Fiammetta Tarli and Ivo Varbanov, pianists and creative partners in life and work, have banded together with a dedicated team of recording and design professionals to launch ICSM Records, a company with impressively high aspirations: “Independent Creative Sound and Music (ICSM) Records—made by musicians for musicians—is committed to uncompromising quality in every aspect of the recording, creating artistic statements beyond time and fashion.” Before probing more deeply into ICSM’s plans and philosophy, however, let’s learn something about the people behind the scenes.
Tell me a little about yourselves.
I.V.: I was born in Bulgaria and moved to Italy when I was eight years old. My mum was a cellist and she had a contract to work in an Italian orchestra. At the time, musicians of Eastern Europe had many privileges compared to other “common” citizens. I met Fiammetta when we were teenagers participating in a summer master class in Italy held by the German pianist Alexander Lonquich.
F.T.: I was born in Pisa in a music-loving family, my mum being a university professor of anthropology and my dad an engineer with a second degree in piano. After I met Ivo at the master class, Lonquich took us both to study with his former teacher, the Hungarian pianist Ilonka Deckers. I studied with her for six years.
I.V.: I also studied with her for six years, which I consider the most important years of my education. After that I moved to England, where I completed my studies at the Royal Northern College of Music with Sulamita Aronowsky and the Royal Academy of Music (on a full Rotary Foundation Scholarship) with Frank Wibaut. In addition, my encounters with Dennis Lee and Lev Naumov were two very important milestones in my musical growth.
How did events play out afterwards?
F.T.: We were friends when we were kids but lost contact for seven or eight years when Ivo moved to England. After earning my degree in piano at the Florence Conservatoire and having faced challenges in the performing arena (I played the Brahms Paganini Variations when I was 15 and all the Chopin ?tudes when I was 21), I wanted to deepen my academic preparation and so I did a degree in German literature with musicological profile at the University of Pisa.
I.V.: In 2000 I was passing through Pisa, where Fiamma lived at the time, and called her. She was away and I called her later in the autumn. That is how it all started: Now we have been married for six years.
F.T.: After Ivo and I reconnected, I moved in the spring of 2002 to London, where he was living at the time, and I did a Master of Music and Ph.D. in musicology at King’s College. After I completed my Ph.D., I was playing concerts, teaching, and recorded my first two CDs.
Have you played piano together since you met?
I.V.: Only in the last few years have we had the chance to play together, and it’s only in the last two/three years that we came up with the decision to create our own record label.
What was behind that decision?
F.T.: I guess maturity.
I.V.: I think the idea to start a company grew out of our somewhat eccentric pursuit of a musical career: Our personal stories are very much off the main path in several respects. I personally have always avoided the system of piano competitions, as I find them not only corrupt but also absurd: You take young people and you educate them to become racehorses, the music you play has a secondary role. It’s all about personal ambition, and not music.
In 2009, at the age of 36, after having played several times at the Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Recital Hall and the Bulgaria Concert Hall, and having released five commercial recordings and achieved some decent growth in my career, I was diagnosed with leukemia.
F.T.: This was a big blow, considering that our son was three months old when all this happened. After 11 months of living in a hospital, several cycles of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and a bone-marrow transplant, Ivo came home at the end of 2010.
I.V.: For over 18 months I was staying home recovering and had plenty of time to think about the future. I am an optimistic person and defeat was not an option.
F.T.: This was a time when we were having a better and clearer vision of how our future should be.
I.V.: I had some understanding of business; I had a vineyard in Bulgaria (I always had a passion for wine—it was a serious hobby for me), therefore it seemed natural to pursue the road of an independent record label.
F.T.: In fact, we saw an opportunity in the dramatic circumstances. With time at hand, I think it was natural that Ivo’s entrepreneurial spirit would come up with the idea of a record label.
I.V.: We felt the urge to have our own label because I did not know the time I had left; we had things to say in music, and we did not want to play by the rules imposed by the music industry. I felt that we needed to have full control over all the aspects of a recording.
Although both of you are co-directors at ICSM, Tony Faulkner and Ivo Hristov also play important roles in the company.
F.T.: I did a recording in 2012 with Tony Faulkner, who is one of the great classical sound engineers of the last three decades. I enjoyed working with him and we talked with Ivo about whether we should use his services in the future for our possible label.
I.V.: Little by little we saw a clear vision of a small but dedicated team of professionals who would work on a contract basis for all our projects. Ivo Hristov, who is an avid music collector, graphic designer, and music producer, developed the visual aspects of the label, and I came up with the rather lengthy and elaborate acronym ICSM Records, which stands for Independent Creative Sound & Music Records.
