[Dixielandjazz] Not OKOM, but....

Fr M J (Mike) Logsdon mjl at ix.netcom.com
Wed Jan 5 11:35:47 PST 2005

... could definitely be of interest to some, recording-history-speaking.


   The New York Times
   January 5, 2005

   Twilight of the CD Gods? A Studio 'Tristan' May Be the Last Ever


   LONDON, Jan.  4 - The EMI recording studios at Abbey Road in
   north London are always a surprise when you walk through the
   modest regency-villa facade and find yourself in a citadel
   of sound technology.  It's like passing through some
   science-fiction barrier from one world into the next: a magical
   world that has embraced all categories of music making since
   the 1930's.

   It was here that the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin recorded
   Elgar's Violin Concerto under the composer's baton.  Here
   that the Beatles made their soundtrack to the 60's, turning
   the adjacent zebra crossing into one of London's tourist
   sights.  And here that through the holiday period an army of
   orchestral players, singers, agents and sound technicians has
   been gathering in Studio One - the largest and most celebrated
   studio in the world, despite its resemblance to a school
   gymnasium - for what many in the business think will be another
   landmark of recording history, touched this time with sadness
   and nostalgia.

   The mood can be judged from comments in the cafeteria: "Make
   the most of it," and "There won't be many more like this."

   And what is "this"?  It's a gargantuan, million-dollar recording
   of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," put together as a now-or-never
   enterprise for the tenor Placido Domingo but also as a last,
   heroic stand from a classical CD industry so crushed by
   economic pressures that many consider it in terminal decline.

   To sit in Studio One while Antonio Pappano beams encouragement
   to the Royal Opera House Orchestra and cues Mr. Domingo
   (Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde) or - the ultimate in luxury
   casting - Rolando Villazon or Ian Bostridge in the cameo roles
   of Steersman and Shepherd is to bask in a sense that all is
   right with the world.  But in truth, this probably represents
   the end of the line for large-scale studio recordings of
   familiar operas, which have increasingly been shunted aside
   by the newer, flashier and - above all - cheaper medium of
   live DVD, filmed onstage, in performance.

   "The public listens with its eyes today," said Peter Alward,
   who has just retired as president of EMI Classics after 34
   years with the company and who planned this "Tristan" as his
   parting shot.  A giant in the classical recording world, Mr.
   Alward has watched the business boom and (very nearly) bust,
   scaling down from a time when EMI made four or five studio
   operas a year, to now, when there are hardly any.

   "So don't expect any more studio 'Carmens' or 'Toscas,'"
   Mr. Alward said in a rapid machine-gun voice that has called
   several generations of wayward recording artists to order.
   "It's straightforward economics.  An average opera might cost
   $600,000 in the studio, and this one, being large-scale Wagner
   and involving extra sessions, is nearly double.  An average
   DVD deal these days can be got for $200,000.  And that somewhat
   dictates our course of action.

   "I don't believe there's any compromise on sound quality.
   DVD may not be as pristine as studio recording, but with
   digital technology and new microphone techniques it's pretty

   As a result, EMI has no specific plans for studio-recorded
   operas after "Tristan," but a series of Strauss and Wagner
   DVD's from the Zurich Opera continues.  And there are similar
   signs of retraction and retrenchment in its nonoperatic
   activity.  In the boom years of the 80's EMI issued 110
   classical titles a year.  Last year it released 40.  It's
   not simply a matter of falling sales.

   "It's more that the market has become short-term," Mr. Alward
   said.  "When I started out, a new recording had a shelf-life
   of five to eight years, which allowed time to recoup the
   costs.  But now, unless a CD gets its moment in the sun in
   the first year, it's hard to get sales levels up."

   Production costs, meanwhile, have soared.  This "Tristan"
   involved 14 full sessions with the orchestra.

   "The orchestra is always the single most expensive ingredient,"
   Mr. Alward said.  "Whatever you read in the press, the stars'
   fees are not the issue.  Far from going up, they're going
   down, and they've come down appreciably since the 80's when,
   company by company, we were played off mercilessly by artists'

   In the 80's, to a large extent, musicians performed concerts
   to develop careers on disc, which was where the money lay.
   Now it is the opposite.

