Classical music sales resurgent thanks to 'easy listening' brigade

Crossover artists have revived the industry, helping to boost sales by a million albums, but purists aren't happy. Andrew Clennell reports

Two years ago the story was of a slump in sales, the classical Brit awards were being "sexed up" in a desperate attempt to raise interest and Sir Thomas Allen, the baritone star of the English National Opera, complained that "wet T-shirted" violinists were being used to sell classical records.

But the classical music industry has reason to celebrate today - even among accusations that the music has been "dumbed down" and crossfertilised with pop - after a yearly increase in sales of a million albums. The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) announced yesterday that more than 14 million classical albums were sold in 2003, grossing £65m - an 8 per cent increase on 2002.

For the revival, the industry can largely thank a teenage former busker from New Zealand and a Welsh farmer's son. Hayley Westenra, a pretty 16-year-old singer from Christchurch, was number one in the charts last year with her record Pure, which eclipsed Charlotte Church's record for the fastest-selling debut classical album in Britain.

The second highest seller was Bryn, an album by the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel, 39, who was born on a livestock farm in Pantglas, north Wales. Third place was taken by one of a number of increasingly popular compilations of classical music - The Number One Classical Album 2003 - by various artists.

The top three records sold 1.3 million copies - 9.3 per cent of sales and the driving force behind the overall sales increase. Matt Phillips, a spokesman for BPI, said: "The rise is a result of a combination of young classical talent coming through backed up with a traditional revival. It's these three sellers doing really well and a great demand for compilation records as well."

He added: "It's been driven by the emergence of a new talent in Hayley Westenra. Bryn Terfel's success has been helped by a well received duet at the Classical Brits with [Andrea] Bocelli."

Purists like Sir Thomas are unlikely to be impressed by the figures. Their feeling is that the so-called "crossover artists" - those who move between opera and pop - should not be known as classical musicians.

James Jolly, the editor of Gramophone magazine said yesterday: "Hayley is on the borderline of classical music. Bryn Terfel has some show tunes on his record as well as classical stuff."

Sir Thomas made his "wet T-shirt" comment in May 2002, and it was thought at the time that he was referring to Bond, a quartet of attractive young female violinists known for their sometimes skimpy attire, who were taken off the classical charts but last year still made a controversial appearance at the Classical Brits.

But Sir Thomas also criticises artists like Charlotte Church and Russell Watson. He told the Royal Philharmonic Society that there were "well organised hijackers" taking over the classical music industry in a "money-grabbing, PR-led" marketing exercise. He spoke of "pub tenors" and "sugar coated programming or the recording of choice bits of easy listening" being a "plague".

He contends that this plague has taken over a "once respectable and serious profession to the point where integrity is almost wholly inundated". He said: "We kow-tow more and more to the mass appeal. We have become a civilisation in rapid cultural decline ... The idea of a wet T-shirted quartet where once was the Amadeus (String Quartet) has me reaching for the seasick pills."

Mr Jolly said classical music had become a lot more about promotion and about modelling itself on pop in terms of sales. But he said it was pleasing to see musicians such as Sir Simon Rattle, the English conductor and music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, also having great success with his new album. Traditional classical music was also having a revival, he said. "It seems for the last year or two years classical music has been the whipping boy for the arts," Mr Jolly said.

"We've heard complaints that nobody goes to concerts, nobody buys records, blah, blah, blah. But in the past two years, a lot of the big record companies have been doing a lot of work [rationalising] turning away contracts that were unrealistic."

He said most companies now had much smaller rosters and artists had a much more realistic outlook. "It's much closer in a way to the pop music model - 'we'll make an album, we'll go out and advertise it, promote it on radio and TV'," he said. Mr Jolly said the recent success of Classic FM was an example of how a resurgence in easy listening had helped sales.

"I think the classical industry has taken a very realistic view and I can't really see why we can't push the boundaries of what we do, because it's good for the bottom line," he said.

The increase announced yesterday arrests a decline in 2002, when sales fell by nearly 2.7 million units.

Half of the top 10 in 2003 were compilations, with titles such as Smooth Classics - Do Not Disturb, showing the trend towards relaxation on the home stereo. Most of the compilations were more traditionally classical, featuring the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. The singers Andrea Bocelli and Aled Jones also featured in the top 10.

Westenra was "discovered" busking at the age of 11. She recorded Pure when she was 15 and has since moved to London. Her debut album sold more than 700,000 copies last year and made the mainstream top 10 chart.

Westenra said last year that she "didn't really understand" the position of people who did not believe she should be on the classical charts or that the genre was being "dumbed down". "Surely more people becoming interested in classical music is a good thing," she said.

"I know of many of my fans who have taken up the violin or piano because of my records. They would never have taken an interest in classical music otherwise. How can these critics possibly see an upsurge of interest in classical music in any kind of poor light? It baffles me."

There was more ammunition at the weekend for those who believe the arts in Britain are being eroded by image-driven popular culture when it was reported that the English National Opera had axed one of the world's leading sopranos from a show because of her weight.

Deborah Voigt complained she had been cut from the lead part in Richard Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos in June, because she was too fat. "I have big hips and Covent Garden has a problem with them," Ms Voight told The Sunday Telegraph. "Or at least their casting director, Peter Katona, has the problem and he's made it clear that I won't be singing in his house as long as he's around, which is sad."

Ms Voigt, who is reported to weigh between 15 and 20 stone, said the matter had become a legal issue and if she was running the opera house she would "want the best singer for the role whether they had hips or not". Ms Voigt has been replaced by Anne Schwanewilms.

A Royal Opera House spokesman said yesterday: "We felt Ms Voigt wasn't necessarily appropriate for the production.

"In making these kinds of decisions it is not just a question of how someone looks; it is also how they move on stage. We would absolutely consider her again for another role - she's a fantastic artist and extremely well regarded."

The spokesman said he was not surprised by the rise in classical music sales. "In terms of opera we are seeing very good audiences and they are increasing both in terms of numbers and demographics.

"Classical music is more readily available than ever before - in film and advertising, it's around us all the time and people hear it and they go away and they buy it."

Four modern classics to reckon with

Uri Caine

Jazz pianist acclaimed for his reproductions of the music of Wagner and Mahler. He has recorded more than 70 versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations, from straight baroque to jazz to electronic.

Henryk Gorecki

A Polish composer who gained fame in 1992 withSymphony of Sorrowful Songs in 1992. It sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide, making him the best-selling living classical composer.

Arvo Part

Estonian composer who came to prominence in the 1980s with his composition Tabula Rasa. He has been described as someone who changed the face of classical music in the 20th century.

Sir John Tavener

British composer steeped in Greek Orthodox music who hit the classical charts with The Protecting Veil before reaching global status with Song for Athene at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

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