Top conductor goes it alone after record label pulls plug
Monday, January 10, 2005
Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
The conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner - for 20 years one of the most famous names contracted to the recording company Deutsche Grammophon - has launched his own CD label, after recovering from the blow of the abrupt severance of his contract with DG.
Sir John faced a crisis when the company pulled the plug just as he was planning the gargantuan project of touring with and recording live the complete Bach cantatas throughout the year 2000, which would have resulted in over 50 CDs.
"The project was a central plank of my recording contract with them," he said. "We were left stranded."
Sir John's move provides further proof of the massive contraction in output by the giant classical labels.
"I am a victim of the whole downwards slide of the major players in the record business," he said. "They became structurally top-heavy, and the market began to dry up, whether through public lack of interest or the labels' overproduction." Sir John is the first classical artist of his stature to have created his own label. The Brodsky Quartet launch Brodsky Records this March, releasing two CDs, while orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra have already formed their own labels.
When DG pulled out of the Bach cantata recordings, it was agreed that Sir John could retain the tapes made at the concerts through the year and use them as he pleased.
The first two Bach cantata releases from Sir John's new label - called Soli Deo Gloria, the Latin tag with which Bach signed off his scores - are released this month. The abbreviated form, SDG, could be seen as a thinly-disguised two fingers to DG.Deprived
"Suddenly I am in a situation where there are interesting things not being recorded [by the major labels] and a new generation of young artists who are going to be deprived of the interesting, fruitful experience of recording, and on whom the big players have given up unless they are wearing wet bikinis," he said.
Founding the label seemed like a "logical progression", according to Isabella de Sabata, the CDs' producer, for a conductor who already ran his own choir and orchestra.
The set-up costs were met by donations, largely from sympathetic wealthy individuals, said Ms de Sabata. "At the end of 2001 we put together a CD compilation from the tapes and sent it to lots of people who had helped with the project. We raised £40,000 from people who had come to concerts.
"Most of it was in £100-£200 chunks from people who had been in the audience, plus a couple of large chunks. Then we received £130,000 from a donor."
The Prince of Wales is the project's patron; donors include American arts philanthropist Alberto Vilar, charitable foundations and corporate sponsors.
The performers are paid on the basis of royalties, a far cry from the fat contracts handed out by record companies in the heyday of the industry.
Ms de Sabata estimates that in order to recoup costs and allow them to continue putting out the CDs from the cantata project they need to sell 4,000 to 5,000 copies each.
"Our orders and preorders suggest we are going to make it," she said.
If all goes well, SDG hopes eventually to add fresh recordings to its catalogue, using Sir John's ensembles, the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre RÈvolutionnaire et Romantique.
The cheaper model of recording live from concerts (as does the LSO's label, LSO Live), rather than from expensive and lengthy studio sessions, also points the way forward.
Results may not have the chiselled perfection of an endlessly edited and patched recording made under studio conditions, but can serve as a document of a special event.
"It's partly, one might say, sentimentality," said Sir John. "When you have been involved in something very exciting it's a pity not to have a record of that experience."
He added: "I feel very ambivalent about it. It is the end of an era. I am grateful for the opportunity of having been able to record in a studio. It was invaluable."
But, he said, he relished the opportunity of having full artistic control over the SDG recordings, from the packaging onwards (the two CDs are notably luxuriously produced).
"We are right at the beginning," he said. "We could get egg on our faces.
"But I am confident about the quality of the recordings."
As published on Guardian Unlimited (www.guardian.co.uk)