Apple Again Fails to Save Classical Music


The case against the music-streaming industry is as damning as ever. The leading services pay pittances to artists—usually, less than one cent per play. In a textbook demonstration of monopoly economics, megastars magnify their wealth while everyone else struggles to break even. Streaming technology is environmentally destructive, resulting in the release of up to 1.57 million metric tons of carbon per day. On the apps, music is atomized into bits, stripped of biography, history, and iconography. Even from a predatory capitalist standpoint, streaming makes little sense: Spotify has yet to turn a profit, despite generating more than twelve billion dollars of revenue in 2022. All the same, the magical ability to summon millions of songs and symphonies in the palm of one’s hand has proved irresistible. In the compulsory paradise of Big Tech, the seduction of convenience wears down ethical resistance, at least in the short term.

For a while, the remote hamlets of classical music held back from streaming, preferring CDs and high-quality downloads. In the past few years, however, an inevitable surrender has taken place; a report from the Luminate analytics company suggests that on-demand audio is now the medium of choice among classical listeners, and that the genre is growing faster than the industry average. The uptick is undoubtedly related to the emergence of sites that cater to a finicky, information-hungry classical public. The most established of the bespoke apps is Idagio, which was founded in Berlin, in 2015. Presto Music and Qobuz also serve up classical music in quantity. In March, Apple launched Apple Music Classical, which grew from a now defunct service called Primephonic. (This being the tech sector, everything is stupidly named.) I’ve been tinkering with the options in recent months, grudgingly admitting the merits of archival streams while remaining wary of the governing ethos.

Apple has promised to revolutionize classical music before. After the introduction of iTunes, in the early two-thousands, the company unveiled exclusive partnerships with orchestras and released albums, as they are doing now. The hype soon petered out, although iTunes remains a useful template for organizing a collection. When Apple Music was introduced, in 2015, it improved only marginally on the obnoxious chaos of Spotify, with its random vomiting of symphonic movements. The new app recognizes that classical listeners have specific interests and needs. It aims to provide an inviting entrée for neophytes while satisfying the requirements of fanatics. So far, it’s available only on iPhones and Androids—a huge drawback for those of us who play music off our computers and employ digital-to-analog converters. On the other hand, those who already subscribe to Apple Music receive Apple Classical for free, whereas other apps require their own subscriptions.

I can’t put myself in the unisex Crocs of a young person exploring classical music for the first time, but Apple Classical strikes me as an oddly clumsy point of entry. An array of playlists called Composer Essentials is adorned with dour, sickly portraits that, according to Apple, were “commissioned from a diverse group of artists.” (I envisioned a studio of talented girls and boys at an orphanage in rural Romania.) Composer Essentials are greatest-hits assemblages of movements and arias—rush-hour classical radio without traffic and weather. This approach defeats the point of listening to, say, Gustav Mahler: if you have time only for the Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony or for the last seven minutes of his Eighth, you might as well skip him altogether. And who qualifies as essential? Apple Classical gestures toward an expanded canon, with Clara Schumann and Florence Price prominently featured. At the same time, it promotes white-male purveyors of soothing sub-minimalist noodling. It’s strange to see lists for Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Ludovico Einaudi, and Luke Howard but none for Ruth Crawford Seeger, Silvestre Revueltas, Tōru Takemitsu, or Sofia Gubaidulina.

Music history is more than a procession of names and faces: it’s a multiplicitous stream of styles, forms, and techniques with an ever-shifting social and political context. Other pages on Apple Classical attempt to fill in some of the background, without much rigor or coherence. The 20th Century Essentials list meanders through seventy-nine selections before arriving at a piece by the fairly essential Arnold Schoenberg—and it’s his “Verklärte Nacht,” composed in 1899, before his atonal evolution. A podcast called “The Story of Classical”—the one redeeming aspect of the hateful phrase “classical music” is that it still has the word “music” in it—is surprisingly square in approach, resembling music-appreciation lectures at an old-fashioned community college.

