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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Norman Lebrecht

By Norman Lebrecht / December 5, 2001

Cheap crossovers are doing nothing for the integrity of an art on the wane.

FORTY years ago, just before the Beatles turned the world on its head, one in every five records bought and sold across the world was classical. About 20 years ago, in the rainbow dawn of compact disc, classics accounted for 10 per cent of global sales. This year, classical music is down to three per cent, and falling.

Gloomy as this might seem, we have not hit bottom yet. This week's top-selling "classical" album in the US is piano music composed by Billy Joel, a faded rock star. The top two albums in Britain are punched out by Russell Watson, an industrial-strength tenor who assaults football terraces with pop ballads and ice-cream arias in marshmallowy, Mantovani-like settings.

These are the core of contemporary classics. Were the charts to be purged of such mongrelisms, there is little doubt that classical sales would fall below one per cent and the business would be shut down.

The gentle subsidence of classical labels has been turned, over the past five years, into a full-scale wipeout as corporate executives have sought to justify their six-figure salaries with ever more frantic exhumations of exhausted commercial material. EMI trotted out Sir Paul McCartney with pseudo-classical piano tinklings. Decca dredged up Andrea Boccelli from the Italian pop racks and redesignated Nana Mouskouri in her Seventies spectacles as a classical diva.

Deutsche Grammophon, arbiter of high art, employs the operatic baritone, Bryn Terfel, to squeeze out songs from the movies and the Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter to duet with a toneless Elvis Costello. Had Sir Elton John not retired from making new records last weekend, his keyboard elegies would by now be the target of a classical bidding war.

The leader in the rush to generic contamination is the label known as Sony Classical, which has come to stand for anything but. Sony is headed by a former orchestral publicist, Peter Gelb, who set out "to redefine the classical label . . . to return to the idea of classical music as an emotional experience for the listener".

His greatest coup so far is the classical rebirth of Billy Joel, who has sold 100 million records in 25 years - which counts as an emotional experience for a corporate boss. Joel, whose gift was sparked at 14 on seeing the Beatles steal the Ed Sullivan Show, hit the big time in 1977 with The Stranger, the biggest-selling album of its day. He won a shelf-load of Grammys and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But his last big hit was River of Dreams seven years ago. So Billy Joel has fallen back on a boyhood love of Chopin and Schumann, and started turning out little waltzes and reveries for solo piano.

His Fantasies and Delusions, performed by Richard Joo, a British-Korean pianist of previously clean record, was recorded at the Konzerthaus in Vienna by a rigorous classical producer, Steven Epstein. It pays over-fond homage to the great Viennese composers - though perhaps most of all to the wacky Frenchman Erik Satie, whose musique d'ameublement, aural wallpaper, it strongly recalls. This is not music that will stop anyone in his tracks, except perhaps a maitre d'hotel in a palm court lounge.

Sony Classical trots out a line about "growing the classical market" with celebrity glitz, but the excuses sound as hollow as the strategy itself. The rest of Sony's seasonal list is made up of Placido Domingo duetting in Vienna with Tony Bennett, Vanessa Williams and Charlotte Church; of Joshua Bell and John Williams accompanying a banjo man; and of Yo-Yo Ma, the most charismatic of cellists, playing movie themes, tangos and country and western. Only two releases are definably classical - a pair of concertos from the sophomore Hilary Hahn, and a set of orchestral pieces by the Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, the only conductor left on Sony's books.

Nothing criminal in that: it's a free market and a record label has a right to make an honest buck. Crossover does not cause cancer. Nor does it corrupt youth - if only because youth spends its pocket money on violent rap albums and would not be seen dead listening to something labelled "classical". So where's the harm?

Look at any record store, and you'll see just where. What the Billy Joels and Russell Watsons do is burn up the marketing budgets of the so-called classical labels on which they appear, starving serious music of the oxygen of publicity, space on the shelf and room in the charts. Crossover is not an aid to classical renewal, rather an act of classical euthanasia. Billy Joel, for all his love of good music, is driving a mighty nail into the coffin of classical recording.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001