Those who feel passionately about La Boheme will have to have the Angel recording with Callas and Di Stefano

Confessions of a discaholic

When you spend half your time hanging about the mailbox, waiting for the next issue of High Fidelity or the next list of EMI imports (for by now you know that the European pressings are always better) then you will know that you are not simply a record buyer.
  • When you spend half your time hanging about the mailbox, waiting for the next issue of High Fidelity or the next list of EMI imports (for by now you know that the European pressings are always better) then you will know that you are not simply a record buyer.
  • Image by Tom Voss

Of collecting many records, as the Preacher might have said, there is no end. But it is really the beginning of the addiction that presents the greatest hurdle. Let us suppose you want to have Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade around the house, to wallow in when the mood strikes you. There are 23 different recordings of this work currently in the domestic catalog, along with a number of others available from importers and through mail order. The conductors include Ansermet, Beecham, Bernstein, Dorati, Goossens, Haitink, von Karajan, Mehta, Monteux, Ormandy, Ozawa, Perlea, Previn, Rossi, Rostropovich, Scherchen, Semkow, Stokowski, and Svetlanov, conducting everything from the Berlin Philharmonic to the St. Louis Symphony. How can you possible decide which one you want?

The easiest — and worst — way is to trundle into The Turntable, a local Wherehouse, or Tower Records, flip through the Rimsky bin, and buy the record that at that moment somehow makes you feel “This is it!” Your choice in this case is not a musical one at all; you are simply expressing your taste in cover art. The cover artists seem to have vied with each other in the concoction of stylized oriental ladies with breasts of prodigious size, wenches who apparently are inveigling the growly Shah as much with their pneumatic equipment as with their story-telling ability. Gorgeous, if you go for that sort of thing. But five or six dollars is a lot to pay for cover, however titillating; after all, you are presumably going to be listening to your purchase a lot more than looking at it.

You might, if you are really serious about getting the very best, go to the library and consult back issues of the record review journals — High Fidelity, Gramophone, and (scraping the bottom of the barrel) Stereo Review. The trouble with the reviews you will find there is that they are (understandably) devoted to the latest recordings. Even when the reviewers mention recordings other than the one they are reviewing, they tend to concentrate on those of the past two or three years — the current competition, so to speak. It is not very often that the review will let you know that the best recording — in sound as well as in interpretation — is an old mono from 1953, still available if you know how to look for it. The record industry would like us to feel that newest is best, and newer and younger artists certainly deserve a chance to be heard and to earn royalties; but the truth is that, in regard to a majority of the standard pieces of classical music, the most satisfying recording — for whatever your individual taste might be — was probably made ten or 20 years ago, and that recording has by now been around so long that the reviews don’t even bother to mention it. Even those listeners who demand the utmost in sonic realism or sonic lushness (two rather different things, by the way) will make a great error if they suppose that a record from 1977 is necessarily higher in its fidelity than one made in 1960; there have been no real technical advances in sound reproduction since that time (except, perhaps, for quadraphonics), and there is no reason to suppose that the tastes and abilities of recording engineers have dramatically improved over the years; a good engineer, with good equipment and a good hall, could make as fine-sounding a recording two decades ago as he can now.

You can, of course, pursue your Scheherazade inquiries backwards into the archives, consulting all the past issues of the record magazines, year by year (High Fidelity’s reviews are conveniently republished in annual volumes, with an index to make your research easier). Or you can wait until you hear a recording you like on one of the classical radio stations — but that may take years, and even then you can’t be sure that there isn’t a performance you would love twice as much, sitting there on the station’s shelves and gathering dust because the programmer has been arbitrarily ignoring it. Or you can listen to a friend’s recording, which will often sound much better than it really is because you are enjoying yourself at his house, with nice company, pleasant intoxicants, and other muddlers of critical judgment. Or you can ask me — and I will tell you with absolute conviction (in spite of having heard only a quarter of the available recordings) that there has never been a Scheherazade to compare with Fritz Reiner’s with the Chicago Symphony, a recording that gives this grand old war-horse new life in a manner absolutely no one else can match — except for Pierre Monteux in his unbeatable early recording with the San Francisco Symphony, mono, deleted, virtually impossible to come by, and one of the treasures of my private collection. (That is the way collectors talk — and it really isn’t much of a help, is it?)

