
But he made his biggest mark in the classical world. He produced three records that won the Grammy for classical album of the year: “Stravinsky Conducts,” featuring the composer’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”and “Petrouchka,” which won in 1962; “Bernstein: Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish,’ ” which won in 1965; and “Mahler: Symphony No. 8: Symphony of a Thousand,” conducted by Bernstein, which won in 1968.
In 1986, his recording of Bernstein’s “West Side Story” score, conducted by the composer and featuring Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, won the award for best cast show album.
Hans Fantel, a founding editor of Stereo Review, wrote in The New York Times in 1980 that Bernstein’s extensive Mahler recordings, produced by Mr. McClure, helped “American recording practices cut themselves loose from their own often limiting tradition.”
“Gradually, they veered toward a more romantic sound-ideal of tonic warmth, generous ambience and what one critic has characterized as ‘sonic bloom,’ ” Mr. Fantel added, calling Mr. McClure “just the man to provide the right sound.”
Some producers took pride in their ability to pick out the slightest imperfections in a performance, to hear better than the conductor or the musicians. Mr. McClure saw his role differently.
“I preferred that the artist be very much involved because I didn’t have that much faith in my musicianship,” he said in a 1997 interview with Michael Hobson, the owner of the audiophile company Classic Records. “I was not a trained conductor and I hadn’t studied conducting and I wanted their inputs very badly. I was afraid I’d miss something, so I always pushed my people to stay involved.”
John Taylor McClure was born on in June 28, 1929, in Rahway, N.J., and grew up in nearby Colonia. He was quick to learn piano pieces by ear as a boy but said he struggled whenever he “got to the hard part.” Decades later he insisted he had never mastered score reading.
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After dropping out of Oberlin, he attended New York University and the New School for Social Research (now the New School) but did not receive a degree. He worked in the merchant marine and took a string of other jobs, including installing high fidelity systems on the side, before gaining an entry-level position at the Carnegie Hall Recording Company in 1950. Within a few years he had become an engineer for Columbia Records, and by the late 1950s, as stereo recordings were on the rise, he moved to producing.
One of his early projects was an admired set of recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies with Bruno Walter, among the 20th century’s most distinguished conductors, who was then in the last years of his career. Made in Los Angeles, the records captured Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, an outfit put together for those sessions.
His work with Walter led to more than 30 recordings with Stravinsky.Mr. McClure’s appearance in a 1965 documentary about the composer, then in his 80s, made clear how influential he was. The aging Stravinsky was conducting, but it was Mr. McClure who demanded several retakes.
His most extensive production work was with Bernstein, with whom he made about 200 recordings over three decades. The first, of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, was recorded in 1959 at Boston’s Symphony Hall just after Bernstein returned from touring Russia with the New York Philharmonic.
“The man is not long on patience and not stingy with blame,” Mr. McClure wrotein 1988, adding that he himself kept “coming back for more” because Bernstein was “unfailingly stimulating, educational, maddening and musically nutritious.”
Mr. McClure also worked with Aaron Copland, Isaac Stern, André Previn, Rudolf Serkin and others.
Survivors include Mr. McClure’s wife, Susan Presson, whom he married in 1991; three sons, Stuart, Hilary and Christopher; a daughter, Lauren McClure; a brother, Angus; and three grandchildren. Three previous marriages ended in divorce.
In an interview this week, the composer John Williams recalled seeing Mr. McClure as “this sort of a titan in the music world” when they first met in the ’70s.
Years later, Mr. McClure and Mr. Williams worked together on a series of recordings and television performances while Mr. Williams was the conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and early ’90s. He said Mr. McClure was particularly good at managing delicate musical personalities and the tension they could stir.
“He was able to defuse things by finding humor or by causing everyone to see something larger than the moment,” Mr. Williams said. “Sometimes that was the music.”
Correction: July 2, 2014
An obituary last Wednesday about the classical-music producer and engineer John McClure referred incorrectly to a job he held before going to work for the Carnegie Hall Recording Company in 1950. He installed high fidelity systems, not stereo systems. (Home stereo systems were not widely available until almost a decade later.)
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