Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ring out the new, ring in the old


This is the season for album of the year listings. By convention these lists are dominated by new releases, and it is now time to question that convention. Promoting new recordings at the expense of the old is a longstanding practice. But in the past the recorded catalogue was not so comprehensive and technology developments were delivering genuine improvements in recording quality. Whereas today's new releases all too often offer lacklustre accounts by celebrity musicians of a limited repertoire - Mahler, Shostakovich etc - recorded at concert performances in compromised sound. Which is why it is many years since I bought a Simon Rattle album, and why I have never bought one by Gustavo Dudamel. Judgements of merit have been replaced by the commercial imperative of the new. Dead musicians do not earn big commissions for management agents, record company and retailer margins are slim on budget reissues, and Arturo Toscanini and Pau Casals cannot brief their to place Guardian advertorials showcasing their human rights advocacy.

During 2016 much of my listening was devoted to great recordings from the past: the Bruno Walter Edition and two boxes of Stokowski reissues are just two examples which have featured On An Overgrown Path. But my listening has not been confined to recent reissues. A while back I wrote about about my experiments using chance techniques to create a playlist from my extensive CD collection, and this has prompted me to explore the riches on the shelves of my CD library, a trend that will continue in 2017. Albums of the year should be chosen on their ability to inspire and to refresh the spirit, not for their conformity to an ailing business model. The prominence given in 2016 by critics to Warner's reissue of Zuzana Růžičková playing J.S. Bach: The Complete Keyboard Works suggests that even the most dedicated followers of music fashion are realising that classical music's next big thing is, in fact, classical music's last big thing.

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