On DG there are new recordings of Witold Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto and Symphony No. 2 conducted by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.
NMC is celebrating the life of Steve Martland with a two-disk set that includes Horses of Instruction, Patrol and Crossing the Border. It is currently available for pre-order.
Galina Ustvolskaya was a composer whose uncompromising style led to its almost complete neglect in Soviet Russia. She was, however, widely admired, including by her teacher Shostakovich. The 11th volume of a survey of her music played by Natalia Andreeva is released this month on Divine Art, together with a new disk featuring the clarinet music of Ian Mitchell.
On Col Legno, Austrian Heartbeats #2 is a programme of music by young composers selected by Georg Friedrich Haas: Marco Döttlinger, Peter Jakober, Hannes Kerschbaumer, and Manuela Meier.
On Navona Records Moto Continuo features contrasting works by Osias Wilenski, Nicholas, Anthony Ascioti, Diane Jones, John A. Carollo, Robert Fleisher and Brian Noyes.
On F-IRE, finally, something a bit different: Alex Hutton’s Magna Carta Suite, a lively and enjoyable crossover album that features elements of jazz and classical music.
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Max Richter’s new album on DG, the 8 hour Sleep is a gigantic set of variations that explore the way music can interact with states of consciousness. The complete work is only available as a digital download (no streaming) from iTunes where, it must be said, it has been gathering a string of five star reviews.
The piece, as the title suggests, is designed to be slept through, an idea that leaves me with mixed feelings. I can see that a more provocative work might affect the quality of a person’s sleep in a way that would be of artistic interest. I can’t, however, imagine this music achieving such an effect; its slow, minimalist beauty is certainly admirable but more likely, I would have thought, to induce a state of sleepy contentment.
If sleeping through a composer’s work seems perverse, an alternative would be to buy the one hour highlights disk, which is intended to be enjoyed fully conscious. This version is also available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music. If the full experience is of interest the 8 hour version is £24.99. Even better, there is also an opportunity to try before you buy: Radio 3 is broadcasting a complete performance from midnight on 26 September to 8am on 27 September. Despite my reservations the idea is a fascinating one, so I shall definitely be tuning in.
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One of my favourite radio shows at the moment is Radio 5 Live’s Film Review Programme, dubbed Wittertainment by its devoted army of listeners ('Hello to Jason Isaacs', by the way). It’s hosted by Simon Mayo with Mark Kermode as its resident film critic, the two of them being a cross between a warring couple and father and son, the former trying to discipline a recalcitrantly loquacious latter. As well as listening to the most recent programmes, I am so addicted I have been trawling my way through their back catalogue. Here are some of Mark Kermode’s views I decided to scribble down whilst listening to an episode from 2011:
‘It’s like Annie Hall meets the grim reaper without the jokes.’ (on the film Restless)
‘Passable waffle whilst it’s there.’ (on Monte Carlo)
‘I did watch the whole thing and I didn’t enjoy it very much.’ (on Reuniting the Rubins)
These were written down in a random moment when the idea for this blogpost came to mind. They’re actually pretty anodyne. A really terrible film will provoke a full-scale ‘Kermodian Rant’, a stream of invective that is, nevertheless, elegantly-phrased, well-argued and based on a massive store of film knowledge. Here’s a classic example: Mark Kermode’s monumental dismissal of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
The criticism is passionate, honest, well-informed, sometimes divisive and, frankly, not always right (though Kermode would disagree there). Listening to the programme I have been struck by the extent to which the passion, which cuts both ways (when Kermode likes a film he also really lets you know), sends me searching for a film, or at least adding it to my growing ‘to watch’ list. It has also made me seek out films in actual theatres, an activity that I was never that much interested in. I’ve recently paid good money for screenings of popcorn nonsense like Minions, Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible V and more thoughtful fare such as Conducta, Birdman and an arthouse screening of North by Northwest.
