A Tale of Two Elgars
At a little past 11:45 on Thursday morning, WFCR will broadcast a new recording from the Telarc label, featuring the splendid American cellist Zuill Bailey with maestro Krzysztof Urbanski and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, of one of classical music's most eloquent and haunting works, Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor. "Wait a second," an attentive listener might interject, "haven't you already been playing a new recording of the Elgar?"
Right you are, o sharp-eared one! Since its release last October, we've given five plays to the Decca Records version of the Elgar Concerto as played by Alisa Weilerstein, with Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle Berlin — more plays than we used to give new releases, and probably fewer than we should give, but that's the subject for another blog.
Putting aside their respective musical merits for the moment — in short, they're both extremely compelling — the Bailey and Weilerstein CDs, when viewed side-by-side, make for an interesting case study in classical recording and marketing. And in this study, the way I see it, the Weilerstein comes out way ahead.
First, take a look at the CD covers above. Critic and blogger Greg Sandow has already given Telarc's packaging holy hell in a recent post ("Ugly! And completely unconvincing, if we’re supposed to believe this recording is anything we’d want to hear."), to which I have nothing to add. And Zuill Bailey's quite the looker, so it's an opportunity blown. By contrast, while Decca's ungimmicky cover doesn't exactly revolutionize album art, at least they put their best face forward in an evocative pose that highlights their star performer to best advantage. One is boring, the other alluring.
Then, consider the CDs in their totality. With what does Telarc pair the Elgar Concerto? With more music featuring its leading man? With more Elgar? Neither. The folks at Telarc and/or the Indianapolis Symphony, whoever's in charge, fill out the album with totally unrelated music: the first three pieces, including the ever-popular "The Moldau," from Czech composer Bedřich Smetana's six-part cycle of symphonic poems "Má vlast" ("My Country"). So not only do they fail to fully capitalize on Zuill Bailey's considerable appeal, they also remove themselves from serious competition in the Smetana sweepstakes by including only half of his symphonic masterwork. If these were separately downloadable items from the ISO's website, these works might make more sense. On a single take-it-or-leave-it CD, they don't make any sense at all.
On the other hand, Decca's pairing is a master-stroke. How do you give yet another recording of a warhorse like the Elgar Concerto instant critical cred, swat away the objections of those who consider Elgar a fusty, jingoistic relic (and such people do exist), and present your soloist as not just a virtuoso but as an adventurous, forward-looking musician ? Why, you pair Elgar with the 2001 Cello Concerto (and in classical music, twelve years old is still daringly new) by the ageless, ultra-brainy, much-loved American modernist Elliott Carter! The fact that Carter died at age 103 just six days after the CD's release only enhanced its already considerable cachet. How hip is that? Hip enough for even NPR to take notice.
So, while the strictly musical merits of the Elgar performances remain roughly equivalent (I'm going back-and-forth on which I prefer, with perhaps Weilerstein/Barenboim ahead by a nose at the moment), in the game of marketing your product, and of helping classical music to matter again, it's no contest.