Celebrating 100 releases on LSO Live

Michael McManusWed 7th May 2014
LSO Live's 100th release is a Sir Colin Davis celebrationLSO Live's 100th release is a Sir Colin Davis celebration

Michael McManus reflects on the label's legacy - and that of Sir Colin Davis

The LSO Live label has come a long way since it was launched in the year 2000. The first release was a recording of Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 From the New World, featuring the orchestra conducted by its then principal conductor Sir Colin Davis. It’s not hard to explain the conservative selection of repertoire and conductor as the new label first took the chilly air of the CD market. This was a radical departure, and the dramatic transformation (or, to dispense with euphemism, violent contraction) of the one-time titans of the traditional, classical recording industry had only just begun. The model is essentially a cooperative one:

‘Conductors and soloists are stakeholders in the recordings on which they appear and LSO Live works with some of the world’s leading producers and sound engineers. The musicians not only choose what should be recorded, but are also involved throughout the production process, ensuring only recordings they are happy with get released.’

The label was the brainchild of the man who had emerged from the cello section of the orchestra to lead it out of the pack of London orchestras and, founded in the 1980s upon the superb musical leadership of Claudio Abbado and a residency in the new Barbican Hall, a position of pre-eminence the orchestra maintains today. Sir Clive Gillinson is now Executive and Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall and the toast of New York society, but I well recall a typically entertaining lunch that I enjoyed with him towards the end of his LSO tenure, when LSO Live was still relatively young but already catching the eye of reviewers and collectors alike. 

I suggested to him that I might ‘pitch’ a piece to Gramophone about the success of the label and he gently discouraged me from doing so, because it was already, in effect ‘doing too well’, to the point that LSO Live and, by association, the LSO itself, risked coming to be seen as a potentially pernicious threat by the then ‘mainstream’ recording industry. 

The LSO is now at the forefront of a radical new form of digital engagement with audiences across the world. LSO Live is now available on more than 130 digital services, with a presence in more than 200 countries. Of those, more than 100 countries are serviced by iTunes, a figure that has almost doubled in the past two years or so. In 2013, we learned at an event to mark the label's anniversary last night, there were more than 4 million digital LSO Live transactions. The label now achieves sales in countries as far reaching as Andorra, Costa Rica and India. There is a symbiotic relationship between concert programmes and the programme of recordings; and the changing pattern of on-line sales has inevitably had consequences for the LSO’s touring schedule, with a challenging trip this March taking in India and cities in mainland China as well as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and South Korea. The visit to Mumbai with Daniel Harding is commemorated in a beautiful, touching seven-minute film on YouTube.

The ‘footprint’ of the Orchestra has therefore expanded to a dizzying degree and the easy proliferation of recordings in the digital age has played an essential role in that. The LSO has also begun to film concerts in HD, with a view to, it says, ‘significantly increasing our global reach, and help us to deliver LSO Discovery’s educational remit’. The concerts have so far been broadcast across seven different time zones, and more than 40 countries. The LSO is also keen to draw attention to LSO Play, a new web-based platform which uses high-definition filmed concert footage in an educational way, including user-controlled views of the concert and specially created ‘extras’ exploring the music in depth.  A promotional trailer provides a sense of what this entails.

In the context of such a global vision, the concept of issuing CDs and DVDs seems almost quaintly old-fashioned. There is nothing antediluvian about the new box set, however, for both the repertoire and the technology used to capture it are enough to set the pulse of any collector racing. As LSO Live approached its 100th release – representing a breadth of repertoire that far outstrips the achievements of its rivals – it was natural that some kind of special edition should be prepared. It was then an obvious decision to devote the special edition to a commemoration of the orchestra’s long and fruitful relationship with Sir Colin Davis, who died last year at the age of 85. After stepping down as principal conductor of the LSO in 2006 and becoming its President, Sir Colin Davis both became an effective custodian (‘curator’ seems unkind) of the band’s pre-eminence in the repertoire in which he himself excelled – Berlioz, Tippett, Elgar, Sibelius, Haydn, Mozart – and also retained his role as a crucially important figure for the LSO Live label. Last night, at the LSO St Luke’s Centre, both the new boxed set and also Sir Colin himself were celebrated in style.

