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Worth their money?

img  Tobias

On the one hand, DGG harked back to the good old days, when it was truly setting the trends. Still a name familiar to most even outside the hermetically sealed  doors of “serious” music, the yellow badge was reinstated as a brand of quality – a development that this year culminated in the beautifully packaged re-recordings of old classics in the traditional design of the fifties. Secondly, managers laid their hands on everything that seemed and sounded poch or modern: DJs, DVDs and musicians with model-looks. As their efforts have already paid off, you might be tempted to ask, whether the title of this article is not a little bit confusing: If any one in the business is raking in the cash, it sure is the young stars of the Grammophone. On the other hand, we feel there should be a little more than just a beautiful façade. We have therefore picked out the two single-most important artists from the roster (we’ll get to Hillary Hahn in a later issue) and asked the all-important question: Are they more than just a financial bonanza?

Anna Netrebko

Easily today’s brightest and quickest-rising female star, Anna Netrebko has got everyone confused. Those that refused to believe the industry was still capable of generating stars of this magnitude. Those that thought the opera had lost its ability to produce genuine passion. Those that were sure the age of the divas had long gone.

Since the release of her debut CD (see review in this issue), Netrebko captivated the imagination of the press and public alike and managed to sell out opera houses the way U2 and The Stones sell out stadiums. In contrast to Lang Lang, there is no reason to doubt her skills: Her voice has been praised by the most critical, even though it is hard to say just how far she can go. The tougher question, however, is whether her efforts justify the fanatic media frenzy, which seems to put her in direct comparison with the legends of the golden era. And: What exactly makes her so special?

In answering this riddle, you can save yourself some time by not even starting to search the Internet. Netrebkos carefully arranged homepage features a wide array of articles, all trying to outdo each other in triviality. We hardly need a studied journalist to tell us that she is good-looking and there are definitely other artists that offer a “package” of talent and appearance – think of Cecilia Bartoli, who has received sympathy and enthousiasm, without even coming close to the extatic praise of her Russian collegue. The rather pessimistic explanation that today’s competition is not as tough as it used to be, might not be entirely wrong, but hardly serves as a final statement: Something special was definitely needed to shake the opera world from its lethargic slumber.

We would like to offer a different explanation instead. Netrebko has stated over and over again, that she turned a singer for the simple fact that she believed her chances of becoming an actress too slim. This brings up a most stunning feat: Opera was not her first love and it probably still isn’t! Jokingly she tells how she used to lie in order to get things done, how she would fail to attend practices because she was not yet prepaired. She plainly tells interviewers she still barely knows the basic opera repertoire. To speak more plainly: Netrebko is an outsider. She appears to be anything but the typical classical music star, because she in fact isn’t a classical music star at all. She is acting her way through this new and fascinating world, that is offering her expensive jewelry and clothes and is touched by her charming naivety. At the same time, she is toying with this image and insists, that she is not looking for perfection, but for authenticity. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes her so attractive to people otherwise not interested in classical music and sets the imagination of insiders racing. People can see her as a student of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and a singer who has spent nearly a decade building her career or they can choose to see a sexy simbol of beauty and talent that has raced into fame and fortune. Just look at her pictures again and observe, how they shape an image of tradition and tomorrow. She is the old and the new, Callas and Madonna at the same time and therefore the first real Pop-Phenomenon (in the neutral sense of the word) to surface since Nigel Kennedy.

Is she worth her money? Well, not yet. Even though we love her gentle and flexible voice, she is hardly a miracle or an instant classic. The natural limitations of her voice have up to now been concealed by her clever (and, it has to be said) wise limitation of repertoire. With no complete work rendition in her CD-oeuvre it is hard to make a serious statement at this point of time. As Dirk Fischer will point out in his review, she sings beautifully, but slightly superficial. And even though her acting is fine on stage, it is sadly distrought on the already sadly distrought collection of video clips “The Woman, the Voice”: Her strangely unnatural body language will hardly touch the MTV-generation and leave traditional listeners bewildered. Which is fine for someone, who is having “the time of her life” and seems content for the moment to enjoy herself as much as she can. But is does not quite deserve the daily dose of praise and admiration. Ms. Ciaccone still has nothing to be afraid of.

Lang Lang

One of the strangest things this year was reading the quotation on the back of the inlaycard of the “live at carnegie hall”-CD. “At 21, Lang Lang is already one of today’s supreme keyboard athletes, with superb fingers and fabulous coordination” Excuse me? We always thought athletes belonged in the Olympic Games or the Chinese National Circus! Sadly enough, that seems to be the whole point of the affair. “live at carnegie hall” has received praising reviews all over the globe and managed to position this barely grown-up pianist not only among the elite of contenders for the classical superstar throne, but also as a link between the austerity of the classical music business and pop culture. It’s all thanks to some smart dresses, the mention of “MTV” in about every interview (a habit he shares with Anna Netrebko) and the combination of Schubert with Tan Dun. What it has nothing do with, however, is the quality of his playing.

If you need to compare Lang Lang to one of the old masters – and we rather wouldn’t! – your best choice would be Georges Cziffra. But while the latter is a deep and full-blooded musician, the former constitutes nothing but an anaemic and superficial classical jukebox. Sure, this guy can play, even though he never ever reaches the fluidity and laid-back suppleness of his counterpart. But when it comes to delivering the content, we are left with a vacuum. There is neither decent phrasing nor a hint of a suspense arc, pieces are never allowed to breathe and constantly drift off into (as Peter Cossé so rightly put it) “mechanical triviality”. Haydns C-major Sonata is rendered absurde, the Wandere-Fantasie by Schubert unrecognisable, and his version of Chopins Nocturne might serve fine as an alternative to Prozac, but hardly seems a suitable way to end the first disc. It is also regrettable that Liszts “Liebestraum”, which has a clear and dominant lead melody ajar to singing, totally loses its character of a song transcription.

This only serves to highlight what seems to be Lang Langs main problem: A lack of understanding for European music of the 18th and 19th century – an unpleassant “feat” he shares with his label mate Yundi Li. The contrast with his rendering of the beforementioned Tan Dun compositions and Chinese traditional “horses” could hardly be any more striking. Suddenly, there is liveliness, excitement and musicality and even his striking seems to improve while playing the tunes of his childhood. No question – this sems to be the right repertoire for him at the moment. Interestingly enough, this could also be the pieces with the heaviest cross-over potential and should for this reason alone appeal to his record company executives.

Which brings us to the reason why we are treated to “first class” talents such as Lang Lang in the first place. For one, there is an eager desire to expand into more colourful and widely appealing artists. The old exotic-bonus might be a cliché but it is still working. And secondly, the terra incognita for classical music needs to be explored. With a potentially huge mass of consumers, who are quickly accumulating wealth, China could be the last resort for a staggering industry. As a bridge-builder between the old and the new world, Lang Lang could be the Mega-Star uniting everyone in admiration.

We honestly hope things will turn out differently. Even if he need not be blamed for all of this, Lang Lang and artists of his caliber are rather hurting than helping the scene. The public will sooner or later find out that it is being sold a third-class act in the wrapping of a premium product. And serious young talents are deprived of the opportunity of playing live.

If you are still looking for a suitable present, you might rather go looking for some delightful re-releases of old recordings from the DGG-vault. They’re more exciting and modern, you know.

By tocafi and Aurelie Tremblay


Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon
Homepage: Anna Netrebko
Homepage: Lang Lang

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