MUSIC: Classical Recording Is Better Than It’s Been In Years


I love classical recording, not just as a way of preserving pieces or performers, but as an art form and a business. (Before groups like the Beatles changed the way pop records were produced and marketed, classical recordings were where most of the innovation and excitement was in the recording industry, and the classical producers were the most interesting characters in the business. And even the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, started out in classical.) There have been a lot of stories lately about how the classical recording business is in trouble, and one British critic, Norman Lebrecht, has practically made a career out of arguing that classical recordings are doomed. And it’s true that the old model of classical recordings, where you have several major labels with a roster of artists under contract, a roster of in-house producers and engineers, and lots of new releases in stores, is more or less gone; all the major labels of the golden age of classical recordings are either gone or exist in name only. (Decca, once one of the two great British labels — they had Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Tebaldi under exclusive contract, and their pop division turned down the Beatles but signed the Rolling Stones — long ago stopped existing in any meaningful way; Universal still releases recordings under that name, but it’s not an actual record company.) But while it’s hard to say how healthy the classical recording business is, in part because sales of individual recordings look puny compared to pop recordings, I think that classical recordings are actually much better now than they were when the business was supposedly booming.

One of the things Lebrecht often writes about, and he’s right about this, is that one of the things that got classical in trouble was that the companies glutted the market in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The compact disc had just come in, increasing the market share of classical as collectors replaced their LPs with CDs. The big companies produced more classical than they ever had before, and new labels got into the act (especially Sony Classical, the revamped version of what was once CBS Masterworks; one of the heads of Sony was a huge classical fan who allotted unrealistic budgets to classical CDs). At that time, there was an incredible amount of classical in stores. And what I suspected at the time, as a collector, is even clearer now in retrospect: most of those recordings were kind of useless. Not bad recordings, just pointless: there were hundreds of very bland, very middle-of-the-road recordings that might have made for a good concert but had nothing new to say about the pieces. There were tons of opera recordings, but most of them were very patchily cast; the Mozart bicentennial of 1991 produced many, many Mozart opera recordings, but almost all of them suffered from casting weaknesses. Of all the Mozart opera recordings of 1991 there are maybe two or three that actually surpassed or equalled earlier recordings of the same operas. The major labels were “major” only in the sense that they had the most money and that their artists were the most famous (in part because they had big recording contracts).

You see where I’m going with this. Today there are few “major” labels to speak of; only Deutsche Grammophon and possibly EMI still have distinct brands to speak of. Many big companies are getting out of classical altogether or moving towards online distribution as their major focus. And yet the quality of the recordings that are coming out on a year-by-year basis has not declined; I think it’s improved. Not that there aren’t a lot of pointless recordings still being made. In particular, since so many recordings are made by orchestras as promotional tools (the London Symphony Orchestra is the most aggressive about this, releasing a couple of self-produced CDs every month), they often wind up being little more than a nice memento of a concert. But even those recordings aren’t any worse than a lot of the big-label recordings from the ’90s. And there are, in my opinion, a lot more really good recordings. These recordings often appear on small labels, with a patchwork of financing sources including state subsidies, donors, and the artists who make them. But they’re out there, and they actually have a reason to exist. Because it’s expensive and risky to make a classical CD, companies seem to be less likely now to make a recording unless they have some actual reason to make it. In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, companies would frequently make terrible recordings simply because an artist was powerful enough to demand it. Now even a recording with a big-name artist usually needs some other reason to be made, like the existence of an actual fresh perspective on the music.

So record companies have mostly given up on audio-only opera recordings, because they’re very expensive to produce. And it’s a shame that many singers don’t get to record their favourite roles complete. (Obviously they get to be on DVDs of the same operas, but I think audio recordings hold up better over the years than DVDs, because productions go out of style in a way that good singing does not.) But at least they’re not tossing out patchily-cast, pointless recordings of popular operas the way they once were. EMI used to make an opera recording every year with its star soprano and tenor, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, ranging from operas they were good at to operas they really had no business singing. Most of those recordings, even the good ones, didn’t make much of an impact because there were too many of them. But EMI’s first opera recording in several years, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with Gheorghiu and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, is much more interesting than I expected; Gheorghiu hasn’t sung the part onstage (if she had, they’d probably have made a DVD instead of taking it into the studio), but she sounds genuinely involved in the part and brings an approach to the recording that really works, a small-scale approach (backed up by the conductor, Antonio Pappano, who keeps the music sounding like chamber music sometimes) that gets bigger and tougher as the story goes on. I don’t know if she could make that work in the theatre, but this is a recording, so it doesn’t matter. The point is that this is an opera recording with an actual approach of its own that makes it legitimate; it’s not better than the classic recordings, but at least you know why they made it. Similarly, DG’s new recording by its new star violinist, Vadim Repin, is of two old chestnuts (Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Double Concerto) but they’re two good, interesting performances, if too slow for my taste in the opening movement of the violin concerto. The fact that they can’t make many recordings any more seems to have made the companies a bit more reluctant to record performances that have no raison d’etre, or that the performers aren’t ready to put on disc.

The company that probably makes the most classical CDs, Harmonia Mundi in France, is a company that builds its whole strategy around making recordings that actually have a point to them; they have a roster of artists who make a recording or two a year of repertoire that they can do well in. Harmonia Mundi’s star conductor, the countertenor-turned-period-instrument-maven Rene Jacobs, has been doing a series of Mozart opera recordings; his newest recording, out in May, is of Mozart’s first great opera, Idomeneo, King of Crete. Jacobs’ decisions as a conductor can sometimes be controversial (he likes sudden tempo changes, timpani playing that can scare the listener, and so on), but never boring; all his recordings have something interesting to say about the works and the drama, and strong casts of mostly young singers who haven’t recorded a whole lot. It’s the least you can ask about any opera recording that it should have a coherent take on the piece and a cast without crippling weaknesses, but there are many, many recordings of these operas that have neither. Which is why I’m looking forward to Jacobs’ Idomeneo even though I don’t expect to agree with all his choices.  (Jacobs’ most recent recording is of the obscure Passion by the baroque composer Georg Philip Telemann, who was an influence on Bach and Handel and other more famous composers; it’s a fine performance of an interesting piece, more dramatic and sadistic than Bach’s Passions.)

It’s the independent labels that are doing the best work these days, ranging from labels with pretty good distribution, like Channel Classics (their recording of Mahler’s 4th Symphony with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and conductor Ivan Fischer is one of the best in years) and labels that are harder to find in stores, like the German label Haenssler (as I said in my article on Haydn, Thomas Fey’s symphony series with the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra obliterates the idea that Haydn’s music is sweet and cute and harmless). Adding it all up, I think a classical collector might not find more recordings than he or she did twenty years ago… but definitely more recordings with a real purpose, or that can legitimately claim to offer something that you can’t get just from buying the classic recordings.