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What? The Same Old Song Again?

October 30, 1994|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

Not for today's column the usual evaluations of new recordings. Rather, dark thoughts on how much of the same thing is issued each month. "Commentary," if you will.

Recently I picked up another Times, New York's, and found a page dense with reproductions of the covers of five almost simultaneously released CDs of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. The accompanying article would surely deal with the horrors of recorded multiplication, nyet ?; wry commentary on how certain compositions are breeding like rabbits, with others, that were once relative rarities--Rocky Two among them--headed in the same direction.

But no, it wasn't a call for the industry to start practicing birth control. It was a "comparative review," as we used to call the process when publications for record mavens proliferated in the land. I'm incapable of that--i.e., exhaustive listening to five recordings of the same hour-long thing.

Nor do I possess the requisite passion for and skill at determining the expressivity inherent in that timpani thwack in measure 67 as filtered through the sensibility of Maestro A vs. that of Maestro B (and, in this instance, D, E and F). Call me a big-picture person. Or lazy.

Hundreds of classical CDs are issued every month. Within this presumed bounty inevitably lurks worthwhile, underexposed repertory as well as necessary interpretive updating to suit certain current stylistic trends. More arcanely, there will be the occasional valid performance based on a new edition, with actual differences in the notes being played.

My inspiration, so to speak, for tackling this subject--before I'd seen that page in the New York Times--was the arrival of a mere four new recordings of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" within a two-week span, four added to the 50-plus of that presumed pillar of the repertory already listed in the Opus catalogue. (One has to wonder what they put into the feed of the A&R people.) All that money being spent to stuff the catalogue, as if it were a Strasbourg goose.

Still, when the poor bird gets overstuffed, it produces a valuable, edible product. Please, no protests yet: This is not intended as endorsement of the barbaric pate-making process--and I don't eat liver, anyway. End of poultry metaphor.

Rhetorical question: Where are the customers for all those recordings of the "Symphonie Fantastique"? To state the matter in the most hyperbolic terms: What we have here is oversupply for nonexistent demand.

You might think my commentary is intended as a blast at the industry majors for ignoring non-standard repertory. Not quite.

For, although there remains worthy material that's unrecorded, or awaits recorded justice, there have been innumerable pleasant surprises in recent years--being specific would require more space than I'm accorded in several months--hardly less frequently from the industry giants than from the presumably enterprising little people. No, my larger worry concerns what this multiplication is doing to the majors' finite (reason dictates) classical budgets.

The recording companies state that they have to keep refreshing the old favorites by redoing them with putatively hot artists and/or up-to-date technology--today, 20-bit Supermapping (Overbiting?), or whatever the latest unfathomable and who gives-a-damn wrinkle may be.

A better argument (which they use, but somewhat shamefacedly, when they'll talk to a journalist at all about figures) is that they owe it to a certain artist, who has labored long for them and brought in the bucks, to have another go at it--because he or she has new thoughts on the subject. Fair enough.

Yet this isn't just about stars. Much of what is already over-recorded continues to come at us from musicians with little to offer either artistically or commercially. And, anyway and finally (for now), how many meaningful variants can you wrench from or impose on the same set of notes? At a certain point--long before we've reached the number 50--we stop caring.

Three years ago, the head of one of the major labels predicted a "great shakeout" in the industry, predicated on just such overkill. He and his company thereupon proceeded to give us music with which the market was super-saturated long before: the six Tchaikovsky symphonies twice , from the same conductor (OK, two different orchestras, but still).

And I could cite similar, if not as egregiously unnecessary, outpourings from the competition. . . .


It's the UPS man with another Mendelssohn Violin Concerto! The third in as many weeks--I swear --to slake consumer cravings unsatisfied by the 55 (excluding arrangements for flute) already in the catalogue.

In other businesses, putting out too much product results in wrist slaps and, eventually, the spigot's being turned off. Somebody up there eventually notices when big money is involved.

So what worries me is the specter of the money supply being more drastically curtailed than even this headily out-of-control situation warrants, with the worthwhile losing out along with the superfluous.

C'mon, big guys, practice a little abstinence.

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