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A Beginners' Guide to Collecting Classical Music

Classical music is the driving force behind every significant advance in recording technology of the twentieth century… at least, those that appreciate quality over convenience.

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It was the classics that spearheaded the drive to cram more and more music onto a platter, leading ultimately to the creation of the long-playing disc.

It was the classics that led the demand for stereo in the late 1950s, and quadraphonic in the early 1970s.And it was the classics that pioneered and popularized the compact disc a decade later.

And if any single group of record collectors can be said to have truly benefitted from the arrival of the compact disc, it was classical enthusiasts.

Forget all the great classic rock albums that suddenly flooded the marketplace as music buyers leaped aboard the new digital bandwagon; forget the jazz, blues, punk and goth. Far more classical classics hit the shelves, and vinyl fans could not believe their luck.

Classical collectors simply couldn’t get enough of CDs, and with very good reason.Just as vinyl mavens have always muttered darkly about classical records looking, feeling and sounding a cut above the quality that was deemed appropriate for pop and rock fans, so CD fans feel the same way.

Something about the mastering, something about the sonics, something about… well, everything, really.Even in the earliest days of the digital medium, classical CDs routinely sounded better than rock ones. And they’ve been around longer, as well.

In August 1982—that is, two years before Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA became the first compact disc released in America, Claude Arrau’s 1979 recording of the Chopin waltzes became the first commercial CD anywhere (Philips 400 025-2).In fact, Arrau himself was invited to press the button that set the presses running in the first place.

Legend also insists that classical music was responsible for the very dimensions of the CD itself.

When the disc was first developed by Philips, it was intended to be 11.5 cm in diameter.But Norio Ohga, Vice President of Sony, who were partnering the Dutch company in the enterprise, demanded 12cm.And why?So a full recording of his favorite piece of music, all seventy-four minutes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, could be fit onto a disc.(Ironically, when Sony released its first fifteen classical CDs in Japan that October, Beethoven’s Ninth was conspicuous by its absence.His Fifth and Third, respectively, were selected instead.)

By the time Bruce joined the party, then, those American import stores that had chosen to import these new-fangled digital doohickies were already overflowing with classical music… and the used stores down the road were feeling the first splashes of what would become a flood of now-unwanted classical records.

Many of which (and this is another of those imponderables upon which rock collectors will sometimes muse in the dead of night) were in infinitely better condition than you’d ever expect to find an obviously much-loved and well-played record to be in.

Yes, it needs to be said.In general, classical collectors seem to care for their records a lot better than the rest of us.

You can find proof of that statement any place used records are for sale.Plow through the rock, pop, jazz, folk, reggae and R&B sections, and you will encounter any manner of flaws and failings.But move to the classical racks, and disc after disc will appear VG+ at the least.

Older box sets may show some shelf wear; those that originally retailed at budget prices, or held more discs than the cardboard could reasonably sustain, will certainly have split seams and torn edges.But that’s a consequence of the manufacturing process, not the box’s treatment thereafter.The discs inside will invariably look, and sound, great.

One couldif so disposed, hypothesize on why this should be.

Are classical lovers less likely to throw parties, at which their records are strewn across the floor, to be stepped on by clumsy dancers?(Answer: probably).

Are they more prone to listen to a piece of music all the way through, rather than constantly raising and lowering the needle to find their favorite tracks?(Answer: again, probably.)

One could then wander through a variety of contentious, but nevertheless convincing demographic factors (age, income, etc), and even consider a canard that appears so often on sundry Internet forums that there must be a degree of truth to it—the belief that “serious” classical collectors will rarely purchase a used record or CD, unless there is simply no way a particular recording can be located in a particular format.

Late in the 1980s, for example, Deutsch Grammophon released a series of digitally recorded Mahler symphonies on both CD and vinyl, but with the latter in such limited quantities that, if you didn’t buy them within a few days of release, you were unlikely ever to find them again.As shown by the following list of the label’s most expensive collectibles, that early failure will cost a lot to remedy today.

