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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

How the classical record industry is fighting back

By Norman Lebrecht / August 30, 2007

Stand by for the autumn floods. A glut of new classical CDs is being rushed into the stores in an effort to counter my assertion in a recent book that the industry is dead. The Lebrecht Effect is how one music magazine describes the flush of new signings, new beginnings. 'We're going to take on the detractors, and sell more core classical music,' declares one fine suit.

Well, about time, too. The last three major labels - there used to be six - are pulling out the stops. Deutsche-Grammophon-Decca has doubled its output to three-dozen releases between now and Christmas. EMI has signed Evgeny Kissin, the sensational Ingrid Fliter and the soprano Kate Royal. Sony-BMG is considering 14 possible signings, of whom violinist Lisa Batiashvili is first to the mike with a new concerto by Magnus Lindberg.

This, by vital signs alone, is more life than labels have shown in five years and much to be welcomed. But the moment you look beyond the press pack, the picture fades to sepia and bad old practice resumes. Take the Sony-BMG giant, stagnant for a year and now revived. Its autumn campaign is built around souvenirs of Glenn Gould - dead these 25 years - and, wait for it, a brand new Joshua Bell recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which is just what the world has been holding is breath for.

EMI, close behind, has recorded Sarah Chang in the Four Seasons. Decca-DG is bringing back a Christopher Hogwood Seasons. Now think very hard before you try to answer this question, because it's a matter of life and death for the industry. Can anyone figure out why record stores are going bust when there are 435 Four Seasons in the racks and still more to come? A congestion charge ought to be levied on any label that submits another box of Venetian imitations.

Past congestion turns to painful constipation when the same labels issues two or more simultaneous accounts of the same work. Deutsche Grammophon, once the standard bearer of classical records, is bringing out a new cycle of Beethoven piano concertos with the Russian Mikhail Pletnev. No, make that two cycles - Pletnev and Lang Lang. No, hang on, there's also an Emperor Concerto from Helene Grimaud on DG.

Even a piano loon like me who cannot wait to hear what new contenders make of the big Bs might feel confused and abused by a label that flings out three sets at a total price of more than 100. Which, if any, is worth adding to our shelves?

Grimaud, a French pianist who runs a sanctuary for Canadian wolves, announces in her pre-publicity that 'the piano concerto is like a beast for whom one has incredible respect'. Anthropomorphisms aside, she gives an unexpectedly cool account of the Emperor, restrained in pace and delicately textured. The cadenzas are traditional and the interplay with the Dresden orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, is deftly playful. If Grimaud has little to add to the sum of past interpretation, she conveys at least an agreeable individuality.

Of the two pianists going head to head in complete cycles, the Manchurian candidate is the more intriguing. Lang Lang, 25, has been playing Beethoven since he was a tot in Shenyang and, while I have heard the spike-haired crowd-pleaser wreck a concert by striving too hard for audience effect, here he delivers a touchingly lyrical account of the first and fourth concertos, with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Orchestre de Paris. There is a slightly hard edge to the pianist's tone, as there is to his English accent, but it comes over as a token of his cultural struggle, his wide-eyed, uncluttered outlook. Lang Lang, more than mere showman, has feelings for Beethoven. His cycle, to be completed later this year, has many of the hallmarks of a musical milestone.

Which cannot be said for Mikhail Pletnev. Technically brilliant and infuriatingly wayward, he attacks the first and third concertos without deference to conductor or musicians - the man holding the baton is his record producer, Christian Gansch, and the orchestra is one he founded, the Russian National. Pletnev, on stage, looks like the leader of a subject nation at Stalin's funeral, lugubrious and furtively subversive. His opening entry in the first concerto is delayed to the point of perversity, his largos are emotion-free zones and his main aim in the rondos seems to be to finish first. There is no hint of wit in these weird performances and, while Pletnev manages an occasional felicitous touch, it has no relevance to any overall concept. It is hard to imagine anyone at DG was happy with this set, yet the label has scheduled for parallel release a cycle of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Pletnev, testing our tolerance past the point of saturation.

Imagine, by way of comparison, if a book publisher were to issue two concurrent editions of Dickens and an Oliver Twist, annotated by rival scholars - and, in the same batch, a complete Trollope prepared by the dodgiest of the annotators. It would make no sense financially, culturally or academically. Yet this is exactly what classical majors are still doing, as they have done for a decade, dancing to their doom, all to the same tune.

What new in classical records? Nothing much, and that's the disaster.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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


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