Arts: Decline and fall of the classical empire

With its soundtrack recording to the new Disney Fantasia, Sony is on to a winner. But its head, Peter Gelb, has some grim news for most classical musicians. By Michael Church
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As music producer for Disney's revamped Fantasia, Peter Gelb is having a good Christmas. As controller of the Fantasia soundtrack rights throughout much of Europe plus the Far East and Australia, he looks like having an even better one. Moreover, he has other seasonal goodies up his sleeve: Charlotte Church's second album, Tan Dun's World Symphony for the Millennium, and Carl Davis's Gilbert-and-Sullivan soundtrack to Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy. Once the most powerful concert agent in the business, now head of Sony, Peter Gelb is the man most likely to know which way the wind is blowing.

Yes, he is indeed pleased with his handiwork for Disney. It was he who put the James Levine-Yefim Bronfman team together for the film, and for the associated world concert tour to launch it. "Many conductors would have fought shy of the populism of this project, but James has an instinctive knowledge of what the medium is about," he says. "And Yefim was the natural first choice as pianist. They both saw that this would be a wonderful way of reaching out to a new audience. Yefim will be bringing unadulterated Shostakovich to tens of millions of people. No other classical-music project will ever have this scope. And since the concert tour is allowing the record-buying public to make the connection, this is good news for everyone." Especially for Sony.

Though he does not expect it to rival the soundtrack for Titanic - Sony's biggest coup - he predicts that the Fantasia soundtrack will be a "standout success" in the forthcoming year. It will follow in the footsteps of John Corigliano's soundtrack for The Red Violin (100,000 copies sold), and will smooth the path for Topsy-Turvy. But lest we imagine that Sony is merely cashing in, he wants us to know that both Corigliano and Tan Dun have been writing to Sony commissions; he points out that the violin concerto which Hilary Hahn is now premiering is the result of yet another. "What traditionally happens with a new symphonic work is that it's played once by an orchestra, and never heard again. We are helping both to create new music, and to deliver it to new audiences."

Does all this mean that he can afford to depend less on core classical recordings? "We can't afford to depend on them at all. If we did, we'd be out of business. But if we see an opportunity, we pursue it. Two years ago, after Shine, I would never have dreamed of recording a new Rachmaninov's Third. But when our pianist Arkady Volodos said he wanted to do it - and when we listened to him play it - we decided his version was distinctive enough to be worth recording, both artistically and commercially. But that's what it takes."

"It's not that we're suppressing recordings of the core repertoire, but we have to be motivated in a way that makes sense. I'm not interested in making records that no one's going to listen to. I don't consider our label to be archival. I want to make records that break new ground, that have an impact."

With Charlotte Church and Titanic appearing on Sony's "classical" label, is he bothered that the balance may become fatally skewed? "The balance will be determined by what are the most interesting projects. Unfortunately it's getting harder to find core-repertoire projects worth recording." Because of the excellent stuff in Sony's library? "Exactly. We should be happy it exists and is available for remastering with the newest."

So where does that put living artists who don't hit the magic marketing button? "Out of the game." What will this do to their lives? "I assume they have lives beyond the recording studio. Classical music began before recordings, and artists did very well. Recording was only the icing on the cake." He then launches into a speech about music being essentially a live art-form. " I don't feel sorry for artists who can't record, because that's not what they should be about. They're about playing in front of the public."

It has been muttered before, but now for the first time it is official: for the big labels, recording the core repertoire is largely a thing of the past. This may make short-term commercial sense, but its long-term implications - not only for the musicians concerned - are dire. I predict a flight of talent to small labels such as Hyperion and Naxos, who still know how to record the classics - and balance the books.