Top Ten Deutsch Grammophon Rarities

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Johanna Martzy, Jean Antonietti, Dika Newlin, Yaltah Menuhin and Michael Mann: Maurice Ravel & c. (Mono, LPEM 19126, 1958) current value: $800

Leonard Bernstein: Mahler Symphony No.6 (2LP, 427 697-1, 1989) current value: $700

Martzy: Works By Ravel Milhaud Falla (DGM 19126, 1958) current value: $500

Deutsche Grammophon Avant Garde Vol.4 (6LP box set, 2720 038, 1971) current value: $400

Henryk Szeryng: Johann Sebastian Bach—6 Sonaten Und Partiten Für Violine Solo (3LP, 2709 028, 1970) current value: $350

Leonard Bernstein: Mahler Symphony No.2 (2LP, 423-396 423-497, 1988) $350

Anja Thauer: Dvorak—Konzert für Violoncello (139392, 1968) current value: $300

Mainardi, Borciani: Schubert Sonata D.821 (10-inch, DG 17157, 1952) current value: $300

Deutsche Grammophon Avant Garde Vol.1 (6LP box set, 104 988/93, 1968) current value: $300

Beethoven Edition 1970 (12 Box Sets, 1-12, 1970) current value: $300

So yes, when classical records appear on the used market, they tend to have had just one previous, careful, owner, and they are in more or less pristine condition.

None of which means you won’t find classics that have been scratched into a state of unlistenable white noise.Just that it’s not at all difficult to find ones that haven’t.

Another factor that comes into play is that classical records are less… what is the word?It’s certainly inaccurate to say they are less collectible or collected; likewise, they are probably better-studied than any other field in recorded music (jazz notwithstanding).

But they are less understood by the general market.Take twenty rock rarities into your local used store and watch the dealer’s eyes light up.Take twenty classical rarities to the same store and you might not even make a sale.

The majority of general record dealers just glaze over when they are offered a classical collection.Maybe they’ll give a second glance to certain labels (everyone’s heard of Deutche Grammophon, for example), but all that means is they’ll put a $5 sticker on the sleeve, as opposed to the $2 that everything else will receive.

Part of the reason for this is simple.There’s just so much of it!How many times has Beethoven’s 5th Symphony have been released over the past century?Hundreds, certainly.Thousands, maybe.Tens of thousands, conceivably, and all spread across more record labels than you’ve ever heard of, from the scrappiest no-name budget concern, to the most glorious audiophiliac outfit.

How can anybody pull them apart?

The answer is the one you were probably expecting: Experience.Knowledge.No less than in any other field, long time collectors know instinctively how to separate the wheat from the chaff, in terms of performance, performer, label, liner notes, the lot.In exactly the same way, in fact, as a Beatles collector knows that an early pressing Capitol LP is always going to be worth more than, say, the umpteenth go-round for the Star Club live tapes, pumped out by another budget label.

But there are still dealers out there who don’t know the difference, and wonder why nobody wants to purchase their wares….

Anybody looking to start a classical collection from scratch, of course, is best advised to haunt those places where the albums line up unwanted and seemingly, unsale-able, for a buck or two a pop.Grab the names you recognize, and take a chance on those that you don’t.

It's a vast field, after all.Indeed, if you subscribe to the belief that “rock’n’roll” is far too vague a term to encompass all that has been accomplished in popular music over the past sixty years, imagine how the classical connoisseur feels, seeing six centuries or more lumped together beneath that one catch-all.

For it is true.Dig through any random selection of used “classical” records, and you are as likely to discover the earliest volumes in the DG subsidiary Archiv Produktion’s History of Music series, tapping thirteenth century chant and song, as you are the decidedly twentieth century offerings of Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars.

True, the music therein was not recorded that long ago.But it was written and first performed back then, and the “modern” recordings are as faithful to those prototypes as it is possible to be.Look out for the works of David Munrow and his Early Music Consort of London, released in the US by such labels as Musical Heritage Society, London and Angel; or, again, the aforementioned Archiv Produktion’s series.

As for the earliest recordings, the first thing to remember is that neither the medium nor the available recording methods were especially conducive to classical music until the mid 1920s.Two-sided discs did not really come into use until 1908 (although occasional issues had been appearing since 1904); furthermore, until 1925 and the advent of electronic recording, records were cut live, with the artist literally standing or sitting by the recording horn, watching the record cut as he or she performed.

