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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Off the record

By Norman Lebrecht / July 2, 2003

Four weeks after she was garlanded as young artist of the year at the more-than-usually meretricious Classical Brits in May, the 15-year-old violinist Chloe Hanslip lost her record contract. She had been signed to make five discs for Warner Classics. Now, after just two releases, she has been cast on to a heaving scrapheap of star discards with the company's best wishes for "her every success in the future".

Such cruelties, inexplicable as they might appear to a musician of Chloe's innocence, have become the tedious norm in a classical industry that has frantically offloaded its ballast of talent in an effort to stay aloft.

Warner has jettisoned, among others, the tenor Jose Cura, the conductor Daniel Barenboim and the baroque masters William Christie and Ton Koopman, the latter in the middle of a Bach cantata cycle.

Chloe was supposed to represent a clean start for the downsized, London-based label, a statement of faith in some kind of future. She made a debut at last year's Proms and received warm reviews for a disc that coupled everyone's favourite Bruch concerto with another that hardly anyone knows. She had just come home from a tour of Korea and Japan when the verdict was delivered that Warner would not record her again "in the foreseeable future".

It was not for want of promise, for hers is a talent that warrants perseverance. Nor were there compelling commercial grounds for letting her go. So why did Chloe get the chop? Surely, even in these heartless times, they don't sack a kid after two goes on the magic roundabout - or do they?

The truth of the matter is messy. Inflated expectations led Chloe and her parents to become increasingly assertive in their dealings with Warner Classics.

Its manager, Matthew Cosgrove, was under orders from New York headquarters to impose an "A&R freeze" to help mitigate Warner's catastrophic merger with AOL. Cosgrove was effectively forbidden to make any more classical records but, as Chloe's greatest fan, he went ahead and booked her to record two contemporary concertos, by Philip Glass and John Adams, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra this summer.

These were sensible and sensitive selections. Both composers are relatively well known, neither concerto has been recorded more than a couple of times and both are easy on the fingers and the ears. Here was a chance for Chloe to shine in a realm of her own. But the family began to have second thoughts and there came a point where corporate patience snapped.

In an unrelated move, Chloe parted company last week from her management, IMG Artists, retreating to reconsider her career. The corporate record industry has no further use for classical artists.

Sony recently got rid of its last conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a free transfer to Deutsche Grammophon. One journalist was inspired to write that he had been "wrested" away by a rival, but Sony has been trying to offload him for years.

Mired in movie scores, teenie warblers and a pianist's reduction of Radiohead's greatest hits, Sony Classical has no work for a man who does proper symphonies.

Nor, though, does anyone else. At DG, Salonen will cut no more records than he did at Sony - one or two a year. His first task will be to accompany the slinky pianist Helene Grimaud, who was signed by DG when the now-disgraced Vivendi boss, Jean-Marie Messier, took a shine to her.

DG, don't be fooled by the name, is not a homespun German repository of high culture. It is owned by Hollywood's Universal empire, which in turn is owned by the French utility company Vivendi, which in turn has been falling to pieces since Messier bought up the universe.

DG's artistic judgment is governed by a fat-cat's fancy. Other corporate labels distort classical definitions to the point of mutual self-destruction. EMI's new limelighter is the Balkan piano player Maksim who clatters the keyboard in a manner that would have made Liberace blush.

Jose Cura is reduced to singing cruise-liner duets on BMG with a Polish popster, Ewa Malas. Decca is developing a young lad who can be made to sound, in dim light, a bit like Frank Sinatra without the menace.

All of these inconsequentialities are airplayed on so-called Classic FM and trotted out once a year on television in the Classical Brits with the aim of luring customers to the shady rear or dank basement of chain-owned record stores where classical CDs gather dust. The flash of television exposure gave an instant sales boost in the past two years. Last month, however, it flopped.

Almost a million viewers deserted Classical Brits, dropping from last year's 3.1 million to a paltry 2.2 million. The big labels who bankroll the show blamed the network for giving them a late slot, but the underlying cause is a public ennui with the crossover mush that has replaced serious classics on the major labels.

Not many music lovers were prepared to stay up till midnight to see the perfect baritone Bryn Terfel duetting with the screeching ex-popster Andrea Bocelli. Peter Gelb, the American Sony Classical boss who led the gadarene rush out of classics, was overheard bemoaning the "terrible" situation. Having junked real music and seen the synthetic stuff fade, the men in charge of classical labels are desperate for ideas.

Chloe should, in time, give thanks for her deliverance from corporate clutches. Serious artists who want to make a record now gravitate to cottage independents who love their work but cannot offer mass distribution, or to no-frills Naxos which gives them worldwide sales but low rewards. Every month or so, a new hopeful joins the fringe.

In New York last week, two executive-victims of corporate fall-out relaunched Vanguard Classics, a distinguished marque of past quality. They will issue new recordings by violinists Gil Shaham and cellist Matt Haimovitz, both DG rejects, and new music by America's most promising young symphonist, Michael Hersch.

One of the new label owners, Greg Barbero, said he had learned from Vanguard's founders, Seymour and Maynard Solomon, "that the key to running a label is to respect music and musicians". We want, he added, "to work with interesting, independent artists who can bring a passionate vision to us".

The phones will be ringing off the hook. A soloist of international renown called me the other day to report sadly that a project she had been discussing with one of the Vivendi labels had been scrapped.

"But don't you want to make good records any more?" she protested to the man with the half-million-dollar salary.

"My dear," said the expensive suit, "we have no recording industry."

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001