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S & H Editorial

Making Live Music Pay & Shostakovich and Elgar Symphonies Live (MB & PGW)


The concept of orchestras releasing performances on their own labels (and let us hope in future DVD) is not a new one. It is just that it has taken British orchestras rather longer to embrace the idea than orchestras elsewhere, albeit with very differing results.

One of the first was the Royal Philharmonic – although in their case the performances were exclusively studio made and were done principally because the orchestra found it difficult to obtain conductors with lucrative recording contracts. The Hallé and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic also followed (again studio bound) but the British orchestra which has made most of the principle is the London Symphony Orchestra whose LSO Live label releases only live performances made at its London home, the Barbican. In part it is easy to see why: record companies are forced by lack of funding (and exacerbated by a myth of falling sales) to record fewer and fewer partnerships which in the long term are deemed economically unprofitable. The LSO-Colin Davis partnership is one so what better way to preserve it than by making in house recordings?

Ever adventurous, the LSO has gone one stage further and gone into partnership with Broadcasts of all its recent concerts can now be heard in fully streamed sound, either by using Realplayer or Windows Media Player (the mistake on that site – a pay for listen one – surely being that the performances cannot legally be downloaded to a local hard drive). Andante only takes the best, hence we also get the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw and the Wigmore Hall. Pay to listen to the music from these sources and you might not get what you thought. Click onto the Concertgebouw link and you will find nothing earlier than from the 1950s, and much Mengelberg from the 1930s and 1940s (much of which has already appeared on CD in better sound) ; a similarly limited supply of ‘recent’ music is on the Philadelphia link – a near complete Beethoven cycle from the early 1960s with Klemperer and so on. Only the Vienna Philharmonic and LSO links offer anything remotely interesting to the listener wanting to recapture something in decent sound (if using Windows Media Player) from recent concerts.

The point about this is that live concerts and listening to music on Cds at home are becoming more and more inextricably linked. Concert going is rarely the disappointment listening to a studio bound performance can so often be. The LSO experiment works because its concert performances are sufficiently exciting enough to make the CD an enticing prospect, not least if you were a witness to the performance itself. Its latest release, of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, under Rostropovich, provides concrete evidence of this fact, and will surely sell in greater quantities than any newly released disc of the work – no matter who is conducting it. News that Universal are to abandon making studio recordings of opera and instead record and film them for release on CD and DVD in future goes some way towards embracing the LSO model, and not only because it is economically cheaper to do so. Musically the results are often much more profound. If this also slaughters the sacred cow of artists being signed under contract to recording studios (already much less common) than this will only ignite the movement towards live performance recordings. One of the reasons so few are made is simply because contracts make it difficult for artists to record for labels outside their recording company (although the LSO has done remarkably well in getting Haitink, Previn and Rostropovich to appear on the label beside Davies).

English National Opera recently issued its first live recording – of Turnage’s The Silver Tassie – on its own label but opera houses need to go a full one step further than orchestras. They need to begin filming their productions – who after all would not be overwhelmed by seeing ENO’s superb production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth on DVD? In the case of cash-strapped British opera companies this would surely be an economic benefit.

To date, the LSO is the only major orchestra in the world to have its own label exclusively for issuing live concerts (below, Peter Woolf discusses some of its recent releases). American orchestras have issued unpublished live performances on CD – the New York Philharmonic a number of excellent box sets (none better than the first, however) and other American orchestras from Boston to Cleveland have followed suit. These are, however, vastly expensive for the average collector. The LSO’s masterstroke was to price its discs in direct competition with the ever expanding superbudget market and it is not hard to see why Universal has taken the decision it has. Why should the buyer pay £60 for a recording of Berlioz’ Les Troyens when one for £20 (and a multi award winning one at that) is clearly priced to dominate the market?

The LSO’s recording policy is set to change the way we all listen to performances. It is also set to change the way recording companies choose to record music on their own labels.

