Classical Notes

Cheap Thrills

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Some people think I’m cheap, but I’m really just frugal. There’s a difference, you know. Cheap people hate spending money at all, while frugal folks demand value for whatever they do spend. Cheap, frugal, whatever; the cost of CDs has always bugged me. But I’ve finally managed to do something about it. And so can you!

Over the past year I’ve made an amazing discovery that I’d like to share. Shhh -- it’s the record industry’s dirty little secret: you don’t have to spend a fortune to buy a nice collection of classical music!

I was spurred into action last year by an all-too familiar sight: the guy with the price gun hiking up top-line CDs yet another dollar. So I decided to try a modest consumer experiment to see just how far the then-$17 cost of a new full-priced CD could be stretched. My ground rules were simple: only new discs, no cutouts, and no bland crossover compilations. I wanted the real stuff, but as cheaply as possible. And I meant cheap (oops – frugal).

The prospects at local record stores were discouraging. Their $10 mid-price discs were pretty pricey, and their so-called $8 budget labels were still well beyond the budget I had in mind. Even their super-bargain $6 Naxos and $4 Seraphim labels weren’t quite the super-bargain I sought.

Of course, there were also those bins of impossibly inexpensive CDs at bookshops, supermarkets and drug stores. For years, I’d passed them by with only a furtive, disparaging glance. Their garish covers, no-name artists and hackneyed repertoire screamed cheap in the worst way of having no appeal beyond their price tags.

And then my salvation appeared. Buried in the back of a Sunday newspaper stuffer for an electronics chain was an ad for genuine classical CDs on the Pilz Vienna Masters label. The price: an incredible 99 cents! And so it was that I went to Circuit City ("Where the Streets Are Paved With Bargains") to grab my 17 CDs.

My expectations were low. This is the murkiest depth of the classical retailing ocean, where the sunlight of reviews never penetrates and for whose strange creatures no respectable collector would ever trawl. At this price the package costs more than the contents and the performers’ names, when given, are not only unfamiliar but often barely pronounceable. (Try this one three times fast: "Anton Grcar and the Ljubljana Radio Symphony Orchestra").

Those same expectations, though, were buoyed by nostalgia. Decades ago, when I started collecting records, full-priced LPs were well beyond my allowance and all I could afford were the Columbia Harmony, London Richmond and RCA Camden labels. Times have changed: back then the majors had a stranglehold on record retailing and included in their "paperback" lines older items by top artists, whereas nowadays independents fill the budget bins with unknowns. And yet, one fundamental thing hasn’t changed a bit: as I browsed, the only other customer was a kid with a backpack who, in a certain karmic sense, I had once known quite well.

The store manager insisted that he breaks even on 99-cent CDs, but that seems impossible. Clearly, these items are intended as loss leaders to lure customers. It sure worked for me, but since the browsers were right by the cashier I wasn’t tempted to toss a $500 TV into my shopping cart. Some retailers could learn a few things from the guys who design those Las Vegas casinos where you have to pass through miles of slots to find the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Anyway, while reveling in my budget wonderland I was able to assemble a far-flung collection of solos, duo sonatas, quartets, concertos, symphonies, songs and even masses from the 12th through 20th centuries. All turned out to be at least decent, and many were amazingly fine. I was so pleased that I’ve since bought dozens more. I even went on to splurge for the comparative extravagance of $1.99 for the Eclipse Point Classics label – and all of this for what I often drop in a week on "normal" CDs.

So how come these frugal treasures don’t smother their pricier competition? Marketing prowess and aesthetic snobbery aside, there’s a very good reason.

Why do concert artists collect huge fees playing pieces their audience already knows by heart? And why do collectors amass dozens of versions of their favorite works? Because each says something unique and compelling. Many of these performances, though, tend to lack the supreme insight that marks a genuinely great interpretation. The notes are all there, but often without consummate inspiration.

Our greatest musicians further distinguish themselves through exquisite attention to detail, a professional sheen honed through a lifetime of devoted study and practice. The magic of editing has spoiled us even more, making us intolerant of technical errors in the unforgiving permanence of modern records. Many of these discs suffer from lapses of concentration that suggest inadequate preparation or an aversion to retakes.

As a result, few of these performances dominate their field. The most successful present older music where a secure sense of style is more crucial than the special touches of interpretive masters. The more complex sensibilities of romantic and modern repertoire can prove more elusive. Even so, nearly every one of these discs is at least competent to convey the overall sense of the music, and often quite well.

