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March 25, 2007

The wallflower who ran a great label

The Times obituary of Ray Minshull, who died last month aged 72, was as bland, and as kind and as colourless as he could possibly have wished. There was not even a passport photograph at the edge of the page to break his social anonymity.

Minshull was a big man in classical recording. He was head of the classical division of Decca from 1967, and of the whole company from 1981, right through to his retirement in 1994 - after which the demolition began.

As successor to the visionary and charismatic John Culshaw, Minshull cultivated an impersonality that was almost pathological in its self-effacement. You could spend ten minutes talking animatedly to a potted plant and get more back from it by way of wit and information than from Ray Minshull at a major record launch. The best that could be said of him was that he saved Decca from the Visigoths; the worst, that he delivered it to them utterly defenceless.

Minshull's facelessness was, of course, a front for other things. You can read more about them here, or here, or even hier.
It seems perfectly fitting that his determinedly dull obit should prop up page 77 of the Times on Saturday beneath a glowing appreciation of Laurence Picken, a Cambridge 'bachelor don of the old school' (let's not even go there), whose chief discoveries were in the fields of 'invertebrate excretory systems and 8th century Chinese music'. To come a distant second to a man who studied worm piss and Tang dances seems a finely tuned and possibly ironic tribute to this mumbling dinosaurus of the lamented record biz. Requiescat in pace.

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March 22, 2007

Who's been sitting on my bench?

Reading my review today of the new Simon Rattle release, the editor of Opera magazine John Allison spots an alarming similarity between Rattle's cover and Christian Thielemann's for the Schumann third symphony.

Compare and contrast.

Is there only one park bench in the whole of Berlin? Is Rattle trying to snuggle up to the man that many Germans see as the next Karajan? Did they both visit the same corner-shop photographer with the dated background? Or was Rattle simply photoshopped into the scene?

Someone, somewhere, needs to come clean on this.

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March 21, 2007

Launching at the British Library

The new book went live last night with a well-attended lecture at the British Library and a big piece follow-up in the Evening Standard.

Jonathan Summers, the wonderfully erudite curator of recordings at the BL, said the audience was the biggest he'd had for any lecturer bar Mitsuko Uchida. What pleased me most was its diversity - every type of record fancier from bone-dry discographer to rock band member. Nice.

Whenever I talk about records in London, some distinguished old gentleman will come up afterwards and I will identify him instantly by his bearing as a survivor of Walter Legge's Philharmonia Orchestra. There is something heroic to these musicians, something of the wartime RAF about them, an esprit de corps allied to a flinty derring-do.

There have been other great bands and there will be more, but these were the best of the best. They stood up to Karajan and they defeated Legge's destructive wiles. They live on in legend - and, not least, on record.

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March 18, 2007

more hands than a goddess

John Wilson, the ever-alert BBC presenter who was with me in China the other week, was so impressed by the confluence of civilisations that he came home with three half-hour Front Row shows, the first of which went out last Wednesday.

His industriousness and versatility were astonishing. John not only interviewed, narrated and recorded his material, he edited and produced all three programmes on the road - the kind of herculean effort that normally requires a team of three. Even if I had the technical know-how, BBC Radio 3 would never let me produce my next series, as well as presenting it this summer. It takes a very particular blend of skills to carry off both roles, and not everyone who attempts it does so to best advantage.

The instance it called to mind was the new Beethoven concerto cycle by Mikhail Pletnev in which the conductor is none other than Christian Gansch who is also Pletnev's regular DG producer. Gansch, no slouch, is a former concetmaster of the Munich Philharmonic who took up conducting when the revered Sergiu Celibidache died. He makes, on the evidence of this record, a pretty good fist of conducting - which is to say he keeps the orchestra under tight rein while Pletnev teases him and it with dangerously delayed entires and angular phrasing.