Apple Classical’s “exclusive” offerings contain some attractive items. A Vienna Philharmonic concert under the direction of the composer Thomas Adès includes an arrestingly sensuous, almost playful reading of Alban Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra,” which are usually rendered in apocalyptic tones. Other items, such as a series of live recordings from the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam, are less remarkable. The late Bernard Haitink was a marvellous conductor, but his tame, plodding account of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, taped on an unspecified date, adds little to his reputation. This release and various others are available in Spatial Audio, courtesy of Dolby surround-sound technology. In my headphones, Spatial Audio is notable for its lack of spatial definition: the orchestra comes across as diffuse and taffy-like. On my speakers, Haitink’s 1970 version with the Concertgebouw sounds sharper, brighter, and more alive.

The algorithm is always standing by, with cheerily random suggestions: If you like Harald Sæverud’s Bassoon Concerto, why not try Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonatas for solo violin? (Hilary Hahn has a superb new survey of the latter, on Deutsche Grammophon.) I couldn’t decide whether a section titled Music by Mood was generated by humans or machines. Is it an arcane joke that Meredith Monk’s “Early Morning Melody” appears on the Classical Late Night list? Why does Classical Dinner Party feature Branford Marsalis playing a saxophone arrangement of Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I Am Lost to the World”)? I couldn’t argue, though, when I saw Classical Commute fleshed out with a movement from Adès’s “Dante”: “The Thieves—devoured by reptiles.”

For anyone who doesn’t need to be told the Story of Classical, the crucial test of an app will be its viability as a search engine. Apple Classical indeed represents a significant advance over the miseries of Apple Music and Spotify. If you go looking for “Beethoven Fifth,” the Fifth Symphony pops up—admittedly, as the third on a list of results that is headed by the “Moonlight” and “Pathétique” Sonatas. You can then go to a dedicated page for the work and scroll through more than five hundred options. At the top is an Editor’s Choice—very debatably, Gustavo Dudamel’s rendition with the Simón Bolívar Symphony. Listings are ordered by popularity, the insidious universal of the online world. This creates some confusion on the page devoted to the perennially underappreciated Swiss composer Frank Martin. His most popular piece is said to be “Ballade.” The algorithm can’t grapple with the fact that Martin actually wrote seven different scores titled Ballade, for various instruments.

How does Apple’s search engine compare to the competition? Qobuz, which combines classical and pop fare, is a bit of a mess. When I looked up “Frank Martin,” the top result was Frank Zappa’s “Funky Nothingness.” A search for the Beethoven Fifth brought up the disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” the fifteenth variation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Allan Sherman’s “Beethoven’s Fifth Cha Cha”—but no recordings of the symphony. Presto Music does far better. The Frank Martin situation is handled lucidly; a search for the Beethoven Fifth yielded Carlos Kleiber’s widely admired account with the Vienna Philharmonic. But when I posed a more challenging assignment—find Liszt’s violin-and-piano arrangement of his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2—I had to sift through several irrelevant items before landing on a match.

Idagio performed best on my search-engine tests. It, too, has its mood composers and mood playlists, but, by and large, it doesn’t treat the user like an idiot. The layout is clear and crisp. You’re directed to a dedicated slot for almost any work, including the violin version of the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Pages can be arranged by date of recording: the one for the Beethoven Fifth goes back to Arthur Nikisch’s account from 1913. (Apple’s list can also be ordered by date, but it doesn’t distinguish between original releases and reissues so that Nikisch is lost in the middle.) Best of all, many recent albums are supplemented with PDFs of CD booklets—also a feature on Presto, a generally information-rich service. That resource is lacking on Apple, which offers, at most, a few sentences of mundane background. You will have access to Christophe Rousset’s bracing new traversal of Gaspare Spontini’s opera “La Vestale,” on the Bru Zane label, but unless you speak French you will have no idea what is being sung. Bru Zane’s booklet, running to a hundred and sixteen pages, is a scholarly resource in itself.

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