On Music

Tapping into history

As soon as you enter Idagio.com you can kiss your working day goodbye

One summer’s evening in the early 1990s, I met a student called Till at a festival in Schleswig-Holstein where major soloists were making music in cleaned-up cowsheds amid the lowing of displaced Friesians in nearby fields. Among the cowpats, I found some serious blue-sky dreamers. Till, for instance, had a vision that one day the whole of recorded music — from Caruso’s first aria to Decca’s latest release — would be available at the touch of a button. These were the heady days between the end of history and the internet dawn when anything seemed possible. Still, knowing the vexatious nature of the record industry, I could not imagine it might ever pool its closely-guarded treasures in a single virtual pot.

Fast forward 25 years. The classical record industry is now almost defunct and Till Janczukowicz is sitting in Berlin as chief executive of a streaming service that has raised ten million dollars from willing banks to bring the whole of classical music instantly to your smartphone. Till’s empire is called Idagio.com and, once you enter, you can kiss your working day goodbye.

Tap in the most obscure name you remember from your teenage LP collection — Sebastian Peschko, say — and in half a click you will have this pianist’s life’s work at your listening disposal, his 32 albums as a Lied accompanist. Name a disused English symphonist. Havergal Brian? Idagio has 20 Brian records. Malcolm Arnold beats him with 132. This is compelling. Not since my six-year-old self was left momentarily alone in a seaside sweet shop have I felt such thrilling, limitless temptation.

If knowledge is power, having total knowledge is tantamount to autocracy. A listener who logs on to Idagio becomes a musical Peter the Great.

To have the whole of recorded history at your fingertips is to be like Peter Kien, in Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-Fé, walking around with a library in his head. If knowledge is power, having total knowledge is tantamount to autocracy. A listener who logs on to Idagio becomes a musical Peter the Great.

Any arguments you’ve ever had about which of Herbert von Karajan’s eight Beethoven cycles was least essential, or whether Koussevitzky could conduct for toffee, or why the Balkans yields so many singers and so few pianists, can be settled once and for all. Likewise, the relative merits of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, Callas and Tebaldi, Rattle and Roll, Little and Largo. It’s all there for the listening, and it has changed the way I listen.

Discussing the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth recently over dinner with Till it struck me that, using Idagio, one person can comprehensively grasp the performing history of the world’s most important composer — not over years of musicological research but in a few weeks of concentrated listening.

Do the maths. Beethoven wrote 135 numbered works, some of them with three piano sonatas or six string quartets under the same opus number. There are also uncatalogued works known as WoO, for without opus number. Say 250 scores altogether. The earliest recording of a Beethoven symphony was the Fifth, conducted in Berlin in November 1913 by Arthur Nikisch. The latest were released this month by the Fischer brothers, Ivan and Adam. In all, there are 127 Fifths on Idagio and 12,000-15,000 Beethoven recordings in all.

Eliminate the barely competent, the Balkans, the self-repetitive and the irredeemably recondite, and you’re down to manageable numbers. Let’s do it, said Till. So what I’m doing for the first half of this year is sifting day by day through Beethoven’s works on record in the hope of getting a grip on the mind that changed music. When I started, I thought I loved Beethoven. Now I’m not so sure — not all of the time, anyway.

Like most men of genius, he’s hard to like. Where others have a human weakness — Mozart whiled away evenings at billiards, Wagner shopped for silks, Brahms boozed, Elgar went to the races and Bruckner, let’s not go there — Beethoven applied every waking hour to the furtherance of his art. He is original to a fault — if he quotes another composer it is only to show how they missed the point — and he is ultra-serious, even for a German.

The Ninth Symphony often feels to me too great to be good. If all men are going to be brothers, what’s left to say? Beethoven shuts down the discussion where Schumann, Verdi, Mahler and Debussy leave open questions. It affects the way musicians perform his works on records, causing many to huddle in a narrow corridor of certainty. Pianists fall into those — Schnabel, Arrau, Gulda, Gould, Rubinstein — who dazzle with wrong notes and opinions — and the vast majority who don’t dare to offend.

Every now and then, an interpretation is declared to be definitive. Carlos Kleiber’s 1974 Vienna recording of the Fifth Symphony stands unchallenged in record guides. Why, I asked my neighbourhood cellist, Steven Isserlis. “Because the music sounds as if that’s the way it has to be,” he replied. I put the question to three dozen experts around the world. It’s perfect, they emailed back. But perfection is inhuman, I cried, flourishing such fearsome and chaotic alternatives as Tennstedt, Zinman, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Mravinsky and Karajan’s first set.

Never mind. Reviewing Beethoven day after day on www.slippedisc.com, I find myself locked into the most rewarding parlour game since the invention of (not sure which came first) Scrabble and strip poker. The internet has done horrible things to cultural values but Idagio revives my belief that everyone has a right to access the summits of civilisation and the capacity to form an opinion. Why take my word for it? Beethoven is waiting. Get stuck in.

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