All around, we hear the cry that the classical recording industry is in crisis. The major labels – the EMIs, Deccas and Philips of this world – are taking refuge in huge conglomerate huddles, and their release sheets are growing ever more conservative: a few big-name CDs, a handful of Baroque novelties, some recycled back-catalogue and plenty of cross-over. As ever, the most interesting new recordings are coming from the independents – labels such as the Eltham-based Hyperion, the Swedish BIS, and Chandos in Colchester (no plush offices in central London, you'll note).
But times for such small companies are, indeed, tough, and relative longevity is no protection. Nimbus was one of the longest-standing of them, a pioneer of the CD era in the early 1980s, and located in low-cost Monmouthshire away from the corporate whirl. Yet the liquidators moved in a few weeks back. And in its two-year existence Black Box – one of the newer labels, with an adventurous cutting edge in contemporary music – ran up such debts in that it had to sell out to Sanctuary, owners of ASV.
One of the brighter and more buoyant lights on the independent horizon is Winter & Winter, a Munich-based company distributed in the UK by Harmonia Mundi. The first thing a label like this has to do is to cut a path for itself, get noticed, be different. And Winter & Winter CDs manage that straightaway, even before any considerations of repertoire. For they look like no one else's. Each release comes in a crimped-cardboard hinged box, with the disc itself held in a diagonal hammock made of stiff black card – there's more than a hint of rustic artisans at work here. The artwork is distinctive, and the musicological apparatus criticus minimal – indeed, there are often no notes at all: these recordings are aimed at people who either know when Brahms wrote his Piano Quintet or who simply don't care.
The individual behind this distinctive "product", which is what the marketing men call music these days, is Stefan Winter. I asked him first what gave him the idea for such an unusual presentation. "It definitely has something to do with my own taste. I hated these plastic CD jewel boxes. For 10 years I produced CDs for the jazz label JMT, Jazz Music Today. I always took a lot of care about the artwork, working together with a lot of graphic artists, painters, photographers, and so on, and it was always very disappointing, after they had done their work, when we put these little booklets into these plastic boxes – the whole feeling of it was absolutely gone."
Winter's attitude reveals the purist, almost puritan, side to his character. "Many other labels are providing the listeners with a lot of text and information; I am trying to give the information with images and art works. For me it's very difficult to put in a CD booklet some text, because I don't want to describe music; I think the music should speak for itself. If a painter is trying to sell a painting in a gallery, he doesn't explain what the red means or what the blue means; he's just selling the painting. But if somebody is writing a book about the painter, then he will try to explain the intention of the painter. I feel more that I am part of the whole production, so I don't want to describe how I look at it; I just want to present it as it is."
The Winter & Winter catalogue falls into three separate areas: the Basic Edition, billed as "Music works up to the 20th century"; a New Edition for contemporary compositions; and an Artist Edition, for improvised music. And Winter now intends to re-release the 81 recordings he made with JMT.
The Basic Edition – the one that classical enthusiasts will fasten on – does a fantastic line in early music and authentic performances, always in resplendently natural sound. There's a sparkling new CD of Baroque Christmas music (910 078-2) from the Swedish soprano Suzsanne Ryden (at least I guess she's Swedish – there's nothing about her in the booklet). And earlier this year a Brahms Piano Quintet from the Italian period- instrument group La Gaia Scienza (910 052-2) made me listen to the music afresh.
Winter didn't subdivide his output with his market in mind – "A lot of people are very open-minded: they might be listening one time to old music and the next day maybe they listen to a pop album from Joni Mitchell" – but because the distribution industry liked to put classical music, jazz, ethnic music and the rest in distinct categories. Now, following his instinct, he is abandoning his three "Editions" in favour of a single "Music Edition".
The move illustrates Winter's view of the basic unity of music. "Today you hear people talking about 'fusion' music. Uri Caine, for example, has done these Mahler adaptations [910 004-2 and 046-2], taking the symphonies apart and going back to the roots of the music and taking it in other directions, toward Jewish music, Austrian marching music, whatever. So you hear this word 'fusion'. But there was always 'fusion' around. When Brahms wrote his music, he used a lot of Austrian folk music, and you could say that it's classical music combined with folk music, so it's fusion. If you look at music history, everybody used elements of what they have known. And today the world is so close together that we hear a lot of different elements. If today a classical composer is interested in Brazilian music and uses elements of it in his compositions, it's as normal as Brahms using Austrian folk music. For me, there is absolutely no difference."
The Philadelphia-born, New York-based pianist Uri Caine is a perfect illustration of Winter's opinions. Caine has produced jazz realisations of some of the true holies of the classical canon: as well as Mahler, he laid his transforming hands on Bach's Goldberg Variations (910 054-2), Wagner (910 013-2), and Schumann (910 049-2). In the days ahead, UK audiences get a chance to hear Caine in the flesh in venues all across the country. He's at the Barbican with "straight" jazz on Sunday, and he's back in London on 9 February, bringing his re-imagined Mahler to the Purcell Room in the second part of Magnus Lindberg's Related Rocks festival.
And Winter & Winter is marking his tour with no fewer than three releases: Solitaire, a solo album largely of his own music (910 075-2), the buoyant Rio, where he is joined by some of the best Brazilian musicians around (910 079-2), and Bedrock 3, an avant-garde trio experiment complete with electronics (910 068-2).
Uri Caine plays the Barbican, London (020-7638 8891) on SundayReuse content