The Next Track, Episode #186 – Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani

We meet harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, who is showing how the harpsichord is no longer an instrument just for “old” music. His latest recording features contemporary music for harpsichord and electronics.

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Support The Next Track.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

A Playlist of Music by Black Classical Composers

With the Blackout Tuesday action yesterday, the streaming music services were focusing on music by black artists. I was dismayed, however, when I went to Apple Music, and all they were doing was playing Beats 1 all day. When I turned it on a couple of time, it was just rap and hip-hop; people told me that, later, there were other black performers, such as those of soul and R&B from the 1970s.

I think Apple missed a chance to introduce people to black artists in other genres. Sure, we all know about the many black artists in jazz – Miles, Monk, and Mingus, for example – but there are also a number of black composers of classical music, and many black artists who perform classical music. Apple could have had different selections of music in different genres to highlight these composers and artist.

So here’s a basic playlist with some of the better-known names among black classical composers. Feel free to listen, and to add it to your Apple Music library. If anyone has any other suggestions, especially of contemporary composers, let me know and I’ll add them to the playlist. I didn’t intend this to be exhaustive, but just to show that there are some very good classical works by black composers.

Update: Here’s a list of some black composers and classical music organizations compiled by the Eureka Ensemble.

The Next Track, Episode #183 – Composer and Pianist Timo Andres on Concertizing at Home

Timo Andres is a young composer and pianist, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. We discuss his music, and how he missed his first solo recital at Carnegie Hall du to the coronavirus lockdown, and decided to make home videos of all the works to present his program to the public. (Apologies for the audio; we made some mistakes when recording.)

Help support The Next Track by making regular donations via Patreon. We’re ad-free and self-sustaining so your support is what keeps us going. Thanks!

Support The Next Track.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Next Track, Episode #181 – Classical Music Critic Anne Midgette

Anne Midgette resigned as classical music critic for the Washington Post a few months ago, but she is well placed to discuss the dangers facing live performances of classical music in The After. And she tells us about the historical novel she’s writing about the woman who built pianos for Beethoven.

Help support The Next Track by making regular donations via Patreon. We’re ad-free and self-sustaining so your support is what keeps us going. Thanks!

Support The Next Track.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Next Track, Episode #178 – Lieder and Opera Singer Ian Bostridge

We talk with Ian Bostridge, Kirk’s second-favorite lieder singer, about life in lockdown, and about Schubert’s Winterreise, the song cycle that Bostridge is best known for, through his many performances, recordings, films, and a book he wrote about it.

Help support The Next Track by making regular donations via Patreon. We’re ad-free and self-sustaining so your support is what keeps us going. Thanks!

Support The Next Track.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The New Complete Beethoven Box Set Available to Stream on Apple Music

Just two days ago, I asked if it was the end of the big classical box set. Today, I learned that the new Complete Beethoven box set, which was released a few weeks ago, is available to stream on Apple Music. Universal music says:

Apple Music, in collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon, have launched a newly curated Beethoven Room to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary next year. The Beethoven Room offers full access to the composer’s music, listeners can find every note of the composer’s work as well as brand-new releases, and fresh audio and audiovisual content will be added weekly.

Apple Music’s Beethoven Room offers direct access to Deutsche Grammophon’s Beethoven – The New Complete Edition, the most comprehensive and authoritative collection ever produced, which was developed in collaboration with leading scholars at the Beethoven-Haus Bonn. The 16 digital albums from The New Complete Edition include historic landmarks recordings by some of the world’s greatest performers – from Abbado to Argerich, Bernstein to Brendel, Karajan to Kremer, Menuhin to Mutter and Perahia to Pollini – as well as world premieres of recently rediscovered works.

Complete beethoven

This changes things. While I don’t regret buying this set, had I known that it would all be streamable, I certainly would not have purchased it. The complete Bach and Mozart editions that Universal released in recent years are not available to stream, but large parts of them are.

You can access this music on Apple Music. I will point out that it’s not easy to find this page when searching Apple Music. If you search for “Beethoven 2020” you’ll be able to find the albums, but not the page that serves as a portal to this set and other Beethoven recordings and videos.

is This the End of the Big Classical Music Box Set?

In the past couple of decades, classical music listeners have become accustomed to seeing a number of Big Classical Box Sets (or BCBSs) released in the autumn. These sets feature many, most, or all recording- by [composer_name] or [conductor_name] or [artist_name] or [ensemble_name], and are generally sold at prices that make classical music collectors pull out their credit cards quickly.

It’s not easy to date the first BCBS, because, over time, there have been box sets whose size creeped up into Big territory. A complete Wagner Ring cycle was a big box set, or even a complete Beethoven piano sonatas, or Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas, and these were initial big in price. What changed, and led to BCBS status, was when these sets went beyond just collections of works by a single composer.

The first real BCBS didn’t come in a single box: it was the 180-CD Complete Mozart Edition from Philips. Released in 1990-91, in 45 volumes, it was more of a serial edition than a big box set, and the price for the entire set was around $1,000.

