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The Well-Tempered Music Shop

Are you new to classical music and bewildered by the classical section of your favorite music store?
By Gary Barton

Gary Looks for Beethoven's 7thFor a long time you were happy just enjoying the music as it comes from WGUC through the Internet or your radio. But now you're feeling the urge to strike out on your own and start building a collection of music tailored to your own needs. You have developed a good idea of what appeals to you, and now you are ready for action. That means one of two approaches, the Internet, or the "old-fashioned" buying experience of actually visiting a shop that sells CDs.

Don't Get Started
I have found that the most important way of getting things done is self-deception. The first thing to do, and I can't overemphasize its importance, is to pretend you're in a store for an entirely different reason than to buy compact discs. If you just barge right through the front door and go directly to the CDs, you are lost—overwhelmed with choices. I like to take time to check out the bargain books, wander over to the children's books to make sure their stock of the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia is still enticingly available in both hard and soft bindings, and then, pretending it was an accident, find myself in the CD section.

Even with self-deception, I spot the classical bins and swoon. There are sections by conductor, by soloist, by ensemble, yes even vocalists, then, alphabetical by composerů Too much information! It is quickly apparent that I need a plan.

Is the Orchestra on this CD Any Good?

Record companies exist to make a profit. Recording sessions with a full (Musicians Union) orchestra can be extremely expensive. Therefore, companies are always inclined to go with an ensemble with a proven track record.

Quality, "big name" orchestras are often associated with cities—the places you would expect: New York, London, Vienna, Berlin, even Cincinnati. However, that's not set in stone. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and The Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra of Heilbronn don't sound like big-time organizations, but they've produced hours and hours of fine performances.

Track records are easy to look up these days, thanks to the Internet and in-store computers. Go to a big CD retailer, such as ArkivMusic.com, and amazon.com or a reference site, such as allclassical.com, enter the orchestra's name, and see how many recordings feature that group. A long list of recording credits will mean they are a reliable performer, providing you a basic measure of their skill—at least until your ear and your historical knowledge let you scratch below the surface.

Tools Everywhere
Interactive tools, such as Muze, for searching music databases, and listening stations for sampling a limited selection of CDs are common, and stores are increasingly willing to let you listen to entire CDs on a limited basis. Now, as advanced technology becomes increasingly available, the two systems are merging into powerful new tools that confront the age-old problem of how to listen to something before you buy it. Some stores, including the Barnes & Noble in Kenwood and Newport-on-the-Levee and the new Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cleveland, now feature listening stations that allow you to hear a sample of their entire CD inventory simply by scanning a CD's bar code. Combined with their searchable databases, you are able to look up and listen to similar performers, composers or recordings with the touch of a button. The problem with such systems, however, is that they are highly addictive and will invariably cause you to spend more money than you had initially planned.

A Search in Action
Using the store's search system, I typed in The Well-Tempered Clavier (by J.S. Bach). Up popped screen after screen of choices. Nirvana! There were some very interesting choices on the computer screen, some on small labels I'd never heard of. Record labels can be dependable but not infallible. I have many treasured recordings on labels like Berlin Classics & Supraphon, Conifer, Hyperion, Bis & ASV and so on. The major labels: EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, Virgin, Sony, etc., don't always have the greatest performances in their catalogs, so be willing to take a chance on some of the budget labels.

The Well-Tempered ClavierExcited by the range of options, I scurried to the shelf andů found only two of the myriad of choices listed:

  • Keith Jarrett performing Book 2 on piano
  • Ralph Kirkpatrick performing Book 1 on clavichord.
I, however, really wanted the John Lewis (of "The Modern Jazz Quartet" fame) performances of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier that were on Philips LP's years ago. He swings the Bach ever so tastefully.

Both CDs in stock were reasonably priced. Of the two, if I had no other recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier, I would have purchased the Kirkpatrick, because of his clavichord performance. Bach himself could have heard it that way in his own lifetime. However, I already had it on LP. Keith Jarrett does a fine job playing a contemporary instrument in the Bach, but the store stocked only Book 2, and, for some inexplicable reason, I like Book 1 better.

Shelf space is finite, of course, and when there are so many record labels and so many choices, you can't always expect to find the exact performances you're looking for in the stores, whether you're seeking out a recording you heard on WGUC or read about. For some great composers there was nothing at all in the bins: Alberic Magnard being a case in point.

Sketches of Spain, by Miles DavisAlas, I just had my mind set on getting the 1st of the three John Lewis CD's. I already had #2 & #3 and wanted the complete set, period. Most stores will special order anything for you—if it's in their database. But, I decided to make alternate purchases instead: Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and the Vangelis soundtrack for Blade Runner, and search the Internet for John Lewis on my own.

There is an adage in physics I'll never forget: "randomness exhibits clustering". Be open to the unexpected as you explore music. There are countless pieces you will love forever out there waiting for you to hunt down or stumble upon. The best part is you win either way.

Shopping Online

John Lewis: The Well-Tempered ClavierBack home at my trusty computer, I resumed my search for the John Lewis recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach, however, proved more elusive than I thought.

I finally found my Lewis CD as a Japanese import on HMV.com, the website for a chain of Canadian record stores.

John Lewis
Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier

John Lewis's Well-Tempered Clavier CDs are not all solo piano works. Many tracks are, but Lewis arranged some to include various combinations of added personnel. They include Joel Lester, violin; Lois Martin & Scott Nickrenz, violas (on different tracks); Howard Collins, guitar; & Marc Johnson, bass. (Lewis can be heard softly singing to himself too here and there, it's utterly charming.)

These are not anything like what you'll get on any of the other "straight" recordings. The piano carries the line and is mainly supported by the other instruments. In the fugue #6, the piano states the theme first, then is joined by the guitar with a counter subject, followed by the bass, with a third subject. It's akin to singing a "round", like "Row Row Row Your Boat", only the second melodic line changes to "something that fits into the spaces" when it joins in, and then the bass does it's thing.

From back into the early sixties, The Jacques Loussier Trio did treatments of Bach, but they are more out and out jazz and include drums and cymbals. Loussier is still active, but has branched out into Claude Debussy and Erik Satie's music...even Vivaldi's Four Seasons. In both the Lewis & Loussier recordings everything has been scored, i.e. they're not improvising.

I think Bach would really have grooved on what John Lewis has done.

Perks and Perils of Purchasing a "Budget-Priced" CD

Perks

1) Fantastic performances are available.
Many splendid performances pre-date "Digital" recording, which began while LP's were still the predominant commercial format. The old analog recordings didn't even have the advantage of DBX or Dolby Noise Reduction. And yet, if I had to choose only one recording of Anton Bruckner's Symphony #9 to take to a desert island, it would be the old CBS (now Sony) recording with Bruno Walter conducting The Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Not Digital, not DBX or Dolby, just plain old recording tape.

Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra's recording of Bruckner's 9th

Perils

1) Inept performances.

2) Unclearly marked as a "Mono" recording.

3) Poor recording technique and/or venue.
Remember, it's hard to find a good concert hall that isn't near street noise.

For example, the Basel Chamber Orchestra records in the Stadt Casino Hall near the heart of Basel, Switzerland. It has great acoustics, but six of the city's major tram lines run right in front of the building! I heard a wonderful performance of the Bruckner Symphony #7 there by the CSO, but the low frequency rumbles of the trams coming by every six minutes were clearly and irritatingly audible during soft passages. You can occasionally hear, even on expensive Philips CDs, (particularly wearing headphones) the sound of a large truck grinding through its gears on an otherwise carefully planned late night recording session.

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