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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 6

Bach is bad for business

by Norman Lebrecht / March 1, 2000

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A year full of music by Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the saving graces of the new millennium. But Bach was born unlucky. Anniversaries of his birth- the last was the 1985 tercentenary--tend to get hijacked by two flashier celebrants, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, whose arias and sonatas are more suited to a soundbite society.

Bach was not a man who thought small. His accomplishments marked the single most important turning point of musical evolution, the facilitator who refined the essence of baroque and medieval art and rendered it transmissible in classical form. His music demands to be taken in large doses, half a day at a time.

So what could be more fitting for the 250th anniversary of his death than a complete edition of his works on record? Or, better, two competing complete editions from Teldec and Hänssler, one on 153 compact discs and the other on 170, with men in rimless glasses on either side spitting toxic footnotes about the validity of new-found autograph fragments.

Impressive as these shrink-wrapped edifices may look on your shelf, the most monumental of Bach tributes will be taking place live and all year long. The conductor-impresario Sir John Eliot Gardiner is aiming to perform the 200 cantatas in 50 Protestant churches across northern Europe, from Iona in the Scottish Isles to Tallin on the fringe of Russia. Each cantata will be matched to the feast day or Sunday for which it was written, and performed by a company of 35 musicians, most of them British.

The cost of this self-styled pilgrimage will come to £5.6 million ($13 million CAN). The UK Millennium Fund has refused Gardiner's application and the Arts Council of England gave just £15,000 ($35,000 CAN) - typically unable to make a clear decision one way or the other. There is £75,000 ($175,000 CAN) on offer from the Foundation for Sports and Arts and Prince Charles, who has already given one organic dinner for potential donors at Highgrove, is pledging further support.

Gardiner's team say they are still a million short but the target is in sight and the bandwagon rolling. However, just as the focus was turning from monetary to musical organisation, the scheme suffered a crushing blow when its recording partner pulled out.

Gardiner, from the moment of conception, had expected Deutsche Grammophon to issue recordings of his odyssey, week by week. His 1994 contract with the yellow label specifically includes 59 discs of Bach cantatas.

Last summer, DG got cold feet and told Gardiner it could not proceed. The word from DG is that Gardiner had not raised enough money to pay his share of the recording. Gardiner's team disputes this. They say they have fully funded their side of the deal, which is to pay artist fees while DG covers production costs. All that had changed since the agreement, they say, was the ownership of DG, which was acquired by Hollywood-based Universal Inc.

To examine these claims in greater detail would be imprudent, since learned counsel in three countries are now swarming over the score. Gardiner called in his German lawyers to summon DG, claiming breach of contract. Before writs could be served, the record company offered a settlement. Under the new slimline deal, DG will issue 12 discs of Bach cantatas, one a month, and the voyage will proceed as planned, albeit less comprehensively recorded.

So everything's all right, then? Not quite. Relations between Gardiner and the record industry may never be as warm again, and there are issues arising from the confrontation that will wreak long-term damage to the faltering prestige of classical recording. The view from DG was that, much as they loved Gardiner and his Bach idea, they had no alternative but to pull the plug on the project. Record sales have plummeted and they might not break even on the cantatas before Bach's next anniversary in 2050, especially with two rival editions on sale. Many other conductors had agreed to reduce their contracts in line with market conditions, or waive them altogether. Gardiner, who is not exclusive to DG, was at liberty to take his scheme to another label--not that the response would have been any different.

On Gardiner's side, it could be said that DG have known of the sales crisis for years, if only from religiously reading The Telegraph. To pull out at such short notice was unjust. Apart from undermining the Bach scheme, it jeopardised the year's livelihoods of 35 musicians and showed no sympathy for the merit of the Bach mission.

Faults on both sides, no doubt. But when the dust has settled on the more obscure cantatas and everyone is friends again, what will reside in the public imagination is the image of a record label that demands cash from its artists before cutting a disc. DG is not alone in this predicament. Most labels now issue releases that are paid for by the people who play on them.

The only way most US orchestras get recorded is by paying their own fees. In the world of books, publishing with subsidy is known as "vanity publishing" and shunned by serious authors. The record industry is flirting with a similar status. It can no longer be considered an arbiter of artistic quality when it demands money from artists - and then complains that the sum is insufficient.

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