I’ve revised this next paragraph a dozen times, and each one seems as condescending as the last. But here goes. While some may appreciate a tangible difference in style, inspiration and finesse between these discs and their pricier peers, chances are you won’t. Please don’t be insulted; it’s just a fact of life. Most people don’t savor each word of a book they read; they don’t study each brushstroke of a painting they see; and they don’t relish each note of the music they hear. To the vast majority of casual listeners, such distinctions are far too subtle to warrant a huge price differential.

The question of value just can’t be ignored. Think about it -- $17 is real money: a nice meal out, a movie date, a new shirt. But what’s 99 cents? Just pocket change after you’ve bought something else. Which would you rather have: a candy bar or an hour of great music to enjoy for the rest of your life (or, if you believe the manufacturers, for the lives of your descendants unto the tenth generation)?

Hearing so many nice performances by utter unknowns made me appreciate how much unsung talent must lie out there in the vast world beyond the major artists’ publicity machines. But why should I have been so surprised? Just last year my quiet, unassuming secretary blew me away with a lovely gospel tape she had made.

So what’s good here? Some of these super-bargains rank right up there with the very best regardless of price. These include superb collections of baroque concerti by the Solisti de Zagreb (Pilz 105 and 229), sparkling Vivaldi on original instruments by the Musici di San Marco (Point 267037), lush Bach violin concerti by the Camarata Romana (Pilz 101), dramatic Bach toccatas by Christiane Jaccollet (Pilz 178), stylish Mozart flute concertos by the Salzburg Mozart Soloists (Point 265050), elegant Scarlatti sonatas by Dubravka Tomsic (Point 265028), vigorous Haydn quartets by the Caspar da Salo (Pilz 116 and 404), virtuostic Haydn cello concertos by Arto Noras (Point 267179), spirited Mozart symphonies by the Mozart Festival Orchestra (Pilz 113 and 114), gleaming early Beethoven by the Bamberg Quartet (Point 267101), ravishing Debussy and Ravel by the Travnicek Quartet (Point 267172) and delightful modern works for strings by the Slovak Chamber Orchestra (Point 267189). All merit a permanent place on my shelves.

Others go well beyond the expected war-horses to present CD firsts, including Gluck trio sonatas, Fasch and Krebs guitar concertos, a Suchon serenade and the only recordings of anything at all by Godar and Lickl, who are not even listed in the Schwann catalogue. Would I have ever risked $17 for such obscurities? Not a chance. For 99 cents, though, I’ve made lots of new musical friends.

But seasoned collectors are not the target audience for these discs, and if you’re just starting out there’s plenty here for every taste and purpose.

For meditation, try Gregorian chant or music by Monteverdi, Palestrina and Josquin Desprez. Although specifically composed centuries ago for the Church, this mysterious, reverential music evokes the primal feelings of all religion.

For classy background music, go for baroque, with its steady pulse, intertwining lines and constant invention. You’ll enjoy anything by Bach or Vivaldi, including harpsichord and organ solos and a wide diversity of concertos.

For intellectual stimulation, it’s hard to beat the structural logic that underpins the music of the late 18th century. Nearly any disc of Mozart and Haydn symphonies, concertos and quartets is worth exploring.

And if you just want to relax, try soothing piano collections of Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann and Debussy, solo harp and guitar programs, and tons of Strauss waltzes.

You can also find weightier stuff -- Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Bruckner and even Mahler. As an introduction to romantic operas, symphonies and concertos they’re all certainly worth their tiny price, but the competition from established artists here is much tougher. (Or, in the immortal words of Sly Stone: "The higher the price, the nicer the nice.") Even so, you can still do quite well by sticking to lighter fare: Mendelssohn piano concertos, Beethoven violin sonatas, Schubert songs and Dvorak quartets, serenades and dances. And speaking of Dvorak, the best buy in the entire series just may be his gorgeous Stabat Mater on a single 80-minute 99-cent CD (Pilz 104); most competing versions are sprawled over two full-priced discs. That’s a saving of over 97%!

At these prices, you can get a yard-long shelf bulging with days of great music for the cost of a mere handful of regular CDs. It’s hard to go far wrong (and even if you do, you can always use a nice new replacement jewelbox). Every one of these discs makes a fine introduction to music you’ve always wanted to explore. They’ll calm you after a rough day. They’re nice background for reading. They’ll add a touch of class to dinner. They’ll impress that special date.

