Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats."
Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Classical Music 101: Building a Music Collection

Five Tips For Getting Your Hands on the Best Recordings




Price: How Much Should You Pay?
Classical music CDs have traditionally been divided into three price levels: "Full" price ($15-$18/disc), "Mid-price" ($10-$12/disc) and "Budget Price" ($8 and below.) Some stores can charge lower prices because they don't have to pay rent, or they are selling promotional items or other gently-used products. Used CD stores (not many of these left) will sometimes allow shoppers to bring a portable CD player to check the discs before buying, but this is rare. More recently, super-budget labels (like Brilliant Classics and Gala Records) have been releasing venerable performances at super-budget prices.


Format: Vinyl, CDs, or MP3s?

Most collectors swear by the original vinyl for the sheer quality of sound. However, vinyl records are bulky, hard to maintain, and require a good system with a turntable. They're also hard to find, as many vinyl recordings were deleted from shops as the industry switched over to cheaper, easier to manufacture CDs. Most classical music is available on CD, from Bach's solo violin pieces to the Wagner's grandiose Ring Cycle. CDs are a good place to start. Unfortunately the CD Database (CDDB) is notably inconsistent when it comes to generating names and track titles of classical and opera MP3s, making music in this format hard to find.

Performance: Choosing the Artist
There is a bewildering array of performances and repertory available. Start with the basics--the 1962 Beethoven symphonies conducted by Herbert von Karajan, or the works of Debussy or Stravinsky led by Ernst Ansermet. Sometimes older is better--most recordings made before the CD boom are of very high quality, and you can save some money, get better recordings, and develop a really fine collection. Research is recommended: the Penguin Guide, the Rough Guide to Classical Music or the Gramophone Good CD Guide are all good places to start. Read the internet, the classical music blogs, or best of all, talk to the senior clerk in a large record store.

Analog vs. Digital vs. Remastered
When an older, analog recording (that is one made with ordinary tape and originally issued on vinyl) is burned onto a CD, there is always some decay of the signal as it is re-written ("remastered") for the digital format. Some decay also happens when a recording is issued as an MP3. Ironically, some of the recent "budget" series released by the major labels (DG Originals, Decca Original Masters, EMI Great Recordings of the 20th Century, etc.) combine a classic recording with a low price and scintillating digital sound. Seek these recordings and performances out.



"Period Performance" vs. Modern Instruments
In the 1970s and '80s, the trend emerged where conductors and performers would play works on authentic or replica instruments from the 18th century. Wooden flutes, finger-hole clarinets, and "natural" horns all have very different sounds from their modern orchestral equivalents, and this is something to take into account when shoping for a recording. Also, some conductors like to use "metronome markings" found in the score, which often results in Mozart that you can pace off with an egg-timer. Many of these so-called "period" performances have great artistic value, but they may not be what you are listening for if you are just starting out.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.