A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Classical Music

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Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel has become a rock star of the classical world recently – he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic for part of the score to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and will conduct the 2016 Superbowl half-time show on February 7. Image courtesy of pbs.org.

Every Wednesday, my local Salvation Army Thrift store runs a 50% off sale on everything in their inventory. I make it a point to stop in and browse the books and compact discs each week. It’s a lot of rummaging through trash for the odd treasure, but generally a worthwhile effort.

This week brought in an impressive haul of ten mint-condition, world-class classical music CDs  that cost me a mere $0.99 – a price not even Amazon can beat. As I was checking out, the clerk asked if I’d noticed a few other discs of the same genre. “There’s a collection of classical meditation songs and a 4-disc set of Beethoven’s sonatas,” she mentioned helpfully.

She meant well of course, so I simply thanked for her the tip and completed my purchase. I’d seen both of the discs she mentioned, but the meditation CD featured no-name orchestras and Beethoven’s sonatas were performed by an unknown pianist. But her comment reflects the general disposition towards buying classical music: cheaper is better. Make no mistake, there are a lot of cheap classical records and discs out there, and many buyers are tempted by colossal boxed sets selling, if you’ll pardon the pun, for a song. For casual classical listeners, these types of bargain discs are probably quite sufficient. But if you’re serious about classical music, you’ll want to learn how to sort through the many recordings available for the best ones.

Let’s accept the subjectivity of taste as a given. When talking about the quality of music, much will fall into the realm of personal opinions. However, there are generally accepted markers of good vs. mediocre recordings, and they are your guidelines to making sound purchases. To organize these standards and make them easy to remember, I use a rubric of my own design, the CLASS system: Conductor, Label, Artists, Sound, Symphony.

Here’s how each category breaks down.

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The great Leonard Bernstein. Image courtesy of openculture.com.

Conductor: Truly great performances are accomplished not just by skillful musicians, but the vision of the conductor, too. The conductor interprets the composer’s score in ways that dramatically affect the sound, pace, and feel of the performance. A good conductor brings something new to the table, or else interprets the composition in a way that honors the composer’s original intent. The novice classical music fan might think that one performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will sound the same as any other. This couldn’t be more incorrect. Performances of the same piece can vary dramatically from conductor to conductor, and many critics will find one interpretation divine and another profane.

The most celebrated conductors of classical music earned their status by being consistently talented and unique in their interpretations of different works. They know how to coax the best performances from their musicians, and they show obvious passion and respect for the music they choose to perform. While there are variations of opinions, a few conductors to watch for as you shop are: Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Charles Munch, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Pierre Boulet, Andre Previn, Masaaki Suzuki, and Daniel Barenboim. I’m also a fan of Charles Dutoit and Leonard Bernstein – I have yet to hear a Bernstein recording that I didn’t enjoy.

Label: The cost of producing a classical record or CD is – you may be surprised – considerable. Licensing fees and the costs of paying world-class performers account for much of the expense, and rightly so – these costs help fund orchestras and artists and keep classical music, which represents a fraction of a percent of total music sales, a viable genre. So a no-name recording label probably couldn’t afford the best orchestras and musicians, and the resulting performances will likely be poorer for it. Look for respected labels with a proven history of great releases: EMI, Sony Classical, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, and RCA. For budget-priced discs with superb performances and quality, Naxos is a fantastic label which I strongly recommend.

 

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Violinist Hilary Hahn. One of the most acclaimed musicians of our time, Hahn lends her intense, impeccable style to pieces like Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, a personal favorite of mine. Image courtesy of Deutsche Grammaphon.

Artists: A slam dunk category – this is one of the first things I look for on a disc. If the artists or soloists are no-names or aren’t listed at all, you’re taking a risk of getting sub-par – and in some cases terrible – performances. Because musical prodigies are recognized at a very young age, if the soloist is unknown it’s a sure bet that their talent is average. Always keep your eye out for proven musicians like Hilary Hahn, Sarah Chang, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel Jasmine Choi, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma (to name just a VERY few). For vocal music, look for the great tenors and sopranos – Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, Andrea Bocelli, and so on.

 

Sound: Applicable to any musical genre, this category refers simply to the recording methods and mastering for any given performance. Since you’re unlikely to be able to listen to a record or disc before purchasing, consult the reviews online to get a sense of the recording quality. Some of the greatest performances of classical music were given in the early half of the 20th century and later, so analog recording methods were used and you should keep that in mind. The mastering of the recordings, however, can significantly impact even an analog source, and great performances can be completely ruined if the mix is off (imagine a concerto where the soloists are far off in the mix – I’ve heard it before, and it’s quite disappointing). Modern releases, of course, will have a clarity and immediacy you may not find on older recordings (though some prefer the older analog sound), but even with cutting edge equipment some sound engineers still get it wrong from time to time. For example, I prefer Leonard Berstein’s First Mahler Cycle, recorded in the sixties on analog equipment, over some of the recordings of Gustavo Dudamel’s cycle from just a few years ago. The former has a stronger and more evocative mix, while the latter suffers from a very flat, compressed sound to my ears.

Symphony: As important as musicians and conductor is the symphony performing the piece (for chamber works, refer to the individual artists). Symphonies with platinum reputations attract the highest caliber musicians, and have provided consistently strong performances – some of them for a century or more. If your bargain CD features a performance of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony by the Downer’s Grove Illinois Orchestra, you’re taking a chance that the performances will be poor. Look for the greats: The Royal Concertgebouw Symphony of Amsterdam, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the London Symphony orchestra, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and so on.

There you have it – a quick guide to purchasing the best classical music. As you explore, you’ll start to realize which conductors, artists, and orchestras you enjoy the most, and indeed there is always disagreement over who did which piece ‘best’ or ‘better’ than the rest. Whether online, at the bargain store, or browsing flea markets and tag sales, the best deal is a low price and superior artists, conductors, labels, and sound.

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