This reengagement with film is entirely down to good criticism. Which inevitably made me wonder why we don’t have this kind of energy in contemporary music criticism? I am not saying that it is terrible but, whilst there are certainly examples of scathing reviews, I more often have a creeping sense that critics are afraid to say exactly what they think. I read, for example, a recent thumbnail review of John Adams’ Absolute Jest in a national newspaper that said something along the lines of (I paraphrase) ‘I don’t subscribe so much to enthusiasm that others show for Adams music, but.…’ And so went on to give a generally lukewarm review. That opening phrase was actually pretty daring in the context of current criticism and I appreciated its honesty, but it had, nevertheless, a politeness that was crushingly dull. Why is this?
The first reason is, I think, is probably fair enough: criticising high art is, on the whole, a different proposition from criticising commercial art. With high art there is a level of competence in its execution that qualifies it to have that label in the first place. So a critic is probably right to be cautious in his approach, even if he should be constantly on the lookout for imposters: low art that is masquerading as high art. And I think the contemporary music scene has sufficient pretentious twaddle in it for critics to make things a bit livelier than they are. Why they don't is probably down to the second reason, which I think is much less excusable: the fear of being called out for being wrong, ill-informed, or, God forbid, simply ‘not understanding’ dear boy.
Do you know what? It’s okay to have an opinion, to risk being wrong, and to have a gut reaction on one hearing alone. These are deep waters, I know, since I’m only too aware that challenging music, as in any form of art, sometimes requires effort to achieve understanding and even enjoyment. Gut reactions matter, however, if we are to have a lively public discourse. Inflamed, partial even erroneous debate is healthy as, in the same way I have been inspired to go more to the cinema, it might lead curious audiences back to our concert halls.
What worries me is that currently all of the lively criticism is taking place behind closed doors. I’ve had some fabulous discussions with friends about recent Proms premieres, or the difficult music of old stalwarts. On one occasion I told someone close to me to turn off Boulez’s Structures II because I thought the music was so ghastly. A lively debate has since ensued that has opened my mind to some of his works (the magical Pli Selon Pli, for example), whilst rather confirming my opinion about others. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum someone recently said to me that they thought Steve Reich’s The Desert Music to be the greatest orchestral (ok it has voices too) work of the last four decades. I went back to it and found it monumentally pretentious and, actually, quite dull. I’m probably wrong, but as Kermode himself would say: ’Other opinions are available.’ Mine matters too.
I realise I am maybe criticising others for something that I am guilty of myself; I am often quite cautious about criticising other composers in this blog. Actually I think this is probably right and proper. Whilst figures of the stature of Boulez and Reich can take care of themselves, this forum is a place for encouraging and supporting composers. And I don’t consider myself a critic. What I can’t help wishing, however, is that the real critics had a bit more Kermodian wit and verve. A livelier discourse might lead to a bit more enthusiasm about new music. In the meantime maybe it's incumbent on the rest of us to have and to share strong opinions about the music we listen too. We really don't have to like everything or, worse, pretend we understand everything. It’s time for us to have the courage to hate music.
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Members may remember Sound and Music’s commissioning survey from last year, which received a fair amount of gloomy press coverage. My own reaction was a little more positive, though maybe a little contrary; I would, of course, like to see composers paid a lot more. Sound and Music is currently running the survey again, which should give the first hints as to whether the situation is growing worse or better.
On this year’s survey, Susanna Eastburn, Chief Executive of Sound and Music, says:
Being invited to create a new work (and being paid for it) is a vital part of life and income as a professional composer. Last year’s findings sent ripples of shock around the world as it revealed just how little most composers are being paid to create music. Without composers, there would be no music, so I very much hope that we see some signs of improvement.
Listening is core to Sound and Music’s vision and is at the heart of everything we do. This survey is an important way that we can listen to what composers tell us about the realities of their working lives so that we can better understand and advocate for them and their work. I urge any composer reading this to take a few minutes to complete the survey, and I thank them for their time.
Head over to Sound and Music to make your contribution.
