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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The buzz about Beethoven

By Norman Lebrecht / June 29, 2005


Somewhere within the recesses of the virtual BBC they are still crunching the numbers, unable to believe their magnitude. When the first five symphonies of Beethoven went on-line in the opening week of this month, the Radio 3 website registered 657,399 individual downloads, a figure so immense it exceeded the annual sales of any classical record label and should, by rights, have qualified each of the symphonies for a slot in Top of the Pops.

Last night the BBC let loose the second tranche - from Pastoral to Choral symphonies - amid growing confidence that the demand for free Beethoven will cross the million mark, transforming the future of musical dissemination. As a responsible public organisation, the BBC is offering to share its data with the rest of the musical community but the analysis so far is tantalisingly inchoate.

All we know for certain is that the symphonies reached a new audience of I-pod users, presumed to be under 20s, many of whom knew nothing of Beethoven beyond the name. This can be deduced from the fact that the first two symphonies, the least significant in the canon, drew the highest number of downloads - well over 150,000 each - while the benchmark Eroica mustered the fewest, just below 90,000.

There were shoals of emails to the Radio 3 message board from first-timers, some of whom were anxious to be assured that they had taped a symphony right through to the end. Others appealed plaintively for the relay to be renewed, having missed the week-long deadline to download.

There is clearly a demand for more - so much so that such commercial download sites as I-tunes and Napster have linked up to the BBC's output and some have launched Beethoven promotions of their own. There is a web buzz about Beethoven that could never have been achieved by plastic and terrestrial means of communication.

What this means is that we have crossed a portal into a new era from which there is no return. Broadcasting by the old methods of tall transmitters and small transistors belongs to the 20th century. The post-industrial broadcast user demands audio and video programmes that are streamed over extended periods and available, the world over, for instant download and possible retention as part of a private collection.

The legal protections for this expansion are finally in place with the ruling this week by the US Supreme Court that file-sharing - the free exchange of music and movies among individual enthusiasts - is illegal at source and can be choked off by prosecuting the software makers. 'Consumers are going to have to get used to paying for their music, period,' sighed Wayne Grosso, one of the founders of the Grokster file-swapping network. The music industry have acclaimed the judgement as the most important in decades. It can now stop penalising innocent teens in their bedrooms and go for the geeks who make the stealing systems.

The BBC stayed on the right side of the music industry by limiting download time for Beethoven to a week and restricting it by contractual terms of use to personal consumption (there are, of course, limitless risks of mass piracy once the music is downloaded in tiger Asian countries). The success of its experiment provides the glimmer of a future model for the music industry - a model similar to the strategy of newspapers that give away freesheets and poly-wrapped gifts in order to nurture regular buying habits. Apart from a few label dinosaurs, there is more excitement in the music industry than depression at the BBC's remarkable breakthrough.

As for artistic quality, from what I have heard so far, Gianandrea Noseda's freeloads with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra hold their own with most boxes that can be found in shops. The recorded Beethoven cycle has been the cornerstone of every classical record collection since Arturo Toscanini's dominant performances on American radio in 1939. Recorded in a dim acoustic with poor microphone placements, their monolithic exactitude and irresistible propulsion became the touchstone for maestros and music lovers alike, unmatched until Herbert von Karajan in 1962 produced a stereo set in Berlin that combined immaculate orchestral sound and studio technology with structural certainty of an almost irrefutable order.

Noseda, Italian-born and in his early forties, admits to the combined influence of Toscanini and Karajan, but as a man of modern times he has assimilated other streams of thought. He knows, for instance, the quicker speeds of period-instrument leaders such as Christopher Hogwood and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, as well as the illuminating alterations to be found within new scholarly editions of the scores.

In the old-world record industry, a Beethoven cycle was the highest accolade that could be granted to a maestro. Not all of them crossed the hurdle of credibility. Remainder bins in record stores burst with dreary repetitions - Muti, Menuhin, Masur and many more. Even Simon Rattle, whose set with the Vienna Philharmonic appeared to great fanfares in 2002, gave a less convincing account of a cleaned-up score than the veteran David Zinman, who recorded the same edition in Zurich.

Noseda will have covered all these trends and discarded them before conducting a bright, dashingly fast run of the symphonies in Manchester, nicely played by the BBC Philharmonic if not indelibly memorable for individual passage work. The Pastoral, which I've just clocked, is a Mayday frolic, rippling with bucolic pleasures and untroubled by assumptions of prior familiarity. It is very much a new-listeners-start-here kind of performance, and all the more enjoyable for refusing to look over its shoulder at the daunting trail of past interpretations. This is the starting point of a new medium, not a checkpost for cognoscenti - though experts will not fail to admire Noseda's elegant way with andante phrasing.

So what happens next? By this time next week, the BBC will have a database of more than a million Beethoven users, a resource that can be applied intelligently to build a new global audience for classical music - mostly home listeners, but some might well be enticed to an occasional concert.

Before Christmas, Radio 3 will embark on a Bach jamboree, some of which will go on-line for downloads. Other broadcasters must compete, or fade out. The world is changing before our astonished ears. I have heard the future, and it could work.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001