Classical's Million-Sellers; to Introduce His New Book on the Music Industry, Our Columnist Reveals the Most Popular Recordings of All Time

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Classical's Million-Sellers; to Introduce His New Book on the Music Industry, Our Columnist Reveals the Most Popular Recordings of All Time


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

EVERY list of musical greats, and barely a month goes by without one, is, to a degree, subjective. A panel of "experts", sometimes assisted by a public opinion poll, will sift a century of recordings and weightily declare that, for want of a living icon, Maria Callas is the finest soprano ever to have sung.

There is nothing scientific about picking musical greats. Even when a historian attempts to identify 100 formative recordings - as I did for two years on this page - the results are disputable. No one can prove empirically that Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations album of 1955 is more important than his 1981 retake, or more definitive than prior releases by Wanda Landowska (1933 and 1945) and later ones by Andras Schiff, Keith Jarrett, Ton Koopman, Murray Perahia, Tatiana Nikolayeva and Angela Hewitt.

Sometimes the one I really need to hear late at night is wild-man Jarrett on the Munichbased ECM label (sorry, Glenn). In the end it all boils down to a matter of personal taste and the time of day.

The only concrete way to measure musical merit is by testing global impact, and the only way of counting that is by cashtill sales. Easier said than done. Until recently, labels have kept sales figures more tightly under lock and key than executive salaries, and for much the same reason. Many classics sell fewer than 500 CDs worldwide while the men who commission them make half a million dollars minimum. It is hard to tell which truth is more embarrassing.

Lately, however, store-tracking technology and waves of label sackings have brought secrets into the open. Access to store data and former execs allowed me, while writing a history of classical recording, to compile for the very first time an all-time bestsellers list.

With facts in hand from internal and external sources, I persuaded every major label but one to confirm their top-sellers and the one that refused, Deutsche Grammophon, to give me a yes/no answer to straight questions. The resultant list is accurate within normal margins of error and surprised me in many respects, not least with the modesty of the numbers. In a century of recording, no more than 25 classics topped a million sales.

Remarkably, the top two classical sellers are projects which, like the Beatles, were turned down serially before they reached the studio. So little faith did Decca have in recording Wagner's Ring that producer John Culshaw had to apply to the board all over again for each opera, at one point facing a last-minute demand to replace his soulmate conductor Georg Solti with a venerably inappropriate German.

Success, though, was instantaneous.

Rheingold, the first segment, entered the Billboard charts in May 1959 one slot below Elvis Presley and is credited with converting more middleclass homes to stereo than any other record. Today, 10 years after Solti's death and with 20 rivals in the racks, Decca's Ring continues to outsell the pack, standing out as the greatest monument of classical production.

Similar scepticism greeted the plan to unite three tenors in an open-air concert in Rome during the 1990 soccer World Cup. Five major labels couldn't see the point. The sixth, Decca, signed up on condition that Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras and conductor Zubin Mehta shared a million-dollar one-off fee and waived all royalties. When sales went cosmic, the singers went ballistic. Pavarotti got a million-buck under-the table-sweetener from Decca but the others, empty-handed, took their follow-up elsewhere. Warner scored heavily at the World Cup of 1994 in America but burned up the brand.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons makes number three in the charts - no surprise there.

But the artists involved are not the ones you'd expect. The Italian chamber group I Musici, founded in 1952, were the first to play Vivaldi in stereo half a century ago and their version never went out of print. …

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