Helmut Koch was a highly respected though somewhat lesser-known conductor who, probably unwisely, chose East Germany as the base of operations for most of his career. Still, as a conductor known largely for choral and operatic music, he flourished at home and in parts of Europe. He made numerous recordings in a broad range of repertory from Bach and Monteverdi to Schoenberg and Leo Spies. For all his seeming eclecticism, though, he favored Mozart — especially the operas and choral works — and Handel, and worked with some of the leading singers of his time, including Peter Schreier, Theo Adam, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Gundula Janowitz, and many others. Koch also became widely known for his arrangements of German folk music. A large number of Koch's recordings have been reissued on the Berlin Classics label, including many strictly instrumental performances.
Helmut Koch was born in Wuppertal, Germany, on April 5, 1908. Though he was attracted to music as a child, his first aspirations were to become a sound engineer for recordings and radio broadcasts. While carrying on studies in this field he also took courses in music and conducting (1926-1928), and among his teachers were some of the finest young maestros of the day, including Hermann Scherchen and Fritz Lehmann.
In the 1930s Koch worked for several different radio and recording studios as a sound engineer, but he also conducted the Berlin Schubert Choir on the side. Like many European artists his career took wing in the aftermath of World War II. In 1945 he founded the Kammerorchester Berlin, an ensemble he would lead in countless performances and recordings until his death in 1975. In 1948 Koch founded the Berlin Radio Choir and soon was regularly making recordings. Among his first important efforts was the 1949 recording of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.
Among other significant early recordings was his Brahms Requiem (1958-1959) with Tomowa-Sintow and Günther Leib. In 1963 Koch was appointed director of the Berlin Singakademie, a position he held concurrently with his other two Berlin posts. In the 1960s and early '70s Koch made a number of important Mozart recordings, including the 1964 Mass in C minor (with Theo Adam), the 1965 Bastien und Bastienne, and the 1968 Der Schauspieldirektor (both with Peter Schreier). Koch also turn out acclaimed recordings of works by Haydn (The Creation), Bach (Brandenburg Concertos), Telemann and Vivaldi (various concertos), and scores of others.