Speaking of which, these CDs may not improve your sex life (that’s clearly beyond the scope of this column), but they just might improve your mind. My son’s science fair project found that classical outranked all other types of music (and even silence) as an aid to memory and recall. So just think about that (while listening to classical music, of course)!

Well, after my experiment ended the guy with the price gun struck yet again. $18! So scan your local ads and don’t hesitate. At 99 cents (or even $1.99) you can afford to grab anything that looks even mildly interesting. Go ahead and nudge the CD marketplace just a little closer to a semblance of value.

And always, always be proud to be a frugal music buyer!


OK, hopefully you’re excited about getting some great music for a pittance. If you’re not already a classical buff, I envy you – there’s a whole world of fabulous music out there waiting for you to discover.

In the expanded version of this column, I’d like to provide some specific suggestions among the hundred or so super-bargain CDs I’ve bought. I focussed on the Pilz and Point labels, simply because they seemed to have the broadest selection and were widely available here. (OK, so Point also had pretty covers.) There are lots more discs on these two labels, and other lines as well. Although I’ve opted mostly for complete works, you’ll also find plenty of themed compilations that can serve well to introduce a genre (ballets) or set a specific mood (romance).

Distribution of these discs tends to be spotty. As I write this (late March ’99), our local Circuit Cities stock some of the Point CDs and another extensive $1.99 series on Platinum Classical Gallery, but seem to have phased out the Pilz label. (Our Towers carry Point but for $4.99, which not only defeats the whole purpose, but also suggests the magnitude of their markup.) So cruise your local retailers; even if you can’t find these specific items, you may come across something comparable.

It’s worth reemphasizing – it’s so hard to go wrong at these prices. Indeed, in the entire batch I bought so far I’ve found only three outright duds. One achieved the seemingly impossible task of making Tchaikovsky’s super-charged 1812 Overture seem dull; another tortured Bach harpsichord concertos with ridiculous balances and miserable sound (complete with dropouts that belied alleged all-digital origins); and a collection of Gershwin "Virtuoso Piano Music" tried so desperately to be crashingly virtuostic that it lost any hint of Gershwin’s inimitable witty style. Even for $2 these were no bargain. But every one of the others was at least enjoyable and certainly good value. That’s an enviable rate of success, even among full-priced discs.

It’s true that timings tend to be skimpy, with some discs barely half full. And you won’t get any performance notes, pictures or artist bios (or even a booklet – just a simple cover card). But to repeat my mantra – you just can’t complain of such things for a measly one or two bucks.

Ratings are always highly subjective, but I’ve tried to leave aside my personal taste to focus upon whether a given disc is likely to satisfy someone seeking a basic collection. Here are my five categories:

++: Wonderful at any price; a steal at $.99 or $1.99.

+: Very enjoyable; rivals the full-priced competition.

o: Decent enough to convey most of the music’s essence.

-: Marginal, but still fair value for the price.

- -: You’re buying the jewelbox.

Good luck!!

