When Touch Press, the app production company behind The Elements, launched The Orchestra last December, it was clear that the bar had been raised in terms of what a classical music app could offer. Beautiful to look at, instinctive to use, highly informative yet eminently accessible, the only possible disappointment to serious classical fans was the fact that the app really was what it said on the tin, ie an adult newcomer's guide to the orchestra that therefore wouldn't sustain the long-term interest of a more seasoned classical listener.
An app that has achieved the seemingly impossible: the ability to keep both a relative expert or a student happily engrossed for hours, and classical newbies equally entertained and comfortable
Well, this is the app that those more seasoned listeners hoped Touch Press might eventually produce. Made in partnership with Deutsche Grammophon (DG), and released today on 16 May, it gives a single orchestral work - Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - the same exhaustive treatment as the orchestra as an instrumental body received in The Orchestra. The extensive features are still there. So is the engaging text, this time written by pianist, composer and broadcaster David Owen Norris, that manages to be scholarly, but also relaxed and conversational. The result is an app that has achieved the seemingly impossible: the ability to keep both a relative expert or a student happily engrossed for hours, and classical newbies equally entertained and comfortable.
The app features four complete legendary DG performances of the symphony: Leonard Bernstein's 1979 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (including video), Ferenc Fricsay with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1958, Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1962, and finally John Eliot Gardiner's 1992 recording with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique - so you can hear what an impact a period orchestra and instruments make to the overall sound. You can switch instantly between recordings on-the-fly, you listen while watching a BeatMap, you can follow the music on either a full or simplified rolling musical notation score or even the original 1825 manuscript score (whose pages mercifully turn automatically, helping you when the inevitable happens and you get lost!).
Intellectual musical entertainment of the highest quality
The written text includes a synchronised commentary over the rolling score, and all you could wish to know about the symphony and its background: contextual information, an analysis of the work, how to listen to it, what the four different conductors and recordings bring to the work, and a biography of Beethoven. There are also two hours of gorgeously shot extended video interviews in which 12 experts give their own insights into the work, interviewees including the conductors Gustavo Dudamel and John Eliot Gardiner, pianist Alice Sara Ott, and BBC Radio 3's Suzy Klein. The version for iPhone doesn't include these insight interviews, the 1825 manuscript, or the background and analysis beyond the synchronised commentary, but it's still got an incredible amount of audio and information, laid out to look and feel just right - and surprisingly uncluttered - on the smaller iPhone screen.
If you're still to be persuaded to part with your cash (and admittedly it is at the pricier end of the app market), there's a free try-before-you-buy version on the App store that gives you two minutes of the second movement with all features enabled. Still, if you like Beethoven, or even just want to see what a serious classical app can offer, then there is simply nothing else like this on the market at the moment. It's intellectual musical entertainment of the highest quality.
Charlotte Gardner is a contributor to the BBC Music website, Gramophone and theartsdesk.com.
Download the free previews now.
Full version for iPad £9.99/iPhone £5.49.