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Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection

Beginner's Guide

Though classical music appeals to many people, the diversity, complexity and even the mystique of "classical music" can be rather intimidating. Granted, there is much to know, and much to learn, concerning this music (many people have devoted their lives to studying obscure facets of musicology), but the encouraging thing about this art form is that you can enjoy what your are hearing without knowing exactly why. So, while detailed study, investigation, reading, whatever, may perhaps enhance the enjoyment of the music even further, a scholarly approach is fundamentally not required to begin your exploration. All that is required is a desire to explore and discover new musical territory. The classical music genre is rich enough to provide a lifetime of wonder and surprises, and a nearly limitless potential for discovery makes the journey well worth the effort.

The basic question is, "Where do I begin?" The important thing to remember is that everyone has been confronted with this same decision at some point. A certain piece, performer or composer may have caught their attention through either hearing a piece at a concert, on a movie soundtrack, or even a commercial on TV. Once the listener has a toehold then there are a number of different methodologies by which one can go about exploring classical music, and each person is bound to take an individual path. The purpose of this guide, therefore, is to provide some basic information, including tips on possible avenues of investigation, that will be useful to the novice and experienced listener alike.

Above all remember that musical tastes are profoundly individual. The music that appeals to others may not appeal to you. At best, the music that "the experts" feel is worthwhile should provide nothing more than possibilities for investigation. If you come across acclaimed music that you do not like, do not worry about your judgement. As Horace (65 BC - 8 BC), the Roman poet and satirist wrote: "De gustibus non disputandum est." (There should be no arguing about tastes.) This doesn't keep the arguments from occurring, but it is best to not take such discussions too seriously.

It seems that you've already made a good start to investigating the world of classical music. The basic methodology I found to be effective in building a good library of recordings, even though I didn't know much about it when I started, was to:

1) Listen to as much music as you can.

Many college and community libraries have very large collections of classical CDs that can be checked out. Also, listening to the radio can be a good source. Concerts can be very effective as well, though they can be expensive. Many colleges have free recitals and very low cost concerts available, and community music groups often have low-cost concerts throughout the year. Experiencing live music will help to familiarize you with what real music sounds like and help make you a better judge of recording and performance quality.
Participating in various newsgroups and mailing lists available on the Internet, America On-Line, CompuServe and other on-line services is also an effective mechanism to become a part of ongoing conversations about music, performers, recordings, composers and many related topics. The Moderated Classical Music List is a good place to start.

2) Make note of the piece and composer.

A) Most pieces fall into four basic categories:
  • Orchestral (symphonies, concertos, suites, overtures, serenades, etc.)
  • Chamber (piano trios, string quartets, wind quintets, etc.)
  • Keyboard (piano sonatas, organ works, harpsichord works, etc.)
  • Vocal (opera, lieder/song, oratorios, sacred choral music such as masses and motets, etc.)
Many people prefer one category over the other, at least initially.

B) Get to know the composer

Knowing the composer is important because this provides a somewhat reliable guide to other pieces that should investigated. If you hear one piece you like by a certain composer, then there is a fair chance you'll like other major pieces by the same composer. Learning about times and lives of major composers can be very enlightening. There are many beginner-oriented biographies and dictionaries available that can provide basic information about a composer's life and works, and about musical terminology in general. Even the notes that come with the recordings can be a good source of basic information.
The "Basic Repertoire" section of this site, along with the accompanying composer biographies, articles, recommended CDs and other information has been assembled with the novice as well as the experienced classical music lover in mind.

3) Find A Good Recording

Once you know the piece and its composer, you can then check any one of several sources for the best recording of that work. I suggest the Stevenson Guide as the best overall source, though the last edition was published in August of 1996 and that can be very difficult to find. Also the Penguin Guide is a good reference, as are the primary review publications: Fanfare, American Record Guide & Gramophone. ClassicCD and BBC Music are good sources of news and capsule reviews for the beginner. Once you have some experience you can determine which source best fits your own personal taste and needs. Above all, remember that, in the end, it matters little if your tastes coincide with those of the critics. There is no one best performance of a piece, so if you like it, and it brings you pleasure, don't be dissuaded by reviews you might read. There are often many excellent recordings and performances of a major work available, so don't get discouraged by the varied selection. One of the most controversial topics in performance and interpretation is the use of historical instruments, and/or employing historical performance practices (A discussion of historically-informed performance practice). Another thing to keep in mind when deciding on a certain CD may be price. Unlike any other musical genre, there are many great performances of a certain piece, and some of them may cost as little as $5. Don't let the low price fool you. There is often no correlation between price and recording/performance quality, and the extremely low cost of some releases can provide great opportunities for experimentation without a lot of risk. Don't be afraid to trust your own instincts. If a recording and performance moves you, you don't need to check other sources to see if it's OK. Music is a personal experience.
You will find a list of major review publications in Section VI "Publications".