Label & # Composer Principal work Principal Artists Rating
Point 7146 (Anonymous) Gregorian Chant Slovenski Madrigalisti o
Pilz 160 (Various) Fascination of the Harp Anna Lelkes +
Point 7151 (Various) Guitar Favorites Dakko Petrinjak +
Pilz 261 (Various) Music of the Gothic Period Collegium Aldovadensis o
Pilz 171 (Various) Popular Overtures, vol 2 Suddeutsche Philharmonia, Scholz -
Point 7070 (Various) Trumpet Concertos Quinque, Camerata Romana, Gmur o
Pilz 407 Bach Brandenburg Concertos 1-3 Philharmonia Slavonia, Brazda +
Pilz 408 Bach Brandenburg Concertos 4-6 Philharmonia Slavonia, Brazda +
Point 7123 Bach Concertos for 1 and 3 Cembali Camerata Romana, Duvier -
Point 7168 Bach Famous Organ Works Ivan Sokol o
Pilz 117 Bach Famous Organ Works, vol. 1 Otto Winter? (disc says M Spanyi) +
Pilz 401 Bach Famous Organ Works, vol. 2 Otto Winter? (disc says M Spanyi) ++
Point 7167 Bach Flute Sonatas Jurkovic, Ruzickova, Alexander o
Point 5016 Bach French Suite 6, Partita in b Christiane Jaccottet +
Point 5011 Bach Goldberg Variations Christiane Jaccottet +
Point 7005 Bach Harpsichord Concertos Kraus, Camerata Romana, Duvier - -
Pilz 134 Bach Inventions, Sinfonias Christiane Jaccottet ++
Point 7006 Bach Suites for Orchestra 1 & 2 Camerata Romana, Duvier +
Point 5032 Bach Toccata and Fugue ("Dorian") Miklos Spanyi +
Pilz 178 Bach Toccatas Christiane Jaccottet ++
Pilz 101 Bach Violin Concertos Brezina, Camerata Romana, Duvier ++
Point 7166 Bach, CPE Flute Concertos Jurkovic, Slovak Chamber Orch +
Point 7165 Bach, CPE Harpsichord Concertos Cattarino, Slovak Chamber Orch +
Point 7004 Bach, JC Sinfonias, Bassoon Concerto Camerata Bohemia; Cam. Romana +
Point 7232 Bartok Folk Dances; String Quartet 2 L. Marcinger; Takacs Quartet o
Pilz 263 Beethoven Famous Variations, Bagatelles Metzger, Goldmann o
Point 7169 Beethoven Mass in C Major Slovak Phil Orch & Choir, Nanut o
Point 7010 Beethoven Piano and String Quartets Bamberg Quartet ++
Point 7013 Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano Werner Riessman, Dieter Goldman ++
Pilz 152 Beethoven Symphonies 1 & 7 Rundfunk-Orch. Ljubljana, Nanut +
Point 7012 Beethoven The Creatures of Prometheus ORF-Symphony Orchestra, Horvat +
Pilz 180 Beethoven Violin/Piano Sonatas 5 & 9 Leon Spierer, Ernst Groschl +
Point 5081 Brahms Hungarian Dances London Festival Orchestra, Cantieri o
Point 7189 Britten Simple Symphony Slovak Chamber Orch., Warchal ++
Point 7017 Bruckner Symphony # 2 Suddeutsche Philh., Zanotelli -
Pilz 253 Bruckner Symphony # 4 Philharmonia Slavonica, Adolph +
Pilz 206 Chopin Impromptus, Nocturnes Dubravka Tomsic +
Pilz 207 Chopin World Famous Piano Music 2 Ida Czernicka +
Point 7129 Corelli 4 Concerti Grossi I Solisti di Zagreb o
Point 7171 Corrette Concertos for Organ Michalko, Slovak Ch Or, Warchal +
Pilz 130 Debussy Piano Works Peter Schmalfuss -
Point 7172 Debussy String Quartet (& Ravel Qt) Travnicek Quartet ++
Point 7117 Desprez Motets (& Palestrina Masses) ORF Choir, Preinfalk o
Pilz 313 Dvorak Serenade, Slavonic Dances Pro Arte Orchester, Rudel +
Point 7174 Dvorak Slavonic Dances (2 Pianos) P. Toperczer, M. Lapsansky +
Pilz 104 Dvorak Stabat Mater Radio-Symph. Ljubljana, Munih o
Point 7175 Dvorak String Quartets 10 & 12 Travnicek Quartet o
Pilz 314 Dvorak Symphony 4, Slavonic Dances Bohmisches Staatsorch., Bogunia -
Point 7133 Falla El Amor Brujo (& Turina Trio) Radio Sym. Ljubljana; Trio Lorenz +
Point 7192 Fasch, etc Guitar Concertos Zsapka, Slovak Ch Orch, Warchal +
Point 7176 Franck Organ Works Jan Vladimir Michalko o
Point 5041 Gershwin Virtuoso Piano Music Mario-Ratko Delorko - -
Point 7177 Gluck Trio Sonatas Simciski, Plaskurova, Dubiasova +