Vocal selections from the classics, of course, proliferated, and in 1917, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra debuted on Victor Red Seal with recordings of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances numbers five and six, and Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt.

The following year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was recorded across a handful of releases by the same label—the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the Marche Miniature from the Nutcracker Suite, and the Finale from the 1812 Overture (necessarily spread across both sides of the record).The New York Philharmonic commenced its recording career in 1923; the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1925.

But not until the advent of the long playing record at the end of the 1940s did the classics truly explode onto the market, with the first microgroove LP pressing released being the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor with soloist Nathan Milstein, and Bruno Walter conducting the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York ( Columbia ML4001).For historical reasons alone, copies of this are routinely valued at $150 today.

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The series then continued as follows:

Bach: Violin Concertos—Busch Chamber Players (Columbia ML 4002) current value: $85

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 8 and 14—Rudolf Serkin (Columbia ML 4003) current value: $100

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5—Serkin / Walter / NY Philharmonic (Columbia ML 4004) current value:.$100

Beethoven: Quartet No 1 in F Maj. Op. 18—Budapest String Quartet (Columbia ML 4005) current value: $80

Beethoven: Quartet No 15 in A min. Op. 132—Budapest String Quartet (Columbia ML 4006) current value: $100

Beethoven: Sonata No. 9 for Piano and Violin Op. 47 'Kreutzer'- Busch / Serkin (Columbia ML 4007) current value: $50

Beethoven: Symphony No. 4—Szell / Cleveland Orchestra (Columbia ML 4008) current value: $80

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5—Walter / NY Philharmonic. (Columbia ML 4009) current value: $80

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6—Walter / Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia ML 4010) current value: $70

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7—Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia ML 4011) current value: $50

Beethoven: Violin Concerto In D Major—Szigeti / Walter (Columbia ML 4012) current value: $50

Bizet: Carmen Excerpts (Columbia ML 4013) current value: $60

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat—Serkin / Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia ML 4014) current value: $60

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D—Szigeti / Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra. (Columbia ML 4015) current value: $80

Brahms: Symphony No. 1—Rodzinski / NY Philharmonic. (Columbia ML 4016) current value: $100

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 In E Minor, Op. 98—Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra. (Columbia ML 4017) current value: $100

Debussy: Quartet In G Minor, Op. 10—Budapest String Quartet (Columbia ML 4018) current value: $80

Debussy: Preludes—Robert Casadesus (Columbia ML 4019) current value: $70

Debussy: Two Nocturnes / Respighi: Pines of Rome—Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia ML 4020) current value: $80

Debussy: Iberia / Ravel: La Valse—Reiner / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Columbia ML 4021) current value: $100

Dvorak: Concerto in B Minor for Cello—Piatigorsky—Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia ML 4022) current value: $50

Dvorak: Symphony No. 5 ‘New World’—Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia ML 4023) current value: $50

Franck: Symphony In D Minor—Ormandy / Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia ML 4024) current value: $80

Gershwin: Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra—Levant—Kostelanetz / NY Philharmonic (Columbia ML 4025) current value: $60

Of course Columbia did not have the field to itself for long, with a host of rival labels swiftly arising to challenge their dominance of both the long-playing scene in general, and the classical genre in particular.

Of them all, it was Deutsch Grammophon who positioned themselves at the very forefront of the genre, a German company founded in 1898 by Emile and Joseph Berliner, the pioneers of the flat disc that upended Edison’s cylinder recordings.

A European force throughout the 78 era, DG remained at the forefront of recording technology throughout that span, perfecting (among other things) the variable grooves technique that allowed a single 78 to host up to nine minutes of music.That was in 1950; the following year, the company produced its first LP, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic beneath the baton of Eugen Jochum.

For many people, collectors and otherwise, DG is the most familiar classical label in the world, and the most collected as well, a status which is very well-deserved status.

In terms of performance, the best of the label’s output can be compared favorably with that of any of its rivals.True, many collectors feel that the actual sound quality pales in comparison with various rival concerns (RCA Red Seal, London/Decca, the UK’s EMI family), but in terms of performance, DG cannot be beat.

