Essentials? Certainly very fine recommendations for collectors and newcomers alike
This week iTunes launched a new classical marketing campaign called 'iTunes Essentials Classical'. It gives prominence to a hand-picked list of 30 classical albums, all in the 'Mastered for iTunes' file format, which are being heavily promoted across the iTunes store.
I rather feel this is a source of cheer. The wording used implies outreach to the tentative – 'Want to brush up on your Beethoven, or get to know Bach' and 'must-own classical music'. Always a phrase open to argument, that last one, but as I find I own a good proportion of the albums offered, I'm not about to disagree with it.
It isn't a surprise to see among the 30 such iconic recordings as Glenn Gould's Goldbergs, Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven 5 and 7, Arthur Rubinstein's Chopin or Jacqueline Du Pré’s Elgar. But it's particuarly satisfying to see iTunes also pointing people towards Rinaldo Alessandrini's Bach Brandenburg Concertos (on the Naïve label) - a fabulously vivid and vibrant interpretation – as well as Mozart symphonies from Sir Charles Mackerras (on Linn). In short, there's nothing here I wouldn't happily have in my collection, and much I'd insist was.
When Mastered for iTunes was first released, there was discussion about whether it justified Apple's claims to be 'a final product that's virtually indistinguishable from the original recording'. These are still compressed files however, and if a listener's concern is to know they have the highest possible quality file, there are excellent places to go, such as the likes of Linn, for studio master files.
But the fact remains that many or most iTunes buyers are happy to balance best possible quality with convenience – and that listening to the tracks in the way that many an iTunes user is likely to do so, it does sound good (in this case on a MacBook via good headphones, then streamed over Airplay to a decent docking speaker). I downloaded for testing two radicals of their day: Hildegard von Bingen from Anonymous 4, (the day being sometime in the 12th century) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring from Esa-Pekka Salonen. The former had a good atmospheric acoustic around the chant, and in the latter the percussion had the punch, and the drama the detail, that the work requires.
And here's something else: logging on to the iTunes store – the general, genre-wide homepage – I immediately encountered a big advert for Essentials Classical staring at me from the centre of the carousel. Maybe it was coincidence, maybe it knew who I was (the Genius track recommendations clearly do), or maybe iTunes is simply devoting time and space to attracting general listeners to the classical section of the store.
Committed classical buyers may or may not go to iTunes, though there's a lot to find there if they do. But perhaps more importantly, wouldn't it be great if committed iTunes buyers clicked through to classical?
Martin Cullingford is editor of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.