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RCA Artists Find Themselves on a Soundtrack for Seduction
andante - 14 February 2003
"Even in this day and age of stooping to make money, they have reached a new low," says an indignant André Previn. The "they" to which the conductor/composer refers is RCA/BMG; Previn has just learned that the entertainment conglomerate included excerpts from his recording of the "Pastoral" Symphony on a compilation CD titled "Bedroom Bliss with Beethoven." The disc joins "Making Out to Mozart" and "Shacking Up with Chopin" in a new RCA Victor "lifestyle" series dubbed "Love Notes," released just in time for Valentine's Day.
"I'm not insulted as a performer," Previn adds, "only because we've all been subject to this kind of thing more often than we'd like, if not quite this egregiously. I'm more insulted as a music lover — I think doing this to the music of Beethoven and Mozart is a bad, bad insult. And it's not only disrespectful in the extreme; to use passages of the 'Pastoral' Symphony as a supposed lure to the bedroom is just moronic and hopeless."
It's no news flash that lifestyle compilations — "Brahms for Bedtime," "Wagner for Working Out," etc. — have become the bread and butter of the classical divisions of the beleaguered major record companies over the past several years. Faced with declining public interest in traditional classical recordings and plunging sales, record executives have tended to regard these repackaged products as profitable necessities.
The covers of the "Love Notes" series feature cartoons of nude or half-nude young couples, drawn in the exaggerated style of Japanese anime and depicted in flagrante delicto. Each also has a mock "parental advisory: sexual content" warnings on the covers. Or perhaps the warnings are intended to be genuine: the extravagantly unembarrassed marketing copy on the back begins, "Love Notes are erotic fantasies programmed to maximize your pleasure, from playful overtures to fulfilling consummation." Inside, the Beethoven program begins with the nascent Romanticism of the "Moonlight" Sonata and makes its way through Für Elise, the Fifth Symphony and other selections, before culminating, perhaps optimistically, with the "Ode to Joy" from the Ninth Symphony.
The most provocative elements of the "Love Notes" series may well be the artists whose performances are excerpted as mood music. RCA didn't choose catalog fillers like former cellist Ofra Harnoy — whose album covers always featured her in various states of undress. The artists playing Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven on these compilations rank as the finest representatives of the august RCA catalog: Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner and John Browning are among the dead; Previn, Sir Colin Davis, James Levine, Peter Serkin, Emanuel Ax, James Galway, Richard Stoltzman, Alicia de Larrocha and Earl Wild among the living but soon to be mortified.
"Again, it's more of a shame that Mozart's name is sullied with such a silly thing than mine," says Previn, on the phone from Munich. "But why on earth would they imagine that someone who is drawn to a cartoon of a naked man or woman on the beach would be interested in having Mozart as performed by Sir Colin Davis or Beethoven by Sviatoslav Richter, of all people? Or why would they think that someone interested in Peter Serkin wouldn't mind that picture? Well, to find the company would so degrade the RCA catalog — one of the greatest collections of recordings in the history of classical music — is more than disappointing, it's depressing."
It isn't entirely surprising that BMG is the label behind this particular variation on classical compilations. Since the company's dissolution of its classical division in spring 2000 — merely the final step in a gradual withdrawal from the repertoire — RCA has nearly abandoned classical releases other than crossover projects and themed compilations. To be fair, the label has continued to issue occasional albums by star pianist Evgeny Kissin, along with a line of "rediscovered" titles from its archives. But the company is no longer issuing, say, Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony, or boxed sets with the ambitions of The Arthur Rubinstein Collection.
What sort of recourse do artists like Previn have, when it comes to their inclusion on a themed compilation that they find absurd or tacky? "Well, I can talk to you — that's about it," the conductor says. "I imagine that Peter Serkin or Jimmy Levine or Sir Colin only have that option as well. On the other hand, my wife — Anne-Sophie Mutter — has it written into her [Deutsche Grammophon] contract that none of her recordings can ever be included in such a compilation."
The man behind the "Love Notes" series is the avuncular Peter Munves, a veteran of 50 years in the record business. He had a hand in the late-1960s crossover hit "Switched-On Bach," not to mention Columbia's long line of classical "Greatest Hits" albums. Munves also conceived PolyGram/Universal's phenomenally successful and frighteningly influential "Set Your Life to Music" series of the 1990s (drawn from the great catalogs of Deutsche Grammophone, Decca and Philips). That line, which includes "Bach for Bachelor Pads" and "Debussy at Dawn," has sold some 4 million copies of 50 titles, according to the producer.
Munves offers no apologies for his products, dismissing suggestions that they are reductive, demeaning or smoothing the slippery slope to mercantile hell. "I'm sure a lot of people think that 'Love Notes' has set a new low, but we're just following the culture — sex is more out in the open these days. It's on every magazine cover; it's everywhere on TV — Sex in the City is very influential. A series like ours was destined to happen.
"We may shock the classical purist, but our series isn't meant for those people at all," Munves stresses. "If classical purists are having trouble with their love lives, well, they don't need us to pick their mood music for them! We're aiming at a person who doesn't know anything about Chopin, who would never think about buying a classical record. We're trying to expand the market for RCA's catalog not by aiming where the market is, but where it isn't. I think our audience for these compilations is women in their 30s and men who want to use music to seduce, just like Don Giovanni!"
Munves believes, with all the passion of an evangelist, in his creation. "Come on, these composers had stormy love lives of their own — it's all been written about," he declares. "They were writing their music from the heart, and the music is romantic, sexy, exultant. Music sets a mood, and it's high time that we drew attention to the fact that sex and romance can be one of those moods."
Did any executive at BMG balk at using some of its top-name catalog artists as components of an aid for the boudoir? "Believe me, this series never raised an eyebrow at the company," Munves insists. "And there was never a debate on the music — and regarding the artists, everything was cleared by our legal department."
So how would Munves react if confronted by Previn or another artist offended by "Bedroom Bliss with Beethoven"? "I'd say, 'Times are changing.' And after all, I didn't invent sex