Curtain Up For Decca Gold

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Change must be affected if classical music industry doesn’t want to be enwrapped in a golden cocoon, but ideological fumes will not likley help and quotas only do harm.

These are fine, modern, speedy performances – live, well executed, and certainly never boring. As such, they are an achievement for the New York Philharmonic, which for such a long time – basically for the three decades between music directors Pierre Boulez and the surprisingly good choice of Alan Gilbert’s – held the title of most boring among the most famous orchestras.

They constitute the first recording of incoming music director Jaap van Zweden with the New York band – and they represent the re-launch, re-purposing of the “Decca Gold” label, Universal Music’s attempt – as far as I understand it – at having a uniquely American brand in classical music among its labels: a mix of the highbrow-populist-crossover-serious, from the looks of it. But what a choice for an opening shot?!

Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies! You couldn’t find a more classic, more traditional, more time-honored, more staid coupling if you tried. In a way that’s the quintessence of classical music. And in a way that’s the quintessence of an old-fashioned idea of classical music. There’s an inherent tension in this choice.

Classical Musical Relevance Tangent

Alan Gilbert succeeded in his admirable job of resuscitating the New York Philharmonic and making it relevant again not the least because he made the New York Philharmonic a repertoire-orchestra again… communicated so much through his few but select recordings: Carl Nielsen, Christopher Rouse, Magnus Lindberg. These recordings of great and good and neglected music did much more for the orchestra being taken serious again than a 205th Beethoven cycle could ever have.

Certainly going with Beethoven is going against the grain, somehow, in a time where critics and social media Zeitgeist-surfers all around are clamoring for classical music to become something, anything, else…

And now Beethoven Fifth & Seventh? Certainly going with Beethoven is going against the grain, somehow, in a time where critics and social media Zeitgeist-surfers all around are clamoring for classical music to become something else, to become ‘relevant’ (as if it weren’t, only because it doesn’t win Pulitzers anymore), to feature American composers or to feature female composers “or else”, to feature contemporary composers: Anything other than that which has, more or less, worked until now.

At the core of these demands is the dire truth that the classical music world is un-daring like the dickens. Tried-and-true formulas are being repeated and copied. The most daring changes consist of no more than making a concert start 30 minutes earlier or later than usual. It’s still Overture-Concerto-Symphony. By-and-large it’s still 90%[1] programming of music that is already comfortably familiar to listeners with the large orchestras. There’s a valid point to be made that there simply isn’t enough courage to try to broaden the repertoire; that there is a lack of diversity. That said, a lot of these critics – in accordance to the necessity for change they perceive – go overboard, become shrill and dishearteningly unrealistic. In this, they are no better than the presumably reactionary forces in power… the ones, you know, that actually have to sell the tickets and pay the musicians.

As much as I think that change must be affected if the classical music industry doesn’t want to be enwrapped in a golden cocoon, I don’t think ideological fumes will help it; I think quotas will harm it; I think that it is possible and potentially harmful to be ‘trying too hard’. Nor is the nagging-class a new phenomenon. The complaint of the American orchestras neglecting American music, for example, is as old as the very orchestras themselves; it’s a tradition in itself, albeit not a very effective one.

These critics are right that no music can thrive without offering the opportunity for repeat exposure. But music also doesn’t become more popular solely by a critic’s or connoisseur’s willpower. That delicate balance somewhere in the middle is impossible to arrive at without offending both camps, the traditionalist America-First listeners and the traditionalist Play-Me-What-I-Know-I-Like crowd.

In other words, I wasn’t expecting or even hoping that the New York Philharmonic would start its highly visible return to recording for a “major label” with a survey of the fascinating and often entrancing music of, say, Missy Mazzoli. But perhaps something other than the decidedly most traditional coupling of traditional music, perhaps? Just a glimpse? A hint that there is music beyond the warhorses?

The Hard Core Cliché

But instead Beethoven 5 & 7? This is so full-throttle anachronistic, it’s almost provocative. It must be a deliberate choice: Something of a message à la ‘back to the roots’; ‘we’re so good, we’ll go head to head in the most mainstay repertoire you could possibly imagine and emerge victorious’. But even if that’s true, is it a smart choice? This, not that it needs repeating, is the “Carlos Kleiber” coupling: The coupling of one of the most famous, most loved, most admired recordings in classical music recording history. The touchstone, to this day, for performances of these two works, despite the great deal that has happened since in performance practice. And a coupling which has been preceded by other famous accounts, such as those by Fritz Reiner (Living Stereo/RCA), Wilhelm Furtwängler (EMI), Bruno Walter (Columbia/Sony), Leonard Bernstein (Columbia/Sony), Otto Klemperer (EMI), and more recently Gustavo Dudamel (DG), John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria), and, lo-and-behold, Jaap van Zweden, who also recorded these two works for his debut-CD in Dallas. These are two of the most recorded pieces in the history of classical music. And although the rhetorical question of “who needs another recording of XZY” is a trope and easily debunked, it still and invariably shoves itself into the mental foreground when faced with such a coupling. What could possibly be so special about this recording that, of all the possibilities, this particular release was necessary and had to be the first visitor’s card of this label/orchestra/conductor collaboration?

(See also Forbes.com: New York Philharmonic Appoints Dallas’ Jaap van Zweden As New Music Director)

Again: They’re fine, modern, speedy performances – live, well executed, and certainly never boring (if definitely not great). Perhaps that’s enough to make one notice that the New York Philharmonic is back in business in any repertoire. Perhaps that’s enough to make the point that music is really never boring, when Jaap van Zweden is at the helm (something that my limited live exposure to him would confirm) – no matter much the repertoire choice. But just a couple very good live performances of evergreen symphonies – not even very particularly and specifically prepared and painstakingly recorded – does seem to send an odd message. It seems to say: We are blissfully unaware of where classical music is at, in the 21st century; our message is one of ‘same-old-same-old’. Perhaps it isn’t; Jaap van Zweden has at least shown a willingness to include non-standard repertoire so far, with an incident of Steven Stucky peaking from a litany of romantic classics. But one hopes that the days of innovative, quality programming under Alan Gilbert haven’t already come to an end.

Beethoven Cycles for America

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Amazon_Logo_Icon_global_JPG_20x120 L.v.Beethoven, Sy.s 5&7, NYPhil, J.v.Zweden, Decca Gold

Now there is one case to be made for Beethoven from Zweden and New York: Almost unfathomably, the New York Philharmonic has to date recorded only one official and complete Beethoven Cycle, that most primary tree for an orchestral dog to leave its mark on. That’s Leonard Bernstein’s 1962-69 Sony cycle, of course. (An unofficial cycle with Bruno Walter, available on United Archives, is lacking the “Pastorale”.) Nothing before or after that. Compared to the Berlin Philharmonic’s eight cycles (5 x Karajan, 2 x Abbado, 1 x Cluytens), or the Vienna Philharmonic’s six official such cycles, or the five cycles each of the Concertgebouw (Mengelberg, Sawallisch, Fischer Iván, Haitink, Jochum) and the London Symphony Orchestra (Haitink, Jochum, Krips, Loughran, Morris), this suggests an incredible, admirable Beethoven-Symphony reticence so far! Even the American competition courtesy Chicago (3), Cleveland (3), Boston (2), and Philadelphia (2) have more under their belt.

Maybe it’s your turn now, NYP, so go get ‘em! Skeptical music lovers can at least sigh with relieve that the cycle comes now, under Zweden, and not back then, under either Mehta, Masur, or Maazel.

[1] #notintendedtobeafactualstatement, but even if that’s not the exact number, it certainly feels that way.

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