Music oh!

In a previous post I’d talked about how sound recording and reproduction equipment – the hardware – has become so much more miniaturised since the moment I first started travelling around the world and wished to have my favourite sounds with me.

This time I want to talk about the software – that is, the availability of what you’d like to hear on your equipment.

When I first became interested in listening to music, classical music, mainly, that is, the BBC “thud” programme was practically the only listening source outside concert halls available and it did not even broadcast throughout the day and night as it does today. There were some continental stations which were available on medium wave, and with substantial crackle, but the only alternative to listening to the radio, or attending a concert, was to traipse down to the local library (Forest Hill, London SE23) which had a record section, You chose a brown cover with blue tape for stereo recordings and green tape for mono (or was it the other way round?), took it to the desk where the librarian would issue you with a maximum of two LP’s.

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The first records I selected were a set of Berlioz overtures (Charles Munch?) and a Beethoven ninth with Ansermet conducting. I felt this was a propitious start and dutifully each week would change my records at the library and make a note of the new selections in a red notebook (which was lost but which I’d be so happy to be joined with again).

Having ploughed through the Beethoven symphonies I tackled Mozart, which I found tinny in comparison (a judgement much reversed later) and, of course, that cornerstone of all classical music appreciation, Bach (JS – although I also have a penchant for JC).

I was surprised by how many bits of classical music I’d already heard before without knowing what they were – I must have picked them up on the family radio and stored them unconsciously in my mind. At the same time, I knew that, through that immortal Lipatti recording of Bach’s first partita, I would have an especially soft spot for the baroque and “classical” music in the correct sense of that word. Anathema to me at that time were, now favourite, greats like Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Puccini.

I often wondered then why, with literature, painting and architecture, one could go back and appreciate works created even a thousand years ago but that with music it was not so easy to hear stuff written much before 1700.

I started to go through the records that accompanied the New Oxford History of Music and managed to sketch out the development of music from Gregorian chant onwards.

This was pretty exciting, although I would today deem the recordings (with the possible exception of a few pioneer originals like Deller and Dart) unidiomatic and unlistenable – such has been the exponential rise in the perfection of authentic instrument practice, period stylistics and accurate editing in what once used to be called “ancient music”.

I was particularly drawn to the music that was written between the JS Bach-Handel and the Mozart-Haydn era – the so called “pre-classical” period – and loved the volume in the Oxford series which had concerti by Monn and CPE Bach. There was also a concerto by JC Bach but, remembering it years later, it seemed to be very uncharacteristic of him. Thanks to U-tube I recently managed to locate the concerto, only to find that it was not by JC but by JCF.

At that time in the sixties, the Haydn symphonies were being rediscovered thanks to the likes of Robbins-Landon, and the complete series was being performed on the “thud”. Someone gave me a discarded, small Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder and I avidly got up on Sunday mornings to record them. I soon had my favourites among the 104-plus, including no 80 and, of course, no 45.

I also bought my first vinyl records (Dad had got some shellac, mainly thirties dance band – which I later began to appreciate – and the Tchaikovsky first PC, but I largely avoided playing these). These were purchased from W. H. Smith and were on the Saga label: GB Sammartini symphonies conducted by Newell Jenkins and Bartok’s 5th and 6th string quartets performed by the fine arts quartet. I still have both records and still love them – indeed I have a substantial collection of vinyl which, having been converted to MP3 format, I feel I should now sell off.

Vinyl is, of course, back and has been for some time. I had attempted to sell off some of my vinyl on a previous occasion and got a pleasant surprise when the purchaser-dealer from Worthing offered me a considerable three-figure sum for a perfect copy of Johanna Martzy playing Schubert sonatinas. He apologised for not giving me more but said that the chances of me finding the Japanese buyer who wanted this record would have been slim. (Incidentally, I bought the Martzy in a charity shop in south London for 50p).

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Having been, for so many years, starved of “pre-classical” music (in the strictest sense of the word: being music written from around 1730 to 1760) I can now enjoy a lucullian banquet of it anytime I feel hungry and almost instantly order works from a greatly expanded repertoire without having to pay any servants (apart from my internet provider) to do the job. In this way I have been elated to listen to works I had only heard about: Pergolesi’s opere serie, Hasse’s operas, more Sammartini symphonies, Vanhal, Wesley, Abel, and so many more names from that bubbling period that I’d never even heard of.

Of course, music should be listened to live as far as possible – as much as I appreciate his playing I don’t go in for the Glenn Gould approach of shunning the audience and wanting to be heard only in underground basement studio recordings – and, together with the plethora of “new” old music constantly being rediscovered, edited, performed and recorded, I am so happy that, even from my somewhat remote mountain village I can spend an evening at the “local” opera house in Barga or Lucca or Montecarlo and enjoy fabulous works fabulously performed, several of which weren’t even discovered when I first set out on my pilgrimage on the Via Musicagena.

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