[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
By MICHAEL WHITE
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
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
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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