CD covers I like

While we’re still talking about CD covers, I thought I’d add a few likes of my own. Starting with this one, which I’ve loved ever since the recording came out on LP in 1962:

siegfried blog

Of course it’s Siegfried, from the Georg Solti Ring.  And there couldn’t be a more iconic image from the opera, showing the moment  (at the end of the first scene of the third act) when Siegfried heads up the mountain toward Brünnhilde and the magic fire. If I remember correctly, it’s a photo of Wolfgang Windfgassen, who sings Siegfried on the recording, in a live performance.

This image just grabs you, as soon as you see it. Certainly that’s what it did to me, when I got the LP set as a birthday present (I was in college) just a month after it was released. The image was wider on the LP cover, of course, but it holds up wonderfully on CD.

And then, from the old days, this:

karajan blog

Or maybe it’s not so old. Maybe it’s a relatively recent Karajan reissue. But certainly it’s an artist from the past, from an age when the old traditions still were alive, but when jet travel and recordings had created a very marketable new kind of superstardom. And in this image, the new kind of marketing swings into action, to give Karajan an elite kind of grandeur, as if all the past profound glory of classical music had entered into him.

I might complain that the Beethoven symphonies aren’t as entirely monumental as this photo might suggest. (What would the man depicted here do with the First? Or the Eighth?) But the photo is gripping. Whether or not you know Karajan — whether or not you know classical music — you’ll surely think,  almost with awe, “This is somebody.”

Among modern covers, I love the John Eliot Gardiner Bach cantata series, which Gardiner released on his own label, Here are two of those recordings:

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 These mesmerizing images, all by the same photographer, all showing people from outside the western world, serve to brand the series. And they brand it unforgettably. They tell us that the music is profound and deeply human, and that it takes us deep into our souls (which is where the eyes of the people in the photos seem to look). And that it’s universal, with a scope that reaches far beyond the west.

I might question that last point. When I immersed myself in Bach cantatas, a decade ago (I was reviewing two CD sets of all Bach’s work), I found that, in repeated doses, Bach’s Lutheran religion — which seemed glum, dank, and hostile to the world — started to oppress me. It seemed anything but universal. It seemed to come from a state of mind I couldn’t share, and didn’t want to visit, or at least not very often.

Gardiner, though, might disagree. And if he does — if, as I’m guessing, he wants this music to be seen as truly universal — I doubt if he could find a more eloquent or moving way to show us what he means by that. For which I honor him.

Here’s one I came across by chance, when I was downloading other CD covers:

argerich blog

The young Martha Argerich. Like Karajan, clearly somebody. Though in this case, someone unpredictable, maybe even wild. Which makes it so appropriate to have the photo out of focus. Still she drills deep into me, even though I barely see her eyes.

Then this, from New Amsterdam, a small label that records new music (and lost its brand new office in Superstorm Sandy):


All their covers are striking, and beautifully crafted. Which shows that even small labels can find terrific graphic artists. It’s all about your taste and your determination, which don’t have to be limited because you’re short on cash.

ECM’s covers, as commenters noted, are always striking:

Kurtag Ligeti big blog

Kurtag Kafka big blog

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And they’re always black and white, which helps brand the label. You recognize an ECM album when you see one, and you’re ready to believe that it’s an outstandingly artistic production, in every respect, including the music.

Finally, Naīve, a French label commenters not surprisingly have mentioned. It’s worth visiting their website, to see how fine design pervades it, how CD covers arouse (the precisely right word!) interest in their recordings, even if now we don’t shop for CDs in stores, and might not even buy them. And how — here, for instance — even what might seem like straightforward classical releases come alive in their graphics.

From the many Naīve CDs I might choose, here’s one (on the outer edge of their array of styles) from their ongoing Vivaldi series:

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Whoa! you might say. What could this have to do with good old classical Vivaldi? But Vivaldi’s music was flamboyant in its day. Flashy! Theatrical! In William Weber’s striking book, The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology, I’ve read about old-guard English connoisseurs, with Corelli as their musical touchstone, thought Vivaldi’s music signalled the end of civilization.

So it’s not crazy to crown a Vivaldi recording, in our age, with an image radical for us. And this one seems doubly appropriate, because (at least to me), it’s woodsy, evoking trees, moss,  shadows. And the bassoon has a wood-like tone.

Here, to conclude, are two CD covers from Naīve’s Vivaldi opera series:

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Whoa again! How could these images — which, someone might say, belong on the outer edge of fashion photography — relate to Baroque opera?

One reason for the disbelief might be the idea that Baroque music is serious, and that Baroque opera is very un-flashy, because of the stately succession of da capo arias.

But that’s a misunderstanding. The very word Baroque means flashy. Or, as Wikipedia defines it, it’s a “period of artistic style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” That’s in every realm of art, from architecture to music. 

And the da capo arias, rather than coming off as stately, when they were the rage, instead were insanely flamboyant, with extravagantly costumed singers transforming the repeat of the A section into a fairyland of ornaments, in which any trace of the original melody could barely be heard.

On top of that, Baroque opera was wildly sexual, because its stars were castrati, many of whom had extravagant — Baroque — sex lives. They were superstars. And those that weren’t gay were not just appealing lovers for aristocratic women, but safe ones, because they couldn’t get anyone pregnant.

Add to that the flamboyant lives and dress of the prima donnas, and the sexual tension in the audience, as men and women went from box to box, conducting flirtations and affairs in public.