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I was enormously impressed to find Naxos disks available on Apple Music. Since starting to use the service, however, I’ve noticed a curious thing. Last month some albums that I had enjoyed and mentioned in a previous post – a disk of Piano Trios by Benet Casablancas, Bright Sheng’s Night at the Chinese Opera and a programme of music for winds by Chen Yi – mysteriously disappeared from my Apple Music library. I kept receiving this message:
I initially put this down to a bug in the software – I’ve experienced quite a few other issues with Apple music over my free trial period: dropped tracks, duplicate entries, search stops working, ongoing problems with iTunes Match, weird inconsistencies in the length of composer’s biographies (compare, for example, that of Mozart with the aforementioned, and comparatively unknown, Bright Sheng). Enough, in fact, for a separate blog post that would act as a bit of a corrective to my favourable review of Apple Music.
This month there was a bigger gap than normal between my checking out recent releases and writing about them. As usual I’d been over to Naxos, looked at their new albums and then added a few that interested me to my Apple Music library. These were a disk of John McCabe piano music, a composer who died recently and who deserves a bit of attention; an album of music by John Joubert, a name that is perhaps more well known than his actual music; and a symphony and cello concerto by Taiwanese composer Gordon Chin, who I don’t know at all. I’d dipped into the first two and listened to the whole of the Chin and planned to revisit a few times before writing this blog post.
Of course, when I returned a few days later, these tracks had also mysteriously disappeared, with the same unhelpful message. Today I’ve searched for some of the other Naxos new releases: some contemporary piano music from China; Krzysztof Meyer chamber music; Áskell Másson music for clarinet; Roman Berger chamber music; and Andrew Staniland’s Talking Down the Tiger. Only the Másson is available to me. It looks like the Staniland was available at some point since a search using the album title Talking Down the Tiger reveals the composer as an ‘artist’ next to a picture of that album, but with no trace of the actual album (a similar thing happens when you search for Bright Sheng):
It is a different story if you go back to music released before the advent of Apple Music. Those mentioned in my June CD roundup – albums by Boris Pigovat, Sofia Gubaidulina, Kaikhosro Shapurji Sorabji, Richard Danielpor and Pino Vargas – are all available for streaming. What on earth is going on?
It seems to me that Naxos, and possibly other labels, are trying to have their streaming cake and eat it. They are releasing albums for a few days on Apple Music, realising that the most likely point when they will receiving streaming revenue is when disks are new and customers (and reviewers!) are exploring them. Of course, if a customer then likes a disk, he is in for a disappointment when returning for another listen: the disk has disappeared and must now be purchased.
I have some sympathy for the reasons behind this. Naxos, a label I much admire, probably operates on wafer-thin margins; as such they need to do everything they can to maximise revenue. It just seems to me that this is not the solution. As well as losing customer good will, such an approach only works anyway if the disk is not reintroduced for streaming at a later point. The fact that older Naxos disks are still available suggests that these new releases will indeed be reintroduced. So what incentive does that leave the listener to buy, knowing full well that it will reappear at a later date? None. And what revenue does Naxos then earn whilst the disk is not available for streaming? None. Everyone is a loser.
I realise that record labels are adapting to new models of distributing their products. I can only hope that this reflects a period of experimentation on the part of Naxos and that they will soon realise that their approach is not beneficial to either the customer or themselves. In the meantime my straightforward advice to Apple Music users is: enjoy Naxos’s back catalogue – give them every bit of revenue you can to support their generally excellent work – but on no account feel forced to buy one of their new releases. You would be wasting your money.
Before writing this blog post I wrote to Naxos asking them to clarify their position regarding streaming of new releases. They did not reply.
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Musikfest Berlin (2nd–20th September)
Over the course of 19 days there will be 30 events featuring over 70 works by 25 composers, played by 30 orchestras, ensembles and by countless soloists. All this will take place at the Philharmonie, its Kammermusiksaal, the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, the Passionskirche and at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.
