alan little’s weblog

about to listen to …

5th May 2004 permanent link

… Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers, conducted by Gabriel Garrido. And thinking about one very noticeable thing about the market for classical music recordings these days, namely that there is no correlation whatsoever between price and quality.

This Monteverdi CD might turn out to be an example. I know nothing about Monteverdi except that I heard something by him on BBC Radio Three when I was in England a couple of weeks ago and liked it, and that composer and contemporary music critic Kyle Gann thinks he is “as great as Beethoven”. I did a bit of reading around and discovered that the 1610 Vespers seems to be one of his most famous and most recorded pieces, and then I went looking. I quickly discovered that it’s a long piece – at least two CDs – and most of the recordings in my biggest local classical record shop were firmly in the Too Expensive range – over 30 euros, for example, for John Eliot Gardiner’s recording that seems to be highly rated. So I went to the discount shop down the street where they had one conducted by Jordi Savall – another famous and highly respected early music type – for 25 euros, or one by some guy I had never heard of called Garrido for 10. I bought the Garrido, based on my general rule of thumb of never paying over 10 euros for a classical CD unless I’m sure it’s going to be absolutely wonderful. Haven’t listened to it yet, but a quick “have I done the right thing?” check on reveals that a lot of people seem to like it. This apparently knowledgeable reviewer, for example, much prefers Garrido to Savall at over twice the price.

There are lots of discount labels these days putting out new recordings, some of them excellent, at very low prices. Naxos was the first and is the biggest but there are lots of others now. Garrido is on a French label I’ve never heard of before called K617, possibly named (thanks to Google’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Mozart’s published works) after Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo in C Minor, K.617 for Glass Harmonica (or Piano), Flute, Oboe, Viola And Cello. All the major record companies are also reissuing vast amounts of excellent back catalogue – legendary performances by the greats of the 1950s and 60s. Then there is another whole sub-industry of tiny labels who specialise in remastering and reissuing even older out of copyright recordings. Dutton Labs is one such – I recently bought a CD of theirs featuring an astounding 1940s performance of Mozart’s String Quintet K.516 in G Minor by the Griller Quartet (5 euros in Germany, 5 pounds in Britain – even at these prices British CD buyers get ripped off as always)

There are also still a lot of musicians issuing new recordings at full price (the going rate in Germany is about 17 euros for a not discounted new CD). Some of them are probably very good. In fact, some of them I know are very good – I heard a superb performance on the radio the other day of Mendelssohn’s String Octet by L’Archibudelli and the Smithsonian Chamber Players. Saw it in the shop and it was 17 euros. Didn’t buy it. And I can’t see, in general, why any significant number of people ever would ever see a reason to buy these things. There can’t be very many pieces of classical music that you can’t get a really good recording of for under ten euros, or very many where a randomly-selected full price CD is likely to be much better than a randomly-selected 5 to 10 euro CD.

Bonus Link: Real Economist Tyler Cowen on The economics of classical music. Tyler’s Marginal Revolution weblog is generally an excellent read.

Update: I listened to it and wow. Ten euros well spent. They could really write music back in the early seventeenth century. I had no idea. The performance sounds wonderful too, although of course I don't have anything I can directly compare it with. I’m not about to go out and spend 25 euros on the Savall version just to make sure it isn’t as good, or 38 on Gardner just in case he might be even better.

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