4) Find A Good CD Store

Finding a good CD store from which to buy the CD you want can be a little frustrating in certain parts of the world. My basic advice is to find a store that has a good selection and wait for sales. Most stores have monthly or quarterly sales which can save you $1-4 per CD. This is less critical for bargain ($5-7) CDs. Mail order can also be a good way to find sale prices, especially if you save local taxes.
A good retail store should also have copies of the Stevenson and/or Penguin guides for in-store use. It is also nice if the store has a knowledgeable and helpful staff, but this is unfortunately rare. As many less-urban areas don't have a good store, mail order is often the least expensive, or only way to find the music you want. The Retail Links page has a comprehensive list of on-line mail order sources most of which have on-line database access that makes it easy to compare prices and selection.
You will find a list of mail order company addresses and phone numbers in Section VIII "Mail Order Sources".

5) What's Next?

OK, so now you have a good CD of music you really like, what next? This Basic Repertoire List and associated files is designed in such a way that once you know you like at least one piece by given composer, you can begin to branch out to other works, composers and periods. For instance, let's say you've bought a CD of Mozart's symphonies #40 & 41, and like them a great deal. You may try other symphonies by Mozart (e.g., #38), or you might want to try symphonies by another composer. In this case, it might be best to stay within the same period (in this case Classicism), so the symphonies by Haydn (#45, 94, 101 & 104) or Beethoven (e.g., #3, 5, 6 & 9) would be a good place to start. If you find you particularly like Mozart, you might start exploring the major piano concertos (e.g., #20, 21 & 23) or serenades (e.g., #7, #10-13). You can then start branching out and listen to Mozart's piano sonatas or string quartets, and so on.
Another avenue might be to investigate the roots of the symphony (via the concerto grosso, suites and sinfonias of the Baroque era) or to see how the symphony developed after Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn by looking into the symphonies of the Romantic period. The Basic Repertoire List provides a "road map" for any of these explorations. Repeat steps #1-4 each time you identify a new piece you want to know more about, and don't be afraid to customize the process depending on your own likes or dislikes. I've always found that keeping lists of potential pieces or recordings I want to add to my collection (a want list) is very helpful. After a while the whole process will become second nature.

Commonly Asked Questions

Last time I was at the local music store, I compared several CDs of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture, and noticed that the times differed by as much as 1 minute! Does this mean that it may be slightly cut off in the shorter time performance? This complicates CD buying.

Timing differences are due to differing tempi (as set by the conductor) or to the taking of repeats (mostly applicable to older pieces, i.e., classical period or earlier). This brings up an important point. Once you start listening to more music, you may identify certain musicians and conductors you like better than others. So, what does a conductor do? Here's some information to help answer that very question:
During the actual concert, the conductors duties are simply to begin the piece, provide tempo reminders, and queues of various sorts as aids to the musicians. If an orchestra has been very thoroughly prepared, these might not be necessary. A band director I worked with once said something to the effect that during rehearsals, he expected 90% of our attention to be on him and 10% on the sheet music, but during performances, 90% of our attention should be on the music, and perhaps 10% on him. This seems to be a valid and pertinent guideline.
The need for a conductor during performance was originally identified prior to the time when ensembles had an established repertoire (or musical canon, as some have called it). In olden times (pretty much any time up until the early 20th century), orchestras were constantly having to learn new music, and rarely played a piece over and over again over many years. Given the quick turnover in pieces being played, there often was not enough time to practice a piece thoroughly before the concert. Sometimes orchestras were doing very little more than sight-reading a piece in front of an audience. In these cases, conductors (who were often the composers themselves) played a clearly vital in keeping the ensemble together, leading the tempi, queuing solos and indicating dynamics.
The director's job these days is really quite different. The director often seeks to create a unique interpretation of a well-known, often-played, composition. This composition may be something like Beethoven's 5th, which has undoubtedly been performed tens of thousands of times (maybe more!) and is undoubtedly well known to the musicians in the orchestra. A good director (who is also a musician), will have studied the score in great detail (all parts), perhaps have studied the history of the piece in order to establish a historical context and/or to check the accuracy of a published score vs. the original manuscript and prepare a performing version of the score if necessary, and perhaps even listen to the interpretations of others (though any director will have heard a piece such as the 5th many times in concert). Based on this investigation she/he will have come up with a unique vision of the piece, and therefore have a desire to realize this vision.
During the process of rehearsal, the director communicates his/her vision of the piece to the musicians in the ensemble, and to varying degrees may adjust that vision based on feedback from the individual members of the ensemble. In essence, the director presents a proposal and then acts as arbiter (though sometimes an autocratic one) for the musical decisions made concerning the way a piece is performed.
A good director is very much more than just a baton-waver. This is why you often read or hear references to various recordings as "Klemperer's Haydn" or "Horenstein's Mahler" or "Norrington's Beethoven". Good directors have a vision of a piece that brings to light, in a penetrating and often touching way, aspects of the music's artistry for the audience. This is a non-trivial task, and this is why director's are sometimes cherished.
Of course, sometimes an orchestra programs a piece because it's expected, popular, or contractually obligated to for a recording company. The vision of the director may not be the driving force, and indeed may be absent entirely. The performance that results is often mundane or even bad, in any case it is less than effective, and best forgotten. The instances where the director's vision is strong; the ability of the director to communicate that vision to the musicians in the ensemble and create a unified whole; the ensemble possesses the necessary musicianship to transmit the music as a whole to the audience; the effect on the audience of the composer's work and the director's vision of that work is powerful, are few and far between. However, this is the goal. Not simply to lead a ensemble through the written music in front of a group of spectators.

