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currently listening to …

10th May 2004 permanent link

… or rather, wondering when I will find time to listen to, seventeen CDs that I just bought in my local discount CD shop for a total of 35 euros.

So, continuing my theme from last week of how there is no correlation between the price and the quality of classical CDs, and Brian’s theme of being able to enjoy “peaks of Western Civilization” for almost nothing: ten of my seventeen new CDs are Artur Schnabel’s complete set of Beethoven piano sonata recordings from the 1930s. These are not only a peak of Western Civilization but also a landmark in the history of recorded music. Schnabel’s was the first ever complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas and is still regarded by many people as the definitive one. Schnabel himself was not only a direct link back to the nineteenth century romantic tradition – he studied with Brahms – and one of the great pianists of the last century, but also a (now obscure) avant garde composer.

I’ve only listened to two of the ten disks so far (the Moonlight and the Hammerklavier, not surprisingly), but I’m impressed. The playing is lovely and the sound, for a 1930s mono recording, is amazing. If I didn’t know it was so old I would never have guessed – unlike all the orchestral and string recordings of that era that I’ve heard, where you always have to make big allowances for the “historical” sound quality. Maybe pianos are inherently easier to record than full orchestras? Maybe Schnabel’s engineer was the greatest sound recording genius who ever lived. I don’t know. I just know this is the only pre-1950s recording I’ve ever heard where I haven’t had to switch my ears into Making Allowances mode.

The other seven CDs are:

A four-CD set of Indian classical ragas. I’m familiar with two of the players on this set. Hariprasad Chaurasia is the most famous living Indian classical flute player – I already have a couple of his CDs and I’ve heard him live once, so I know he’s brilliant. Shiv Kumar Sharma is a famous santoor player (a santoor is a string instrument) – I haven’t heard him but I know he has an excellent reputation and I have a CD by his son, Rahul Sharma, that is very good indeed. So this set should be good – I grabbed it as soon as I saw it because I know two of the players are good and because Indian classical CDs, unlike western ones, are still usually very expensive in the west. (This presumably means it must be about time to finish that draft posting on Indian classical music that has been sitting around on my hard disk since February).

And three additional disks of Beethoven Sonatas by Rudolf Serkin and Emil Gilels, both also reputedly very good piano players whose takes on Beethoven I hope might be interestingly different from Schnabel’s. If they turn out not to be, at ten euros for three CDs I haven’t lost much.

I while ago I actually set out to test my “no correlation between price and quality of classical CDs” hypothesis by jotting down a spreadsheet of CDs I had bought recently, plotting price against a one-to-five star quality rating. Unfortunately I had to suppress the results of this study because they didn’t fit my preconceived belief. There was a clear upward trend of quality against price. But, when I think about it, this is clearly a product of selection bias in the survey. Up to about 5 euros per CD I’ll buy pretty much anything that I think might conceivably be worth listening to (or, to look at it another way, at least as much fun as two beers). Around the eight to twelve euro range I’m more careful. I will generally only buy stuff where I’m familiar with the music and/or the performers, or that has been recommended by people whose opinions I trust. Above twelve euros is Full Price territory that I seldom venture into unless I already have a pretty good idea that what I’m buying is going to be brilliant.

If somebody wanted to fund me to go out and buy a couple of hundred classical CDs at random, listen to them and rate them for quality against price, I would be very glad to oblige. In the interests of science.

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