Most music lovers will be content with a single recording of Scheherazade. It is a marvelous piece of music, in its own special genre, but it is not the sort of work that demands (or allows for) an enormous range of interpretation; a great performance of it, such as Reiner’s or Monteux’s, will reveal practically everything the score has to offer, and if there are other recordings equally good, they will not differ appreciably from these or from one another — or, at least, the differences will not be crucial. It is quite another case with a work like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example. Here, the work is so rich in potential that no performance, however perfect in itself, can do it full justice. There are countless choices in matters of tempo, phrasing, articulation, and balance, all of which are justified by the score, while none of them is dictated by it; hence, all sorts of “correct” interpretations are possible, and it is the nature of music of this quality that many of these interpretations will differ radically from one another, while all remaining faithful to what Beethoven wrote. What counts is the wholeness, harmony, and radiance of each individual interpretation, the conductor’s vision, his power of taking the notes on the page, with all their possibilities and all their ambiguities, and making a living, expressive, coherent piece of music out of them.

Thus, while one might reasonable speak of the “best” recording of Scheherazade (and even there the notion of “best” is disputable), it is impossible for there to be an ideal recording of the Pastoral. Any single recording, even if it is overwhelmingly persuasive, can only tell part of the story; consequently, no matter what recording you choose you are wrong. It is at this point that the casual record-buyer and the born-again collector part company. At a very minimum, the collector will have to have Toscanini’s Pastoral, Furtwängler’s Pastoral, and Walter’s Pastoral, all of them superb and each of them startlingly original in its approach. And then, if it comes down to it, can one really do without Monteux’s Pastoral, so warm, so clear, so vital — especially since it is on a budget label? And Szell’s Pastoral, so precise, so disciplined, so intense? And Klemperer’s — so expansive, so mellow, so heartfelt? And Boehm’s — so radiant, so tender? And then, which Toscanini recording is the one to have? The 1937 with the BBC Symphony (Seraphim)? Or the 1952 with the NBC Symphony (Victrola)? Or the 1939 radio check from the Arturo Toscanini Society (now on Olympic, if you can get it), congested in sound but interpretively unequaled in many important details? If you want to understand the Pastoral, in its fullness and variety, you obviously have to have all three of these, for each is in a certain sense a “definitive” recording by one of this century’s very greatest conductors; and the same thing must be said about Bruno Walter’s recordings of the Pastoral with the Columbia Symphony (Odyssey) and the Vienna Philharmonic (Turnabout), or about Furtwängler’s recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic (Da Capo import) and the RAI Orchestra (Olympic). This is not even to mention the likelihood that one of the younger conductors will come out tomorrow with a recording of the Pastoral as good as any of the others, and sufficiently different from them to make it imperative that you add this new interpretation to your collection. Carlos Kleiber’s Pastoral, or Daniel Barenboim’s, or James Levine’s, or Michael Tilson Thomas’s, or Alain Lombard’s. And so there you are in that endless chute, the sliding-pond of multiple recordings, from which the dollars drop in a ceaseless green rain.

If multiple recordings of such things as Beethoven symphonies or Mozart concertos are the bane (and the joy) of the serious record collector, the challenges these records pose — money, space, and the time to listen to them — are as nothing compared to the dilemma of opera recordings. There may be no ideal recording of the Mozart D Minor Piano Concerto, but there are ideal orchestras, and ideal conductors, and ideal pianists, and it is not so rare an event when three such ideals get together to record. But operas require so large a personnel, and the degree of competence of opera singers varies so enormously, that it simply never happens that a recording of a complete opera, will be the “best” — or even adequate — in every element without exception: orchestra, chorus, conducting, and all the soloists. The usual case is that one recording will have a superb soprano, a decent tenor, and a monstrous croaker of a baritone; another recording of the same opera will be tops in the baritone department, but the soprano will be a whooping, wobbling, screaming holdover from a noble career that should have ended ten years before; or all the singers will be competent second-raters, while the conductor has gotten a fire and a fury into the score that no one has come close to before or since. If you love the opera and want to hear it at its best, you need the first recording for the soprano, the second for the baritone, and the third for the conductor--and where, after all, are you going to find room for all those fat boxes of Verdi or Wagner, all those flawed Carmens and Normas and Figaros and Rosenkavaliers?

