THE BACK PAGES

The big news in classical is small

JAIME J. WEINMAN October 23 2006
THE BACK PAGES

The big news in classical is small

JAIME J. WEINMAN October 23 2006

The big news in classical is small

music

The most famous names may be on the major labels, but, increasingly, not the best artists

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Ten years ago, Warner Brothers owned at least half a dozen labels devoted to classical recordings. This year, the company announced it was suspending all its classical recording activity. It wasn’t the first company to do that; classical music, which used to be a big part of the recording industry, is being all but abandoned by big entertainment conglomerates. And, as in the rest of the entertainment industry, that leaves the “indies” to pick up the slack.

For most of the history of recorded music, the majority of classical recordings were made by a select few “major” labels. Most of them are gone now, swallowed up by corporate mergers and profit considerations. David Hurwitz, editor of classicstoday.com, explains that “the profit margin on classical CDs is now so small that major labels, with their large infrastructure and high costs of distribution, can’t even afford the inventory expense of carrying new items.” And so most of the classical recordings released by the major labels now tend to be those that are guaranteed to make money, like the pop/classical hybrids known as “crossover” recordings.

But lower-budget, lower-overhead labels, the ones that depend heavily on online distribution and word-of-mouth promotion, are still in the business of recording operas and symphonies. One of the insights these labels have built on is the fact that an artist doesn’t need to be world famous or expensive to be worth recording. Norman Lebrecht, author of the upcoming book The Life and Death of Classical Music, says that when the major labels were taken over by conglomerates, they became obsessed with fame instead of artistry: “stardom was a driving force,” he explains, “and crossover followed soon after.”

The result was a glut of opera recordings with famous but miscast singers. The nadir came a few years ago when Universal produced big-budget classical recordings starring Italian pop idol Andrea Bocelli.

The small labels, because they don’t depend on superstar names, can afford to sign up the best people available, instead of just the most famous. The French label Harmonia Mundi won a Grammy award two years ago for a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, led by period-instrument conductor René Jacobs; not one singer in the cast was a superstar, but most of them were better than the big-name singers a big label would have been forced to cast.

Other little-known artists have made recordings that compete favourably with the big names. Michael Gielen, the former music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, has made dozens of recordings for Haenssler (the music arm of a German publishing house) with a German radio orchestra; this apparently inauspicious combination has produced a cycle of Mahler symphonies that some consider the best ever recorded, both for performance and sound quality. Another little-known Haenssler artist, conductor Thomas Fey, is recording a series of Haydn symphonies that led Hurwitz to describe him as “the most exciting

Haydn conductor around at present.”

The other thing indies can do is pick up the people that the big labels don’t want anymore. When Universal Classics dropped Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, they went to the independent Dutch label Channel Classics and made award-winning recordings of symphonies by Rachmaninov and Mahler. Another independent Dutch label, Pentatone, records the Russian National Orchestra, a group that used to record for classical giant Deutsche Grammophon until it downsized them out of their contract.

Still, Lebrecht doesn’t buy the idea that smaller labels are any kind of substitute for the resources of a big company. He points out that even now, the minors still don’t make most of the bestselling classical recordings: “Their market share is minuscule. All the minnow labels together do not add up to 10 per cent.” Because their acclaimed recordings aren’t selling, he adds, “the minors are not making enough money to see them through the next technological wave.”

But the classical recording business isn’t just about sales, it’s about preserving great performances of great music. For the Christmas season this year, Harmonia Mundi is releasing a recording of Handel’s Messiah conducted by Jacobs; Sony/BMG has a downloadable collection called “Classical Music for Yoga, Meditation and Stretching.” The “minnows” seem to be the ones who are keeping classical music alive. M