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Classical Music Cultural Comment

The Rediscovery of CDs – Reflecting on a bygone sound

In today’s streaming world, most of us don’t buy CDs anymore, it’s true. Especially if you are a tech minded person and use twitter to get your news. CDs? They are so old. Yet during this imposed isolation in Melbourne, I have turned to my CD collection a lot more, and placed the little plastic discs into my dedicated CD player. I am no audiophile – the CD player is an “entry level” Yamaha one I bought years ago, my amplifier is also “entry level” and my speakers are from a Philips stereo setup my dad bought in the early 1990s. Part of the reason why I have been using CDs is not because I am a Luddite – it arose because the bluetooth connection from my devices to the amplifier is glitchy. The cables that connect the CD to the amp, and the cords that connect it to the speakers has proven to be more reliable. Another significant reason is that I focus more on music played from a CD than through streaming. Psychologically, streaming is for background music, pop music and for the car. Not for really immersing in the music.

So it has come to pass that I have paid a more attention to my CD collection than I have for more than 20 years. And it has revealed a lot about what forms a person in their 20s, but also what it tells me about life as it stands at the moment.

Me as a Young Classical Fan

I was 16 when my dad bought me a CD player, mini stereo system and three CDs to go with it. Classical, of course – we were a distinctly classical only household (though that didn’t stop me from buying Kate Ceberano’s Brave soon afterwards). It was a revelation – great sounding music in my own room. Being the 80s, that was a big deal. Not long after, I drowned my awkward teenage sorrows in the Big Tunes of Rachmaninov and then explored the hard core stuff – Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony at full volume (Dad was starting to regret his purchase that that stage).

That was the start of an odyssey through music that was no longer bound to just listening to the radio. Through my early 20s and to when I got my first full time job as a teacher, my focus was on building a classical music library. To find out what to listen to, what to discover, I didn’t have access to a lot of sources locally. I also didn’t have a lot of classical music loving friends at school or even at uni. So, I listened to Martin Hibble’s Just Out on ABC FM religiously – I especially liked his inability to fall into line with what record companies wanted reviewers to say. I also used my lunchtimes at Fisher Library at Sydney Uni to pore through old back issues of the UK Gramophone magazine – generally the most respected storehouse of reviews and articles. It was the early 90s, so no internet databases, subreddits or google to help me. I investigated.

I look at the collection now and it tells me a lot about mid 20s me. I was a socially awkward 20 something manchild, I developed a lot of bad opinions, influenced by all sorts of things. I decided that I liked Georg Solti because he wasn’t a severe Nazi-looking bloke like Karajan. (I had also read excerpts of Norman Lebrecht’s Maestro Myth, so was influenced by his comments about Karajan). He was also on the Channel 4 Orchestra program with Dudley Moore. So there’s a lot of Solti there. There was lots of Ashkenazy, because Dad gave me a recording of him doing the Rach 2nd and 4th Piano Concertos, so that started me off with him.

I was also on Team Norrington when it came to the battle in the early 90s between period instrument ensembles – largely fuelled by record companies – between Roger Norrington at EMI, John Eliot Gardiner at Deutsche Gramophon / Archiv and Christopher Hogwood at Decca / L’oiseau Lyre. I plumped for Norrington because he seemed to be having more fun. Plus, he was genial and friendly on the BBC programs of him conducting the Beethoven 9 (which are, these days, completely unavailable anywhere). I grew up with Karajan’s Beethoven in my head – Dad had Deutsche Gramophon box sets at home – “the best of Beethoven”, and so on. That’s why I didn’t much like Beethoven until I heard Norrington. To me, it was also a bit of a rebellion against Dad and the older generation to be enjoying the earthier interpretations of the historically informed performances. It also helped that I was studying history at university and could see the worth of doing such research. It got so that I only listened to their interpretations of classical, baroque and early romantic music. I became a rusted on ideologue, believing the modern orchestra was not right for the music from that period. (I cringe now at those views).