But even if there were opera recordings in which every member of the cast was a Flagstad or a Bjoerling, the serious collector would still find himself acquiring more than a single recording of his favorite operas. Conductors differ from each other, sometimes radically; so do orchestras; so do pianists, violinists, horn players; but none of these differences is of the same order of magnitude as the difference between any two singers. Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz are about as unlike in their approach to--for example--Chopin as two musicians could possible be; but they both play the piano (indeed, they both play Steinways). In contrast, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi not only differ as musicians--in their mastery of technique, their interpretations of the score, their dramatic sensibilities--but they also “play” different instruments, for there is nothing in musical performance as unique as the human voice. If these two ladies sang exactly alike (in fact, they differ in all respects), there would still be that basic difference in the sound of the two voices, a difference all lovers of singing must cherish, because each voice produces its own kind of thrills and no substitute will ever move us in quite the same way.

Hence, those who feel passionately about La Boheme (and who does not?) will have to have the Angel recording with Callas and Di Stefano, and the London recording with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, and the Seraphim recording with De los Angeles, Bjoerling, Merrill, and Beecham, and the Victrola with Licia Albanese, Jan Peerce, and a very audible Toscanini, and the old Seraphim with Gigli, and the London with Pavarotti, and the Cetra with Tagliavini — and all this just as a start. As in the case of orchestral and instrumental works, the collecting of opera records is complicated by the fact that the major artists have often recorded the same work more than once in their careers — and for a singer, the development or decline of the voice between recordings, as well as the differing circumstances of each performance (whom one is singing with, whether it is raining that day, how the divorce is going) make for far more striking differences between one recording and another than one finds in even the most erratic conductors or instrumentalists. Callas recorded Tosca twice, and although the earlier recording (with Di Stefano and De Sahata) is by far the better, there are still things to be said for the later one. Tebaldi’s mono Madama Butterfly on Richmond and her stereo remake on London are both fine — the Richmond fresher, the London more profound--and both Puccini-lovers and Tebaldi-lovers would be hard put to choose between them. Furthermore, the true collector (which is to say the collector whose appetite knows no bounds and whose bank balance never runs dry) must take into account the thriving (if illegal) industry in private and pirated recordings of operas, usually taped from live radio broadcasts, and hence embodying unique moments in the artists’ interpretations of their roles, with all the spontaneity and excitement of stage performances, along with all the mistakes, the footfalls, the audience noises, and the hoarse shouts of the prompter. Once you start on this road, you are lost forever, for the path to bankruptcy is paved with pirated opera recordings; they are as many as the stars in the sky, and for the fanatical follower of one singer or another, each is a precious document which he will seek out with relentless zeal, and for which he is willing to pay the most outrageous prices. It is not enough to have Maria Callas’s commercially available studio recording of La Traviata (once on Cetra, now on Turnabout); one must also have the 1955 Callas-Di Stefano-Giulini performance from La Scala, and the 1952 Callas-Di Stefano-Mugnal performance from Mexico City, and the legendary 1954 Callas-Bjoerling-Bernstein performance from Reykjavik. And who knows what other performances may suddenly surface in that dark underground record store in Westwood or Greenwich Village, where little men in greasy suits sidle up to you to peddle the latest Callas pirate, like pushers selling dope?

