Apple’s new classical-only app frees the music from its metadata


If I had to a draft a list of classical music’s sworn enemies, it would be short: babies, humidity and, at the top, smartphones.

In fact, I can think of no advance in modern technology more adversarial against a single art form than smartphones vs. classical music. And this goes beyond the reliable chirpy disruptions that plague concert halls — a phenomenon I’ve unfortunately found ample and seemingly ceaseless opportunity to discuss.

Ask any classical fan how life has been since music lurched into the streaming age, and you’ll hear horror stories of mangled metadata, orphaned movements, lost liner notes and abysmal audio.

Most of the big streamers tend to sort their massive troves of music according to categories far too broad to be useful — and a lot of music ends up falling through the cracks. Perfect if you’re hunting down the latest “album” by Beethoven.

Classical music doesn’t conform to the straightforward artist/album/song taxonomies of most streaming services. Each classical recording bears a wealth of identifying data — composers and conductors, orchestras and soloists, movements and catalogue numbers. And classical fans are notorious for devising elaborate systems to organize their music. For most die-hard listeners, the streaming revolution has been tantamount to a wrecking ball smashing through their wall of CDs, the whole dang canon reduced to an insurmountable heap of digital rubble.

The good news for anyone with an ear open to classical music and a certain finger extended to technology is that help has arrived.

This month, Apple launched Apple Music Classical — a classical-specific music app that could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. More so than any streaming app I’ve tried, Apple’s foray into classical feels intuitively suited to the demands of seasoned nerds as to the budding curiosities of newbs.

Much of this is a simple matter of metadata management. Apple Music Classical — which works with existing Apple Music subscriptions — functions like a turbocharged, stand-alone search engine.

Apple’s acquisition two years ago of classical-leaning streaming service Primephonic set the stage for a massive overhaul (or underhaul) of that service’s data-combing capabilities. Designed by classical fans for classical fans, the new app bridges the gap between classical listeners and what they’re trying to listen to.

This means that with just a few taps, a critic looking to brush up on Prokofiev’s second piano concerto in preparation for an evening concert can quickly summon 88 versions pulled from nearly a century of recordings. Or a student looking for an immersion course in Baroque can start with a swipe. Or a kid suddenly obsessed with harpsichords can assemble her own Jean Rondeau marathon in an instant.

Users can search by title, opus number, composer, conductor, orchestra, ensemble, instrument, period and soloist, among other parameters. Like a GPS for classical music, the app allows for highly detailed, deliberate searches, but its 50 million data points also facilitate easy discovery and a delightful sense of serendipity. A themed playlist from Khatia Buniatishvili will lead you in one direction; a “Track by Track” walk-through by pianist Víkingur Ólafsson through his album “Mozart & Contemporaries” will lead you in another.

For classical fans who have tried and failed to form meaningful relationships with other streaming services, this robust searchability is major.

Spotify, for instance, is a vast and vexing roulette for classical fans. The non-premium standard monthly plan is nonnegotiable if you intend to keep multimovement works intact and in sequence.

Spotify’s attempt at editorial intervention amounts to a remedial selection of unruly playlists: An 87-track “This Is Beethoven” sequence aimlessly bumps around the composer’s oeuvre like a lost Roomba.

YouTube Music is equally disappointing — an absolute morass when it comes to classical fare. Although you can dredge up nearly any piece by any composer, and YouTube’s servers are loaded with legendary performances, hidden gems and gnarly bootlegs, there’s no fine-tuning or nuance to the search — it’s trawl or nothing.

An upgrade to YouTube Music Premium does nothing to enhance this experience. It merely removes intrusive video ads, the positioning of which feels particularly ruthless in classical settings.

Apple Music Classical isn’t the only app on this corner of the streaming market. Medici.tv is an ambitious, concert-focused video streaming service that regularly partners with orchestras around the world to present live and on-demand operas, concerts, ballets, documentaries and master classes. Idagio is another impressive stand-alone streaming service devoted entirely to classical, with a premium membership that includes access to a live-streamed concert series.

Apple Music Classical isn’t a perfect app. Apple allows you to carry playlists from Apple Music Classical over to your Apple Music account, but you can’t assemble your own queue of songs, you can’t download tracks and you can’t create auto-playing “radio stations” based on selected tracks. And Siri still has no clue what you’re talking about when you request the largo movement from Beethoven’s fifth piano trio. (“Symphony No. 5” it is, then!)

But no other streaming service can rival the comparative breadth and depth of Apple’s trove of 5 million classical tracks, representing 117,000 works by 20,000 composers — all of which are available in high-resolution (“lossless”) audio. Several-thousand tracks are also optimized with Apple’s immersive “spatial audio” technology.

It’s also got a clean, inviting design — complete with custom composer portraits and spiffy serif typography — and an easy, intuitive interface. Novices will feel well-guided by smartly curated playlists under the “Listen Now” tab, and experienced listeners will feel tempted by the app’s many entry points into their favorite music. For both potential audiences, the app does a wonderful job removing barriers to entry — something classical music could use more of in the world beyond our palms.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about Apple Music Classical is how much it behaves like a classical music fan — tuning the rest of the music world out entirely in favor of focused, attentive, indulgent listening. It feels like an escape from the rest of your phone.

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