Does a new app from DG and Touch Press offer an insight into the future?
Those of us who believe in the future of recorded music – all of us reading this, I hope – may still ask ourselves what that future might look like. I mean no alarm: brilliant, inspiring and profound recordings in their hundreds pass through Gramophone’s office every month, from musicians, instruments, labels, genres, eras and regions as diverse as the history of music itself. The desire among musicians to make a permanent artistic statement and reach ever-wider audiences is as strong as ever. Most such recordings still come, of course, on a compact disc, in a plastic case with a square booklet slipped inside. Which is fine: a CD can hold a superb sound file of as high a quality as most listeners need, and slot neatly onto a shelf. But it’s no longer the only story – and, crucially, for a generation of young people already in their mid-to-late 20s, it’s not even part of the story. So what, we might wonder, might a classical release look like in the near – never-mind far – future? What will a classical collection look like? What could it look like?
We already know that part of the answer is the download. Far from a new format, it’s already leaving behind its early incarnations, as our audio editor Andrew Everard argues in his latest blog. Bandwidth speed and plummeting costs of data storage are fast making this the audiophile option. There’s streaming too, of course: access to epic online libraries like those of Naxos or Spotify bring us obscure repertoire or comparison versions at the click of a button, for amazingly modest cost.
But before you think me charging off into an entirely virtual future, a part of it will still consist of – just as it has since the first gramophone records were issued – physical product. That may well include the traditional plastic-box CD container described above. But digital developments may also force physical to up its game, or rather play to its strengths. Those who already excel here include Alia Vox’s beautifully produced early music releases, complete with many high-quality plates contextualising the concept. Or, from Decca, Cecilia Bartoli’s imaginatively curated and presented projects, or the recent anniversary reissue of Solti’s Ring Cycle.
But a newly released app from Deutsche Grammophon and Touch Press of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony embraces another tantalising possibility. At its heart are four recordings of the work: Ferenc Fricsay with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1958; Herbert von Karajan, again with the BPO, from 1962; Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1979 (a film); and Sir John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique from 1992. All can be listened to accompanied by a scrolling manuscript of the Jonathan Del Mar edition of the score; this can be viewed in its entirety, or as ‘curated’, jumping between the instruments most active and important at any given point. You can also follow the 1825 Royal Philharmonic Society manuscript held in the British library, which while it doesn’t scroll, does move from page to page. Above the score is the key (or lack of), and you can choose between reading a commentary or, in the final movement, the libretto. Fascinatingly, you can jump, at any point, between the four recordings, instantly comparing tempi, approach and – in the case of Gardiner’s period instrument ensemble – pitch. Putting a finger on the score allows you to scroll through the performance at will. Alternatively, you can listen to the recordings while watching the ‘BeatMap’, a diagrammatic aerial view of the orchestra, with spots representing musicians that pulse as they play. A third viewing option is to read more detailed passage-by-passage notes which, like the commentary, are written by David Owen Norris (who also offers an essay about the composer and the work).
How should we categorise an app such as this? Is it a recording? You can of course just listen to the four performances (through headphones that is – short of plugging an audio lead into the iPad I couldn’t work out how to stream the app to my hi-fi). Is it an educational product? Is it both? Or more? This impressive product has in fact taken the technical possibilities of an app and worked upwards from there – as opposed to making a pre-conceived idea fit the format in retrospect. Touch Press has fine form here, having already produced a number of high-profile and high-end education and cultural apps, including an exploration of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and an insight into the orchestra. A forthcoming release will feature Stephen Hough playing Liszt’s Piano Sonata, using the manuscript, multi-camera angles and most importantly Hough’s erudition and thrilling pianism to bring us closer to another monumental milestone work.
But back to Beethoven. The app also contains a series of interview films with conductors including Gardiner and Gustavo Dudamel, musicians from the BPO, choral director Simon Halsey and others, in which they talk about their personal response to the music or delve into the detail of how to perform it. Finally, after all this in-depth insight into manuscript choices, pitch considerations and metronome markings, comes a remarkable excerpt of Bernstein talking about the symphony in 1979. He roots the symphony in philosophy and faith in a deeply personal, open-hearted manner that I simply can’t imagine any of today’s musicians matching.
Contrasting the hopes and prayers of prophets and poets with the 20th century world around him, Bernstein concludes: ‘David, Isaiah, Aristophanes, Jesus, Schiller, Beethoven – how you must be suffering. Forgive me for getting carried away, I had meant to stick to the subject of dates and of Beethoven. But it is all one. Beethoven is struggle, the struggle for peace, for fulfilment of spirit, for serenity and triumphal joy. He achieved it in his music – not only in his Ninth but in all his symphonies, and in his quartets and piano sonatas, and trios and concertos. Somehow it must be possible for us to learn from his music by hearing it: no, not hearing but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration.’
There can surely be few better partners in such a journey than this new app.