Marc Bridle


SHOSTAKOVICH 4 & 11 AND ELGAR 2 & 3 LIVE - BBC Philharmonic (Sinaisky) & LSO (Rostropovich & Davis) (PGW)

How many of you, dear readers, take a substantial break at home for refreshment, of one kind or another, in the middle of long symphonies, and would sometimes wish you could do so in the concert hall? I received, by chance on the same day, CDs of two Shostakovich symphonies, live performances 72 & 74 minutes long, and found it instructive to listen to both the same afternoon, but with 'work breaks' taken in the middle of each - certainly unauthorised in No 11, which plays continuously. Was doing so blasphemous? (Mahler sometimes specified 5 minute pauses, just long enough to make a cup of coffee, and I almost never play CDs straight through.)

Rostropovich's account of Shostakovich's controversial No 11 during his 75th birthday celebrations at The Barbican (he and I are almost exactly the same age) is worthily captured, with huge dynamic range, by Tony Faulkner on LSO LIVE LSO0030. Andrew Huth's notes take you through the stasis of the waiting in the Palace Square before violence erupts, reflecting the massacre of demonstrators at St Petersburg on 9 January 1905 (the music also relates to the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolt). It gained a Lenin Prize for its 'social realism', was found too 'official' for dissident Russians, and in the West was damned as 'glorified film music' - take your choice! I find myself restless in Shostakovich's long, brooding slow movements, and become impatient during some of his relentless marches. A snip at £4.99, but I won't play it often!

No. 4 from his late twenties, but withdrawn because it was 'too dangerous', and unheard for twenty five years - 'disappeared' like the victims of Stalin's purges (Stephen Johnson) - is a different matter. It is my favourite Shostakovich symphony by far and one of those works of which I can never tire, howsoever often heard; its feeling of Mahler-over-the-top and the pace of ensuing events tumbling over each other far more to my taste than the more deliberately paced No. 11. The last movement encompasses all conceivable emotions in dislocated succession, from sarcastic humour to profound grief - containing 'the whole world', as Mahler told Sibelius a symphony should do. For £3.99, with an excellent magazine thrown in (c.f. the V&A, once notoriously advertised as 'a good caff with a museum') you get a well-recorded, atmospheric Proms version by Vassily Sinaisky (BBC Music Vol.10 No.12, August 2002) complete with the political background from David Fanning and Stephen Johnson's detailed analysis (with track time references - why are they still relatively uncommon on CD inserts?). I found it as exciting as ever, but I have no scores of these symphonies so cannot indulge in subtle comparisons, even were I minded to do so.

How will Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic hold their own against Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra, who will broadcast Shostakovich 4 live from this year's Proms, 25 August? Fantastic value (even cheaper by subscription) - early in my Editorship of S&H I canvassed for country and home-bound correspondents far from metropolitan centres to undertake to review regularly broadcast concerts and BBC Music Magazine's cover CDs, in which some of the best live performances by BBC orchestras turn up in due course.

Pursuing the themes of pacing, complexity and density of unpredictable musical events, which influence my own personal preferences in choosing to listen to major symphonic works, I rate Elgar's symphonies, especially No 2, higher than Bruckner's and most of Shostakovich's. The LSO Live recordings of the great Elgar series at The Barbican are treasurable mementos, and it is worth adding to your collection the most recently released, Sir Colin Davis's noble and heartfelt account of the Elgar/Payne No 3 LSO0019. Anthony Payne's completion of Elgar's sketches (his long unsuspected late flowering and 'artistic rebirth' - Stephen Johnson again - connected with love of a younger woman, as was Janacek's) is already firmly established in the repertoire 'canon' of major early 20. C symphonies alongside Mahler 10. Elgar symphony cycles will now need three concerts, as against 10 each for Bruckner & Mahler and 15 for Shostakovich - no value judgement implied.

Peter Grahame Woolf






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