My Classical Music Pages

In my opinion, the best recordings are of classical music. There is no compression (except in some cases), equalisation, reverb, multitracking, and the music is all acoustic. For classical music, you get real and enormous soundstages, and incredible dynamics. Furthermore, theres basically no difference in the recording quality of classical music on the major labels and audiophile labels like Chesky. If anything, the major labels sound better because of superior performances by the artistes.

How to Buy? Subjective, but heres how I buy (if it seems shallow, too bad :))

  • Know your general interests (composer, period, instruments)
  • Look for recent recordings. 1992 seems to be a turning point towards the 'next' level of sound.
  • Look for recommendations by magazines such as Classic CD, Gramaphone, BBC Music,etc. These help you narrow down your choices but there is a lot of subjectivity involved in the evaluation of the standard of performance. These magazines give you a free CD with highlights from the latest releases, so you can see whether you agree with the review. Also, these free CDs are a great introduction to works by less popular composers/less popular works; who knows, you might find something you really like.
  • For symphonic music, look to chamber orchestras because a smaller orchestra sounds more convincing through a hi-fi system. Also, with a chamber orchestra, the microphones are usually closer and so the sound is more focused. And with fewer instruments, the music sounds more transparent. For choral music, smaller choruses apply. In any case, you will notice that a lot of recently highly recommended CDs use smaller orchestras, not because it'll sound better on the recording, but because it was in line with 'historical' sizes. Economic reality also suggests that smaller Chamber Orchestras/Choruses have lower wage costs :)
  • Amongst these highly recommended recordings, those from Telarc, Deutsche Gramaphon will almost definitely be great recordings. The first 2 are known are a wonderful warmth and sweetness. I suspect that the success of Telarc, without the 'big names' is due to the quality of its recordings. EMI and Decca are good too. Philips was wonderful, but I haven't heard any recent discs so I can't comment, Teldec is a bit thin sounding, and I can't really comment on the others.

Other notes:
  • If you have a piece in mind, and there are no great new recordings of it, may I suggest being patient and waiting? Eventually a new recording with great sound and with a top notch performance will be released. Just take 1997; before 1997, you were kinda restricted in your choices if you wanted a set of Brahm's Symphonies, then Telarc released their 3 CD set of Brahms Symphonies featuring their warm but crystal clear sound, and yes, it sounds great (OK, as mentioned, I'm biased towards bright cheerful recordings :))
  • Generally, avoid the mid-priced remasters of old recordings; the perfomances may be good but the sound isn't so good. The notable exception is if the recording is of monumental significance. The English sigh in reverential awe when they mention the 'best' Elgar Cello Concerto :- the mid-price Jacqueline DuPre disc - get the 3 CD 'favourite Cello Concertos' set (mid-priced).

One of my favourite pieces of music is Handel's Messiah. Previously, I had the good old 1984 Rober Shaw/Telarc version, with a Sylvia McNair in wonderful form. However, the sound quality is dated, and I was not satisfied with the recordings I had heard. They were generally lacking in a 'joyful exuberance' that I think is the essence of Messiah. Fortunately, Classic CD clued me in on this wonderful 1992 recording also from Telarc in their 'building a library' column where they highlight the 5 'best' recordings of a particular piece available.

As you might know, Telarc is a 'major' label without that many big names (but with quite a lot of Grammy's) committed to purist recordings. In this 1992 recording, they're using Monster Cables, in their later recordings, they move up to MIT Shotguns. The chorus is only 21-strong which as mentioned above, is an advantage for audio enthusiasts. The soundstage is wonderful/fabulous/beyond words... :)

The chorus is first class and they have such wonderful phrasing; a delicate lightness and agility coupled with a sense of joy and exuberance. The soprano, Karen Clift, has a schoolgirlish airiness (ala Dawn Upshaw) which is wonderful suited to Messiah and also sounds consistent with the sound of the chorus. Wayyy recommended.

Some CDs I like (needs to be redone; to be updated soon)

Personally, I like Beethoven, Haydn, Handel, Sibelius, Grieg, Brahms, Dvorak, other Romantics (approximately in that order). I prefer oratarios & lieder to operas. My classical music tastes are still (after a long long time) in their 'infancy' and I expect I tastes to change/develop. (one day, I might even appreciate Mahler's symphonies).

Classical Music Links

Telarc's homepage - useful
Any music after 1945 is bad, no matter how bonnie the singer is :)
Deutsche Gramaphon's homepage - very thin on substance
The Serious Singers homepage - Biographies etc on classical music singers
Classical Net -- From the publishers of Classic CD magazine - available at Tower for $12.90 w/free CD