Who killed classical CDs?

Smaller labels rush in as major companies ax well-known artists.

For some time, pundits have been sounding the alarm about the future of classical recordings. British critic Norman Lebrecht, author of "Who Killed Classical Music?," complains repeatedly about the "death of the CD."

Lebrecht points to recording companies like BMG officially abandoning their classical lists or firing musicians. Conductor Bernard Haitink had recorded for Philips for 40 years, but was recently let go without being allowed to finish recording a nearly complete cycle of Mahler symphonies.

Other famous conductors dropped by Philips include Andre Previn and the early-music specialist Frans Bruggen. EMI Classical has stopped recording new albums in the United States, citing high production costs. Deutsche Grammophon, having contracted with conductor John Eliot Gardiner to record a new complete set of Johann Sebastian Bach's cantatas on 59 CDs, decided that it would issue only a dozen discs instead.

Clearly something is amiss. Jacques Drillon penned an article, "The Classical Recording is Dying," in France's "Le Nouvel Observateur," stating that ever-increasing production costs may sink the major classical-record companies. Veteran conductor Charles Mackerras points out that in prior years, Decca would count on profits from a Luciano Pavarotti CD to pay for a less popular work, such as a Leos Janacek opera.

Now, Mr. Mackerras says, "The record companies expect each recording to pay for itself, and some cannot do this." Major big-studio recordings need to sell an estimated 50,000 copies to break even, and some classical works sell only a few hundred copies, even if kept in print several years.

"Fundamental cultural factors in America are making classical music less prevalent in our lives," says EMI's senior director of marketing, Andria Tay. She observes "a deeper absence of [classical] music and knowledge [of it] in our general society. Old cartoons and certain movies, and a very few commercials [now that everyone's moving toward techno and familiar old pop songs] are about the only places people are regularly exposed to classical music at all anymore."

This is not just a problem of education in the United States, where music-appreciation classes are nearly extinct. In Europe and Asia, classical music is still considered part of common knowledge and not an impossibly rarefied art. But in the US, Ms. Tay points out, classical recordings are kept "in separate rooms at record stores - often even in separate buildings, [which] does not help matters at all....

"It's very intimidating for the average person to want a copy of Beethoven's Fifth and be confronted with a shelf of 20 different versions of it," she says. In line with this situation, EMI and other major companies plan to cut down on the number of classical releases in the future.

However, the situation is not entirely glum. Some smaller record companies run by imaginative entrepreneurs are thriving. Labels like Naxos, Hyperion, BIS, CPO, Chandos, and Harmonia Mundi do not share the general pessimism.

Klaus Heymann, a German businessman who founded Naxos in 1987 in Hong Kong, when asked if someone has killed classical music, replies, "Definitely not.... Naxos is thriving and other independents who make interesting recordings people want to buy are also doing well....

"What has been killed, or rather what committed suicide, are the big-budget, all-star productions which got so expensive that they could never recoup their investment."

Bernard Coutaz, a Frenchman who founded the splendid small label Harmonia Mundi, concurs: "No one killed classical music, which makes up part of the patrimony of humanity.... Across 2,000 years of history, classical music, like painting or fine cuisine, has not necessarily attracted great crowds - such as those who watch stupid TV game shows - but it has always interested people who by luck or taste have learned to love it. "

Neither Naxos nor Harmonia Mundi plans to reduce its ambitious schedule of new releases. Every month, 15 new Naxos titles appear, as well as four to five from Marco Polo, a Naxos subsidiary label, plus four to five from its new historical series. Naxos plans to continue expanding an already highly varied catalog and introduce an extensive line of music-education material.

Likewise, Harmonia Mundi published 60 new recordings of classical music last year, many of exquisite quality, by such acclaimed conductors as Philippe Herreweghe and Rene Jacobs, and singers like the star countertenor Andreas Scholl.

While Naxos offers budget-priced discs that are sometimes of surprising quality, Harmonia Mundi succeeds with full-priced CDs of unique beauty. Coutaz has furthermore opened a chain of 30 Harmonia Mundi boutiques in France.

Rejecting the scenario of pop music replacing classical, the irrepressibly upbeat Coutaz asserts, "Just because Picasso came along one day, that's no reason for taking down all the paintings by Monet, ... Renoir, and so many others!"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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