It's Not All Gloom—News from the Classical Front

You thought the only new articles about CDs you'd be reading would be about further declines in sales? Well, it turns out that ArkivMusic, the country's leading website for new and formerly out-of-print classical recordings, posted, um, record sales last year.

Now billing itself as "The Source for Classical Music™," the online retailer posted a record 30% growth in 2007 sales over 2006, including more than $1 million in sales in December alone. That may seem like small change to the pop industry, but you can be sure it's jump-started the hearts of classical executives at the four major classical labels, all of whom have signed licensing deals with ArkivMusic to allow it to sell some of the labels' choice out-of-print titles via on-demand burns on the ArkivCD label.

All of these sales were of physical product—ArkivMusic has yet to enter the download business (not that I'd put it past their president, Eric Feidner). Instead, ArkivMusic boasts a catalog of 82,000 physical titles—the largest number available worldwide—including 5000 formerly out-of-print ArkivCDs that made up about 10% of the company's overall business in the fourth quarter. ArkivMusic.com has become one of Naxos USA's largest accounts. Given that Naxos now distributes such sought-after independent classical labels as Chandos, NaÏve, Profil, and Pentatone hybrid SACDs, as well as many of the prime classical DVD labels, that's saying a lot.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's CSO Resound label has been going full-steam ahead on all fronts. Last fall, they followed up their premiere release, a live PCM recording of Bernard Haitink conducting Mahler's Symphony 3, with a higher-rez, native-DSD SACD/CD of Haitink conducting Bruckner's Symphony 7. Then, on January 8, they went virtual with their first download-only release, Myung-Whun Chung's live performance of Shostakovich's ever-popular Symphony 5. The 52-minute performance, from a September 6 concert, comes complete with a downloadable seven-page booklet pdf; it is available for $7.99 exclusively on iTunes for 60 days. It is encoded as DRM-free AAC files at 256kbps, and according to John Atkinson, sounds surprisingly natural, with respect to both tonal colors and dynamics, despite the lossy compression.

On February 12, CSO Resound will issue yet another CD, Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago. Recorded before DSD equipment was in-house at Chicago, the live concerts features the orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma, the Silk Road Ensemble, pipa player Wu Man, and conductors Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Alan Gilbert. The repertoire is Bloch's Schelomo, Sharav's Legend of Herlen, Lou Harrison's Pipa Concerto, and Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. Traditions and Transformations was produced and edited by David Frost, recorded by Christopher Willis, mixed by Frost and Tom Lazarus, and mastered by Richard King. The simultaneous iTunes release, albeit in MP3 format, will include exclusive bonus interviews with the artists. Beginning April 15, the recording will be downloadable from all the usual suspects.

Also come April, CSO Resound returns to SACD via Bernard Haitink conducting Mahler's Symphony 6. That will bring the number of SACD versions of Mahler's most harrowing symphony to at least seven, including those conducted by Zander, Tilson Thomas, Eschenbach, Abbado, Jansons, and Fischer. So much for complaints that SACD is a dead format offering little to listen to.

If CSO Resound's MP3 sample rate is still not equivalent to full "CD quality," its plans are impressive. Expect three to four download-only releases per year for the next three years, as well as at least four SACD/CD releases. The Minnesota, Philadelphia, Royal Concertgebouw, Russian National, San Francisco, and London Symphony Orchestras, all of whom issue SACD/CDs on their own or other labels, had better watch out for competition.

Speaking of Minnesota: When the advent of conductor Osmo Vänskä released the Minnesota Orchestra from Reference Recordings' stable to produce a string of much-praised SACD/CDs for the BIS label, Reference found a new symphony orchestra to record. More on that when the official US announcement is made.

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