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In October, journalist Ivan Hewitt reported classical-music recordings were enjoying their biggest sales in years, due largely to the scarcity of live performances resulting from COVID-19 lockdowns. Downloads and streaming led the way, but hard-copy sales were up too.
Hewitt didn’t report what people were buying, but record companies’ data is instructive on two levels.
Level 1: Classical musicians and record labels remain indifferent to complaints by social-justice warriors that classical music lacks “diversity.”
Counting new hard-copy, digital, or streaming recordings and compilations, the Top 10 most-recorded composers were, from top to bottom: Beethoven (2020 marked his 250th birthday), Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Handel—all white, all male, all Eurocentric, and all but one (Debussy) contemporaneous with the Atlantic slave trade.
Apparently, at least some of the giants on whose shoulders society stands still lie beyond the iconoclastic reach of cancel culture.
Level 2: Classical musicians and record labels lead the fight against the idea that supply should be driven only by demand. There were approximately 500 new Beethoven recordings or compilations in 2020, one of them a 123-disc box (Deutsche Grammophon/Decca’s Beethoven 2020: The New Complete Edition)—more Beethoven than anyone could be expected to take in.
The situation wasn’t all that different with Bach (the subject of approximately 300 new releases), Mozart (over 200), or Schubert (approximately 150). Even fans of Vivaldi, Haydn, and Liszt (Nos. 11-13 on 2020’s most-released-composer list) had more titles to choose from than there are weeks in the year. Most of these titles stood little chance of turning a significant profit, so something besides wealth and fame drove the dedicated people who made and released them anyway.
The takeaway: With so many musicians willing to perform Beethoven and others out of love rather than obligation to the bottom line, the instinct for doing something worthwhile for its own sake—an instinct vital to a truly free society—is at least alive and maybe even well.
One performer who received a boost from the streamosphere in 2020 was the late jazz pianist Jacques Loussier.
Play Bach (UMG), originally released on CDs in 2017, chronologically compiles the five Play Bach albums that Loussier recorded for Decca from 1959 to 1964. He, Christian Garros (drums), and Pierre Michelot (double bass) jazzified Bach without dumbing him down or gimmicking him up (much).
His most imaginative was Play Bach No. 4 (Tracks 30-34 in Play Bach’s streaming version). Haunted throughout by an overdubbed church organ so ethereal that it might as well have been the ghost of Bach himself, No. 4 remains unique in the best sense of the word.
—This story appears in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue under the headline “Classical comeback.”