Should you judge a CD by its label?
During Walter Carroll's classical music this afternoon on WFCR, you'll get your first chance to hear a CD that arrived just yesterday, the latest release from one of America's finest ensembles, the Emerson String Quartet. Their new album contains Mozart's three "Prussian" Quartets, so-called because they were composed for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II. The King, you see, was a musician -- a cellist of some skill, if not the highest virtuosity. So, mindful of who was paying for the music, Mozart gave the cello special prominence in these quartets, having it introduce many of the melodies in its songful upper register. This gives the quartets a light, buoyant sound unique for Mozart, more at times like the music of his contemporary, cellist-composer Luigi Boccherini (who also composed works for Friedrich Wilhelm II).
Anyhow, as I opened the package containing the CD yesterday, a few things stuck out even before I popped it into the player. The first was the grotesquely retouched cover photo that made the members of the Emerson, all still breathing last I checked, look rather like fugitives from Madame Tussauds. Unless this album is being marketed to zombies, this might have been a miscalculation. The second was the CD label logo on the lower right. It wasn't the familiar yellow insignia of Deutsche Grammophon, which has released the Emerson's recordings for over 20 years. Instead, there's the red, white and black logo of Sony Classical. After all this time, the Emerson has switched labels.
And you know, once upon a time, this really would have been big classical news. Back in the day, the major labels (Columbia, RCA Victor, Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, London & Philips) each had stable rosters of stellar artists whom one associated with their imprints. Just as one could never imagine Joe DiMaggio outside his Yankee pinstripes or Ted Williams wearing anything else but Boston across his chest, you just knew that Bernstein was on Columbia, Heifetz on RCA, Tebaldi on London, etc. This stability started to break down in the mid-70s, when, for instance, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia made a move from Columbia to -- gasp -- RCA. In light of the fact that these two labels, with new corporate owners, are now merged as Sony/BMG, all the hubbub seems silly in retrospect. But it does also take us back to a time when classical music mattered enough for fans to really care about such things. Can the same be said for now?