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The Global Concert Hall: Marc Bridle takes a look at DG Concerts, a new musical innovation between Deutsche Grammophon and Apple’s iTunes.

 


In my recent editorial, I briefly touched on Deutsche Grammophon’s new musical arrangement with iTunes – DG Concerts. On paper this looks like a fascinating concept – concerts are recorded, and a few weeks after the event are released for music download on iTunes. At the moment this is an exclusive arrangement between the record company and the iconic computer developer, Apple, but sometime during the latter part of this year DG will broaden its retail base to include Real’s Rhapsody and Napster. In their press release DG mention the possibility of releasing one of the concerts on disc at the end of each year – but the principle is that the concerts are available only as downloadable content.


The benefits of this collaboration are clear. As Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and one of the first orchestras to be part of this new initiative, said, “Downloading is the relevant channel for music distribution in the 21st century. It provides a very important and significant opportunity for classical music listeners to discover, experience and appreciate new music through the latest technology." The New York Philharmonic, DG’s other current American partner, said, “Thanks to this new collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon, the Philharmonic is helping to pave the way for classical music into the digital age. Our music will reach fans around the world in a format that is accessible, portable, and very personal."


Creating a new model for symphonic listening, with the technology available to make for CD quality sound, the crucial point of this venture is that it revolutionizes the financial and logistical challenges that have latterly made conventional recordings problematic. Via the download market, DG all but eradicates the expensive manufacturing cost of CDs and by broadening the scope of what is recorded (a full concert) repertoire is expanded. In the case of the LAPO, one of America’s most forward-thinking orchestras when it comes to concert programming, this makes for some thought provoking couplings. The third LAPO release, from the orchestras current ‘Beethoven Unbound’ series, couples Beethoven’s Second Leonore Overture with the Fifth symphony and Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony, a Salonen speciality. The Fourth release, in June, and from the same series, will couple Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies with a new work by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, Eleven Gates.

 


The New York Philharmonic, a different kind of orchestral animal to their West Coast online partners, have so far offered a more conservative and mainstream choice of repertoire. The first disc, of Mozart’s Symphonies 39, 40 and 41, conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director, Lorin Maazel, established that orchestra’s less ground-breaking approach to concert programming. The NYPO’s second release will feature Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta and Dvorak’s Symphony No.7 from the orchestra’s 14,244th concert given on 31 March.


What of the performances themselves? Captured live, all of the downloads I have listened to so far are in excellent, well balanced sound, with rich dynamics and superb musical clarity. If the LAPO recordings sound better focused it is because their new Walt Disney Concert Hall offers a richer acoustic than the New York Philharmonic’s drier Avery Fisher Hall. Lorin Maazel’s Mozart has always been on the weightier side of HIP, and the three symphonies programmed are no exception to that. But they stand together as a superbly played triptych, even if the musical insights are few. Their second concert offers a richer musical experience. Maazel’s Dvorak breams with confidence and in the case of the Seventh Symphony he offers the kind of refined performance that balances the works rhapsodic and rigorous musical ideas succinctly and dramatically. In the case of the Kodaly, orchestra and conductor revel in the dripping colours the score throws up.


The first two LAPO downloads were both of contemporary music concerts from the orchestra’s Minimalist Jukebox season – the first coupling Arvo Pärt (Tabula Rasa) and Louis Andriessen (Racconto dall’Inferno, in its US premiere, and De Staat). The second concert featured works by Steve Reich – Variations for Wind, Strings and Keyboards, Three Movements for Orchestra and Tehilim. The latter concert, especially, has the kind of echt American synchronicity of music to insight one would expect, and in the case of Reich’s Tehilim, the Los Angeles players give the music a genuine sense of discovery through an orchestral voyage that is frequently breathtaking in its scope.

 


Less satisfactory as single concert experiences are the two Salonen downloads; they very much come across as indistinct musical ventures. The performances of the three Beethoven symphonies suffer from a sense of the routine: there is nothing in Salonen’s Beethoven to make you feel you are hearing anything new or revolutionary in the music. The orchestra’s playing is embalmed in a world of tranquility too, and in the case of the Seventh and Fifth orchestra and conductor gesture towards a world of innocuousness rather than searing revolution. The Hillborg and Lutoslawski, however, are an entirely different matter. Here both orchestra and conductor find themselves on much safer territory. The Lutoslawski Fourth Symphony is a definitive performance: both Salonen and the orchestra have played the work so frequently with each other that its secrets seem to open up preternaturally. The juxtaposition of the work’s lyricism and mercurial faster sections are well sustained and the orchestra plays magnificently: unison strings and brass in the second movement are superb, as is the symphony’s ending as the orchestra dissolves into a kind of dreamy recollected silence.


Anders Hillborg’s music usually stretches itself between extremes of contrast: there is the mechanical with the almost human, the static with the active, and the brutal and violent with the noble and transfigured. There is often something surreal about his music, and the notion that hearing a Hillborg piece is rather like looking at a Dali painting or seeing a Cocteau film is forever present in the mind. Eleven Gates falls neatly into this Hillborgesque soundscape: the work opens in stasis and disintegrates into feverish, raucous, energetic dissonance before dissolving into silent quiescence before ending in shattering clusters of density. Running for almost 17 minutes, Salonen and his Los Angeles players give Eleven Gates a virtuosic and physical workout.


So far, DG have concentrated only on the NYPO and LAPO but they intend recording concerts from most of the world’s major musical capitals. I hope this will include Thielemann in Munich, but DG have yet to publicly announce who its non-US partners are. If the idea itself is one that is invigorating and adventurous, with its scope for introducing new audiences to classical music, there are a few quirks that are inexplicable. DG states in its press release that tracks will be available for individual download. This is not strictly true if one visits iTunes where individual tracks are not available for individual download. This would make the prospect of the Salonen/Beethoven concerts a better financial investment if one could just download the Hillborg or Lutoslawski pieces and not the Beethoven. And why has iTunes provided booklet notes for download on its US site but not on its UK one? No doubt these small problems will be addressed but they should neither distract from nor render this important project less important than it is for the future of classical music.




Marc Bridle


 


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)