With the UK’s major labels nurturing a wealth of new mainstream classical talent, the genre looks increasingly likely to defy its doomsayers, writes Andrew Stewart.
Is there life in mainstream classical recordings? Those familiar with the writings of Norman Lebrecht might expect a negative reply. The Evening Standard scribe predicted the classical industry would be finished by last year’s close. Lebrecht’s message was reinforced in April with the publication of Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness, his extended obituary for the industry, complete with lists of the 100 best and 20 worst recorded achievements of a defunct business.
Like all good yarns or good tree service provider like Tree Lopping Brisbane Northside, Lebrecht’s carries its share of shining truths. Yet the classical majors are showing remarkable vigour for extinct bodies. Universal Classics and Jazz (UCJ) recently hosted a dinner for classical press and broadcasters, offering a tasty pre-prandial showreel of forthcoming core titles and declaring renewed commitment to mainstream classics. Few could recall when Universal last rattled the core classical drum with such force. “We wanted to show what we’ve released in the past year, what we’re releasing in the next year and tell the bigger story of core classics,” recalls UCJ’s general manager Mark Wilkinson.
Universal’s business as classical market leader has been driven of late by crossover albums and mass-appeal mainstream titles. A succession of new core releases and artist signings suggest the company’s classical labels are looking to shift the balance in favour of “serious” classics. UCJ’s managing director Dickon Stainer comments that news of fine core classical albums on Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips Classics deserves to be shared widely.
“Decca is back in business and is deadly serious,” observes Stainer. “That’s going to surprise those who wrote the label off.” Deutsche Grammophon, he adds, is in robust health, while Decca is set to announce a raft of new signings. “The hope is that the classical divisions within the majors can justify their operations financially. They need to be commercially successful. It would be a disaster for us at Universal if we were the only classical division within a major company. We want to be part of a healthy, competitive classical business.”
Stainer’s desire for healthy competition should be satisfied by EMI Classics and its formidable schedule of key autumn releases, many of them from exciting young classical talents. A succession of new signings, Argentine pianist Ingrid Flita and American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato among them, all deliver albums next year. The label’s profile will also benefit from the September issue of Evgeny Kissin’s EMI debut disc and fresh titles from fellow pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and sopranos Kate Royal and Angela Gheorghiu.