Parnassus Records and Leslie Gerber: Home of the Muses

Young Leslie Gerber

The young Leslie Gerber. A Christmas bonus would enable him to launch Parnassus Records.

I was born in Brooklyn in 1943. Mine was a musical family. My parents were both school teachers but they were also active musicians. When my mother Shirley Gerber was in high school she played the Grieg Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall with the All-City Youth Orchestra conducted by Jean Morel, who remembered her immediately when we met years later. For many years my parents hosted Friday night chamber music sessions at our apartment. My mother’s brother, my uncle Leonard Felberg, was a violinist who studied at Yale, spent three years with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and went on to a long career as a university teacher (Georgia, Toledo, New Mexico) and chamber music player. We learned when I was a teenager that the great cellist Janos Starker was a cousin, and we remained close to him all the rest of his life. 

I studied piano for many years on and off, and played in public a few times, but I didn’t have the talent to be a pro and eventually I quit for good in my forties. However, I have remained connected to music in various ways. After getting married at 21 to a ready-made family (my new wife had three little girls), I worked for six years at the Strand Book Store as a cataloger, meeting a few celebrities there like the actor Sterling Hayden and the writer Ralph Ellison. I also worked part-time at Dayton Records, across the street from the Strand. 

In 1969 I received a substantial Christmas bonus from the Strand. I decided to invest it in starting up a record label, Parnassus Records, centered on the historical recordings I love. With Steve Smolian, still a friend and colleague, as my transfer engineer, I issued two LPs. The first was of Emanuel Feuermann; he was Janos’s idol, and Janos wrote an essay for the record, which I am about to reprint with a new Feuermann CD. The following year, I moved with my family to Ulster County in upstate New York, near Woodstock, where I now live. I had a very difficult time making a living at first, but I had a mailing list of people who had bought my LPs (I issued a dozen altogether) and I had some experience helping Steve sell LPs by mail, so I started the Parnassus Peddler, at first offering records from my own collection. This business continued for 39 years. 

While in college I had started writing record reviews for The American Record Guide. After the editor Jim Lyons died, I was recruited by Fanfare, for which I wrote for a couple of decades. I also wrote concert reviews, mostly for the Woodstock Times, until that newspaper died during the pandemic. A friend who wrote for CBS Records recommended me to the classical program note editor, Chris Nelson, and I eventually wrote about 60 liner notes for them, just into the beginning of the CD era. 

I had become friendly with the great pianist Jacob Lateiner, now memorialized in two Parnassus CD sets of live performances. Jacob introduced me to my last piano teacher, the eminent musicologist Piero Weiss. Once when I wrote program notes for a Gary Graffman LP, I managed to work quotes from Lateiner and Weiss, friends of his, into the text. Weiss told me that Graffman called him, asking, “Who the hell is this Leslie Gerber?” “Oh,” said Weiss, “he just left.” Somewhat later I met Graffman backstage at a Lateiner concert. “I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Graffman,” I said. “I’ve written program notes for several of your records.” He replied with a wicked grin, “I’d always wondered why Horowitz insisted on jacket approval.” Two days later I got an assignment to write notes for a Horowitz record but by then it was too late for a snappy comeback. 

My marriage ended in 1976, but not my relationships with the children. (I am now a great-grandfather!) After a period of living with a pianist for several years and a few years in the wilderness, in 1985 I began to date a woman who had been a long-time friend, a writer named Tara McCarthy. She was also a great music-lover. We had a wonderful time together, and she encouraged my experiments in writing poetry, which I have pursued ever since. Alas, the most recent of my three books of poems chronicled poor Tara’s decline into dementia, from which she died in 2018. I am now fortunately involved in a lovely romance with a Dutch woman, Arda Hutter, another music-lover, with whom I will celebrate two years about the time you read this. 

By 1996 I had been out of the record publishing business for more than two decades, when an event occurred which propelled me back into it. The Friends of Sviatoslav Richter acquired a treasure trove of live performances from the 1950s, which it made available to its members on cassettes. When I heard a few of these I realized this material had major importance for collectors, great performances from an earlier decade than we’d heard almost any Richter recordings. I negotiated with the Friends, bought their original digital audio tapes which had been smuggled from Russia, and started the Parnassus CD label. The initial reception to “Richter in the 1950s” Volumes 1 and 2, issued simultaneously, was as enthusiastic as I’d expected. (I was “sold” after I heard the Schumann Toccata.) I had distribution problems at first but soon settled in with Qualiton and a few European distributors. 

Eventually I wound up issuing seven volumes of “Richter in the 1950s,” all but one of them two-disc sets, and numerous other Richter recordings including three DVDs. There will likely be a few more. I had to fight off a lawsuit in federal court from the so-called Richter Estate, representing Dmitri Dorliak, cousin of Nina Dorliak, who inherited her estate. He claimed that also included the estate of her “husband” Richter, but I had trustworthy information that the two were never legally married. (His “proof” was a posthumous certificate issued by a Russian court.) After my lawyer reviewed their legal filings, he said to me, “I am not impressed with the quality of their legal representation,” which I realized meant that he was confident that he could win even if they did have a case. 

Leslie Gerber current

Once the Parnassus CD label got going, I realized I was not entirely devoted to historical recordings. Early on I connected with the Colorado Quartet, one of the greatest string quartets I’d ever heard, now regrettably disbanded due to the difficulties of an all-woman ensemble getting work. Eventually they recorded ten CDs for Parnassus, including the complete Beethoven Quartets. Unlike many other labels I took no fees from the performers and actually paid them “royalties” in terms of copies of the CDs, which they sold at concerts. My cousin Janos collaborated with me on a CD reissue of his invaluable “The Road to Cello Playing,” which became the label’s best-seller. I’ve also done two more Starker items since his death, one of them a video. 

With the exception of a set of historical recordings of Gregorian chant, which I felt was important although I have no personal interest in the music, everything Parnassus has published has been something I loved and felt was valuable. This is certainly true of the recent “Great Musicians of Ukraine,” all the proceeds of which are going to Razom for Ukraine. All four of my grandparents were Ukrainian immigrants. When I had the opportunity to issue an entire CD of 100-year-old recordings by Black classical performers, I jumped on it. Steve Smolian did his usual amazing restoration work on both of these. “Black Swans” has since inspired more recordings by Black performers, including “Black Swans at Mid-Century” (18 singers), “Bayard Rustin the Singer” (the great civil rights leader singing Elizabethan songs and spirituals beautifully), and “The Lost Art of Frances Cole.” I had searched for decades for recordings of Cole, a Black harpsichordist I’d once heard on the radio who had made no solo LPs. I finally found tapes at an institution where she’d taught, Westminster Choir College, and they were as exciting as what I remembered hearing. At least one more issue in this series, of Inez Matthews, is now in the works. 

A glance at the Parnassus catalog ( will show that my interests are quite varied, although vocal music is a minority. As the viability of CD issues continues to diminish, I can see a time when new issues will end. The label is now owned by its distributors, Alto Distribution/Musical Concepts, but I remain in charge of production and there are a few more items I am hoping to publish while there is still time. 

More from the Parnassus catalog in Issue 7 – available in your subscriber account – on page 59.