Having always detected something of a core of steel beneath Sir Colin Davis’s languid, urbane exterior, I encountered it once myself after an LSO performance of the Seventh Symphony by Anton Bruckner, a composer I had never associated with Sir Colin. To my surprise, the scherzo had been played before the famous adagio. I knew the cymbal clash in the adagio would always be controversial, but I had never heard of any dispute over the correct order of movements, either amongst scholars or within Bruckner’s own Byzantine mind. I attended upon Sir Colin in the Green Room afterwards and asked what his intention had been. ‘Well,’ he explained, ‘Bruckner put the slow movement after the scherzo in his Eighth Symphony, so I thought it would be interesting to hear how they sounded that way around in this symphony too’. Clearly my face betrayed presumptuous scepticism for, after a moment’s silence, he closed the conversation amiably but unambiguously, moving elegantly on with a wry smile and a valedictory comment: ‘I can see you aren’t convinced.’

This week I talked to the long-standing principal clarinettist of the LSO, Andrew Marriner, about what made Sir Colin’s relationship with the LSO so fruitful: ‘Although, when necessary, he could agitate us as dramatically as the rest, he never gripped the steering wheel too hard…it was never the sort of grip that made for anxiety…So, when we had an emotive piece of music to play, he never got us into a state where it tangled the music…He felt able to let you play freely and, of course, if you were too free, with the kindest and subtlest of gestures, he would bring you back to his idea of what he wanted…but always without disturbing the music…Colin managed always to negotiate it back gently to where he needed it to be…He also conducted great music – Sibelius, Berlioz, Bruckner, Mozart…We did a fantastic Creation and I shall always remember a Má Vlast that we did in Prague…He had a special ability to “make it happen”, without the musicians feeling they were being interfered with…so you came away thinking you might have done something!’ 

There was further corroboration, if any was needed, of Andrew’s comments last night, when distinguished musical scholar David Cairns, in many ways the academic yin to Colin Davis’s podium yang in the sustained modern Berlioz revival, spoke movingly of a life-enhancing friendship that lasted for over six decades and quoted Mitsuko Uchida’s words about Sir Colin: ‘His baton didn’t dictate; it invited’. We also saw some late interview footage of the great man himself, who seemed almost to be explaining the widespread longevity of conductors when he spoke touchingly of the privilege of working with musicians and explained: ‘The fascination with music has never left me…In fact, it’s actually grown’.

What of the special edition itself? One of the many positive features of LSO Live has been its persistence with the surround-sound SACD format, quickly abandoned by the likes of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon but still popular both amongst collectors and also on the part of small, specialist labels such as Channel Classics and BIS. For my money, high-definition audio surround sound – SACD – is a natural corollary of the advent of home cinema systems. Happily, the LSO Live team agrees. Its hybrid SACDs are exemplary and the Colin Davis set includes 8 of them, alongside a ‘bonus’ DVD (featuring a documentary about The Man and the Music) and a remastered CD-only reissue of probably the most celebrated of the 100 LSO Live releases to date – the concert recording of Les Troyens from December 2000. There can be but few comparable instances of a recording playing so fundamental a role in the re-evaluation of what was, even 15 years ago, a comparatively neglected masterpiece. The recording sounds as fresh as ever. It fair leaps out of the speakers and the orchestral detail is every bit as vivid and as telling as the singing, led heroically by Ben Heppner. 

The SACDs include some new releases – a stunning performance of Vaughan Williams’s ‘post-pastoral’ Symphony No 4, recorded in September 2008 and The Oceanides by Sibelius – plus some more familiar fare, including a powerful Child of Our Time and Belshazzar’s Feast. The highlights for Davis fans will probably be a first release for a 2009 recording of the Te Deum of his beloved Berlioz and a superbly remastered (including a stereo 2.0 SACD layer) reissue of the recording that, for LSO Live, started it all: the New World Symphony from 1999. This seems somehow fitting. When this new label took its first, tentative steps 14 years ago, could its founders have dreamed they were, arguably, founding a new world not just for the London Symphony Orchestra, but also for the entire classical recording industry?

Michael McManus

Michael McManus is an author, writing on subjects including classical music, theatre and politics. His latest book, 'Tory Pride and Prejudice', a history of the Conservative Party and homosexual law reform, was published by Biteback in October 2011.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014