The Musikfest Berlin starts under the title Tehillim with an event on the eve of the opening concert in the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal: Steve Reich’s psalm recording, which will be performed by Ensemble Modern and the Synergy Vocals. Schönberg’s oeuvre unfolds in a series of 15 concerts interwoven with pieces by Gustav Mahler. The highlight of this series is the oratorio Die Jakobsleiter with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Ingo Metzmacher; and Glückliche Hand with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Michaels Reise um die Erde will be presented in a quasi-concertante version at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele on 18th.
Beethovenfest Bonn (4th September–4th October)
The festival, with a programme of 54 events, is being held under the motto ‘Variations’. Starting from Beethoven’s ‘33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli’, musical variations pervade the entire programme. Variations appear in large-scale orchestral works and in chamber music, in changes of instrumentation or in witty variations on variations.
Whilst the programme focuses on core classical repertoire, there is also some contemporary repertoire to be found. There is the first performance of a new version (for two cellos and orchestra) of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Two Paths on 11th; two chances to hear Salvatore Sciarrino’s Quando ci risvegliamo on 12th; and a concert of works by Iván Fischer on 20th.
There will also be three dance productions with live music paying homage to Beethoven the ‘avant garde’ composer. One of these, entitled Landscape, is being staged by the minimalist Saburo Teshigawara with composer/pianist Francesco Tristano and the dancer Rihoko Sato. It will also include music by J.S. Bach and John Cage.
Ultima: Oslo Contemporary Music Festival (10th–19th September)
Billed as ‘the premiere contemporary music festival in the Nordic region’, it takes place at venues all around Oslo: the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, Oslo Concert Hall and the University of Oslo’s Great Hall as well as in small clubs, shop premises, industrial premises, museums, schools and outdoors. The Ultima Festival aims to promote artistic distinctiveness, trends and innovation and to make music of a high artistic standard accessible by everyone.
Events include: Adam and Eve–a Divince Comedy, a new burlesque comic opera on fundamentalist religion and misogyny by Cecilie Ore on 11th and 12th; a chance to hear Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments in action on 12th; Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de L’Etoile for six percussionists, a spectacular work that has never been performed in Norway, on 16th; world premières from Jon Øivend Ness and Øyvind Torvund on 19th at 3pm and from Andre Bratten/Ole-Nerik Moe in the evening.
Also throughout the festival is the ULTIMA ACADEMY – a series of academic and public lectures, screenings and workshops in parallel with the Festival. The theme this year is ‘On Nature’.
Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music (18th-26th September)
The theme of the 58th Warsaw Autumn’s programme is dynamistatic, a word that describes music that is both static and dynamic at the same time. Though this is a rather convoluted hook on which to hang a lot of different music, it doesn’t distract from a lively and interesting programme. Composers represented include: La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier, Phill Niblock, Stefan Prins, Raphaёl Cendo, James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Philippe Manoury, Giacinto Scelsi, Toshio Hosokawa, Gérard Grisey, Ray Lee, Hans Abrahamsen, Paweł Szymański, Johannes Kreidler and Jagoda Szmytka. There will be a celebration to mark the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez and 80th of Helmut Lachenmann with a performances of Boulez’s Dérive and Lachenmann’s Air during the festival’s opening concert.
Interesting programming will also go hand-in-hand with lively presentation. Włodzimierz Kotoński’s Étude concrète (For One Cymbal Stroke) will, for example, be presented as an installation in a deserted century-old apartment house. It will run simultaneously with a second installation, which will discreetly present the voices of former residents of the house.
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Prom 31: 8th August, National Youth Orchestra
I was knocked sideways this morning when catching up on the latest Proms ‘première’ (actually it had already been performed twice on the NYO tour), Tansy Davies’s Re-greening. I expected urban grunge, the cliché that is oft applied to her music. Instead we got less urban, more urbane.
Alert: spoilers ahead! Follow this link to listen to the piece.
Davies explained before the performance a little about how the work was put together, the first novelty being that its 7-minute span is conductorless. Instead the work is constructed around a series of evenly spaced events with players within the orchestra initiating the material. Even given precise planning, such freedom presents dangers, especially in an orchestra as generously proportioned as the 164 member NYO. Not only did the ensemble make light of these challenges, hearing them do so was intrinsic to the success of the work.
