How the Classical Record Industry Is Fighting Back; Musical Milestone: Chinese Pianist Lang Lang Displays His Affinity with Beethoven on His New Recordings Overkill: Piano Concertos by Helene Grimaud and Mikhail Pletnev Both Feature as Part of Deutsche Grammophon's Glut of Beethoven

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

How the Classical Record Industry Is Fighting Back; Musical Milestone: Chinese Pianist Lang Lang Displays His Affinity with Beethoven on His New Recordings Overkill: Piano Concertos by Helene Grimaud and Mikhail Pletnev Both Feature as Part of Deutsche Grammophon's Glut of Beethoven


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

STAND by for the autumn floods. A glut of new classical CDs is beingrushed into the stores in an effort to counter my assertion in a recent bookthat the industry is dead. The Lebrecht Effect is how one music magazinedescribes the flush of new signings.

"We're going to take on the detractors, and sell more core classical music,"declares one suit.

Well, about time, too. The last three major labelsthere used to be sixare pulling out the stops. Deutsche-Grammophon-Decca has doubled its output tothree dozen releases between now and Christmas. EMI has signed pianists EvgenyKissin and Ingrid Fliter, and the soprano Kate Royal. Sony-BMG is considering14 possible signings, of whom violinist Lisa Batiashvili is first to the mic,with a new concerto by Magnus Lindberg.

This, by vital signs alone, is more life than labels have shown in five yearsand much to be welcomed. But the moment you look beyond the press pack, thepicture fades to sepia and bad old practice resumes. Take Sony-BMG, stagnantfor a year and now revived. Its autumn campaign is built around souvenirs ofGlenn Goulddead these 25 yearsand, wait for it, a brand new Joshua Bell recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasonshardly something the world has been holding its breath for.

EMI, close behind, has recorded Sarah Chang in the Four Seasons. Decca-DGmeanwhile is bringing back a Christopher Hogwood Season. Now think very hardbefore you try to answer this question, because it's a matter of life and deathfor the industry. Can anyone figure out why record stores are going bust whenthere are 435 Four Seasons in the racks and still more to come? A congestioncharge ought to be levied on any label that submits another box of Venetianimitations.

Past congestion turns to painful constipation when the same label issues two ormore simultaneous accounts of the same work. Deutsche Grammophon, once thestandard bearer of classical records, is bringing out a new cycle of Beethovenpiano concertos with the Russian Mikhail Pletnev. No, make that two cyclesPletnev and Lang Lang. If this isn't enough, there's also an Emperor Concertofrom Helene Grimaud.

Even a piano loon like me who cannot wait to hear what new contenders make ofthe big Bs might feel confused and abused by a label that flings out three Thesets at a total price of more than [pounds sterling]100.

Which, if any, is worth buying? Grimaud, a French pianist who runs a sanctuaryfor Canadian wolves, announces in her pre-publicity that "the piano concerto islike a beast for whom one has incredible respect". Anthropomorphisms aside, shegives an unexpectedly cool account of the Emperor, restrained in pace anddelicately textured.

The cadenzas are traditional and the interplay with the Dresden orchestra,conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, is deftly playful. If Grimaud has little to addto the sum of past interpretation, she conveys at least an agreeableindividuality.

Of the two pianists going head to head in complete cycles, the Manchuriancandidate is the more intriguing. Lang Lang, 25, has been playing Beethovensince he was a tot in Shenyang and, while I have heard the spike-hairedcrowd-pleaser wreck a concert by striving too hard for audience effect, here hedelivers a touchingly lyrical account of the first and fourth concertos, withChristoph Eschenbach conducting the Orchestre de Paris.

There is a slightly hard edge to the The sheer joy pianist's tone, as there isto his English accent, but it comes over as a token of his cultural struggle,his wide-eyed, uncluttered outlook. Lang Lang, more than mere showman, hasfeelings for Beethoven. …

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