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why classical cds are cheap

13th April 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait has been listening to and enjoying Malcolm Arnold’s Ninth Symphony (1986, so definitely comes under the “good classical music written in my lifetime” heading) and so have I. We were both pointed at it by Lynn Sislo. In Brian’s comments I mentioned that I’ve been buying a lot of good classical CDs at spectacularly cheap prices lately.

On closer inspection, I discover that one way to produce CDs cheaply is not to spend money having the liner notes proof-read by somebody who understands English – or even knows how to press the button on a spell checker. In the Juilliard Quartet's legendary 1963 recording of the Bartok string quartets (Brian likes these too), Sony France inform us that Bartok wrote the fifth quartet in “Whashignton” in 1935. Really. I don’t think that’s correct even in French. They go on to tell us about the Juilliard Quartet in this remarkable paragraph:

“Whereas some artists are instinctive and intuitive and other cerebral, our goal – even at our most frenetic – is to combine heart and head”, said Robert Mann, discussing the Juilliard String Quartet. “We have always been that way”. And Mann should know, since he was the quartet founder in 1946, and has remained its first violinist during 51 years. Like Bernstein, Gould and Casals, members of the Juilliard bring a composer’s imagination and sense of adventure to the art of performance. There was two composers in the quartet in 1963 : Robert Mann and Claus Adam. With composers playing, an unconventional approach to performance is only natural ; the Juilliard Quartet examines every pieces as if the ink were wet. Whether music of Beethoven or of Shapey(*) is on the music stands, the issue is the same : what is the emotionnal truth of the music for us now, today?

I’m not suggesting I could translate a paragraph of English into completely grammatical, idiomatic, or even correctly spelt French(**). But if I were a CD producer, editor, or whatever they call themselves, I would at least want to employ a translator who could, and not just shove the original through babelfish and bung it on the CD. But considering probably a couple of hundred people worldwide are going to buy this double CD at ten bucks a go, I can understand how the liner notes translation budget might be a bit tight. On the other hand I notice that Naxos, in their Malcolm Arnold symphony series, can afford to have completely different liner notes, written by different people, in English, French and German. And Naxos are actually paying musicians (a bit) and recording engineers to make new stuff that they are selling at the same price as Sony, not just wandering around in the basement looking for old master tapes. Could do better, Sony.

(*) I’m also intrigued by the assumption that I’ve heard of Ralph Shapey (1921-2002), the Chicago-based “radical traditionalist” composer (thank you google).

(**) Years ago when I was at school I could probably have managed grammatical and correctly spelt. I don’t recall idiomatic being a prominent feature of the curriculum.

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