It must be great for a soloist to know that his producer has his boot on the neck of the band, but for the listener it's not that inspiring. A more independent maestro would have challenged the soloist to justify his waywardness and elicited a stronger performance.

I had to look twice at the sleeve to make sure Gansch was not producing on this occasion as well as conducting. Officially he as not, though I am sure he spent as much time in the control room as on the rostrum. Fortunately DG, unlike the BBC, can afford to attach an executive producer (Matthias Spindler) and a recording producer (Rainer Mallard) as well as a balance engineer, recording engineer and balance technician to what was, in effect, a live performance at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, last September. No shortage of hands in this broth.

And you wonder why the classical record economy has collapsed...

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March 15, 2007

blood on the tracks

I never thought I'd feel much regret when Alain Levy went through the window, but either I've seen too much blood on the record floor or else I'm going all gooey in my old age. Or maybe I just prefer to deal with the devil you know.

Levy was the man in the black suit and matching black shirt who, in the mid-90s, was responsible for sacking dozen of classical artists on the Universal labels, Decca, DG and Philips. Ousted in a boardroom ruck, he popped up at troubled EMI where, instead of reaching once more for the axe, he (privately) confessed past errors to trusted individuals and gave the classical label a limited license to expand under ex-Philips/Decca man Costa Pilavachi.

Only for the brute logic of the music biz to throw him out in January on the strength of a set of lousy results that was largely not of his making, leaving Alain with nothing more than a seven-digit payoff to cushion his terrible fall. Weep now, or forever hold your tears.

Levy was the kind of man who would give himself a birthday party and, the moment he was out of the room, all the guests would ask each other why they had been invited. He had few close friends and artists never knew what it was he got paid for.

He once wrote me a vituperative letter (copy to the Editor) demanding to know why I hated the music business so. I don't, was my cc-ed reply. I love music - the rest follows from that.

He sent henchmen to lunch me, administering over Notting Hill restaurant tables dire warnings as to the damage I was causing. Moi? said I. You can't blame pauvre petit moi for ruining the record biz when it's M. Levy that's making all the bad decisions.

And now he's gone, forever it seems, I miss the sad suit. Nobody is ever going to rebuke me again for dissing the classical record biz, because there's not much left to diss. Nobody is going to care what the media says about the classical side of things because the once-fat side has become a faint margin.

Levy came out of the Paris office of the old Columbia Records school that believed every major label needed a classical outlet, if only for sentimental resons. Now he's gone, who's left that cares?

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dropping the needle

Why blog?

It's a question that has been taxing me for months. As one who makes his living by writing for profit (none but a fool would do so otherwise, said Doctor Johnson), I feel as much reluctance at doing it for free as any blue-lipped sex worker on a busy intersection.

On the other hand, I see esteemed colleagues taking to the blogosphere like birds to worms and some of the amateurs out there stealing our thunder by reporting events and conveying opinion on their blogs faster and more furiously than we do in print.

So I thought, hey, give it a go - at least for a while. But do it my way.

Let's have a set of rules.

1 No personal pictures - no cats, babies, sofas, work desks.

2 No access to my interior life.

3 No response to those who slag me off for paltry infelicities, a slip of the finger here or there that eludes my built-in sub-editor.

4 No response to those I don't respect.

5 Stick to the topic - and the topic is what is happening to our fragile sound world now that the steady flow of classical recordings has died to a thin trickle.

The decline has been so swift, so precipitate, that many are unaware that we have lost the equivalent of a public library of musical civilisation. There is still some activity in the rubble, and some entertainment, and I shall try to give a sense of them as the weeks go by.

All of this is much on my mind as I launch a book called (in Britain) Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness, (in the US) The Life and Death of Classical Music and (in Germany) Ausgespielt. Aufstieg und Fall der Klassikindustrie, a title which is closest to my heart, having resonances of Brecht, Weill and the whole Weimar decadence cat show.

For those who want more, there are links below.

For the rest, read on.

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