Around 2000, with the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, more affordable BCBSs were released. These were much cheaper than the Philips set, and I recall the cost of the various editions from different labels being around $200 – $300. (The Dutch label Brilliant Classics’ Bach Edition sold in the UK for £225.) While the Philips Mozart set was very expensive, the new, cheaper Bach sets allowed collectors to buy 150 or more CDs at around a dollar/euro/pound each.

In 2005, however, everything changed. While Brilliant Classic’s Bach was five years old, it hadn’t sold anywhere near as much as their new Mozart set would. The Brilliant Classics Complete Mozart set, with 170 CDs, sold in France for €99. By the time it was released in the US in 2006, where it listed at $150, it had already sold 300,000 copies. (It would eventually be sold as low as €39, but was more often available for €69. An updated edition from 2014 currently sells for €114 on Amazon France.) Brilliant Classics made a specialty of these big box sets, often with competent yet workmanlike recordings, and single-handedly succeeded in reducing the price of classical CDs.

Once the perceived value of classical CDs had dropped, all the labels had to compete. Hence the plethora of offerings every year. (You can read some of my articles about these box sets here.) The labels have trawled their back catalog, reviving conductors and artists that were formerly known only to a select few, bringing back many recordings that had long been out of print. But also bringing back a lot of dreck. In any artist’s career, there are always duds, and the market kept them hidden, so in many of these sets, you’d have, say, half the discs being Really Good, a third being Okay, and the rest being Meh.

Some artists have been the subject of repeated box sets. Herbert von Karajan, for example, seems to be covered by a new, larger box set every couple of years. Leonard Bernstein has done well, also, in part because of the massive number of recordings he made for Columbia Records (later Sony), then another massive number of recordings for Deutsch Grammophon, often re-recording the same works. And you can’t swing a violin bow without hitting a new edition of Glenn Gould’s recordings, which have been re-re-re-mastered and repackaged so many times it’s hard to keep track.

Even indie labels got into the game, with Hyperion Records assembling two large sets from long series they had released: the first was their Complete Schubert Songs set, on 40 CDs, and the second was their 99-CD set of Liszt’s Complete Piano Music.

Anniversaries are good reasons for box sets, hence the three recent sets from Universal (which encompasses DG, Philips, Decca, and others). 2016 saw a 200-CD set of Mozart’s works; in 2018, they released a 222-CD set of Bach’s works; and this year, it was time for a mere 123 CDs of Beethoven’s complete oeuvre. And this, I believe, is the inflection point. This is peak BCBS.

Most or all of this music is available on demand on all the major streaming services (if you can find it). While I have purchased the Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven sets, these are likely to be the last that I buy. I like the approach in these Universal sets, with lots of different performers, including different performers among a group of works (such as different pianists for the sonatas, different ensembles for the string quartets, etc.), and even different styles of performance (some original performance practice, others in a more standard twentieth-century style). The only two sets that I would consider in the future would be a complete Schubert, if it contained multiple recordings of all his lieder, and a BCBS of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings, even if it only covered his recordings on DG and EMI. (There are lots of others.)

I used to buy a few box sets a year, in part to get recordings by composers or artists I like, but also because of the low price, generally around one dollar/euro/pound per disc. When the only music you could listen to was what was on your shelves, these sets meant that I always had a lot to choose from. But I have recently been selling a lot of them off used, because the music is mostly available to stream, and because they take up a lot of space. I have ripped some of them, but not all, so in many cases I can listen to them without pulling out the CDs. But I do enjoy that nostalgic experience of taking a CD out of its sleeve, admiring its artwork, deftly inserting it into my CD player – yes, I still have one of those – and listening to the pristine sound of vintage digital plastic.

After mining the depths of their catalogs, the record labels have probably overloaded so many classical collections that even the most avid listeners who are not obsessed with having Every Single Recording Ever By [artist_name] will soon have no more room.

It seems as though these past few years have seen the swan song of the classical recording industry, as they dump as much as they can to the last remaining collectors who still want CDs. I’m exaggerating a bit, but there comes a point where it just makes no more sense to buy CDs that you can really never listen to when you have millions of options available to stream, even in lossless format, if you want to pay for it. Classical recordings won’t die, but I think the BCBS has reached the end of the line. In years to come, these BCBSs will be relics of a time when an industry attempted to grasp the past for one last hurrah, but the times have changed.

For more on BCBSs, check out this episode of The Next Track podcast, where we discuss CD packaging, and discuss the concept of the BCBS.

Why Can’t Music Streaming Services Give Good Recommendations for Classical Music?

I regularly use Apple Music, and sometimes the recommendations I receive in the For You section are spot on. They learn from what I listen and what I love (though I don’t love tracks or albums very much), and they recommend music by the same or similar artists, or from similar genres. On any given day, I’d say a quarter of their picks are things that I really would like to listen to. And I think that a 250 batting average for this type of recommendation, which is all done by algorithm, is pretty good.

However, when they recommend classical music, they tend to strike out a lot more. Last night, I listened to an album of Schubert’s piano trios, and this morning, I see these recommendations:

Classical recommendations

It’s fair to say that I’d be potentially interested in listening to many if not most of these recommendations, but are they really “like Schubert: Piano Trios, Op. 99 & 100?” No, not really. There are two recordings of violin concertos, an opera, some vocal music (Monteverdi’s Vespers), and some solo piano music.