164 young players responding to each other, acting together to produce a work without external control, somehow got to the essence not only of what the NYO is about, but what youth music making in general is about. Many young players, including those in this fine orchestra, will go on to non-musical careers, but the spirit of self-reliance, self-discipline and team cooperation that was magnified in this music are also life lessons. If local politicians realised this then maybe they wouldn't be so keen to take the knife to free instrumental tuition.
In purely musical terms I’m not sure how pick my superlatives, so deeply did the work impress me. It was a risk, especially, to ask the orchestra to sing, even more so to make use of something as tweely bucolic as Summer Is Icumen In and the heavenly but well-worn (see Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, for example) Tallis Canon. But it was the juxtaposition of the familiar and strange that made the journey so compelling, the found ideas set in sharp relief against dashing bursts of bright woodwind and strange, ravishingly orchestrated chords that for a moment seemed to join heaven with earth.
The piece was a triumph, further proof of the vibrancy, the absolute necessity of contemporary music. I’ve often banged on about how there’s something for everyone in our multi-faceted new music scene. At the Proms the evidence has been everywhere. We’ve had the brash showmanship of Gary Carpenter’s expertly crafted Dadaville; the more introspective and challenging landscapes of HK Gruber’s into the open… and Luke Bedford’s Instability; the tonal delights of Hugh Wood’s Epithalamion; and the rich thematic and harmonic world of MacMillan’s Symphony No.4. Good grief, on 7th we even had the treat of a Messiaen world première, the fairly recently discovered (and more recently orchestrated) Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (Oiseau tui). One can’t help but feel that we’re living in some kind of golden age, such is the array of delights on offer.
If you’ve missed out on any of the premières I urge you to visit BBC iPlayer or the Proms website. The easiest way to do it, in fact, is via the links in this blogpost, which takes you directly to the relevant website page. (Be aware that, however, that I also missed a few premières in the 25th July link: Shiori Usui’s Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l., Betty Jolas’s Wanderlied and Joanna Lee’s Hammer of Solitude.)
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The BBC Proms got underway with, quite literally, a bang on Friday with the first night premiere of Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville, fireworks and all. I notice that the BBC appears to be separating out works on iPlayer this year, so if you want to listen only to a particular piece, you don’t have to search through the whole concert. For a complete list of Proms premieres, see my earlier blogpost, here.
The Tête à Tête Opera Festival at King’s Cross, London began yesterday, but there is still plenty of time – it runs until 9th August – to sample its many pleasures. The Festival now lays claim to be the largest of its type in the world and, given this, it is difficult to characterise in a few words. Fundamentally it is a crucible for new opera, from the serious to the silly; the prize for the latter this year going to The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera which has the the tagline ‘It’s Quakers!’ There’s also a contemporary clinic for new works with the brilliant Jane Manning on 8th August. As far as I can see, they are still accepting applications. If you can’t get to London, Tête à Tête also post videos of most of the operas on their website.
The Lucerne Summer Festival (14th August–13th September) this year takes laughter as its theme, examining it in all its forms: ‘as clever wit and elaborate punchlines in the music of Haydn, as bitterly angry satire in Shostakovich’s symphonies, as colourful collage in Prokofiev and Stravinsky, as laughter with tears in Mahler.’ I don’t think this necessarily has anything to do with the music of Jürg Wyttenbach and Tod Machover, the two festival composers-in-residence, however. The music of the former features in four concerts on 21st and 22nd, which include the world premiere of Der Unfall, a madrigal play for ten participants and Gargantua chez les Helvètes du Haut-Valais in a new arrangement for ensemble. Tod Machover, on the other hand, has been commissioned to write A Symphony for Lucerne, a work that will be built from sounds of the city found by the composer and its residents. It is premiered on September 5th. There will also be a series of 7 Boulez tribute concerts held on 23rd August, with his music appearing prominently elsewhere in the festival programme.
