New Berlin Philharmonic label is a defining moment

Martin CullingfordFri 23rd May 2014

Gramophone's editor introduces the June issue of the magazine

The Berlin Philharmonic has launched an in-house label: it is, I think, something of a defining moment in the evolution of the classical music recording industry. It isn’t the first orchestra to do so – in fact you could argue it’s slightly behind the trend here, following on from others such as the London Symphony, San Francisco Symphony and Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestras. But for the mighty Berlin Philharmonic to launch a label of its own turns it from a trend to the new norm. 

The BPO’s relationship with major labels over the past century has represented the gold standard of recording during the industry’s oft-cited glory years. Partly this was through conductor/label relationships – that between Herbert von Karajan and Deutsche Grammophon most notably, though more recently Sir Simon Rattle’s tenure led to a fruitful era of releases on EMI Classics. But, as I discussed in this space a few months ago, the link between maestros and labels has changed, with almost no conductor now enjoying the long-term contract with a major label that was once commonplace.

Well, Rattle’s contract with EMI (now part of Warner Classics) has come to an end, and the BPO has decided to go it alone. This doesn’t mean it will no longer record for other labels, but when it does, such a project will be driven by a star soloist (which occasionally could also include a star conductor), rather than the orchestra and repertoire. When it comes to symphonic literature, it will now appear on the orchestra’s own label – beginning with a set of Schumann symphonies. If the BPO’s Digital Concert Hall is anything to go by, the label should be a stylish and high-end affair (it may be late to launch a label but the BPO has pioneered offering concerts to audiences far and wide through its impressive online home). 

But if orchestra own-labels are increasingly the norm, how might this change things for collectors? For a start it might free orchestras from the restraints imposed by commercial considerations. Rattle implied as much when he said: ‘The Schumann symphonies have never been considered one of the sure-fire big sellers of all music, but for us in the Berliner Philharmoniker, this music is closer to our hearts than almost any other…So we said, let’s share our interpretations with others.’ Reading between the lines, this might not have sold enough copies to justify a major label issuing it. But when taken as part of an organisation’s wider work, it can become viable. 

So perhaps we’ll see increasing numbers of orchestral releases which really capture an ensemble’s musical soul, enshrining the partnership between players and maestro in repertoire really key to them. Just as we did, en masse, in the early CD era of the ’80s of course: and there lies a slight note of caution. The industry’s release schedule is only manageable up to a certain size, and part of the cause of that earlier unsustainable bubble is that multiple labels all issued identical repertoire at the same time as each other (sometimes even on the same label). The result: over‑supply, and the collectors couldn’t keep up. So just because a label can do something, doesn’t mean it always should. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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