Decca Concerts: New Classical Downloads

In an enterprising attempt to serve music lovers via the Internet, Universal Classics has launched Decca Concerts. An unprecedented partnership between the label and some of the world's better-known symphony orchestras, the website gives classical music lovers the ability to download very recent live orchestral performances "from the world's most important musical cities." The performances are generally no more than 10 days old, depending on how much postproduction editing is needed.

The first "album," made available December 12, is a program performed by the Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, that celebrates the 150th anniversary of Robert Schumann's death. Chief among the set's attractions are pianist Martha Argerich's rendition of Schumann's Piano Concerto and Gustav Mahler's arrangement of Schumann's Symphony 4. Those who download the entire concert, rather than individual tracks, can also download program notes in Adobe PDF format that "very closely resemble the written concert program itself." Download sites, reputedly accessible to 90% of the world's music market, now include four from iTunes (US, UK, Germany, and France), as well as Virginmega Musique Classique. The price for an entire "album" varies with the country: $10 US, £7.90 UK, etc.

So far, orchestras signed on to the project include London's Philharmonia Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (under Zubin Mehta), the Orchestre National de France (under Kurt Masur), the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (directed by Myung-Whun Chung), and the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Each orchestra promises four or more concerts per season. Universal casts the enterprise as "simply an additional way of collaborating with great orchestras and conductors." While no Decca Concerts are currently scheduled for concomitant or future CD release, the company insists that an orchestra's participation does not preclude future studio and live recordings distributed in CD format.

To get the word out, Universal Classics staged on "Online Press Launch" of Decca Concerts on December 11. Universal's panel, presumably typing away at monitors in three different cities, included: from Milan, Maestro Riccardo Chailly, Music Director of the Gewandhausorchester; from Leipzig, Professor Andreas Schulz, Director of the Gewandhaus; and, from London, Dr. Bogdan Roscic, Managing Director of the Decca Music Group, and Jonathan Gruber, Vice President, New Media, Universal Music Group International Classics & Jazz. Those who logged on were invited to pre-submit questions. With participants unseen, it was impossible to determine the source of the questions, or the manner by which some were selected and others passed over.

Although I was unable to join in, due to a trip to Montreal, I pre-submitted some pointed questions about sound quality and the future of Universal Classics' CD releases. After discovering the issue of sound quality unsatisfactorily addressed in the transcript of the press launch transcript, I sought clarification from Universal Classics publicist Rebecca Davis.

When "Kangaroo" asked how the sound quality would compare to that of CDs, Jonathan Gruber responded, "The sound quality of downloads is very close to CD quality today on most download services. In some cases it is as good as CD quality and very soon we will be able to offer better than CD quality online."

Better than CD quality online? The answer must have confounded more than a few online participants. When "George Du" asked for specifics," Gruber explained that the bit rate of files varies with the retailer. "iTunes is standard 128 AAC and Virgin is 320 WMA and very soon they will be offered in lossless," he said. Later, in response to my queries, he explained, "All of our recordings are made in higher quality than is possible with the CD format. We will be endeavoring to make all of our recordings available at the highest quality possible, with due consideration for convenience issues as well (eg,, file size, downloading time, Internet connectivity). Different retailers offer different bit rates, depending on what they choose. There are some retailers that offer lossless with whom we work today (HMV UK, for example), but we can say for certain there will be more launching in the very near future."

Alas, since HMV UK makes downloads available only to PC owners equipped with Windows and Internet Explorer v.6, this Mac owner experienced the loss of access. Firefox accessibility for PC owners is promised before long.

The iTunes sites, which permit public commentary, have already seen the sound quality of Decca Concerts bitterly debated. On iTunesUK, for example, "Robbery" declared that "7.90 pounds for an appallingly low bit-rate recording of a live concert is a rip off....Don't buy music in this form. If you do, full bandwidth recordings—CD and even better SACD—will disappear and music lovers will be left with ghastly low bit-rate trash like this." Hence this retort from "Anonymous," who is far from alone in his ignorance: "This is an absolutely stunning, brand new performance, in perfect sound from one of the best concert halls in the world."

Decca Concerts' foray into a brave new world continues. The next release—the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit performing Sibelius' (Finlandia, Mozart's Symphony 35 ("Haffner"), and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique—is scheduled to be released later in December.