   "The stars are realistic enough to know that," Mr. Alward
   said.  "I can assure you that although Placido gets a fee
   commensurate with his status, it's not outlandish."

   so is there a bright side to the scaling down of the recording
   industry?  "Oh, there are benefits," Mr. Alward said.  "During
   the 80's we went mad, making far too many records, many of
   them, frankly, not so good.  And we madeludicrous commitments
   to artists for 5, 8, 10 CD's a year, to the point where
   musicians were going into the studio and saying, 'O.K., what
   is it today?' Painful as it was to reduce the output, we can
   now focus on every single project and allocate our resources
   more sensibly.  There will have to be a damned good reason
   to do the next Beethoven symphony cycle, however fiercely the
   next great conductor believes the world is waiting for it."

   From the artist's point of view, the outlook is the same.
   Tristan is Mr. Domingo's 120th operatic role and something
   like his 80th full opera recording.

   "I've lost count," he said, "although I know that in the old
   days there were two to four every summer, and it's no longer
   like that, which makes me sad.  There are advantages to DVD.
   It gives a chance to a broader variety of singers, not just
   the same few star names over and over.  But unless the
   circumstances are exceptional, it won't give you the best
   performances, or the best casts."

   Nor, he might add, would it give you Mr. Domingo as Tristan,
   because he has never sung the role onstage and never will.
   Although he has been singing Wagner since 1968 (Lohengrin in
   Hamburg) and has appeared as Parsifal and Siegfried, he
   considers the four relentless hours of heldentenor singing
   in "Tristan" too much for his kind of lyric tenor.

   "He was cruel, Mr. Wagner, in the length of his writing,"
   Mr. Domingo said.  "In 'Tristan,' by the time you finish the
   love duet, you could be having a baby, God help you.  So I've
   always turned it down.  I've had offers from Bayreuth and
   Vienna, and I was tempted because I do love this role.  But
   all the time I think: 'Vocally, this will shorten my career,
   and how long do I have now?  Three years?  Four?  Who knows?'
   So I stay with the studio, where I can take it bit by bit."

   Taking it bit by bit also helps him focus on stylistic issues,
   which are always a concern when Latin voices muscle up for

   "Speaking for myself," he said, "I wonder whether a Latin
   voice can be completely idiomatic in Wagner.  Perhaps not.
   So this is something I work on."

   For "Tristan" he has been working hard behind the scenes with
   Mr. Pappano, the conductor, squeezing coaching sessions into
   crowded schedules, and an endearing mutual affection shows
   in Mr. Pappano's exuberance at Abbey Road.

   "The way Placido does that last 'Isolde,' " he told the
   orchestra when the red light went off, "is the reason to buy
   the record.  Fabulous.  I love it.  More!"

   And so the session goes on in the surreal way of all recording
   work, with the singers being total characters vocally, attacking
   top notes, spitting venom, but doing it with their arms folded
   or their hands in their pockets.  It is the nature of the
   studio to play for sound not vision.

   Mr. Domingo, meanwhile, walks into a side room sucking throat
   lozenges.  At this point in the drama he is a corpse.  But
   not for long.  Another feature of the studio is that you do
   not record the story as it comes.  In half an hour he will
   be back in Isolde's arms (or more precisely, back beside her
   at the microphone).

   When he will be back at Abbey Road remains an issue.  He has
   plenty of plans for the next three or four years, including
   Tan Dun's new opera "The Emperor," but they are almost all
   on the stage.  The only certain dates in the studio are to
   complete an Albeniz rarity already half done and to plug the
   one significant hole in his Puccini discography with "Edgar."

   In the meantime, he insists, he will not be filling in his
   vacant hours running the Metropolitan Opera ("In four years'
   time, perhaps, but they need someone now") or adorning his
   pension with crossover projects.  Asked whether there was any
   likelihood of the Three Tenors' reuniting for a last Last
   Stand, he made a face before replying sweetly, "Would you
   want them to?"

   Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company,


Fr M J "Mike" Logsdon
North American Old Roman Catholic Church (Utrecht Succession)

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