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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Another record year

By Norman Lebrecht / December 30, 2004


Abhorring a vacuum, Nature ushered a shoal of minnows into the space where the classical record industry used to be. Start-ups and self-ops, fresh-faced and full of optimism, cottage labels caught the ear time and again this year with discs of startling confidence and occasional precocity.

On its new Halle label, Manchester's orchestra yielded a rigorously argued account of Elgar's second symphony under music director Mark Elder, the first recording ever to convince me of the work's cohesion. It forced its way onto my groaning shelves beside a refreshingly unpompous account of Elgar's First on the London Symphony Orchestra's LSO Live label, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

The most memorable Handel I heard all year was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's arias album on Avie (the most execrable was Renee Fleming's double-cream recital on Decca). Avie is run from London by a pair of prelapsarian record execs as a label of convenience for orchestras and small ensembles that seek to launch themselves into the recording void. Hearteningly, its Handel has won a Grammy shortlisting.

The searing conviction of an English-sung Jenufa blew me away, its heroine sung at Welsh National Opera by Susan Chilcott but deputised on record after her tragic death by the heart-melting Janice Watson. The recording appears on Chandos, a label run for the past 25 years or so by a family in Colchester, Essex. Hyperion, owner-operated from a warehouse in southeast London, featured the intelligent pianist Stephen Hough playing the Rachmaninov concertos in Dallas in what he forcefully asseverated was authentic 1920s style. Hear, and discuss.

With such exuberance on offer and more promised in the year ahead, what then of my rock-solid prediction 12 months ago that 2004 would see the end of the classical recording industry? Must I now eat humble pie, not mince?

The evidence suggests otherwise. For effervescent as the new crop may seem, no-one is making any money. There is, for instance, a growing band of orchestras with their own labels - Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw is the latest, under new music director Mariss Jansons. Own-label CDs were invented four years ago by the ever-enterprising LSO, which has racked up some 30 discs under eminent conductors – Haitink, Jansons, Davis, Rostropovich.

LSO players receive an annual royalty on sales from this catalogue. This year they got £300 each – an amount smaller that what they would have received on union rates for turning up to perform a single symphony at Abbey Road for a major label. The LSO musicians continue to support their label in the fervent hope of jam tomorrow. But unless revenues become realistic neither they nor any other orchestra will persist forever in playing for pennies, and many of the start-ups will dry up for want of cashflow.

At the Halle, by comparison, the musicians are paid nothing for recordings; their work is owned by the company. There are ten CDs in the can, yielding total sales of little over 5,000. 'We're not in this to make money,' explains the Halle's astute chief executive, John Summers. 'It's about marketing the orchestra abroad and making records that we believe in.'

The US situation is bleaker. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is bringing out on Avie a bright-toned Mahler cycle, energetically conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The players are paid upfront for their work, thanks to a grant from local resident Gordon Getty. But even an oil billionaire has limits and the bills for ten Mahler symphonies have prompted Getty to ring around wealthy friends asking them to spare a buck for his band. Matters could get worse. In the unlikely event that any CD sells more than 10,000 copies, union rules will trigger a surcharge payment to the musicians that would cripple the company's finances. Orchestral bosses live in terror of winning a Grammy.

Apart from balm to Bay egos, there is no point to the venture. Unlike Elder in Elgar, Tilson Thomas has failed to rethink his Mahler and there is anyhow no commercial demand for more Mahler on CD. This is vanity publishing - a project shunned by recognised imprints and unlikely to recover its costs. CDs from US orchestras are now almost invariably subsidised by a donor, and from Europe by the orchestras themselves. There is no classical record industry any more. It is an unregistered charity.

As for independent labels, the noose is chokingly tight. I called Chandos in the summer to request Jenufa. When the set took a while to arrive, I was told that each review copy had to be signed off by the company accountant. Hyperion, meanwhile, have let it be known that they could go bust if they lose an appeal this spring over a copyright case brought by a baroque musicologist.

And what of famous brands? Deutsche Grammophon and Decca trundle out three or four dozen CDs a year, many played by performers who were chosen more on looks than on sound. Sony Classical has been gobbled up by a BMG merger. Warner and EMI face further talks.

The departure of vice-president Peter Alward, a staunch opponent of genre-bending, has unleashed a new breed of artist at EMI Classics – the comely Keedie with Andrew Lloyd Webber's theme-song from The Woman in White; the raw-toned Becky Taylor; and the game winners of Channel 4's Musicality. Maria Callas, still the label's top selling artist, would have shrivelled these paravocalists with a twitch of her eyebrow.

So what is left? Two elegant French labels, Harmonia Mundi and Naive, cling bravely to classical principle and Naxos continues to issue 150-200 classical CDs a year at an affordable price. The catch is that the musicians get paid a pittance, editorial quality is variable and there is no budget for artist promotion, eliminating the possibility that a star might be born on Naxos.

This, then, is the final spin for the art that Caruso inaugurated with 10 can belto arias in a Milan hotel room and which ends with the winsome whimper of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Ombra mai fu. It has been a glorious century and mankind will be eternally grateful for its legacy, playing golden age recordings until they wear out. But reality cannot be denied. The age of classical recording is over: 2004 was, as I foretold, the end of an industry. It is time to move on, in search of green shoots elsewhere.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001