Shortly after the death of Claudio Abbado, the Sunday Express asked me to write its main arts feature on the great maestros of the past, and how they differ from today’s. The newspaper ran it over two pages: it’s clearly a subject which fascinates people beyond the pages of Gramophone.
A profession in which the power of personality plays such a vital role necessarily attracts compelling characters. This isn’t to imply they are all as flamboyant as a Beecham or a Bernstein, of course – Abbado is a case in point, Sir Adrian Boult another. But there are many ways to inspire respect and creativity, and in today’s democratic age it’s more often by being open and engaging rather than dictatorial and detached.
But perhaps this wider interest in the profession is also due to the change in relationship between the conductor and the recording industry. A conductor was once the pivotal figure in a label’s roster. Toscanini was possibly the first for whom fame and both broadcast and recording, notably with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, were intrinsically linked. Glance at his LP sleeves and his name is usually larger than the composer’s. The message is clear: conductor is king. This was also true of Karajan, Bernstein and Solti from the 1960s onwards.
Few – if any – today could expect the lifetime label contract that the likes of Solti enjoyed with Decca. Of the current recording superstars there is Rattle of course, and of the younger generation, for all the brilliance of the likes of Petrenko, Nelsons and Nézet-Séguin, only Dudamel has been granted the recording status of the conductors of yesteryear.
One reason is the altered position of major labels in the recording industry. Conductor contracts tended to be the preserve of the majors, and while Decca, DG et al are still making superb records, the indies have ever-increasing prominence, and none of them could retain a major-league conductor on those contracts of the past. Major labels, meanwhile, tend today to look to the soloists, to Lang Lang, Anna Netrebko or Cecilia Bartoli, for their stars. To further complicate matters, milestone surveys of core repertoire are now often released on an orchestra’s own label – think of Mariss Janson’s recent Beethoven set on BR Klassik or Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler.
But finally, does this really matter? The conductors are still making great records. And if their names have retreated in size relative to those of the composers on the covers, the best of today’s conductors would be the first to argue that it is, after all, all about the music.
This month’s list of Editor’s Choice recordings also highlights the role top conductors play in revealing new dimensions to familiar concertos. When I spoke recently to Milos Karadaglic, he was full of admiration for Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s imaginative approach to Rodrigo. Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting runs as a thread through Rob Cowan’s review of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Prokofiev’s piano concertos set – as indeed it should. And then there is Abbado himself, captured in collaboration with Martha Argerich. Abbado’s gift for inspiring others – whether his partners be Isabelle Faust, Maurizio Pollini, Orchestra Mozart, or as here, Argerich – was perhaps his greatest.
By Martin Cullingford