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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Rattle's net gains

By Norman Lebrecht / December 5, 2007

Like a juggernaut careering towards a motorway pile-up, the classical flagship Deutsche Grammophon slammed on brakes and accelerator simultaneously last week and held its breath for the impact.

By way of braking, the label parted company with Matthew Cosgrove, the label’s head of artists and repertoire who has struggled since his appointment 15 months ago to get clearance from corporate bosses to sign new artists and repertoire. Cosgrove, a creative chap with an encyclopaedic musical brain, managed to recruit the cerebral French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the enterprising British violinist Daniel Hope, who has recorded an alternative score for the Mendelssohn concerto.

But media giants are no longer in the market for small musical refinements and the view in Hollywood, where DG is owned, is that one artist here or there will not make much difference to the strategic future of classical music. So Cosgrove, his hands tied, had to go – and no sooner was the ink dry on his severance deal than DG announced that it was putting ‘the majority of its catalogue’ online at triple i-Tunes quality and for as little as $1.09 for a seven-minute track, or ten bucks an album.

So sudden was this acceleration that artists were not told in advance that their music was going to be downloadable or that the website ( ) was free of Digital Rghts Management, which means buyers can copy and play the files on any format. This was a leap int the unknown, a bid to keep classical recordings alive on the major-label information highway and a seminal moment in musical transmission. If it succeeds, there is a realistic chance of rekindling classical demand, especially in new Asian markets. If it fails – well, let’s not go there.

A decade into the internet revolution, the demand for classical downloads is still too soft to define. Dedicated concertgoers, conservative to a fault, have stuck to buying old-fashioned CDs. Apple runs a classical line at I-Tunes, but with limited scope (don’t go looking for Birtwistle) and delivering a feeble 128-192 kilobits per second (kbps), barely one-tenth of the density on CD.

Amazon set up stall against i-Tunes earlier this year and in the US one in seven classical albums is now sold by download. Analysts predict this figure will treble by 2010. In newer markets, such as China, high-resolution downloads may be the best protection available against rampant street-level CD piracy.

DG’s Big Bang was designed to protect both its assets and its reputation for musical quality. At 320 kbps, DG downloads reach the ceiling of MP3 capacity and, though the 2,500 albums on-line fall short of ‘a majority of the catalogue’ (probably no more than a quarter), there is no doubt that DG has just changed the rules of the classical game.

It is not, however, the only player. EMI, owned by private equity investors Terra Firma, has taken a hard look at release times and decided that a year is too long to wait for a hot performance. If Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic set out to storm Carnegie Hall with Mahler’s ninth symphony, as they did last month, it seems unreasonable in this day and age that listeners should have to wait until next winter before they can compare Rattle’s approach with other interpretations on their shelves.

EMI recorded a pre-tour Mahler Ninth in Berlin and put it online the day after Carnegie Hall. Without public announcement or any reviews, it sold 2,000 downloads through amazon and other outlets – more than most symphonic CDs manage in a year. The performance itself, transparently detailed, is a tad detached on the emotional side for my taste and some of the dance rhythms are faintly askew, but the speedy release suggests that EMI is attuned to customer needs and alert to opportunity. This week, it puts online the violin concerto by Thomas Ades, a surprisingly elegiac work never previously recorded. Next month it will add the debut album by the inspirational Gilmore Artist, Ingroid Fliter. To connect with newcomers, EMI is also encouraging soloists like Natalie Clein and Alfie Boe to give free, come-as-you-are recitals at the ballroom in London's Royal Festival Hall.

And it’s not just the record business that is rewriting the rules. As of this week, you can download concerts by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra on its new 320 kbps web-shop (, the first of its kind in Europe. There are 36 works to choose from in the opening menu, topped by an epic account of the Shostakovich 15th symphony conducted by Kurt Sanderling. There is also a free taster, Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

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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