And Then There Were Three … plus, A New Shostakovich Cycle

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Random thoughts and comments about some happenings in recordland …

The news that EMI’s recordings division is about to be gobbled up by Vivendi’s Universal behemoth – unless the EU tries to block it – will set a lot of collectors’ minds reeling.  Ironic that Deutsche Grammophon – originally spawned as a German spinoff of EMI’s ancestor, the Gramophone Company – is now part of the group that will take over its parent.  Amazing that virtually all of the catalogues of Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Fürtwangler and Neville Marriner will be under one roof – not to mention The Beatles, whose early Polydor session with Tony Sheridan and still-officially-unreleased Decca audition tape will be united with their celebrated Parlophone/Apple catalogue. With the influx of EMI’s extensive Mahler holdings, Universal ought to reactivate its contest for listeners to compile a Mahler “dream cycle,”  replacing DG’s recent “The People’s Edition.”  I could go on and on with the discographical trivia, but the most important point is that once again, more power is being concentrated in fewer hands – and that generally means less choice for consumers who aren’t welded into the pop culture mainstream. So hail and farewell, Capitol, HMV, Angel, Parlophone, Blue Note, Virgin, and all the other labels small and large that were gathered under the EMI umbrella; their logos might survive the takeover but don’t bet your stereo on it.

Of course, for those who still collect these artifacts, it may not matter much anyway.  A rumor has gone viral around the Internet that the major labels – soon there will be only three – are planning to stop making CDs by the end of 2012 or earlier.  From then on, the reports say, only limited-edition CDs and LPs – most likely boxed sets – from a select group of artists will be issued to the select few who can afford them, sold only online by Amazon.com and others of that persuasion. Nothing has been confirmed by the majors, mind you, so it’s not a done deal – but it certainly is consistent with the way the winds have been blowing, in many ways. Think of it as another symptom of the widening gap between the richest sliver of the population and everyone else – lavish, expensive boxed sets for the wealthy, crummy-sounding downloads for the rest of us.

I’m not against downloads per se;  the iPod is a fantastically useful, elegantly-designed little instrument. Rather, again, I’m in favor of choice, of keeping formats alive for people who still want to use them and who find them superior to others that have come along since, for whatever reason.  Is that too much to ask in the digital 2010s?  Unfortunately, the answer may be yes.

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Shostakovich buffs ought to be converging upon Los Angeles in the first week in December for a major event – the first hearing anywhere of the beleaguered Russian composer’s prologue to a projected but never-finished opera Orango, which was only uncovered in 2006.  I’ll have more to say about this oddity, as led by the LA Philharmonic’s conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a future post – but in the meantime, I am under the spell of an impressive, emerging Shostakovich symphony cycle on Naxos from the young Russian-born conductor Vasily Petrenko, who has apparently jolted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic awake.

Petrenko is only 35, born a year after Shostakovich’s death, yet he reaches back and gets an intensity of feeling bordering upon rage in this music as few do anymore now that Shostakovich has been absorbed into the international bloodstream.  Petrenko’s recordings of the Eighth and Tenth Symphonies are the ones to beat now if you want big-boned, opulently-recorded versions that dig in deeply and have fury and bite.  His First Symphony captures the undergraduate humor and precocious eloquence of the 19-year-old composer, and he slows the tempo of the scherzo’s Trio way down in order to bring out grinding details.  Petrenko seems especially enthused about the symphonies that have yet to be fully rehabilitated – the Third, as he underlines the experimental threads that would be explored in depth in the Fourth Symphony, and the Twelfth, where he tries to bring out what he considers to be subversive messages underneath the tub-thumping concessions to the Party line. Curiously, most of the Sixth Symphony lacks the tension that Petrenko has brought to the cycle so far, though he revs up the action by the middle of the circusy third movement (the live video below, though not as neatly-played as the recording, will give you the idea).  Naxos couples the Symphonies 1 and 3 together on one disc, and 6 and 12 on another disc that was just released last month – and I, for one, am looking forward to hearing what Petrenko can do with the mighty, almost-out-of-control Fourth.