Binge-worthy classical box set raises important questions
Bargain of the year (century?) is Warner's 15 CD box The Art of Nikolaus Harnoncourt which Amazon UK are currently selling for £19.75*. The goodies are too numerous to list, but I would particularly highlight Harnoncourt's Bruckner Seventh with the Vienna Philharmonic, an interpretation which cleansed the ears of Bruckner experts. With masterly performances ranging from Biber to Dvořák, this bargain box is a salutary reminder of what a great loss it was when Harnoncourt died in 2016.
But is £19.95 too cheap for 15 superlative CDs? As long ago as 2005 I dared to ask Is recorded classical music too cheap? More recently I ventured to suggest that the unlimited supply of classical music via streaming was harming concert attendances. That suggestion was probably a mistake for two reasons. First, failing to effusively praise streaming is as unpopular as failing to effusively praise social media - in the digital age the wisdom of crowds must not be questioned. Secondly, singling out streaming obscured the real thrust of my thesis - that irreversible shifts in consumer behaviour driven by new technologies mean classical music can no longer resist seismic change.
I remain a fervent supporter of live classical music - there are not many people who travel 2000 miles to hear the Mozart Requiem. But it is years since I travelled the 100 miles to a concert in London. Why suffer a horrendously expensive and unreliable train journey and overpriced mediocre food to sit next to someone who alternates between checking their phone and coughing, when I can listen to Harnoncourt's Bruckner in hi-fidelity for less than a cup of lukewarm coffee on Liverpool Street Station? Of course the answer is not to raise the price of recorded music, because streaming and bargain CD boxes will not go away. The answer is for the classical industry finally to accept profound structural change. Which means tackling the oversupply of live classical music, and abandoning a celebrity-centric business model based on hideously expensive acoustically perfect city centre concert halls.
Streaming's preeminence means that classical music is now not far away from the rock business model where live gigs are no more than loss-leaders aimed at promoting sales of recorded music. Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Guardian obituary lauded him as "one of the most innovative and influential conductors of the second half of the 20th century". We are very fortunate to have his recorded legacy. But one thing is certain, the rate of innovation in the classical music industry must now accelerate significantly if the art form wants to keep pace with its rewired audience.
* Stateside CD prices are invariably lower than Europe. But in this case they are higher: Amazon US' price is currently $34.98. No review samples used for this post. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).