There were also a lot of CDs that I could get on sale at Lawson’s and Ashwood’s second hand shops on Castlereagh St, plus at the Pitt St Virgin Megastore classical sales. I had read about the recordings in Gramophone first, of course. In those days, I was dedicated to getting one recording each of a whole lot of music – so I could have a wide ranging collection, not a whole lot of recordings of the one thing. The idea of owning 6 different performances of Beethoven’s symphonies or sonatas struck me as being indulgent.

As I said, I had a lot of Opinions. A lot of them not my own, but I stuck to them like glue.

In the late 90s, I got married (as it turned out, too soon for the both of us, and in my case, it was largely because of my terrible self esteem that I married the first woman who had shown an interest in me). As teaching, children and marriage took over – as did a massive array of bills and barely keeping our heads above water financially – the CD collection sat in boxes, barely listened to. Occasionally, if I was allowed to indulge every so often, I would buy the odd CD here or there if I was in Sydney. I was barely ever in Sydney in any case – my life was firmly entrenched in the outer suburbs, where classical CDs were usually Best Ofs or featured the likes of Richard Clayderman.

That marriage ended in a heap in the late 00s, I went into a new and much better relationship, plus I was a bit more financially stable over the next 10 years. The CD collection, however, stayed largely as it was, save for the occasional purchase influenced by Hugh Robertson at Fish Fine Music – he ran the only classical CD shop left in Sydney. I would also occasionally go onto the – appropriately named for me – Presto Classical site in the UK. At least though, this time, my other half gave me the present of a custom made home for them.

The Weighty Cabinet of Ancient Artefacts

Enjoying and Enhancing the Collection

So we entered 2020 and at the end of last year we have moved to a different house, with a nice place to sit and listen to music. I need music a lot of the time – I have a streaming setup in my home office, even though Apple Music and Spotify aren’t all that great for classical music. At the end of the day, however, if I want to be freed from the restriction of that space, I go into the back room, get out a CD and sit in the middle of the sound and connect with the experience those musicians were aiming to produce. Not a playlist, not a shuffle – the CD. It has been different, as well as lovely. Though, as I discovered, a bit limited. Thing was, through all the years, it never ceases to amaze me that the full price of classical CDs is exactly the same now as it was in the 1990s. It always struck me that someone has to be suffering because of that.

Rethinking the CD collection has become my isolation hobby. There are gaps, I realised, which seems counter – intuitive for a collection of 800 CDs. That number, however, is small in comparison with people considered to be “serious” collectors. I don’t intend to be one of those, but I did want new things, different things.

One of the priorities was getting more CDs by some of the musicians I have heard in concert halls – if you want to listen to any artist with the English Hyperion company, such as Stephen Hough, Steven Osborne or iconoclastic harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, you have to buy the CDs – they don’t stream a lot of their recordings. That’s good news for their artists, if they can shift CDs to the swiftly dwindling CD purchaser – artists with companies like Hyperion (as opposed to Naxos, who pay a one off fee) receive much better royalties from CD sales than they do from streams.

Another priority has also been to find CDs of works I already have, but by different conductors and performers. Make me listen in a different way. As such, I have been able to do something I could only dream of doing in the 90s – buy whole boxed sets. That’s because, while the full price of new CDs has not changed a large amount, the cost of box sets more than 2 years old and second hand CDs has plummeted. Ebay and Amazon is a storehouse of historical gold. Plus, on physical CDs, there are some recordings that are hard to find on streams. For Apple and Spotify, it can hard to find specific recordings from specific artists – and tracks downloaded in the past can disappear. As a result, I have been able to pick up box sets of performances declared legendary by various sources. $25 for 6 – 8 new CDs sometimes. I have used Gramophone articles and reviews to lead me to get boxed sets of Beethoven and Brahms, as well as looking back over back catalogues of what I would have loved to be able to afford 25 years ago. What has also really made this process richer for me is that the research behind these purchases has been a lot of fun.

