A few months ago I found a batch of schoolboy letters I had written to my parents during an age when LP’s were king, and expensive. In letter after letter I would carefully present my short lists of records I would like to own: Brahms 2nd piano concerto – 24 shillings (bargain price); Chopin’s Etudes on Decca – Ah! this one was a whopping 41 shillings, which, to put things in perspective, was at that time about two-thirds of the price of the clothbound Henle edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas vol.2. The equivalent today would be about $50, for one record. They had to be saved up for. Those records were precious, and listened to many many times. When the school announced the opening of a record lending library with 300 records, I was overcome with a feeling of abundance, a treasure trove opening up in front of my very eyes.
Times have changed. The problem now, if one can really call it that, is how to budget time rather than money. With so many choices to listen to at almost no cost, where does one start? Up until about five years ago I found reading classical record reviews interesting but frustrating, because I knew I was not going to be hearing but a tiny fraction of the recordings being reviewed. When it came to whole areas of music I was unfamiliar with, like the English 20th century symphony, I more or less had to take my chances and buy randomly and hope I liked what I heard. I often did not, and abandoned the practise. Nowadays that whole area of the repertoire is available to me at the touch of a button from one of the streaming services to which I have subscribed. I can explore with abandon. A somewhat impatient listener, in a similar manner to the way I am as a reader, I must be grabbed pretty soon by what is going on, or I move on. But in these days of unlimited accessibility, I can do this without regrets or disappointments, and with a real feeling of adventure. So many nuggets in there – all I have to do is find them.
Besides having access to thousands of radio stations, from which I choose only two or three, including the BBC, my two main sources of streaming are Spotify and Naxos Music Library.
Spotify has only recently reached our American shores, having taken Europe by storm for a few years with its extraordinarily large library of 15 million tracks and growing. It is not primarily a classical music hub like Naxos, but its collection of classical music is impressive, if spotty. Notable are major labels which do not feature on Naxos, such as Deutsche Grammophon, EMI and Sony Classics. Not their entire catalogues of course, but some major artists are included. Virtually all of Glenn Gould’s recordings are available, many of Murray Perahia and Maurizio Pollini are there, and amongst conductors I am happy to see Simon Rattle and Karajan well represented.
With Naxos we get more versions of everything, and they also have an ever growing list of labels, including Bis, Chandos, Haenssler and Hungaraton, as well of course as the entire Naxos catalogue. For the exploration of unusual repertoire, Naxos cannot be beaten. All of those 20th century English symphonies are there, and one can listen to complete works of many unfamiliar composers. Certain great hallmark collections stand out for me – The wonderfully crisp and exciting Beethoven symphonies with Osmo Vanska; five different complete collections of the Bach cantatas (what a HUGE discovery these are, and only ten years ago I was still frustrated at not having them all available to me, but only in bits), including those of Gardiner, Koopman, Suzuki and Leusink; the Sibelius collection on Bis, and the Carter edition on Bridge – Spotify boasts only two discs of Elliot Carter, America’s greatest living composer, and not more than that of Tippett, who until his death a few years ago was England’s greatest.
There is a feeling that Naxos takes on all willing comers though, and the quality of recordings/performances is by no means uniformly high. One has to choose carefully, but at least the best recordings are always complete. An irritating feature of Spotify is the absence of apparently randomly selected tracks from performances which would be so much more worthwhile if complete. Gardiner’s account of Don Giovanni for example suffers from having the great final scene be unavailable. Maybe the record companies assign a computer to knock out a few tracks from their recordings so that listeners might feel they have to buy the albums after all.
I sometimes think how life would have been so much easier as a music student if I had had access to recordings and scores like I do now. That is true, but I rejoice that being a constant lifelong student is now so enjoyable, especially without the pressure of exams! I know for certain that there are still about 100 or so Bach cantatas I still haven’t heard, and I know equally that I will be just as amazed by the unrelenting inspiration and imagination Bach shows in the ones I have heard. And never has it been possible (let alone so easy)to compare so many performances of single movements or pieces as it is now.
Faced with such plenty, it is sometimes a problem (of the very best sort) deciding what to listen to, what to explore next. If I am not in a mood to make choices, I turn to Pandora. Here I can set up radio stations for myself which will play the kinds of music I like. If I choose, say, Berg, Berg himself is represented in a random track followed by one by another composer who wrote in what is considered by Pandora’s team of experts to be related in style. I have found this a marvellous method to make serendipitous discoveries, which can then lead me to explore those pieces further on Naxos or Spotify. A wonderfully fresh and energetic Martinu violin concerto for example, or the charming Symphony no.1 by Elliot Carter.
Some diehards worry about not being able to download from these sites (they mean for free!). Almost everything can be downloaded off the internet for money, and now those who are patient can record in real time anything that enters their computer from the internet, using Freecorder or similar programs. The only time I feel the need for such ownership is when I have trouble with internet connection (but then I just go to my Iphone and tune in there on 3G), or when I am in a very remote place. Then I take my Ipod, and am quite happy.
All in all, despite minor imperfections, these sites complement eachother to result in a veritable Library of Congress-sized library in one’s own living room or smart phone. It’s hard to imagine things being any better for the enthusiastic listener, but I am sure they will be.