In listing the important members of our team, I mustn’t overlook Malcolm MacDonald, who wrote the CD booklets. He passed away in May, just after completing the fourth one. It was a shock for us when he died, as we never met in person and had exchanged emails for one and a half years. We knew he was very ill, but hoped to visit him. On the 21st of May we invited him to a concert, but after the concert Martin Anderson (Toccata Classics) told us that Malcolm was doing very poorly. He died a few days later. The creepy part is that he died on the evening while I was reading his last booklet for our CD. The next day I found a message from Martin Anderson. It was for us a missed opportunity to meet a very optimistic person and also a great thinker: He was one of the most important writers on music in the English language.
Sad news indeed. I was familiar with his writing from his work for Tempo Magazine, for which he used the pseudonym Calum MacDonald. He was also greatly respected for his books on various composers. However, moving on from the unhappy to the practical, would you say a few words about ICSM’s goals and artistic philosophy?
F.T.: We are working with like-minded artists, sound engineers, and people from the music world, daring more adventurous programming, searching for a personal approach and dialogue with audiences. We aim to reproduce the realism of the concert experience as closely as possible.
I.V.: I have always been fascinated by the reproduction of sound and I have always had an interest in hi-fi (one of my hobbies). Natural sound was something that was always very important for me. I believe modern recordings often stink of surgical spirit and are made of plastic because of excessive interventions by people who believe they are making them better by intervention, when they are achieving the opposite.
F.T.: I guess we can summarize our philosophy in this way: We want to release truthful recordings in natural sound, presented in a tasteful, elegant, and sober way.
It takes a lot of money to start and run a company: Was this a problem?
F.T.: After Ivo’s health troubles, we were in a very serious, difficult situation with a small child, some financial loss from Ivo not being able to work for over two years, and a family wine estate that had suffered from his forced absence.
I.V.: We were on the verge of the abyss, but we had the strength to start rebuilding our lives and in three years we managed to overcome all the difficulties and now we have an “almost” normal life. The wine business is healthy. Since my return to the stage in 2012 I have played about 40 concerts in various countries, and some were very important ones.
F.T.: So, we financed at 60 percent from our own money and from our wine estate and the remaining 40 percent with Kickstarter (the crowd-funding platform). We are very pleased with the Kickstarter project as we raised ?11,800 (approx. $20,000). We consider it a very positive experience, as we were the highest funded classical music project in the UK and the fourth-highest funded project in Europe.
Did you do a lot of research before getting started or did you just plunge right in?
I.V.: I had lots of time on hand in the period 2009–12, which gave me the opportunity to think a lot and plan such a project. While I was isolated in the hospital, a friend of mine, a composer, told me that I was privileged to have some time for myself and not be outside in the “crazy world.”
F.T.: Frankly, I would have preferred less time to think and a better fate for Ivo. Yet he has truly taken the best from his tough experience.
Were you influenced by other musician-led companies?
I.V.: I would say that ours is a fusion model of some audiophile labels and some small independent labels.
What sort of repertoire would you like to record?
F.T.: Our next release is an ethno-jazz project: The Theodosii Spassov Trio Live in London. We are ready with the masters of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka for piano four hands; the Brahms cello and piano sonatas, opp. 38 and 99; works for flute and piano by Hindemith, Poulenc, Messiaen, and Martin?; and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, Corelli Variations, and a selection of ?tude tableaux, each with different artists.
I.V.: I am working on all Brahms’s solo piano music and chamber music with piano. We also have two contemporary music projects, one with British composers and one with Bulgarian composers.
F.T.: My OMNIA project is all of Schumann’s music that involves the piano. (Our OMNIA projects aim at recording the entire output, or at least all the major works, of a composer.)
I think this would be the right time to call attention to the excellent pianos we use for all our CDs. We were very fortunate to play on instruments made by a German piano manufacturer based in Bayreuth, Steingraeber & S?hne. We hadn’t previously heard of them, even though they have been producing pianos since 1852; they make only a few concert grand pianos per year. It is a family-run business and all the parts are handcrafted in Germany. The result is a piano that somehow manages to combine the best qualities of Steinway, Fazioli, and B?sendorfer.
I.V.: In 2012, after trying a 170 cm baby grand in London I could not believe it; I had to visit them in Bayreuth. When I arrived, Udo Steingraeber gave me a key to practice in the factory. I have no other words for them; they are dream pianos. Since then I have played Tchaikovsky No.1 in the Royal Festival Hall, and done several recitals and recordings on them. The main advantage of a Steingraeber is the sound: You can model it if you know how. The key action is very prompt and it is a physical pleasure to perform on them.