Should one look only for DDD recordings as opposed to ADD or AAD? This further complicates CD purchasing.

The SPARS code can be meaningless in and of itself. There are many awful digital recordings (and digital recordings of awful performances) and many, many more incredibly good analog recordings of great performances. If sound is a main concern (and it is for most people) you will probably want to stick to recordings from the late 50s through the present, though some early stereo and even late mono recordings are excellent (much better than you might guess). High-quality magnetic tape equipment started becoming available about 1954.
The definition of the SPARS (Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios) code included on many CDs is:
Digital tape recorder used during session recording, mixing and/or editing, and mastering (transcription).
Analog tape recorder used during session recording; digital tape recorder used during subsequent mixing and/or editing, and mastering (transcription).
Analog tape recorder used during session recording and subsequent mixing and/or editing; digital tape recorder used during mastering (transcription).
The letters in the code indicate what type of tape recorder was utilized at each step in the process - original recording, editing/mixing, and mastering/ transcription respectively. Digital tape recorders are fairly inexpensive these days, however, a 32- or 64-track digital editing/mixing console is still pricey. So what is often done is to make a digital 32-track recording of the original performance, run it through a D/A converter into an analog mixing console, back out through a A/D converter to a 2-track digital edit tape. This same process may occur on the way to a digital master tape. If the SPARS code was meant to represent the totality of the technology used, then the code would be something like DADAD, but according to the definition, the CD can carry a code of DDD, even though the signal has been processed in its analog form several times in the process.
Some companies are adding "pure digital" or "completely in the digital domain" to their labels to signify that the entire process was digital, with no D/A and A/D conversion. Some companies actually do without the first step entirely (analogous to direct-to-disc LPs) and mix on the fly, then transcribe to the digital master. For instance Digital Music Productions, a jazz label, is known for this. For this type of recording, the SPARS code might be -DD.
Since CDs are digital, then by definition the master tape from which the CD is made must be digital as well. Therefore, all recordings that were originally analog, are re-mastered to digital for the CD medium. Be aware that the phrase "digitally remastered from the original analog tape" means nothing more than a necessary step was followed in getting the music into the digital domain and ready for encoding on the CD. Most people thought this meant that the recording was remixed/edited digitally as well, but that is not what this means.
As to which is better: Taken by itself, the code is not an indicator of recording quality in any specific sense. Depending on your leanings regarding the acceptability of digital technology in general, utilizing digital technology might be said to result in a higher potential for low noise, wider dynamic range, low distortion, etc, recordings. As with any tool, though, the technology is only as good as the application. It's perfectly possible to make a terrible recording using the latest in digital technology. If anything, the more sophisticated and complex the gadgetry, the more potential for error. Early digital recordings often fell victim to engineers that didn't grasp the subtleties of the technology.
For classical recordings, which have a long history of fine engineering and depend greatly on the musicianship and interpretation, the SPARS code should not be a prime determining factor in choosing one recording over another.

Should one look for particular conductors/orchestras performing that piece? This really complicates CD selection!

Yes, but this can be very subjective, and preferences can change dramatically over time. Move slowly and form your own opinions based on your own listening and reading. This is one of the more interesting and fun aspects of collecting, and it's not really as hard as you might imagine. There is no single best way of interpreting all music, so conductors invariably have better success in some works than in others. A great conductor of Mozart, may not have any affinity for Mahler, and vice versa.

I was recently listening to The Planets by Holst. Oddly enough, as much as I liked the movement with the title "Mars", I thought the remainder of the CD in its entirety was boring.

This could be due to the performance. It could also be due to the fact that good classical music has a great many nuances that may not be apparent on first hearing. Some have defined a musical masterpiece as a work that is pleasing upon first hearing, and then on repeated listenings reveals even more musical wonders. Most really good music requires a bit of attention and experience. Much as a great painting might require more than a quick glance for full appreciation. Listen to it again carefully. Put it on as background music while you do something else. Put it away for a while and listen to other classical music. No guarantees, but your impression of a piece after living with it for a while may be quite different.

Any recommendations for my tastes?

As you start to listen to more, and can say what you like, it's a lot easier for someone to suggest something new. Everyone's taste is so different. Reading the net, and other classical music periodicals can be a good resource. Also, don't hesitate to ask for suggestions.