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I wanted to hate the new music app Apple Classical — but for the most part I couldn’t – Chicago Tribune

Look, it’s not that us classical music fans are snooty. But ask any aficionado and we’ll roundly agree: Music streaming platforms get the genre so, so wrong. Searching for classical recordings on platforms like Spotify and even, to a lesser extent, YouTube, can be a headache. At present, listeners have two options, broadly speaking: fork over your money to a specialized classical streamer — like the Berlin-based Idagio, or the now defunct Primephonic — or grin and bear it.

In 2021, Apple announced that it had acquired Primephonic with the intent to spin it into yet another stand-alone app, Apple Classical. The fruits of that semi-hostile takeover launched yesterday, and the app is available at no additional cost to Apple Music subscribers.

I’ll be the first to admit I was more than a little skeptical. As a non-Apple Music subscriber myself, I’m not thrilled with the notion that the tech oligarchs at 1 Infinite Loop may soon be hoovering up more of my monthly budget. Second — and I’m still chafing from this one — Apple torpedoed Primephonic within a week of its acquisition in 2021, preventing anyone from enjoying the platform’s many perks for nearly two years while Apple Classical was in development.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly: Is it really so impossible to retrofit classical music onto Apple Music’s existing infrastructure?

The short, nontechnical answer is yes. Classical music includes a daunting amount of metadata: composer name, work title, movement titles (if applicable), instrumentation, performer(s), release year, even the key. None of these are necessary for the vast majority of musical genres, so conventional streaming services account for very little of it, instead defaulting to whatever information, often gapingly incomplete, is provided in album track listings.

These facets may seem superfluous to listeners outside the classical world, but each one can make or break one’s search. Are you looking for “Verklärte Nacht” the string sextet, or the string orchestra version? For Glenn Gould’s first “Goldberg Variations” (1955) or his second (1981)? Amid numbering confusion for Haydn’s cello concertos, you’d better know the key of the one you’re searching for (C or D). And heaven help you if you’re searching for “Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor” — would that be Robert or Clara?

Thankfully, Apple Classical does what it came to do in the metadata sphere. Like in Primephonic and Idagio before it, in Apple Classical, works have their own landing page — a crucial feature which alone will likely make the app worth it to diehards. (In one of the app’s more jaw-dropping features, the most famous opuses even have an informational blurb contributed by in-house musicologists and writers.) By codifying work titles and other essential metadata, the music search process has been sleekly optimized. In comparison to what came before, it’s a relative breeze to surf the app’s whopping five million tracks, together representing some 20,000 composers and 50 million data points.

All that’s left is for inveterate classical streamers to unlearn the free-association search strategies they’ve honed for years now.

To test Apple Classical, a friend and I attempted to search for Claudio Abbado’s recordings of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. (He recorded it twice: once with the Vienna Philharmonic and once with the Berlin Philharmonic, the latter in a frequently rereleased cycle from the early ‘90s.) The search “Brahms Symphony 1 Abbado” yielded some topical albums, but also included some off-the-rails results, like Brahms’s first piano concerto. We found that we had to search within the work listing (Symphony No. 1 in C minor, by Johannes Brahms) for best results — some extra legwork, to be sure.

Apple Music’s bespoke organization of a data set this immense means some mistakes will inevitably creep in. That same Brahms search unearthed one: a 1997 Bruckner 1 recording by Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic, whose Scherzo is randomly attributed to Brahms. Ironically, such a misattribution would be unlikely in a more general streaming app like Spotify or Apple Music. (Indeed, the movement is properly attributed on Apple Music’s main app.) If Apple Music’s capacity for user service is much greater than anything we’ve seen so far, so is the margin of human error.

A search for Claudio Abbado’s recordings of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 still requires some literacy with Apple Classical’s interface — and turned up an error.

Then, there’s the audio quality — also a strong selling point for the app. Apple Classical touts Dolby Atmos’s spatial audio and lossless listening options as calling cards, available in both recently captured contemporary performances and remastered historic recordings. “It’s as if you’re in the concert hall, standing side by side with the conductor, awash in the magnificent sound of a full orchestra,” the in-app language gushes.

