Classical sight Readings: Is the new medium the message?

The latest in hi-fi hype, DVD offers stunning quality of sound and vision. But with only a tiny number of titles, is there much to interest the music enthusiast?
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The Independent Culture
Music may be invisible, but we love to observe it being made: fighting for seats on the keyboard side in recitals, feasting on the sawing arms and ballooning cheeks of the orchestra. This is not indulgence; it's our way of physically experiencing music, of vicariously joining in. And when the process is invisible - as in an organ recital where the performer is hidden in a loft - we feel cheated. The disembodied music of records and radio is something we have grown up with, but it is still - both figuratively and in practice - an aberration.

Such retrograde thoughts are now being harnessed for the biggest industrial push the world of music-video has ever known. While the man-in-the-street may be hazy about what "DVD" stands for, the media hack knows it stands for a marketing barrage. Digital Versatile Disc, it's said, will change our lives.

But we've heard such claims before. Remember "digital compact cassette" and the 12-inch laser-disc? Remember the "enhanced CD"? Failures all. CD-Rom was once a bright hope in the classical music business, but is now a reference preserve. Recordable CDs may be doing well in the shops, but their long-term prospects are dubious. Even the mighty mini-disc has clouds on its horizon.

Why should we take DVD more seriously? In the interests of science, I submit to a hard sell at Warners. Since I'm a technological idiot, the facts have first to be explained. A DV disc may look like a CD, but it contains seven times more digital information, in which visual and audio elements sit side by side; it offers music, film, still pictures, text and visual menus. The picture quality and five-channel sound are, I am told, the best in existence.

The Warners men play two discs: Bruno Monsaingeon's Richter: The Enigma, and Adventures in Motion Pictures' celebrated Swan Lake. Having previously watched the Richter film on VHS, I am ravished by what I now see and hear, and it's undeniably convenient to be able to click to points in the pianist's life and to specific pieces of music, without laboriously winding on (or back) in the hope of finding the right place.

The pleasure of Matthew Bourne's wicked Swan Lake is similarly intensified, though I am, of course, seeing it on state-of-the-art machinery. And it's useful, again, to be able to find those evil male cygnets, or that wrenching apotheosis, at the click of a button.

The Richter film has been tricked out with all the menu-to-text-to-subtext games Warners can devise. Likewise Swan Lake. Click to the "character" of the prince's commoner-girlfriend, and click again to the dancer in the part, where she trained etc. But this sort of guff normally comes in a booklet, where it's far easier to skim. Putting it on film seems pointless, until you remember the insane war being waged by electronics against print.

Now some questions. DVD may have "arrived", but how widespread is it? "There are already 250,000 DVD players in Europe." That's not many. "True, but in America, where it was launched 12 months earlier, there are now more than a million sets in private hands. We expect their growth to be exponential here as well." Who buys them? "Early adopters tend to be thirtysomething males with plenty of cash." Is there a danger of buying the wrong sort of machine and its becoming obsolete, like the Betamax? "No danger. The machines have been devised by a cross-industry consortium."

When I ask if the present price of nearly pounds 400 will drop over the next year or so, the reply is a rueful affirmative. They explain that though you can't play DVDs on a CD player, you can play CDs on a DVD player, which will make their sound quality even better. "So if you're thinking of buying a new CD player, far better to invest in DVD." But this brings us to the question of "product". Feature films apart, how many musical or operatic DVDs actually exist?

The faces lengthen. "By the end of 1999, there may be 50 in total, from all the record companies put together." Pathetic! "It's early days," they reply. "But we really need the press and retailers to take classical DVD as a serious category." Last week, in the Oxford Street branch of HMV, they found their beloved Swan Lake stuck in the porn section. Gathering that, in their parlance, I am a "laggard" as opposed to an "early adopter", they bring out their trump card: a portable DVD player including screen, not much bigger than a CD player. It's wonderful, and I want one. But not yet. The pounds 950 price will surely fall.

Over now to the classical label Harmonia Mundi, where they thrust something called Watershed into my hands. This is described as "the first music DVD designed to totally utilise the medium's full capacity". Since the Harmonia Mundi office doesn't yet boast a DVD player, I take it to the Sony office and play it there. The first of its three pieces, by the composer Roger Reynolds, allows me to deconstruct a 30-minute solo by the percussionist Steven Schick, but the menu-voyages seem forced and unnecessary. I would far rather glean the background information from an old-fashioned booklet.

Meanwhile, Sony has just brought out its own first classical DVDs: great Karajan performances tricked out with yet more on-screen programme notes. And though these are, once again, old films, the quality of both pictures and sound is stunning. Sony's vice-president is bullish: "You can't look at a DVD without remembering how horrible VHS was by comparison." He believes that what he calls "high-end" people - "older and more discriminating" - will be induced by DVD to buy things they never would have considered before. That may be so, but it's still a moot point whether they will want to click into biographies, or play around with camera angles in, for example, Nimbus's forthcoming DVDs on selected pianists.

On the other hand, DVD won't deal exclusively in visual games. Sony's spokesman reckons DVD-Audio - when it arrives - will be the ultimate answer to hi-fi dreams. `The reason some people still prefer vinyl to CD - provided they've got a pounds 15,000 turntable - is that CDs cut out all the warmth and ambience of the original recording. DVD-Audio, with its huge digital capacity, will restore that."

Finally I join a band of veteran Gramophone subscribers at a meet-the- DVD-producers soiree. After being zapped with Richter, Swan Lake and the latest James Bond, they ask questions. Will DVD make their CD collections redundant? "No. The CD market is in buoyant shape." When will DVDs be available for hire? "Not yet." Will it be possible to record on them? "Not for a long while yet." When will DVD-Audio hit the shops? "Maybe next year." Is it possible that the whole DVD enterprise will flop? "No way. All the retailers are singing from the same hymn-sheet." That's a relief.

These people are all techno-freaks, but it's clear that some are unrepentant laggards. One is a Chinese student who possesses a DV disc but as yet no machine to play it on. He'll wait for the price to fall, and the product to proliferate, before buying a machine. "That's fine by me," says a DVD magnate gamely. But, of course, it isn't fine at all. We must clap hands, have faith, and present our credit cards. Otherwise the fairy may not live.