By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
The launch in March of Apple Music Classical, Apple’s new standalone app designed specifically for classical music, had been widely anticipated since August 2021, when the company announced its acquisition of Primephonic, a classical music streaming service with great metadata that, in its own words and those of many critics, “seemed to get classical right.” Because metadata is the name of the game for searching through the vast reaches of classical music’s composers, editions, artists, movements, engineers, contemporary reviews, venues, dates, and more, Sean Hickey, managing director of Pentatone, thinks that “the release of the Apple classical app will overshadow everything in the industry for a while.” If you can’t find it, you can’t stream it, and, until the Apple Music Classical app, searching for classical in the current artist-album-song world was pretty unsatisfactory.
If Apple’s unleashing of Primephonic’s metadata engine gets everything right, you might be able to ask the service for a rather complicated menu. Say you’re on a Gregor Piatigorsky binge. Imagine the convenience of requesting (and actually being provided) a playlist of his best performances of the major concertos, his Don Quixote with Fritz Reiner (not Charles Munch), his Dvořák with Munch (not Eugene Ormandy), his Brahms Double with Nathan Milstein, conducted by Reiner (not with Jascha Heifetz and the Los Angeles Philharmonic).
Apple Music Classical’s rollout was aimed at Apple Music subscribers who will be able to download and enjoy the Apple Music Classical app as part of their existing subscription; the new app will automatically download at launch to enable immediate listening for users who have Auto Update turned on in their settings.
As part of the vision, Apple will also work with classical music artists to provide unique content and recordings, and to create exclusive artwork, including a series of high-resolution digital portraits of the world’s greatest composers commissioned from a diverse group of artists, “blending historical research with color palettes and artistic references from the relevant classical period,” according to Apple. “The results display an astonishing attention to detail, bringing listeners face to face with leading classical figures like never before.”
Apple Music Classical will initially be exclusive to iOS, but Mac and Android versions are on their way. The goal is attracting new subscribers. According to the 2022 year-end report from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the number of paid subscriptions in the US market overall grew to a record high of 92 million, topping $10 billion for the first time. These subscriptions continued to be the largest driver of music revenues, accounting for 84 percent of streaming.
There are significant potential benefits to a successful Apple Classical Music app for classical music—the art and the industry—and a long way still to go to put them to use. Simon Eder, who co-founded Primephonic in 2014, a year before Apple Music launched, told me that classical music had been “massively underrepresented in the digital world and amongst the DSPs at the time. Their lack of understanding of how classical music metadata needed to be handled was obvious. The economic dynamics for recorded music are also very different for classical compared to other genres. And the ties between live and recorded are stronger in the nonclassical world, where the composition is more closely tied to the respective artist; in classical, artists are mostly interpreting existing repertoire over and over.”
Eder, who now heads business development for the London-based Intermusica management agency, maintains that the broader classical music industry “is still behind in fully understanding and embracing digital developments and in finding digital opportunities (and threats) still to be found in the recorded music sector as streaming grows massively.”
Eder doesn’t want classical “to end up in an ivory tower” and sees “big music players like Apple taking an interest in classical as a big opportunity for the genre. If the big players get classical right,” he says, “the opportunities for reaching broader audiences are immense.” Eder is also surprised at “how few artists, including young classical artists, care about their digital reach and how little they know about how streaming portals work. It’s left completely to the labels, where you’ll find a different level of understanding of digital knowledge.”
Streaming Drives an ‘Ease of Use’ Trend in Audio Gear
As streaming has surged, Gramophone’s audio editor Andrew Everard has noted “a growing trend in the market for one box, simple to set up with operation that’s more or less plug and play, sufficient amplifier power and quality to drive everything from compact bookshelf speakers to larger floorstanding designs, and the ability to integrate online services. It’s never been easier to stream music at the tap of a finger on an app.” Everard singles out Cambridge Audio Evo systems for their “supreme ease of use, wide-ranging capability, great sound, and real style.”
Also answering the trend, for those looking to include speakers in the package, KEF’s stunning new LS60 wireless system, with streaming and amplification built in, does the job for a penny under seven grand. KEF’s bookshelf version, the LS50W, comes in at under half the price. And Amazon’s Echo Studio (in less grand style) does it at $299. Launched in support of the company’s own HD music subscription service, the one-piece Echo, with its five-speaker array, is capable of hi-res audio but comes into its own playing Dolby Atmos material like Apple’s new and remastered Spatial Audio titles.
Brian Bloom at high-end SoCal dealer Brooks Berdan Ltd. says that listening on speakers “is for listeners looking for a better audio.” He often sells smaller speakers starting at $800 a pair and recommends models from Bowers & Wilkins and Sonus Faber. A significant shift in the market, he says is that “better wireless models are starting to see more action.”
Looking to put some speakers through their paces? The following list of mostly new and recent recordings was auditioned on Spendor A1 Bookshelf Loudspeakers and Rega’s io integrated amplifier. All are available on Apple Music and most other services. The titles with asterisks are available in Spatial Audio.
- Bach: Six Cello Suites. Jean-Guihen Queyras (Harmonia Mundi, 2007)*
- Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with new cadenzas by Jörg Widmann. Veronika Eberle, violin; London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, cond. (LSO)*
- Beethoven Complete String Quartets, Vol. 3: The Late Quartets. Dover Quartet (Cedille)
- Beethoven, Op. 97 “Archduke,” and Brahms, Op. 8, Piano Trios. Victoria Mullova, violin; Heinrich Schiff, cello; Andre Previn, piano (Philips, 1993)
- Elgar: Viola Concerto; Bloch: Suite for viola and orchestra. Timothy Ridout, viola; BBC Symphony, Martyn Brabbins, cond. Harmonia Mundi)*
- Ode à la nuit. Cello8, Raphaël Pidoux, cond. (Mirare)* Four Schubert songs are at the heart of these lovely arrangements for cello octet.
- Where Is Home (Hae Ke Kae). Abel Selaocoe, cello, and friends, including Yo-Yo Ma (Warner Classics)*
- Stravinsky: Violin Concerto and Chamber Works. Isabelle Faust, violin; Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth, cond. (Harmonia Mundi)* Another unexpected revelation on period instruments.
- We Get Requests. The Oscar Petersen Trio (with Ray Brown on bass) (Verve, 1964)*
- Telemann: Viola Concertos, Overtures, and Fantasias. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi)
For demoing vinyl in nonclassical genres, Eric Gorfain—violinist, leader of the Section Quartet, and arranger for Def Leppard, Dr. Dre, Christina Aguilera, and Nick Cave—suggests the following (these are all also available digitally):