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Saturday August 16 2008

One of the big things keeping the classical CD business going is, I believe, voice addiction.

I will begin with a list of voices that I am more-or-less addicted to, in no particular order: Janet Baker, Barbara Hendricks, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Ruth Zeisak, Anna Kratochvilova, Heather Harper, Margaret Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Fritz Wunderlich, Franco Corelli, Gwyneth Jones, Arthur Davies, a few others whose names temporarily escape me but which I would greet with a shout of delight, and, most recently, Christian Gerhaher.  By addicted, what I have in mind is the experience of hearing one of these singers do some singing, often just of a single phrase, and to hear the doors of heaven open, if only for a moment.  This is odd, because in general, I don’t much care for the way that classical music singing is done.  The average way, so to speak, that classical solo singing is done is a noise I do not care for, rather as I do not care for the typical sound made by jazz or hip-hop or disco music.  But my favourite solo classical singers cut right through that generalised dislike.  I would rather hear Janet Baker sing something very ordinary, than hear, say, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, sing something great.  For me, the difference between the one singer and the other singer is an absolute, the difference between more-or-less fervent adoration and, if anything, more-or-less definite dislike.

With instrumental or orchestral music, provided it is decently played, I find the differences between this or that recording of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony or concerto, a trio, a piano sonata or a string quartet, to be not that gigantic.  I love, that is to say, the typical sound of the various classical instruments and instrumental ensembles.  There are differences between different recordings, especially in the matter of recording quality.  Why else would I have so many recordings of my favourite pieces?  But these are not differences anything like as extreme as the differences I hear between classical singers whom I adore and classical singers whom I do not adore.

But there is another difference, which is of great import to the classical recording industry, or what’s left of it.  When I hear a great piece of instrumental music and get seriously into it for the first time - addicted to it in other words, my reaction is to get hold of and listen to every other recording of that piece that I can find without too much expense or inconvenience, often in the form of CDs I already own but have never really listened to properly.  (My most recent such mania was for Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony.) But when, however many years ago it was, I first heard Fritz Wunderlich sing the tenor re-entry in the first track (the “Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth") of Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde, as conducted by Otto Klemperer for EMI, my reaction was from then on to buy every other CD that I ever encountered of Fritz Wunderlich singing.  Fritz Wunderlich singing anything.  Because, for me, it was Fritz Wunderlich who was the magic in that magical Klemperer Lied, rather than Mahler, and definitely rather than Klemperer, even though there’s nothing at all wrong with Klemperer’s conducting.  Any other tenor, for me, brings that exact same magical moment crashing down to earth horribly, so if anything, I have tended to shy away from other recordings of that piece, as a brief look at the Mahler section of my CD collection has just confirmed.  Lots of Mahler symponies, but only a few recordings of the Lied, most of them being ones in which Janet Baker is singing the contralto part.

The only exception I can think of to the above few paragraphs is Schubert songs.  To my ear, Schubert songs make everyone who sings them into potential heavenly door-openers, which is the basic reason why I think - and I am well aware that this is in no way an original thought - that Schubert was the greatest songwriter ever.  I will buy Schubert song CDs sung by anyone.  (But of course especially by the people on my addiction list.)

Please understand that this is not a posting about my particular preferences in classical voices, other than by way of illustration.  Nor is it the claim that Janet Baker is a better musician than Elizabeth Schwartzkopf was - or even, in any objective sense - a better singer, although maybe she is.  Many of my favourite voices were and are in the care of decidedly imperfect musicians, while several of the undeniably greatest singer-musicians (Dietrich Fischer-Diskau and Placido Domingo spring to mind) leave that heavenly door, for me, stubbornly shut, even as I can entirely hear how very, very well they sing, or to put it in the language of my chosen metaphor for this, how close to that heavenly door they routinely get without, for me, actually opening it.  A couple of the voices on my personal list are people that even regular opera and singing buffs may not have heard of.  Ruth Ziesak?  Arthur Davies?  As for Anna Kratochvilova, she only appeared on two ancient Supraphon CDs of the music of Martinu, and then she vanished completely, mourned, it would seem, only by me.  A number of these favourite singers of mine had, for me, only a short time as heavenly door openers, usually rather early in their careers.  I often get later recordings of such voices in the hope of hearing that special thing once again, but am then disappointed.

I speak of voices rather than singers, because it’s the voice I adore, and because the thing I adore is a gift, rather than anything that seems earned by the singer in question.  Yes, the singer must work hard, to clear away the barriers between me and that wonderful voice.  But if there’s no wonderful voice there, then all that clearing away is (for me) pointless.

It is clear to me, as I wander around the CD shops and note the prices and the availabilities of these and those CDs, that I am not the only one who responds to voices in this extreme, yes-or-no, love-it-or-leave-it way, and not the only one who will do almost anything to hear that perfect sound once again, if that’s what anyone thinks it is.  This is the basic reason why classical singers are still being recorded by the major profit-seeking labels.  Such a singer has addicted fans, who will buy anything that this singer sings.  Better yet, they will pay whatever price is demanded.  Their demand is, as the economists say, inelastic.  That the stuff the singers thus adored record has already been recorded hundreds of times by hundreds of other singers matters not.  And because it can be the same old stuff being sung by a new and unique star with a (for some) uniquely beautiful voice, that makes it something (for them) wonderful and new.  Thus, new star singers get the big classical recording labels serenely past their otherwise biggest problem, which is the stagnation of the classical repertoire.

Star singers are also critic-proof.  Critics disapprove of several of the singers on my list.  Critics routinely prefer Domingo to Pavarotti, and almost any soprano to Barbara Hendricks, whom I worship, but who is lucky to get three stars out of five for her recordings these days.  (Typically she gets two.) She still cries all the way to the bank, or such is my understanding of her continued CD selling power.

In contrast, as I say, when I hear a new instrumental CD that captivates me, my likely response is to keep an eye open not for other recordings by the same artist or artists, but for other recordings of the same piece or pieces, recordings made by other labels and as likely as not quite a long time ago.  This is no good to the record label which put out the recording that first got me hooked.  They don’t have exclusive contracts with particular pieces, only with particular performers.  And the performers who, for them, really perform, are not the instrumentalists but the singers.

Thus it is that the star singer aspect of the classical music recording business has an odd, rather anachronistic feel to it.  The old rules still apply.  Huge sums of money are still exchanged.  Huge cardboard cut-outs of the stars still haunt the CD shops.  It’s like the crisis of the classical recording industry doesn’t apply to singers.  To a big extent that’s true.

It’s beside my central point in this posting, but I will end by mentioning that musical addiction, both to voices and to instrumental pieces, is one of the big reasons why I like CDs, and almost fear attending concerts.  What if I show up at a live event, and the door of heaven is opened?  (For me.) I may never hear this moment again, or anything even resembling it, unless I get lucky and my evening just happens to become the basis of a live recording.  On the other hand, if a moment in a CD opens that heavenly door for me, I sometimes, if I am not careful, play it over and over again, at which point the door may stop working and get stuck shut.  But what the hell, even if the door only remained open a few times, that’s still better than just the once, followed by a life of longing to hear the magic again.