Classical music's next big thing is Karajan 2.0

Anybody who has been around the classical music industry for some time will be struck by the remarkable similarity between the portrait of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla on the cover of her first release for Deutsche Grammophon and Siegfried Lauterwasser's brooding photo of Herbert von Karajan used on Deutsche Grammophon's 1979 vinyl release of the Beethoven Symphonies seen below.

I tread on very dangerous ground here as expressing anything other than effusive praise for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla simply prompts the usual social media tongue lashing. So let me make it clear right now that this release of symphonies by the neglected Mieczysław Weinberg is very laudable. Moreover, let me also make it clear that there has never been a single artistic or personal criticism of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla on this blog. But what I have expressed several times are reservations about the way that classical music's next big things are marketed.

That Beethoven cycle by Karajan was released forty years ago. Just compare archive TV footage from that period with the latest Netflix output. Visual styles and visual expectations have changed dramatically. Classical music lusts for a big, new, young audience, yet the visual style of album artwork has not changed at all. At which the falsehood that sleeve artwork no longer matters because streaming is the dominant classical format will undoubtedly be trotted out. So let's lay that one to rest: UK market figures for last year show that almost 60% - a clear majority - of album sales were in CD format, and classical CD sales actually increased. In the same year streaming accounted for just 25% of classical consumption - less than half that of physical CD sales. By contrast 64% of total UK recorded music sales came from streaming. So the preeminence of classical streaming is a myth propagated by rock-indoctrinated major label executives to finally strangle the pesky classical CD which is a pain to produce and distribute.

That Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla portrait also raises the important question of whether it makes sense to relaunch classical music with the added ingredient of women and musicians of colour by forcing those new ingredients into the same straightjacket of cultural orthodoxy that has strangled the art form for years. And is Karajan an appropriate marketing role model for the 21st century? In the Independent cultural commentator and social media influencer Norman Lebrecht denounced "The clapped-out legacy of Karajan that impoverished classical music" and described him as "to all effects the Nazi poster boy". Norman is never wrong, is he? So if Karajan really was a Nazi poster boy, does paying visual homage to him in 2019 make sense?

I really hope DG sells shed loads of Weinberg's symphonies. But in conclusion, to anyone who still thinks misguided hyping of the next big thing is the way forward for classical music, I will just say two words - Gustavo Dudamel.

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P.B. said…
The tweet is confusing. If it is a veiled criticism of you and your blog, I can't see it. "Very little live experience," "based solely on hype," "particularly superior manner"? Literally the last phrases that anyone can associate with this blog.

Very excited to tuck into the Weinberg symphonies.
Pliable said…
Yes PB. In the UK there is a powerful clique of journalists who enjoy the patronage of the classical establishment. They adopt a superior attitude about freedom of speech and rant against people who block them on Twitter, while themselves blocking those who commit the heresy of expressing views different to their own.

At this time of year they spend much time bragging about their comps to country house operas - classical music's most superior expression - and would never dare to even nibble at the ethically-compromised hand that feeds them. And in their hands the straightjacket of classical orthodoxy remains firmly in place. (Incidentally I do not include Norman Lebrecht in that criticism. Norman and I have had countless run-ins, but while I was on social media he never resorted to authoritarian blocking.)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but being out of favour with the classical industry's social media influencers will never hurt or sway me. And despite the cliques' close links with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, those Weinberg symphonies are very well worth exploring.
Sanssouci said…
Thank you once again for another fine conversation starter; it DID accomplish that when I reposted it on my FB feed. One question I - and several others - had about the BPI report was what unit of measure were they using? The one reference I found was "Classical albums or their equivalent", so the increases were in total UNITS? Other metrics could have been dollars/GBP, hours listened to, etc. so just hoping for clarification. As always, your insights are always appreciated! Be well!

Pliable said…
Qi, many thanks for raising that question, and, may I say, many thanks to you and your Facebook followers for drilling down into my post. It is reassuring and refreshing to find people actually dwelling on posts like this, rather than speed reading them.

I do not have a definitive answer to your question. But my view is the BPI were not measuring units, they were measuring Album Equivalent Sales (AES).
The following explanation is taken from the BPI website at

'Album Equivalent Sales (AES) is a standard industry metric enabling sales & streaming to be measured on a comparable basis so that total music consumption can effectively be gauged. This analysis converts all streams & sales data to 'Album Equivalent Sales' (AES). Physical & digital album sales have been included as per the Official Charts database, but the cumulative total for individual track sales has been divided by 10 (to provide a 'Track Equivalent Album'(TEA) figure) while the audio streaming total has been divided by 1,000 (as 100 streams=one track sale and 10 track sales=one album) to provide a Stream Equivalent Albums (SEA) figure.'

There was discussion of the problem of measuring album sales in the age of streaming and downloads in a 2014 post here titled 'Confused by music streaming? So is the record industry' -

I hope this helps provide at least some clarification and thanks for sharing my post and giving it serious consideration.
mathias broucek said…
I agree it's a rather odd cover.

But kudos to Gražinytė-Tyla and to DG for launching with under-recorded repertoire rather than yet another Mahler 1 or Tchaikovsky 6. Perhaps having been brave the repertoire they decided to go conservative with the cover?

Was rather sad to see that Petrenko's first BPO recording is Tchaikovsky 6. I thought it was a decent performance but if only they'd put out his Schmidt 4!

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