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Burkhard Schmilgun: Talking to a musical treasure-hunter

by Ilja Nieuwland

Photo: Caroline Ranke

Burkhard Schmilgun, Artists & Repertoire Manager for cpo, likes to talk; he is visibly at home in what he describes as a ‘dream job’. The way in which he landed it he calls an incredible collision of fate’: "I was playing [as a violist, IN] in a recording of Korngold’s orchestral works. Previously, I’d written my MA thesis in musicology on Korngold. cpo, then a young label, was looking for someone to write the liner notes, and the conductor suggested I do it. That established our contact and after my predecessor left in 1991, I was asked to replace him"

Classic Productions Osnabrück (cpo, in small print) occupies surprisingly small premises: in addition to Burkhard Schmilgun it houses three people. But it is this small scale that enables them to sustain an impressive production speed. Among the smaller labels, Osnabrück’s cpo has become a major player. In 1986 it was founded as a daughter company of the online culture store JPC. Since then, it has released almost a thousand CDs, often with world premiere recordings. Nowadays, cpo also publishes audiobooks and DVDs.

"I had always been more interested in those ‘peripheral figures’ of music history. Not the olympic but also very smooth Richard Strauss, but rather Hans Pfitzner, who led a far more interesting life. Why, if you’re looking at present concert programmes, didn’t he ‘make it’? Look at any older book about music and you see a very different list of major composers than we recognise nowadays. If a musicologist in 1912 wrote enthusiastically about Hausegger, Von Reznicek or Pfitzner, why should he have been entirely mistaken? Soon after joining cpo, I began collecting material and soon, I’d amassed an enormous repertoire - which I’m now trying to get recorded."

Musicians aren’t exactly known as the driving force between repertory innovation. "That goes for about ninety-nine percent. Anything unknown is often treated as Pferdeleiche, a horse’s corpse - something that you can’t really perform anymore, something utterly insignificant. But it is nonsense to suppose that musical history has always made fair judgments."

"Look at the operatic repertory, for instance: that is frighteningly narrow, especially once you realise what is being performed regularly and set that off against the huge mass of available material. But if it’s too difficult or not polished enough, it gets tossed aside as a niche product. Take Busoni’s Dr Faustus, for instance - a key work in early 20th century opera: when is that ever performed? These are operas with their own aesthetic and musical language - guiding works. Its neglect demonstrates the overall rule of laziness. La Traviata and Der Rosenkavalier will sell themselves, after all.

A lot has been said about the recent crisis of the recording industry, with publicists such as Norman Lebrecht annually hailing the last breath of classical recording. Schmilgun won’t go that far, but he is aware of the advantages of being a small-scale operation: "As long as this earth contains a few thousand curious souls that are interested in what took place next to Mahler, Mozart, or Handel, we won’t experience a crisis. Or as long as they wonder about local musical heritage. In fact, the entire classical recording industry has fallen to the smaller, specialised labels: Chandos, Hyperion, Capriccio, Sterling, and so forth - and cpo, of course. And yes, the former ‘majors’ such as Decca and EMI are in the grip of crisis. Constructive work is left to us, while they find another attractive-looking violinist to do Mendelssohn or Brahms. But in the area of repertoire innovation we shouldn’t expect anything any more: their organisations have grown too big and it wouldn’t make economic sense for them to undertake such small projects. But for us, size is much less important."

However, a lot of ignorance must sometimes be overcome. "Ask anyone to name a Dutch composer - they’re not likely to come up with one. I could say the same about Denmark, Serbia or Turkey. Just about our entire classical canon originates in the German-Austrian countries: for Germans it isn’t deemed necessary to look at other countries. We can afford ourselves the luxury of looking at Sibelius as though he were a niche figure, whereas he is considered a god in the UK. And Carl Nielsen is hardly ever programmed; an insane situation. Other Scandinavian repertory is completely absent from German concert halls.
"Of course, I’m always curious to see whether our editions have any impact on concert programmes; that happens less than I would have liked, though. On the other hand, [music publisher] Breitkopf and Härtel told me that our edition of the Atterberg symphonies did lead to more orders worldwide for sheet music of his works. Particularly the third symphony, a regular ‘pot-boiler’, is played more often than it was. I make those enquiries often, and it is clear that conductors do decide to put a piece on their repertoire on the strength of one of our CDs."

However, Schmilgun says it has become easier to contract artists, and to get reputed ensembles interested in playing unknown repertoire. "Fortunately, Simon Rattle has dusted out the Berlin Philharmonic, who now play a much more varied programme. But the big ‘battle cruisers’ such as the Munich Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra just play the standard repertory back to back, mostly because of a somewhat superior attitude - a ‘we don’t really need that’ mentality. The fact that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recently played Jan van Gilse’s Second Symphony [in december 2006, IN] stands alone as something of a revolution."