You make me eager to play one. Do you discuss repertoire with your artists or are such decisions completely up to them?
F.T.: Our approach is not dogmatic, which means that there is a dialogue with the artists. We discuss programming; what for sure we are not keen on publishing are distorted concepts of “easy listening” recordings.
I.V.: Even if they make money.
Where do you find the musicians for your CDs? Also, alongside the more or less standard repertoire, ICSM plans to record music by several contemporary composers. What is their music like?
I.V.: We have been around for 15 years in the professional music world, and as a result we know many very valid artists. Sometimes artists, because of life circumstances, na?vet?, lack of money, wrong passports, or simply being unlucky, do not have so many opportunities. This does not mean that those artists are not valid. They do not belong to the star system for sure, which is not doing good to music in general.
F.T.: The music of the composers whom we are planning to record is not easy listening/Minimalist/commercial music. We believe that our mission is a cultural mission.
What sort of business model have you established?
I.V: We are very transparent. We evaluate individual projects with the artists, we evaluate risks, the possible financial outcome, and decide how to structure costs and profits between the label and the artists.
What about distribution?
I.V.: We are at the moment covering 39 countries via several independent national distributors and an aggregator (Launch Music International) that works with the majority of the distributors. Our U.S. distributor is Allegro Classics.
In which formats will your recordings be available?
I.V.: We are recording all our material in HD 192/24, therefore the media would be CD, HD/192/24 downloads, possibly Pure-Audio Blu-ray, and our beloved LP. In order to avoid compression, we are planning to keep the total playing time of LPs under 45 minutes.
Are you optimistic about the future of the recording industry?
F.T.: We do what we have to do, regardless of what we feel about the future.
I.V.: We do not know really what will happen with classical music. We know that globalization has some positive aspects and plenty of negative ones.
How do you feel about the current trend towards downloads?
I.V.: We live in a time where everyone is renting and not owing. People tend to buy fewer books, recordings, and tend to live in a world were the “old-fashioned” concept of collecting is disappearing.
F.T.: We feel that downloads and streaming are the future, but feel also that there are purists and collectors that would still buy recordings in a physical format, whether LP, Pure Audio Blu-ray, CD, or SACD.
Do you think the CD will be around for a while, yet?
I.V.: Maybe another 10 years.
In your opinion, are downloads comparable in quality to CDs?
I.V.: Well-recorded music sounds good in all formats, maybe excluding mp3, where compression is heavy. Natural-sounding recordings, played on “normal” hi-fi systems, sound similar in the different formats. When you start having serious high-end equipment for sound reproduction, the same HD192/24 file and 44.1/16 (CD format) will sound slightly different. The 192/24 will sound closer to the vinyl, with a more analog type of sound. The problem with many consumers of high-end audio equipment is that their focus is often not the music itself but the gear.
Isn’t it difficult to maintain a career as a performer while running a company?
F.T.: Both of us work 60 hours a week. And we are very motivated because we work for ourselves.
I.V.: I have been always my own boss and I like to think that the freedom we have now is very important for our understanding of life, the arts, and music. I have often been criticized by people—“But you are a musician; why do you take your wine estate so seriously?”—“You should not get distracted.” I like to think outside the box. I prefer to do things independently, without having any fear of being judged for what I am. I profoundly disagree with the current star system in classical music, where many young performers will do anything to be a “star.” Frankly, it is not inspirational to play 100 concerts a year for decades, featuring the same pieces in a well-crafted manner but with little musical content. Those performers are used by the system and, when they are not needed any longer, cruelly disposed of.
Have you recorded for other labels? If so, was it a positive or negative experience?
I.V.: We have previously done seven recordings for other labels between the two of us. The experience was positive, but we feel that, even if we occasionally will work with “friendly” labels that share a similar philosophy, we should focus on our label, which gives us freedom in all aspects.
Is there a difference in the European, Japanese, or other foreign markets vis-?-vis the North American one? Is classical music held in higher esteem in certain countries than in others? If so, how does this affect your marketing approach?
F.T.: We respect very much each market with its peculiarities. We feel that the North American music market, despite having limited state funding, has a better attitude towards meritocracy. Compared to the United Kingdom, where we live, society seems more open. Therefore it is not a surprise that crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter were created in the U.S.
I.V.: We believe that we should be truthful to our ideas and find customers among those who think in a similar way. We want to communicate to people who are open minded and able to listen to what we have to say with our words but most importantly with our music.