Music: From Caruso to Gheorghiu - the ABC of EMI

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The history of EMI and the history of recording aren't entirely the same thing, but they come close enough for the fireworks, champagne and stars laid on in copious quantities at Glyndebourne last Sunday night to count as more than just another corporate jolly. A gala for EMI's Centenary, it was a family affair that also marked the passing of a more collective, public milestone. And although it shared the common fate of gala nights in being artistically rather less than the sum of its many glittering parts, the sense of occasion won through. Which was just as well, given that the ticket prices (proceeds to a music charity) started at pounds 250.

Galas are by nature a business of seeing how many big names you can parade on a single platform at the same time, undertaken in the spirit with which theologians used to count angels on pin-heads. Quantity rather than quality is the measure of achievement. But it was hard not to be impressed by the relentless succession of names who came on to the Glyndebourne platform for their five-minute turn with the LPO. If they did not sing so strikingly (it was a purely vocal night), or so appropriately (some strange mis- matches of singers to repertory), or confidently (Mr and Mrs Roberto Alagna having a familiarity problem with a Massenet duet they should have left at home), their accumulative presence was somehow affirmatory. And the sheer spectacle of Nicolai Gedda, Barbara Hendricks, Thomas Hampson, Angela Gheorghiu, Felicity Lott, Olaf Bar et al standing in a line to sing a crazy arrangement of "Happy Birthday" by Andrew Davis is not something you come across every day. Once is, in fact, probably enough.

To fill in some background, it was in 1897 that Emile Berliner, who had invented a system of recording on to flat revolving discs, established the English Gramophone Company - intended as the European sales wing of a similar company in America but almost immediately assuming a creative life of its own. Its first recordings were catholic in taste and largely reliant on musicians who played in the band at a nearby restaurant. More substantial artists didn't want to know the medium. It seemed a cowboy industry (no change there) with results of doubtful quality. It also seemed alarming. Artists didn't like the idea of performances that would live on to haunt them.

But the company persisted, and its first significant catch was Caruso, who, in a Milan hotel room in 1902, sang "Vesti la giubba" into the horn and became the world's first recording star. Nellie Melba succumbed soon after, which left Adelina Patti no choice but to follow. By 1910 a sonic treasure-trove had been amassed. Many of the first artists to appear on disc were past their prime but of historical interest; and the Gramophone Co, to its eternal credit, took pains to catch elderly giants like Grieg (at the piano, 1903) and Joachim (violin, same year) while they were still around.

The year 1913 brought the first complete symphony on record: a Beethoven Five from the Berlin Philharmonic under Nikisch, done with reduced forces huddled round what was still a single, acoustic recording horn. Then, with the advent of electronic technology in the 1920s, the company's output and artist-roster dramatically increased. Cortot, Casals, Thibaud appeared. So did Ernest Lough, the treble from the Temple Church whose "O for the Wings of a Dove" was the hit of 1927. And in the 1930s a merger with the Columbia Gramophone Co resulted in a new name, Electrical & Musical Industries, and a new, golden age of artists like Schnabel, Horowitz, Heifetz and Menuhin - who in 1932 (aged 16) recorded Elgar's Violin Concerto under the baton of the composer (aged 75).

Post-war talent trawls of Europe produced Karajan, Schwarzkopf, de los Angeles. The 1950s brought Fischer-Dieskau and Callas; the Sixties, du Pre and Barenboim; and, in the Nineties, the roll of honour is probably led by Simon Rattle, whose loyalty to EMI has been as dogged (and trumpeted) as his commitment to the CBSO.

The slightly odd thing about this gala was that it found no role for the EMI old-timers except Nicolai Gedda, who made his Glyndebourne debut - better late than never - compering the show and contributing his own clear-voiced, strikingly robust spot of Franz Lehar. At 72, with nearly half a century of recording work for EMI behind him, the sound is fraying but the personality is intact. It would have been good to see him joined by some of his illustrious contemporaries.

But EMI obviously wanted their gala to be prospective rather than a celebration of the past. And in fact the best contributions came from its youngest artists: some entrancing, fine-spun Mozart from Ian Bostridge; some light-lyric Verdi from Alison Hagley; and a stunning "Glitter and be Gay" (Bernstein) from the French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay that stole the show. The concluding Alagna/Gheorghiu duet which was meant to steal the show did not. And it was strange, anyway, that Gheorghiu - as the last on - seemed to be set up as the evening's star-in-chief. She's an exclusive Decca artist, only able to record for EMI when she comes in tandem with her husband. To pass her off as part of the "family" was a touch desperate. But I understand why they did it.

Ask any classical recording executive about last year's sales figures and he'll tell you they were OK. And so they were. But nine of the 10 top-selling classical issues were compilation discs, and the tenth was Karl Jenkins' Adiemus, which barely counts as classical at all. The traditional core repertoire of the giant companies proved very hard to sell, leaving a bleak prospect for serious record-making in the late 1990s in all but two areas: experimental repertoire (which is the high-risk province of smaller labels), and anything performed by one of a select handful of superstars. Ms Gheorghiu is among them, and that gives her an extraordinary - you might say unhealthy - power. Whether she delights or disappoints (and here it was the latter) seems irrelevant. The mere fact that she's there - on stage, on the CD sleeve, on someone's marketing proposals - is what counts.

It's a far cry from the largesse of the EMI Centenary Gala to the spartan budget-consciousness of ENO's revived Ariadne on Naxos. When Graham Vick first put this production together in 1983 it wore its economy like a badge of courage. Now it just looks naked, with nothing in the final scene to project the magic of what should be a heavenly transformation, or respond to the sumptuous grandeur of Richard Strauss's score. The only spectacle is vocal; and I'm glad to say it compensates. Christine Brewer's imposing Ariadne, John Frederic West's truly helden Bacchus and Erie Mills' agile Zerbinetta are all superb. That they are also all American doesn't worry me too much - the universe of singers who can make good with these roles is small - but it's one more instance of a tendency toward transatlantic casting that makes me wonder whether "ENO" is still the right name for the company. In fairness, Richard Hickox (conducting) and Donald Sinden (the Major-Domo) are both resolutely English. Maybe too much for this cup of Viennese whipped cream.

`Ariadne': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Tues, Fri, and to 29 May.

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