Nestled just inside the mid-Walian border, the Presteigne Festival (27th August–1st September) has a strong tradition of presenting new music, this year being no exception. There are world premieres from Michael Small, Joseph Phibbs, David Matthews, Cecilia McDowell and David Knotts. There is also an opera double bill (Welsh premieres) on 27th that examine recent historical characters: Charlotte Bray’s Entanglement is about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the UK; Thomas Hyde’s That Man Stephen Ward charts the downfall of one of the central figures in the Profumo scandal. Outside the premieres there’s plenty of other new music to find, often imaginatively programmed around the festival’s Nordic theme.
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As so often is the case, my reaction to the incredible range of new music on release this month is to wonder why the classical music public remains so fixated on the past. It’s almost as if the whole melting pot of musical history, from Hildegard of Bingen to Boulez (let’s not forget that he’s not really ‘contemporary’ any more), exists in the here and now. The pullulating, bristling, teeming music scene, in which every conceivable style is being explored, venerated, parodied and reinterpreted, has something to offer everyone. It’s only quality that matters, since in taste there are no arguments.
If, for example, you’re not so keen on dissonant music, have a listen to Ian Venables’ new disk of works for baritone, headed by his song cycle The Song of the Severn. The harmonic style springs very much from the pastoral tradition of composers such as Finzi and Vaughan Williams, though with plenty of tonal twists that are completely his own. Like them he also possesses a remarkable knack for balancing the exigencies of words setting with lucid musical structures. Baritone Roderick WIlliams, having recorded plenty of this kind of repertoire before, is splendidly at home.
A work that also wears it antecedents like a rose is Will Todd’s Alice in Wonderland. From the cliched fourths with which it begins, it makes no pretence at originality. There’s a bit of everything: jazz, film music, broadway shows and the occasional bit of contemporary ‘bite’. But the writing is full of such wit and verve, the styles integrated with such tremendous skill, that the result is compellingly good fun. Opera Holland Park perform with gusto.
Arvo Pärt’s static style is, of course, very much his own, though those ethereal vocal textures inevitably conjure up the wonders of renaissance polyphony, despite the relative absence of counterpoint, not to mention his propensity to use crunchier harmonies. Col Legno have just released a programme of eight vocal works to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, which falls on 11th September. The boys of the Wiltener Sängerknaben and Wilten choir occasionally struggle with the extremes of register (especially in a more full-blooded work like The Deer’s Cry) but the purity of their singing elsewhere is ample compensation.
Another octogenarian is Terry Riley, whose birthday fell on June 24th. The Kronos Quartet have just released the album Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector together with a five-disc box set to mark both his birthday and their long-term collaboration with him. A bit like Arvo Pärt, Riley hardly needs introduction from me, being a towering figure in contemporary music. If, however, you associate him only with the arch-minimalist In C, this disc is worth hearing, since it shows him to be a composer of much greater flexibility than that mechanistic work implies.
Pärt and Riley represent the popular face of mainstream contemporary music. They are both enormously respected but have forged individual styles that have allowed them to connect with the wider public. If you are looking for something a little more adventurous try a new disc of Piano Trios (and other works) on Naxos by Spanish composer Benet Casablancas. The style is dissonant, angular and challenging. Also on Naxos are two albums of music by composers of Chinese origin: Bright Sheng’s Night at the Chinese Opera (not to be confused with Judith Weir’s opera of the same name), which forms the second work in a larger programme of chamber music; and a programme of music for winds by Yi Chen.
Pēteris Vasks’ style owes much to Lutosławski and other Polish music of the 1960s, but with influences that derive from his native music of Latvia. His new disk on Wergo contains Sala and Credo for orchestra and Musica Appasionata for string orchestra. Also on Wergo, finally, are four works by Swiss composer Michael Pelzel. The most important work of his to date, Sempiternal Lock-in, heads this programme of his ensemble works.