What would be “like” those Schubert piano trios? Perhaps other chamber works, such as piano trios by Haydn or Beethoven. Maybe some string quartets by Schubert, Beethoven, or other Romantic composers. Or some other music by Schubert: his piano music, lieder, etc.

It’s not clear why these recommendations were chosen. With pop, rock, or jazz, the recommendations tend to be based on the artists performing the music, whereas here, this isn’t the case. None of the three artists who performed the Schubert trios I listened to (Andreas Staier, Daniel Sepec, and Roel Dieltiens) are present in the recommendations. Two of the recommendations are on the same label, Harmonia Mundi, and, in classical music, that can a good reason to recommend music, as independent labels do have a specific character. But I scratch my head to try to figure out how these recommendations were chosen.

The Igor Levit set is in my iCloud Music Library, and I have listened to it before, but I don’t know any of the other recordings. The only commonality I find is that the Schubert I listened to was released in 2016, and five of the seven recommendations were released the same year, with two others in 2014 and 2015.

It isn’t easy to tailor recommendations for classical music, and I suspect that Apple Music is simply looking at what other people who have the Schubert recording in their libraries are listening to, or what’s in their libraries, similar to the way the Genius feature works. Providing better classical recommendations would require additional metadata for classical recordings, beyond just the “classical” genre. There would need to be metadata for eras (Baroque, Romantic, etc.), ensemble sizes (trios, quartets, orchestras, etc.), and styles.

The classical market is too small for the big streaming services to provide this sort of recommendation, and other players, such as Idagio and Primephonic, are entering the field in an attempt to do so. This is probably not something that can be done by algorithm, in part because of the absence of extended metadata specific to classical music.

To be fair, a bit of browsing on Apple Music allows me to find plenty of classical music, but I really would like the kind of recommendation that pushes me in the right direction, especially for composers that I don’t know well. I’m not that interested in paying for another streaming service, because that sort of fragmentation with music is just an annoyance. But I wish the big streaming services – Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon – would take classical music seriously.

Classical musicians to break with tradition and speak to the audience – Daily Telegraph

In the hope of breaking down century old barriers between an orchestra and its audience the performers will step up to the front to talk about the piece they are about to play, its history, how the rehearsal process has impacted on the finished piece and what it means to them. The orchestra’s conductors will also introduce themselves and the music.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led by Marin Alsop, is going to make their concerts less stodgy, but why has this taken so long? I’ve attended concerts where there was a talk about the music before the concert, but as a separate “event,” usually an hour before. These are generally sparsely attended. It makes sense to have a brief intro for the different works performed, as long as it isn’t too didactic.

Source: Classical musicians to break with tradition and speak to the audience

Coming Soon: An Even Bigger Classical Box Set, Bach 333

The Mozart 225 box set was the biggest box set ever. Until this year. Deutsche Grammophon will be releasing Bach 333, “the new complete edition,” in October. With 222 CDs, and just one single DVD, this will dwarf the Mozart set, which apparently sold well enough that DG has tried to come up with a faux round number to celebrate Bach and repackage his music. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

It will contain more than 280 hours of music, from 750 performers and 32 record labels. And that latter number is interesting. We saw a number of complete sets around 2000, and they were all single-label sets. The ability for DG to combine releases from all the Universal labels, and license from other labels, makes it possible to have a much better selection of music than from any one label.

I guess the above makes it sound like I’m interested in this set. I might be; at around £500, it’s a huge investment, but my love for Bach could sway me. I bought the Mozart set – and haven’t listed to very much of it – but my familiarity with Bach makes this tempting. On the other hand, it’s 222 CDs, which will take 280 hours to listen to – just once each – and countless days to rip, if I decide to rip them.

In 2000, I would have jumped on this – I did buy two of the complete sets available back then – but now, I’m not so sure. It’s not just that I buy fewer CDs, and have less time to listen to my huge collection, but I’m not sure that there is any real need for this. It’s excessive, but the music of Bach is so great that, well, he merits this type of approach.

There is one element of the set that is interesting, but that makes me hesitate. Some sets of works are made up of a mixture of recordings by different performers. For example, the lute suites are performed by three different people; the sonatas for violin and keyboard by two different pairs; and there are discs containing a hodgepodge of similar works by a variety of musicians, such as one with cello suites Casals, Starker, and Genrdon, followed by a lute suite by Gerwig, and gamba sonata by Wenzinger, a partita by Segovia, and a suite by Bream (and there’s much more on that disc). This does have some attraction as a sort of compilation of great performers, but it is a bit confusing. On the other hand, many works are present in multiple versions, such as the Kunst der Fuge for chamber orchestra, piano, and harpsichord, but there is no organ version.

The Mozart set was a limited edition: 15,000 copies. It hasn’t sold out yet. This Bach set is also limited, presumably the same number, and may have good resale value if it sells out, but it’s not worth buying as an investment, because fewer people these days care about big box sets.

In any case, I’ve got a few months to think about it. So do you. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)