I agree, in spirit, that the best seat in the house is right in the middle of the orchestra. You haven’t lived ‘till you’ve felt a brass entrance rumble in your sternum, or waded in a lapping pool of strings. But let’s not mistake that live experience for something that actually makes for a good recording. Composers who didn’t live to witness the advent of high-quality recording technology penned their works — orchestration, articulation, dynamics, you name it — with an audience vantage point in mind, hopefully aided by a forgiving concert hall.

Not all pieces benefit from a spatial treatment, and if there’s a reason to think they might, pray engineers know what they’re doing, so it doesn’t sound like an over-miked nightmare. An app exclusive recording of the London Symphony and Sir Simon Rattle in Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 2 is touted as an exemplar of spatial audio; in execution, it’s the aural equivalent of trying to take in a Monet with one’s nose pressed against the canvas, and about as rewarding. The New York Philharmonic’s Symphonie fantastique with exiting music director Jaap van Zweden lands better, though I personally find its microscopic detail — van Zweden’s breathing, chair creaks, errant far-off coughs — somehow akin to accidentally seeing a good friend naked.

That’s not to say bringing a spatial element to recordings can’t make for spectacular listening. Some albums benefit beautifully from platform-exclusive remasters: Our very own Chicago Symphony’s 2010 recording of the Verdi Requiem, conducted by Riccardo Muti, makes for a luminous rerelease, not in a small part because the spatial re-imagining is subtle. So does the London Symphony’s 2012 Fauré Requiem album, given a heavenly redux only available on Apple Classical.

The app’s other offerings are more or less just icing on the cake, but they certainly sweeten the deal. Gigawatt artists, including violinist Hilary Hahn and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, curate playlists and offer illuminating commentary on their existing discography. Likewise, 10 of the world’s leading musical institutions released exclusive content on the app, including the aforementioned CSO, London and New York spatial recordings. Apple Classical curators have also assembled other playlists for your listening pleasure, centered around instruments (who’s down for an hour of recorder music? Me!), composers and even moods. (There’s the requisite, if eye-rolling “Classical Chill,” leading off with — who else — Eric Whitacre.)

The app has to be commended, too, for balancing music discovery tools geared toward sophisticates with ample guideposts for newbies. Guy Jones, formerly Primephonic’s curation head and now Apple Music’s classical editor, hosts “The Story of Classical,” a formidable nine-part podcast outlining major touchstones in the genre’s history. That investment makes much better returns than Apple Classical’s commissioned composer portraits, which are overly austere at best and poor likenesses at worst. (While we’re on him: poor Brahms.)

For all Apple Classical’s bells and whistles, it still doesn’t assuage my initial discomfort, even revulsion, toward siloing classical music in its own app. It seems to compound negative stereotypes of classical music fans, sometimes true — that we’re unadventurous listeners, out of touch with the music of the here and now, glaring down our noses (presumably through a monocle) at “less sophisticated” genres of music. As other commenters have pointed out, classical is not the only genre that stands to benefit from more detailed metadata. But it is one of the few genres which relies on it.

What still remains, then, is to build out Apple Classical so it actually functions to its fullest potential. Right now, the app is only available on iPhone; Android users, and even Apple computer users, still have to wait for the app to be built out for those operating systems.

Apple Classical is also only a streaming service, meaning an internet connection is required. Right now, one has to hop over to the mother Music app to download music, or even build playlists. Apple developers plan to better integrate the two and announce further OS expansions in recent months. As for myself, I wish they’d waited rather than releasing the squishiest soft-launch possible.

All things told, Apple Classical is a gamble, and that gamble will likely only pay off for a highly self-selecting audience base. But I’m part of that audience, however begrudgingly.

So, take my money, I guess. Apple Classical is the best we’ve got for now.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet will perform at an Apple Store to celebrate the launch of Apple Classical, with pieces by Telemann and Shostakovich alongside contemporary works; 7 p.m. April 12 at 401 N. Michigan Ave., reservations at

Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.

The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune maintains editorial control over assignments and content.

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