Music: Goin' Indie

I recently purchased this new recording of Berlioz’s Requiem, an extremely ambitious project for the modern classical music recording business. It was made in Poland by a Historically Informed Performance conductor, Paul McCreesh, who spent 15 years recording early choral music and big oratorios for Deutsche Grammophon. Like many classical artists, he discovered that the major labels no longer have room to do much recording, and he was either dropped from the roster or left (or both). And like many artists who left big labels, he started his own independent label, which he calls “Winged Lion.” (This is better than the HIP conductor Philippe Herreweghe, who calls his label “Phi.” I know what it means; I just don’t know why it’s supposed to impress the buyer.) He raised the money to make recordings in Wroclaw, Poland, a studio recording that was deliberately the biggest and most attention-getting project they could start with: played mostly on period instruments, with a huge chorus and orchestra, and recorded in studio sessions instead of the live concerts that are the basis for most classical recordings these days.

And it paid off: the performance is very good, Berlioz is a composer who benefits from the period approach because of his ear for the unusual sonic possibilities of the instruments of his time. The sound is a bit too reverberant to catch all the detail of the piece, but I’m glad I bought it, especially since I’ve never been completely into this piece (if I’d heard it live, it would be different; to some extent this work is unrecordable) and this one made me see the musical logic of it more than most versions I’ve heard.

However, while independent labels and recordings are a very good thing for the classical industry, there’s a basic problem with them that may become more apparent as more and more artists have to go indie to get recorded: able to record his or her dream projects, free from major-label A&R people, classical artists’ dreams usually turn out to be to put down their own interpretations of things everyone else has recorded. The most obvious example of this Valery Gergiev, the incredibly prolific conductor who used to record for Philips classics (back when that existed as a label) and now records for two indie labels, one for the Mariinsky Orchestra in St. Petersburg and one for the London Symphony Orchestra. Much of what he conducts with these orchestras is professionally recorded and released. And what has he released? All the Mahler symphonies, Ravel, Debussy, a DVD of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies, Wagner’s Parsifal, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and so on. Some of these recordings have been good, and others fit the idea of recording as a place to set down an interpreter’s most notable interpretations. But you can see why a major label, even if major labels still existed in anything but name, wouldn’t let him record these things: they’ve got it already, many times over.

The theoretical promise of the indie label movement is that it could bring back the combination of recording programs that made classical recording a great business in its prime: a mix of popular works in new interpretations interesting enough to sell, new music, and unknown or previously-unrecorded music. But if you read what Gergiev said he wanted to record, it seems like the first is all we’re going to get:

Did they want to do a Mahler cycle?” he asked, rhetorically [about Philips]. “No. Beethoven, no. They didn’t even want all of Tchaikovsky. I am committed to the history of Mariinsky more than Philips is committed to make serious recordings. They are not allowed to let the bottom line go down. I am allowed.”

Not to pick on Gergiev (who has released a couple of recordings of rare Russian music); this is true of all indie labels. John Eliot Gardiner used his label to package a complete set of Bach cantatas that Deutsche Grammophon didn’t want to release; then he turned to Brahms symphonies, Brandenburg concertos, and a re-recording of a Bach oratorio he’d already done on DG. McCreesh’s upcoming plans in Poland include Mendelssohn and Haydn; Herreweghe’s label started with Mahler’s fourth symphony and continued with Bach and Brahms. I have and enjoy some of these recordings, and it’s not fair to say that a new recording isn’t relevant: an interpreter may be right to think he has something new to say about a familiar piece. But the replication of familiar pieces is not exactly something to get the heart racing about the future of classical. The height of classical recording was when companies combined new takes on the classics with recordings of new or recent music, like Decca’s series with Benjamin Britten conducting his own work.

Classical music recording has been battered by a lot of things, including the same things that battered the rest of the recording industry, but one thing that hurt it most is that there is no new sound format that requires everything being recorded again. For many years, that was what kept the business afloat. When LPs came in, everything was re-recorded for LP. Then a few years later, stereo was introduced, and the labels spent years remaking all the classics in stereo. They hoped quadrophonic sound would be the next step, but it didn’t catch on; luckily, digital sound did catch on, and the ’80s was a booming era of digital remakes for the new CD format. Unfortunately, the CD format, and then purely digital music, meant a lower replacement rate for music. And in the iTunes era, the quality of the sound itself is not the number-one priority for consumers; audiophile formats like SACD have never caught on, and record companies were unsuccessful in pushing a new sound format that could make people want to buy things again. Until that format arrives, or until audiophilia catches on again the way it did in the ’60s (when stereo sound was much more important for classical than pop, still basically a mono format), there will always be something a little redundant about classical recording.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.