Again, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of alternate versions of almost every release in the DG catalog, but there is something almost reassuring, a trademark of quality if you will, about that familiar yellow logo—particularly throughout the period where it spread across the top third-or-so of the front cover and spine.The sheer uniformity of a carefully curated DG collection is itself a beauty to behold.

Other labels have their adherents, however—of course they do.The British Decca label made an early and very pronounced impact on the classical vinyl scene and, like DG, have celebrated that with a splendid CD box set rounding up the best of their 1950s mono output.

Furthermore, Decca’s US equivalent, London, shares the same high qualities as the UK releases.In fact, unusually, London’s releases utilized the exact same masters as their British counterparts.

Pursuing these early recordings (both those included in the box sets and those that missed the cut) in their original vinyl incarnations is not an easy project, but it is certainly a rewarding one.

The Angel label, established in New York by EMI in 1953, was responsible for issuing some 500 highly-rated British classical (and occasionally other) recordings over the next few years; while you will often find RCA Red Seal being praised for producing the best sounding albums of all, and a listen through the catalog will leave you in full agreement.

There again, how can you fail to leave an eternal impact when you’re releasing recordings by three of the most acclaimed conductors of the first half of the last century (and beyond)?Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, and Arturo Toscanini all called Red Seal home.

The famed folk label Vanguard initially focussed on classical following its foundation in 1950 (see chapter eleven), and over one hundred releases on its Bach Guild subsidiary are rated among the finest ever performances of that composer’s canon.

And so on.

But labels are only one way to go.Again addressing beginners, one can concentrate on individual composers (much of this book was written to the accompaniment of Dvorak, Grieg and Rangstrom); on favorite conductors, soloists or orchestras; on specific time frames.

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One recent correspondent even acknowledged pursuing classical pieces that initially caught his attention via various rock bands’ recreations, a fascination that developed from a 1972 RCA pressing of Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, whose cover art (and liner notes) proclaimed it the music that inspired Emerson Lake & Palmer’s 1971 live LP.

And one can visit the Internet in search of those sites that claim to list the “top ten” (or whatever) classical albums that “everybody should own.” But remember, there are almost as many of these lists out there as there are albums in the first place, and many of them are strangely biased towards recordings from the fifties and sixties, all but ignoring the fact that some remarkable recordings have been made in the decades since then.

Claudio Abbado's 1977 Carmen, with the young Plácido Domingo as Don José; Carlos Kleiber and the Wiener Philharmoniker’s 1980 rendering of Brahms’ Symphony No.4;Herbert Von Karajan and, again, the Wiener Philharmoniker performing Bruckner’s Symphony No.8 (1988)… ah, but here we go ourselves, making lists of “recommended” recordings, and taking all of the fun out of blindly purchasing a hatchback full of dollar bin delights and embarking upon your own voyage of discovery.

And, who knows?Somewhere within that pile of unappreciated wax, there might well lurk a real find!

Top Ten Classical Rarities

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Mozart a Paris (7LP box set, Pathé DTX 191/7, 1955) current value: $4000

Michael Rabin: The Magic Bow (Capitol Records test pressing, 1959) current value: $2500

Jacques Dumont: Bach—Les oevres pour violon Volume I , II, and III (Belvedere BWV 1001-1006, 196?) current value: $2500

Michael Rabin: Mosaics (Capitol SP-8506, 1959) current value: $2000

André Cluytens: Ravel Complete Orchestral Works (4LP box set Columbia SAX 2476-9, 1963) current value: $1500

Noel Lee & Paul Makanowitzky: Bach : Intégrale des sonates pour piano et violon (Lumen unknown cat, 1959) current value $1500

David Oistrakh: Encores (Columbia SAX 2253, 1954) current value: $1200

Ruggiero Ricci: Carmen Fantaisie etc (Decca SXL 2197 ED1, 1960) current value: $1000

Ida Haendel with Gerald Moore: A Recital of Works… (HMV CLP 1021, 195?) current value: $1000

Nathan Milstein: Music Of Old Russia (Columbia SAX 2563, 1963) current value: $1000

previously published in Goldmine's Essential Guide to Record Collecting (Krause Publications, 2017)