Rabbit Holes!

In these months, watching Mad Men led me to speculate which recording of Beethoven Pete Campbell would have bought. I decided Leonard Bernstein’s would be his go – the American with fashionable ideas, not the Karajan of Bert Cooper. That launched me on a journey to know more about Bernstein. I ordered cheap box sets of his Mahler and Beethoven, as well as other things he has done. I then went through the existing collection and found bits and pieces of his recordings I had forgotten I had. With the purchase of the DVD of his recording of Candide, I remember a time when I watched that performance with Mum. She loved it so much that she was driven to learn Glitter and Be Gay, one of the last songs she learnt afresh, and one that suited her style down to the ground. So that was nice. I have also now purchased books about Bernstein, and I’m sure that I will find out more about him in time. I’m looking forward to the Bradley Cooper film about his life.

My rabbit hole chasing lead me to the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics (I had no idea the Vienna orchestra uses different instruments to others), and then to Wilhelm Furtwängler, discovering his complex place in German history. It struck me as curious that Furtwängler’s place, with him protecting Jewish players, refusing to do the Nazi salute and other micro pieces of resistance saw his legacy questioned, while former party member and unapologetic rising star of the Nazi period, Karajan, is still lauded. I am happy to find out more about that – I am not the Norman Lebrecht fan that I was in the 90s – but it was a question that continually arose. It is important to me who is behind the CD. That’s why, for example, I have binned my Charles Dutoit and James Levine CDs. Aside from that, however, it also struck me how different Furtwängler’s approach to Beethoven was to Karajan’s. There was something plastic, shiny, empty and a bit dead to my ears in Karajan’s. And that was before I knew about his past. Or this garish car he asked Porsche to build for him.

With Furtwangler, while his sound was nowhere near as good as Karajan’s, there’s something spontaneous and human about his performances – flawed note wise, but a fascinating glimpse to another time when being right, disciplined and consistent wasn’t the be all and end all. His recording of Beethoven 9 done at Bayreuth, and the stories behind it, provides a glimpse of music that historically and psychologically is so different from today’s. Plus, it’s at variance with the historically informed performances that I was welded to in my 20s. Beethoven and Brahms are great enough to be played in all sorts of different ways and be enjoyed.

My current rabbit hole is a more joyful one – a rediscovery of French music. Inspired by watching Tour de France, I have discovered Les Siécles, a contemporary French orchestra who are playing uniquely French instruments from various eras and playing them to breathe new life into French music, as well as music from other nations. It is in their recordings of French music that I am finding new delights into the sound world and panache that their composers bring us. And then comparing them to other recordings that bring different insights. I am no longer a period instrument ideologue. As spring has started, the light, transparent and breezy glories of the French are wafting through the house.

As I sit in my lounge chair, with the music playing – sometimes with the CD booklet in my hands, learning more about the music – or being reminded about it – it is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon after work or have blasting when doing chores around the kitchen. Music becomes an immersing experience, helping me focus, helping me relax. No longer a background. So putting on a CD is quite a nice thing.

By prestontowers

I had been a teacher observing politics and the media from the outside for some time. I became a political insider, didn't like it much, and hightailed it back to watching it again. And still loving teaching.

2 replies on “The Rediscovery of CDs – Reflecting on a bygone sound”

I get it, but there’s always FLAC and other lossless formats, and I don’t miss discs to handle and cart around. One can copy large CD collections onto hard-drive players for home stereos without losing quality.

From the vinyl days, people grew accustomed to treating physical media and music as the same thing, but it was always just a carrier, reflecting technology limits of the day.

I’m also reluctant to burn a standard “audio CD” when you can cram in a lot more songs with a decent lossy format. Factory CDs have taken on some of the nostalgia of vinyl.

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