All of which would be redoubled in a Vivaldi opera, because Vivaldi himself — at the time of his life when he toured around Italy, leading his operas — was a  walking scandal. He was a priest who never said mass. That in itself was scandalous. And on top of that, he lived with not one, but two young women, one of whom often sang the leading women’s role in his operas. People in the 18th century drew the same conclusions we might.

And so a Vivaldi opera performance — with Vivaldi playing his violin with insane virtuosity, and his presumed lover Anna Girò, lavishly dressed, singing his extravagant music on the stage — was a scandal on parade.

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  1. says

    Greg, re “Bach’s Lutheran religion — which seemed glum, dank, and hostile to the world — started to oppress me. It seemed anything but universal.” Check out “pitié” by Fabrizio Cassol/Aka Moon. One of my favorite re-compositions ever and it’s of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. I often listen to this, it’s my “universal” Bach. The beautiful cover pictures you show might in fact fit this version even better than they do the original one.

    • says

      Very interesting, Etienne. I’ll check it out. The St. Matthew Passion has never bothered me the way the aggregate of cantatas does. (Or, anyway, the ones I’ve listened to, following the words.) Maybe that’s because I’ve known it so long that I don’t see it from the outside. But I’m so curious to hear something that really would embody Gardiner’s cover phoitos!

    • says

      Very interesting, Etienne. I’ll check it out. The St. Matthew Passion has never bothered me the way the aggregate of cantatas does. (Or, anyway, the ones I’ve listened to, following the words.) Maybe that’s because I’ve known it so long that I don’t see it from the outside. But I’m so curious to hear something that really would embody Gardiner’s cover photos!

  2. says

    Greg, I have really enjoyed your showing all these and previous covers for CDs. And indeed, mesmerizing is so true of some of those people on the cover, And indeed, so much Classical music that people these days try to treat as “stuffy” and unemotional was not the case when first performed in each of their own days. Choosing a cover for an album takes so much thought and decision-making, Earlier today I sent you my latest CD “Improvisations for Cello and Piano” that I did with David Darling ….. not only is the choice of cover but inside photos are also relevant to our music and history. We are both classically trained, but much, not all, of our work also fits in the New Age category becuase people find it so relaxing, and even use some of it for yoga. Did you see the article in the New York Times recently on Manfred Eicher of ECM and how he choses covers for an album? I will forward it to you….very fascinating. By the way, David Darling has done a lot of recording with Manfred Eicher, much of it for European film directors….but also album work……. Thanks again for all these wonderful discussions…very interesting!!!!

    • says

      Thanks back to you, Jackie. I’ll look for your CD. Which of my homes did you send it to, Warwick or Washington? That’ll help me find it.

      I didn’t see the Times piece. Please do forward it. Or I can find it on the Times’s website.

  3. says

    Greg…I couldn’t send you the ECM article on Manfred Eicher’s covers because when I went to your website and clicked on “Email”. it brought up a screen saying I am not set up to access it, and I don’t know how to get that access….so if you send me an Email with an address I can put in my address book, I will send you the article. I found it quite intersting …. the thought process Eicher goes through…amazing.

  4. says

    Regarding the CD cover for Nadia Sirota’s “Baroque” (which I agree is very nice — I’m looking forward to buying that album), New Amsterdam has to invest in producing attractive and non-conventional CD covers (by classical music standards) because their releases are competing in the marketplace not against the latest releases from the ABC Symphony Orchestra or the XYZ Quartet, but against the latest releases from leading indie artists (basically, anything that gets major attention in Pitchfork and similar places). New Amsterdam can’t afford to have dowdy unattractive covers; they have to meet the existing (fairly high) standards for graphic design in the indie music world.

    Here I’ll make a comparison which classical music enthusiasts may find insulting, but which I think has an element of truth: The CD cover clichés of typical classical musical releases are the equivalent of the book cover clichés of genre fiction: rockets and robots for science fiction, heaving bosoms and dark handsome strangers for romance novels, and so on. They are not intended to attract the interest of a general audience potentially interested in sophisticated and adventurous art, rather they are markers that signify to a limited audience that they will be getting “more of the same”, comforting cultural fare that meets their existing expectations and does not aspire to more than that.

    • says

      Good points. Though I think the classical covers are much less effective than the science fiction and romance book covers. Those at least speak to the genuine traditions of those genres, whereas the classical CD covers don’t really do that for classical music. Or do it very weakly.

      And I think all of classical music competes today with everything else out there, including the indie bands that you so rightly say New Amsterdam competes/coexists with. That’s because classical music needs a new audience. So it’s not just speaking to the faithful anymore — or shouldn’t be speaking only to them.

    • says

      Hi, Jill. Thanks for sharing this. I like the image very much, but would wonder if less type on the cover would make it more effective. I might prefer just the title, and the explanation:

      Sonatas by Daniel Purcell

      With the second line still subordinate, but somehow highlighted, so we immediately see that this is Daniel P, not the famous one. If the artists’ names should be there. then I might put them directly below the other two lines of type, again so all the type is in one place, and the image can shine.

      I’m also not crazy about the Chandos logo, which for me is intrusive on most of their CDs. Nothing to be done about that if you’re an artist on their label! But it’s something they might think of fixing.

      None of this means I don’t like the image! And of course if I had the CD in my hands, I might find it more striking than I do seeing it online.

      I love the image on your Twitter page!