Thursday, November 02, 2006

Berlin Philharmonic box stupid

How about an annual award for the weirdest attempt to market classical music? We’ve already seen the London Symphony Orchestra targeting babies as a new audience, a concerto for tap dancer, and classical music night-clubs. Now comes the Berlin Philharmonic’s contribution to this bonanza of weirdness, the launch of their own record label with 12 individual CDs celebrating the orchestras 125th anniversary of the orchestra. Not too much weird about that you may say, but read on. The recordings are of live performances licensed from German radio stations, and many of them have never been commercially released, although a quick browse through the titles probably explains why.

The full price single CD releases range from a 1913 acoustic recording of Alfred Hertz and Arthur Nikisch conducting Wagner, to Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the non-period orchestra in a 2002 mixed bag of Bach. The only 20th century composers represented are rather predictably Shostakovich, Debussy, Richard Strauss and Mahler, and a little less predictably Milhaud with his Suite Française. Hardly new music, and this is a real missed opportunity for the orchestra that gave first performances of much contemporary music including Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, op. 31 2nd version in 1928. It is difficult to believe there were there no radio recordings of the many contemporary compositions by Pfitzner, Hindemith and the many other composers I wrote about in Furtwängler and the forgotten new music.

Now thinking that many people will pay £15 ($27) for a 1928 recording of Jascha Horenstein conducting a single Bruckner symphony, or for David Oistrakh conducting Tchaikosky in 1972 when you can download an apparantely non-copyright recording of Stokowski conducting the same work for free is pretty weird, but things get even weirder. The Berlin Philharmonic anniversary edition comes in those nasty, easily damaged, sleeves which the industry calls digipacks and I call cardboard. But it doesn’t end there. Follow this link and look at the front of the sleeve in the photograph and tell me if you can see anything wrong? Yes, the name of the conductor and orchestra is there but the name of the work does not. And as any retailer will tell you a CD that doesn’t tell the customer on the front the name of the music is dead in the water.

But my header photograph gives the story away. Some smart marketing person at the orchestra decided to produce a 12 CD box of historic recordings. Unfortunately the good burghers of Berlin didn’t buy the lavish edition in the numbers expected, and the hapless orchestra was left with a lot of stock. So someone had the bright idea of splitting up the boxes and selling the individual CDs at full price. The only problem was that everyone person was so dazzled by the brilliance of that solution they just didn’t notice that the names of the works were missing off the covers.

For more on the orchestra take An Overgrown Path to the Berlin Philharmonic’s darkest hour

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