On Music

The apple of my ear

Limitless choice and a rattle of regret

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I have heard the future, and it works. Whether Apple Classical Music will change our lives remains to be seen, but on the basis of some fairly vigorous testing I can assure you that the app, launched this month, is the solution to at least one first world problem. 

If you happen to need the whole of classical music on tap, this is practically it. Apple delivers 115,000 works by 20,000 composers in any number of interpretations. Search for a performer and a result pops up within a second. If the name is missing, come back next week. The database is being constantly enlarged.

By my estimation, Apple’s app has over 80 per cent of all music ever recorded for public release. It seems to contain all significant sources, from elusive Russian Melodiya to cut-price Naxos, the Primark of classical music. The only absentees are a scattering of lone-owner labels that kept their output offline in the hope the internet would go away. 

One such hold-out, Hyperion, newly acquired by Universal Music, is to be streamed on Apple within weeks. One by one, the slow horses are being outrun by the steam engine. For classical music, this amounts to its post-industrial revolution.

the sound on Apple is as good as it gets, actually better. Apple built its app onto the Dutch classical streaming service Primephonic, souping it up with Dolby Atmos and cheeky new Spatial Audio that is supposed to place you, the listener, in the best seat in the house. It is also meant to let you change seats, but I haven’t yet figured out how that works.

What struck me about the Spatial/Dolby combo is not so much the fidelity of, say, Riccardo Chailly’s La Scala album of Verdi choruses as a transparency that makes each human voice sound separately defined. It’s quite shocking on first hearing. 

In a Shostakovich tenth symphony from Berlin, the internal definition seemed to me clearer than the orchestra’s own-label recording and, weirdly, than my aural memory of hearing it in the hall. If this is to be the future quality of sound, bring it on.

And that’s where Apple is aiming. In addition to suctioning up a hundred years of past recordings, Apple has got the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin, Vienna and New York, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and a couple of other big noises to release each season’s best concerts on the app, events that were accessible until now only to the orchestras’ direct subscribers. The deal allows Apple to foster an illusion of renewal, of listener participation in a living, evolving art.

At a time when broadcasters like the BBC and ORF and funders like Arts Council England are in full retreat from orchestras and opera, one of the world’s biggest tech corporations has made classical music its flagship project of 2023. 

“We have been building towards this moment for a really long time,” Oliver Schusser, Vice President of Apple Music, tells me, “it really has been a true labour of love for us.” Like all corp-speak, this comes hedged with agendas. Apple wants to clear its lawn of Spotify, which issues classics as “tracks”, as well as such specialist services as Idagio and Qobuz.

The biggest draw is that the new app comes free, provided you take an Apple Music monthly subscription for £10.99 (UK) or $10.99 (US) and have an iPhone to play it on (I am assured that android phones will be given access before long). So where’s the drawback?

Not every search is as simple as advertised. I had to call a helpline to find Havergal Brian symphonies (Naxos) and the Gennady Rozhdestvensky Melodiya set of Shostakovich, but these are glitches that will doubtless be ironed out. 

Slightly more off-putting was the editorial wallpaper. Apple’s specially painted composer portraits are desultory to terrible — Chopin looks like a Marbella gigolo, Rachmaninov like a Midwestern CFO — and the liner notes read like Wikipedia without the jokes. Old-world classical labels built their authority on authentic images and expert essays. This newbie thinks it can do better. 

My darker discomfort, though, is with the irresistible Californication of classical music, and not by Apple alone. I belong to a generation that cheered when scratchy LPs were supplanted by shiny CDs and now watches in amazement as newlyweds go nesting in rooms walled with vinyl discs. 

I first bought books online at Amazon when you had to phone up three times to finalise a purchase. I am not resistant to progress, not a Luddite, not an anti-vaxxer. But putting the whole of classical music onto a device that fits into the palm of my hand feels like a devaluation of civilisation.

Of course, it’s wonderful to have limitless choice and to summon a work instantly in order to verify whether there is a hint of Mahler’s tenth in Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale (there isn’t). It’s terrific, but it’s too easy — and things that are made easy lose value. 

I still think of a record as an object. That may class me as a dinosaur in Silicon Valley terms but when a recording becomes no more than flotsam in a stream, something dies in our relation to music: some sense of ownership that cannot be replicated by a nebulous Apple playlist. 

I shall, like everyone else, be streaming classical music for the rest of my life and I may well have an Apple phone play Uchida’s Arietta from Beethoven’s last piano sonata as I breathe my last. If I do, though, it will be with a rattle of regret, and I shall certainly not be sorry to miss the next revolution. 

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