Classical CD Sales, Not

They’re down again, according to Rupert Christiansen in today’s Telegraph. As he points out, though, that doesn’t mean nobody wants to listen to classical music any more. Norman Lebrecht has long held views on what went wrong and continues to go wrong, and today carries news that over at Deutsche Grammophon another big shake-up is taking place, president Chris Roberts is off, and “the dumbing-down policies of the last 15 years are to be reversed”, which can only be a good thing.

So what did go wrong? Losing Lang Lang may have told DG a thing or two. But I can think of several widely admired ‘artists’ whose interpretations are questionable to say the least, yet are glitzily packaged by their record companies as if they were offering better music-making than a discerning ear would quickly ascertain was the case… Chuck ’em out! Chuck ’em out!

It gets worse. In Paris former Vivendi boss Jean-Claude Messier (one for the appropriate names department?) and Edgar Bronfman, head of Warner Music Group and previously of Universal Classics, are on trial for fraud. It all goes back, says Norman, to “the freewheeling 80s”. He has more on it here. Watch that space.

But for your average Person on the Internet, all this is not of huge relevance when it comes to buying, or not buying, recorded music. Perhaps Rupert is right and it is just the medium of the CD, once so ubiquitous, that has run its course.

Now, it may be stating the obvious, but it doesn’t get stated much. The real problem is that only a handful of serious collectors want to buy more than 100 recordings of the same piece of music. Or more than 50. More than 10. More than two or three. How are we supposed to get excited and/or reverent about yet another violinist “committing Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to disc”? Or yet another ivory-basher delivering a CD of Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques to prove the seriousness of their credentials? If even music professionals run away hunting for the earplugs, no wonder sales are evaporating. 

The crossover and/or compilation gimmicks with which record companies have tried to keep the cash till ringing brought in some income short-term. But think of those horrendous singers (you know who I mean), the often-shoddy mix’n’match composer anniversary discs/sets and the manufactured images that proved doomed – they’ll bite the dust as ennui sets in amongst listeners. 

There aren’t enough genuinely extraordinary artists around to sell the umphundredth disc of, say, the Schumann Piano Concerto. I’ve just been comparing different discs of it for BBC Music Magazine and regret that the only one I can’t live without was made 75 years ago. The majority of the others either sound half asleep or set off a good number of this ferociously difficult piece’s plentiful landmines. And the three pianists of today whom I’d most like to hear play it have not recorded it yet (in case you wondered: Stephen Hough, Mitsuko Uchida and Simon Trpceski). Recording concertos in a studio takes money, and there isn’t any.

So what does work? One of the greatest CDs I’ve come across in recent years was Anne Sofie von Otter’s disc devoted to the music of Terezin. A disc with a powerful concept, a history to relate, music that is heard too rarely (but don’t miss the Nash Ensemble’s Terezin weekend at Wigmore Hall later this month), fabulously performed and expertly annotated. It was effectively a documentary conveyed in music alone, for which some of the finest musicians in the business put themselves at the service of their collective purpose instead of their egos. That’s what a classical album can do, and it would be a very good thing if it could do so rather more often.

Meanwhile, on the Internet, you can not only hear but also watch Uchida play the Schumann concerto. CDs just can’t keep up with the streaming of live concerts worldwide. Here she is, with the Berlin Phil & Rattle, in a Youtube taster. The whole thing can be viewed for a small fee in the BP’s digital concert hall.

Roll over, CDs. Your day is done.

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