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There have been many how-to’s and reviews written about Apple Music, very few of which have focused on classical, let alone contemporary classical, music. Perhaps the most thoughtful perspective was offered by Alex Ross in the New Yorker on Monday. Not so much a review, it instead pointed out some worrying issues, particularly that streaming is not well-suited to the production and consumption of classical music.
Despite the Ross’s reservations, one mustn’t forget the advantages that streaming offers. Most importantly, it removes some of the risk in experiencing new music, since doing so is free from additional payment. This has certainly been my experience with Spotify, which has allowed me to experience a great deal of music that I would never have risked buying. For me, therefore, the release of Apple Music was a moment of great excitement and, as a convinced subscriber to Spotify, my question, inevitably, was how did it stack up against its Swedish competitor?
Apple music costs £9.99 in the UK, which seems unfair given that it is $9.99 in the US (and €9.99 in Europe). As I write, the exchange rate is $9.99 to £6.49. Over the course of a year Apple Music will currently cost a UK customer £42 more than a US customer. Still, this is the same price strategy as Spotify, so you either swallow it or go elsewhere. Apple Music also offer a fairly generous £14.99 membership for families up to six (also $14.99 in the US, however). Spotify has promised to match this deal soon.
When you sign up to the service you have the option to tell Apple which genres interest you. Most of these refer to styles of popular music so I deleted everything but classical. Once you have done this you choose some ‘artists’. I use inverted commas because, actually, Apple includes composers in this list. The choices are pretty limited, but at least it gives the app a starting point in getting to know your tastes. The app itself consists of five parts: ‘For You’, ‘New’, ‘Radio’, ‘Connect’ and ‘My Music’.
‘Radio’ principally refers to Apple’s Beats One Station, which focuses on popular musical genres presented by live DJs. There are also a series of radio stations built from playlists focusing on various other genres. The lack of the human presenter does not necessarily mean, however, that the personal element is missing; Apple has gone to some effort to create playlists made by real people. I found the classical station rather pleasant, a nice stream of Classic FM-esque popular classics. It certainly has more variety than the lists presented by Spotify, which often plays the same works or a series of extracts from one piece (last time I listened I had parts of the Mozart Requiem four times in quick succession).
The ‘Connect’ page is where you are supposed to be able to follow news from your favourite artists, an idea that Apple has tried before with its ill-fated ‘Ping’. I like the idea of this part of the app but, sadly, its classical content has been sparse and unchanging. I have been presented with just two videos that have really interested me: Simon Rattle talking about music streaming (sounding for all the world as if Apple had paid him to do so) and Pierre-Laurent Aimard talking frustratingly briefly about performing the Ligeti Etudes. These videos don't ever seem to change and are accompanied by other items that interest me not one jot (but also never seem to change). If the experience is like this for other genres of music I predict that ‘Connect’ will be first part of the app that gets the chop.
The ‘For You’ section of the app offers personalised selections based upon the genres you chose on setup and, presumably, your listening habits. Mine are pretty catholic and, when I listen to popular music, probably lacking a bit of taste. To give you an idea, in the last few days I have listened to all of Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître, a bit of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and also more mainstream classical music such as Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and B Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah. I also have a bit of a thing for Spanish language popular music having listened to Enrique Iglesias, Mocedades (that one is definitely shameful!) and Ricardo Arjona. ‘For You’ is currently showing me quite an array of interesting things: Simon Rattle Mahler 2 with the Berlin Phil and an Harnoncourt Messiah – wasn't aware that either of those existed; there’s some Boulez and Stockhausen including an ‘Intro to Pierre Boulez’ playlist; many other interesting classical records; some Mocedades (!); and various Spanish singers, none of whom I know, which is a good thing. There is also some rubbish: a ‘Classical Music for Ironing’ playlist, Britney Spears and Rihanna. But, hey, none of it is more cheesy than Mocedades, so maybe I should open my mind. ‘For You’, then, is a success and I will have fun digging around in it. It also makes up a little for the ‘New’ section of the app. This concentrates on new releases in popular genres, which is completely fine if that is what you’re looking for. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t seem to have heard of classical music.
