The Ondine All-Stars

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

For the classical record industry, it’s gotten hard to tell whether these are the best of times or the worst of times. The CD revolution of the mid-1980s brought a temporary feast, as collectors—classical fans chief among them—replaced their LPs with little silver discs. That was followed by apocalyptic famine, by ripping and burning and general piracy that brought mainstream labels to their knees and did no big favors for the rest of us. “Consolidation” is too kind a word for what went on in the classical record industry from the mid-‘90s onward.

And yet: today’s classical marketplace offers more “product” to the faithful than ever before. Is it better? Yes! A reasonable portion of it is arguably as good as or better than what was available in the Golden Age, whenever that was. (Feel free to nominate your own G.A.; if you’re over fifty, it will undoubtedly have occurred for you at least thirty years ago.) Today’s best young performers can more than hold a candle to Serkin, Casals, Fürtwängler et al. (Well, maybe not Fürtwängler.)

The classical record business has proven to be remarkably resilient. That it exists at all defies logic, especially if you believe that business denotes profit-making enterprise. With few exceptions, no one in this segment of the industry is getting rich. (The old joke that begins, “How do you make a small fortune in ___?” certainly applies here.) Not only have classical labels survived, some of them seem to be flourishing. In the next few months, we’re going to check out a few of those labels. We’ll examine their individual missions, business models, strategies for coping with what lies ahead.

Let’s begin with Ondine Records and its founder Reijo Kiilunen. In autumn 1985, Kiilunen, fresh from Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, was asked to produce a highlights recording from that year’s Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, where he had taken on a number of management chores. It went well—so much so, that when the festival mounted Einojuhani Rautavaara’s opera Thomas, Kiilunen leveraged that recording’s success to launch a whole new record label. He called it Ondine, a reference to the seductive singing of a water nymph in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Kiilunen produced and edited the first 50 releases himself; the rest, as they say, is history.

Since then the label has assumed national and international significance, acquainting music lovers worldwide with the best Finnish performers and composers, including iconic figures like Sibelius, beloved elder statesmen like Rautavaara (featured in over 25 Ondine releases), and younger folks like Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958), Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952), and Lotta Wennäkoski (b. 1970). In this role it received generous assistance at the outset from the Finnish Music Foundation (MES) and its predecessors, who utilized funds from Gramex and Teosto, including royalties collected on sales of blank tape (remember that?).

In recent years the label has intensified its collaboration with non-Finnish artists. For Ondine, as with other boutique operations, several factors encourage this. To begin with, major labels increasingly sign young artists to short-term contracts while they’re “hot,” dropping them once they record a backlog of standard repertoire—and just when they’ve gained the maturity to produce more interesting recordings. Also, cross-national collaboration in the recording studio models both European unity and artistic parity with the Big Three (Britain, Germany, France). And such collaboration mirrors the realities of 21st-century concertizing, in which trains and planes allow performers and audiences alike to hop from Hamburg to Paris to London—with stops in Helsinki or Amsterdam—in pursuit of musical adventure.

The Atlantic Ocean remains a bigger barrier than any EU border. Nevertheless, in 2005 Ondine ended the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording drought with releases featuring the orchestra in its new hall. Back in Europe, the many longtime non-Finns at Ondine include Christian Tetzlaff, his sister Tanja, and Lars Vogt. Mr. Tetzlaff followed up his stunning 2015 recording of Suk’s Fantasy and the Dvořák Violin Concerto and Romance (ODE 1279-5) with a 2018 Bartók concerto album (ODE 1317-2). For Dvořák and Suk he partnered John Storgårds and the Helsinki PO; for Bartók he paired with Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio SO. So, there’s the Finnish connection: these orchestras and their conductors do Dvořák, Suk, and Bartók as well as any Czech or Hungarian outfit. Ondine helps spread the word.