There are some classical LPs that have been uninterruptedly in the catalog for 25 years--the Toscanini Beethoven symphonies, for example. But the lifetime of most issues is much shorter than that, and it is common for many recordings--particularly those of music for which the audience is small--to spend only a year or two in the catalog and the record stores before being deleted. It is this phenomenon that decisively draws classical record buying into the infernal circle where those afflicted with authentic collection mania spend eternity trying to fill bottomless cisterns with grains of sand. There is no real collectorship without rarities; the out-of-print book, the special brief issue of the commemorative stamp, the porcelain birdie that the Oberammergau artisan produced for only 14 months before switching to ashtrays. Deleted records are the rarities of record collecting, and their prices dwell in the same lofty regions of unreason as those of first editions of Dickens and Paul Revere teapots. There is a small but assiduous tribe of entrepreneurs around the country who accumulate and market these items, always at a considerable markup over the original cost. The collector soon comes to know them all: Fred Steinmetz in Massapequa, Long Island; Leslie Gerber in Woodstock, New York; David Harvey in Radnor, Pennsylvania; Ed Durbeck in our own Leucadia. They invest in records they know will soon be deleted and for which they hope there will be a demand over the years; they buy the record libraries of those collectors who have been crushed to death under piles of Pastoral symphonies; they send out lists, testing what the market will bear; they search, they speculate, they sell--and they give the collector those heady thrills of sudden opportunity, of unexpected windfall, of the miraculous chance to fill in a gap, that in extreme cases far outweigh any pleasure the music itself might give.

Suppose you have become a devotee of the music of Roger Sessions. Now, one of the chief characteristics of Sessions’ music (there cannot be more than 300 people in the whole world who really like this composer) is that recordings of his works are withdrawn almost the moment they are issued; it is as though the record industry executives feel they have done their duty by modern American music just in producing the recording, but actually to attempt to sell it would be asking a bit too much. The moment the fatal black diamond appears next to the listing in the Schwann catalog (the standard American catalog of classical and popular records), the price at the specialized dealers goes up by a good 50 or 100 percent. Collectors who have been dithering over their purchase of some particular Sessions item suddenly curse themselves for their dilatoriness; how can they possibly go on living without that indispensable record of Sessions’ Third Symphony, which RCA has decided to cast into limbo after a few months of barely perceptible sales? Out goes the desperate letter to Woodstock, where canny Gerber has been stockpiling Sessions against this very day; in comes his quotation: $8.50!; but what choice does the improvident collector have? Better $8.50 now than double that next year.

For by next year the record will no longer be a recent deletion, which, after all, one might still by chance pick up in a neglected corner of a regular record store. It will be a rarity, a collector’s item, and its price then will range from 15 to 25 dollars, and even more. Up till this week, the highest price I had ever heard asked for a single record was $200, which is currently being demanded by RoundSound West (the Leucadia dealer) for the original recording of Bette Davis in the musical comedy Two’s Company — on the assumption, I suppose, that anyone who wants to hear Bette Davis singing must be out of his mind to begin with. But I understand that there are now some dealers offering up to $700 for a mint copy of Elvis Presley’s earliest Sun 45 RPM — and what they will then sell the thing for is anybody’s guess. Classical recordings never rise into that financial empyrean: even in death and deletion, classical music remains a very poor relation of pop. Still, imagine the state of soul of a collector who will shell out $25 for Roger Sessions’ Third Symphony — the extravagance, the compulsiveness, the dizzying loss of standards, and for a work that scarcely anyone can even stand. I cannot help but pity such a person — and laugh at him, since I picked up my own copy for a mere two sawbucks, in a quick and secret exchange in the parking lot of a San Bernardino Taco Bell.

When you have arrived at this point, spiritually degraded, overdrawn at the bank, unable to eat because all your tables and chairs are stacked high with records; when you spend half your time hanging about the mailbox, waiting for the next issue of High Fidelity or the next list of EMI imports (for by now you know that the European pressings are always better than the American ones, even if they cost twice as much); when you discover yourself to be irretrievably in the hands of the rapacious Fred Steinmetz and the merciless Ed Durbeck — then you will know that you are not simply a record buyer but an echt collector, certified, chronic, and doomed. You have come a long way since that petty little emotional struggle over the comparative merits of various Persian bosoms, when you were so apprehensive about wasting your five dollars on what might turn out to be only the second-best Scheherazade. The struggle then was hard, but now you have got the habit of it all, and it is easy, so very easy. Easy as counting the grass. Easy as dueling with the sea. And when you find a moment or two to listen to one of your thousands of records, what pleasant memories it calls up of your innocent youth as an ordinary lover of music, before you found your true vocation.

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