"Ours is an elite product, obviously - it is consciously aimed at niches, at a traditional, bildungsbürgerlich raised audience. But there is an encouraging amount of rejuvenation going on, and a fairly large group of 18- to 40-year-olds is interested in our releases - so we don’t worry too much about our custom ‘dying out’ just yet. A lot is also sold around concerts, where we are regularly present - these customers are not so much typical cpo customers but people that become interested in the music or the performers during the concert and purchase the CD afterwards. "

"The overlap of CD buyers and concert-goers is smaller than is usually assumed. To give one example: a few years ago, [violinist] Ulf Hoelscher played Wolf-Ferrari’s concerto two evenings in a row, which we’d recorded about ten years earlier. After the concert these CDs could be bought. On the first evening, two were sold. I told Hoelscher on the second night: why won’t you sit there and autograph some of them? When he did, more than seventy were sold. That is an interesting contrast: two people were interested in the music itself, but many more in the soloist. Many CD-listeners rarely visit concerts because they prefer to listen to music in the tranquility of their living room."

Although reviews may vary, everyone seems to be convinced about the quality of cpo’s documentation. "From the beginning, that was an important issue for us. We consider ourselves to be pioneers: when I reintroduce a composer to people after a hundred years, I can’t very well do so without supplying the best possible text, particularly since they won’t be able to find many names in modern works of reference. The text ought to be on the same level as the music. Often, they are extensive ‘books’ and we pay particular attention to whom we ask to write them. We’d rather save on the cover or photography than on the text."

However, Schmilgun admits that control is by no means absolute: "We decide on two points: what we wish to record, and who is going to do that. That is the creative part of my job. If it goes wrong, it’s really my rotten luck. But we naturally work with people that have extensive experience and that we know very well - there is an extensive pool of suitable people. Of course, it does not always work and it does happen that I hear a recording which has turned out differently than I imagined. But that is also a subjective matter."

cpo tries to work independently from other, similar labels. Schmilgun: "When I happen to hear that a certain piece is being recorded, of course I don’t do it myself. But I won’t conduct extensive research: as long as the demand appears to be there, we go with the project. You have to have the courage to go your own way. Our habit of recording a ‘new’ composer’s complete work is also quite unique. For instance, if we begin working on Atterberg we don’t release one CD, but ten on the trot. That is also a marketing ploy: if I release just one CD, I guarantee that no-one will be talking about Atterberg. But if there are ten, some critics and customers are bound to think: there must be something special there.

When we talk about the balance between historical interest and musical quality, Schmilgun stays aloof: "Both have to be present. Once a composer has written a strong work, he has proven himself. I don’t believe he will descend to trash after that. And, as I said, we deal in complete works. I can’t very well say: we’re recording four symphonies and number five just isn’t good enough - that would smack of incredible arrogance. Our public has to judge that for itself."

For cpo, much new music is problematic: "Classical music, ‘art music if you like’, has become an intellectual exercise, not a hedonistic pleasure in the lazy chair. The other day, I heard a discussion about the influence of birdsong on music, and all sorts of bird songs were played - of an incredible rhythmic and melodious diversity. But is was all tonal - and that is exactly the reason why so much atonal music doesn’t connect with the public. We lack the internal sensor to process something that someone has put to paper and which may make mathematic sense, but doesn’t reach you on an aesthetic level. Understand me, some of it is very interesting, but it can also be very impenetrable. "

That doesn’t mean that Schmilgun sees the solution with the ‘new esoterics’ of composers such as Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli: "I have some trouble with that direction. On the one hand, it is a reorientation on the greater public, but it is also somewhat artificial. I prefer sincerity that takes the risk to offend its audience. Not that I doubt the sincerity of Pärt and Kancheli, but it is just not my world."

Schmilgun closes with his ambitions for the immediate future: "Opera, to begin with: Pfitzner’s Rose von Liebesgarten and a few Reznicek operas. Then there is our Dutch project headed by David Porcelijn: eight CDs of music by Julius Röntgen have already been recorded, and his massive Aus Goethes Faust will be this July. Then Jan van Gilse (symphonies and the Opera Thijl), Henk Badings and Willem Pijper."



This interview originally appeared in the online Dutch cultural magazine 8WEEKLY (

Julius Röntgen’s Aus Goethes Faust can be heard in the Muziekcentrum Enschede on 21 June 2007, and is performed by the Eastern Dutch Orchestra and the National Travel Opera. Conductor is David Porcelijn


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