Like Bartók’s other mature masterworks—the late quartets, the Concerto for Orchestra—his Second Violin Concerto wins us over by emphasizing varied, well-contrasted moods: its drama comes laced with humor, its lyricism with folk elements. Tetzlaff, Lintu, and the FRSO partner seamlessly (and passionately!) throughout. Yet I found myself even more drawn to No. 1, where their ability to bring out tender and vulnerable moments in the music is unsurpassed. Here is how it begins:

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In 1907 Bartók fell in love with Stefi Geyer, a young violinist of considerable beauty and talent; the concerto was meant as a portrait of her inner and outer selves. What it actually reveals are a young composer’s hope and longing. In the preceding excerpt, we heard Bartók’s “Stefi” motive interwoven with intimate yet intense orchestral counterpoint; Tetzlaff and the FRSO strings merge with utmost sensitivity to convey its bittersweet emotion.

Shortly after cellist Tanja Tetzlaff and pianist Gunilla Süssmann scored a success with their album of Brahms Cello Sonatas (Cavi 8553270), and after Tanja and Christian had done the Brahms Piano Trios (ODE 1271-2D) with Vogt, Ondine asked Tanja and Gunilla to record Rautavaara’s complete works for cello and piano. The music’s technical demands and stylistic diversity made this a daunting assignment, but the results (ODE 1310-2) earned high marks. Here is an excerpt from Sonata No. 1 (1973/2001):

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Vogt and the Tetzlaffs have continued their collaboration with a complete set of the Beethoven Piano Concertos plus the Triple Concerto, all featuring the Royal Northern Sinfonia, for which Vogt is Music Director. Their third and final release in this series, comprising Concertos No. 2 and 4 (ODE 1311-2), highlights its strengths. Listen to the easy spontaneity in the dynamics and phrasing of No. 2’s first movement:

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Speaking of concertos, I’ve also enjoyed Ondine’s recent go at the Prokofiev piano concertos, which featured Lintu and the FRSO with pianist Olli Mustonen. Way back in Issue 5 of Copper I waxed poetic about Concertos No. 2 and 5. Here they are again, in beautifully detailed and rather more disciplined interpretations (ODE 1288-2). That works particular wonders for No. 2, a product of Prokofiev’s impetuous youth. Mustonen and Lintu take it seriously, imbuing the proceedings with added depth; it’s now my preferred version. (I’ve ordered the companion disc, with Nos. 1, 3, and 4.) Here is a bit of the Toccata from No. 5:

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Last week I caught up with Reijo Kiilunen, and we had a chance to exchange views about the state of the industry:

LS: As the 21st century continues, what do you see as the two greatest challenges for companies like yours?

RK: The greatest challenge, past and present, has been the disappearance of physical retail. Digital distribution is replacing physical product, and that relates to the other challenge. First-rate musical performances are our main target, but so is first-rate recorded sound; we regard ourselves as a high-end label. From the beginning of the digital era, with MP3s, 99.9% of the audience has been satisfied with degraded sound quality. That has been a great frustration. During the past five years or so we have welcomed the development of various codecs offering high-resolution masters for downloading or streaming, but those sales remain a niche. In terms of money and volume sales, smart speakers seem to be the next big thing, but again those will offer poor sound quality. We cannot compromise our standards there; it’s what we always aim for, it’s who we are. So we need to believe that the (buying) audience who enjoy great sound will grow as time goes on.

LS: Which of your recent projects were favorites?

RK: I think Christian Tetzlaff is at the peak of his artistry. We have been very lucky and happy to work with him, and we have solid plans for the coming years, a good mix of concertos, chamber music, and solo. Lars Vogt is another key artist, great plans for him as well. His Beethoven cycle has been a delight. Lars and his orchestra still make me excited; he plays Beethoven with freshness and freedom, yet within the framework of tradition, never lapsing into eccentricity. In the same manner, Hannu Lintu—one of the great Sibelius conductors of our time—balances a concern for structure and detail in Tapiola (ODE 1289-5) yet still preserves the mysterious magic of the “Finnish forest.” No wonder that recording was an ICMA winner earlier this year. We are understandably proud of it. [I will highlight this exceptional release in an upcoming TMT – LS]

Is there a Finnish (or European) Model that would help North American labels? It’s premature to suggest any such thing. We’ll need to poke around more, looking at success stories in Britain, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and more, gathering data, considering needs, resources, and relationships. In the process, I won’t ignore the very real triumphs and advantages of the locals. Stay tuned.

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