These suggestions, after barely more than a week using the Apple Music app, stack up pretty well against Spotify. I use Spotify almost exclusively for streaming contemporary music, especially for doing reviews on CT, so you’d think that it would be able to recommend me at least a few contemporary composers. The ‘Discover’ section is currently showing me eight ‘top recommendations’, all classical but none later than Liszt (a composer I am not anyway that keen on). It makes a reasonable stab at showing me new releases, better in fact than the ‘New’ section of the Apple app, though actually it is just four records of easy listening classical and film music. Given that I’m only too well aware that there is much more interesting music being released on Spotify each month, a good proportion of which I have actually played, this is, in fact, a terrible fail. It has more success with recommendations based on recent listening. I’d forgotten I’d listened, for example, to Carnival of the Animals and, for nostalgic reasons, Flanders and Swann. Spotify makes sensible suggestions based upon these: Ravel, Mascagni, Elgar, Victor Borge and Spike Milligan. Not bad, though in terms of both breadth and presentation I prefer Apple Music.
The last part of Apple Music is the ‘My Music’ tab. This is where your original iTunes library resides which, in my case, includes all of the music from iTunes Match. When you search for music you have the option to search within that library or within the whole of the iTunes catalogue. What makes a massive difference to me, especially when compared to Spotify, is that when you search Apple Music you can then add the album to you own music collection, which means all of your streamed and non-streamed music resides in one place. For the completist collector who already uses iTunes this is a huge advantage.
Apple Music also deals with composers better than Spotify. When I want to collect albums together in one place by composer, on the latter I have to assign them a playlist. Apple Music, by contrast allows you to show your library by composer. Furthermore, with my own collection I have spent many a long hour making sure that the composers’ names are consistent on every album. I always have the surname first, like this: ‘Mahler, Gustav’. This allows for easy alphabetical access. When you add a new album this data is often entered in a different form, for example ‘G. Mahler’, which irritatingly creates a new composer. What is wonderful is that if you add a streamed album from Apple Music, it still allows you to edit the album information, so that you can make this kind of thing consistent. This ability to organise is far in advance of that offered by Spotify.
The final question when comparing the two services is, inevitably, the depth of the library. Both are touted as offering 30+ million tracks. A cursory search for popular classical works on either offers a massive choice of Beethoven Fifths, Handel Messiahs and Vivaldi Four Seasons. I was most interested, however, in the choice of contemporary classical works so tried a little test. I took the last two CD roundups I have written on CT and checked how many of the works I mentioned were available on each service. I was a little surprised by the results: of the 27 titles Apple had 24, Spotify just 13. There are caveats: the sample is quite small and I also have a tendency to check similar record labels each month – in fact the difference between the two services was very much down to the fact that Naxos releases are not always available on Spotify. Having said that, the test really should have favoured Spotify, since I tend to prefer writing about works that appear on the service. And, anyway, not consistently streaming Naxos releases is a glaring omission – they have one of the best collections of contemporary classical works.
Some have called the Apple Music app overblown. Personally I prefer plenty of options, especially when it comes to curating my music collection. If, however, you like a lightweight app or only use streaming occasionally then Spotify is still a good option. Certainly, for a quick search on Mac or PC, it is much more efficient since it is free of all of the iTunes baggage. And we shouldn’t forget that, of the two services, Spotify is the only one to have a free advert-supported option while it is also available on both iOS and Android (though Apple have promised that the latter will be released soon). Despite all of this, it is impossible to ignore Apple’s better discovery options, the more comprehensive music catalogue and the ability to arrange by composer and to integrate with an existing iTunes collection. The experience is significantly more compelling.
I will not be leaving Spotify for now. I feel a great deal of loyalty to a company that has so transformed the way that I listen. My patience won’t last forever, though. Spotify not only needs to make its service as compelling, as flexible and delightful as Apple’s but they also need to find ways to better it, perhaps in new and unexpected ways.
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