Point 7078 Godar Concerto Grosso, Partita Capella Istropolitana -
Pilz 315 Grieg From Holberg’s Time Slawakische Philharmonie, Pesek +
Pilz 168 Handel Concerti Grossi, Op 6, # 1-4 Norddeutsche Philharmonie +
Point 5016 Handel Concerto Grosso, Op 6, # 1-4 N German Philharmonic, Zanotelli +
Point 5019 Handel Concerto Grosso, Op 6, # 5-8 N German Philharmonic, Zanotelli +
Point 5018 Handel Concerto Grosso, Op 6, # 9-12 N German Philharmonic, Zanotelli +
Pilz 236 Handel Organ Concertos; Suite in G Biber, Munchner Kammerorchester o
Point 7115 Handel Water Music; Royal Fireworks Nuremberg Sym Orch, Gmur o
Pilz 154 Handel Water Music; Royal Fireworks Suddeutsche Philharmonie, Pitamic o
Point 7179 Haydn Cello Concertos Noras, Slovak Chamber Orchestra ++
Pilz 119 Haydn Divertimentos Stuttgarter Blaserquintett +
Point 7153 Haydn Flute & Trumpet Concertos Grcar, Goldmann -
Point 7108 Haydn Highlights from "The Creation" Noordhollands Choir, Poznan Philh. o
Point 7180 Haydn Organ Concertos Klinda, Slovak Ch Orch, Warchal +
Point 5039 Haydn String Quartets #s 1, 67, 77 Caspar da Salo Quartet +
Pilz 404 Haydn String Quartets, Op 64, #s 1-3 Caspar da Salo Quartet ++
Pilz 116 Haydn String Quartets, Op 64, #s 4-6 Caspar da Salo Quartet ++
Pilz 301 Haydn Symphonies 6, 7 & 8 Musici de San Marco, A Lizzio o
Pilz 173 Haydn Symphony # 94 ("Surprise") Philharmonia Slavonica, A Scholz +
Pilz 265 Haydn Trumpet Conc., Syms. 30 & 45 Camerata Romana o
Point 7020 Hindemith Ludus Tonalis, Violin Sonata D. Goldmann, B. Zwicker +
Point 7225 Hindemith Sonatas for Flute, Horn, Organ B. Keith, Z. Tyslar, I. Sokol +
Point 7182 Mendelssohn Piano Concertos Cernecka, Slovak Philh, Dohnanyi +
Pilz 210 Mendelssohn Symphonies 4 & 5 (performers not identified) o
Point 7025 Monteverdi Madrigali; Missa Musicum Aldovadensis; ORF-Chor +
Pilz 185 Mozart Church Music (Various) o
Pilz 422 Mozart Flute & Flute/Harp Concertos Jancovic, Mozart Festival Orchestra +
Point 5050 Mozart Flute Concertos Tatu, Salzburg Mozart Soloists ++
Pilz 184 Mozart Flute Quartets Jankowic, Salzberger Solisten o
Point 5056 Mozart Organ Music; German Dances Harald Feller, Capella Istropolitana +
Pilz 212 Mozart Piano Concertos # 9 & 17 Hokanson, Camerata Labacensis +
Pilz 269 Mozart Pieces for Piano and Spinnet Lang; Molzer; Groschel; Steurer -
Pilz 183 Mozart Salzburg Symphonies Suddeutsche Philharmonie, Lizzio o
Point 7137 Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Winds Camerata Academica, von Pitamic +
Point 7144 Mozart Sonatas for Violin and Piano Bruno Zwicker, Rosel Molzer +
Pilz 131 Mozart Sonatas, Fantasies, Rondos Peter Schmalfuss +
Pilz 226 Mozart String Quartets, Vol. 2 Mozarteum Quartet Salzburg +
Point 5083 Mozart Symphonies 16, 18 & 22 Camerata Academica +
Pilz 114 Mozart Symphonies 21, 30 & 33 Mozart Festival Orchestra, Lizzio ++
Pilz 113 Mozart Symphonies 22, 24 & 29 Mozart Festival Orchestra, Lizzio ++
Point 5042 Nietzsche Songs (& by Liszt, Wolf, Satie) (unidentified baritone, pianist) +
Pilz 238 Palestrina Missa Brevis (& Bach Suite #1) Osterreichischen Rundfunks o
Point 5028 Scarlatti Piano Sonatas Dubravka Tomsic ++
Point 5068 Schubert "Trout" Quintet, Quartet # 13 Caspar da Salo Quartet ++
Pilz 172 Schubert Die Winterreise (song cycle) Rudolf Knoll, (pianist unidentified) +
Pilz 240 Schubert German Mass, Symphony # 6 Mozarteum Chor, Munich Sym Or o
Pilz 126 Schubert Impromptus Sylvia Capova +
Pilz 270 Schubert Schwanengesang (song cycle) Rudolf Knoll, Hugo Steurer +
Pilz 158 Schubert Wanderer, Symphony # 4 H. Steurer; Philh. Orch. Bamberg +
Pilz 321 Schumann Fantasiestucke P. Schmalfuss, B. Sitzius +
Point 5089 Schumann Piano Sonata # 3 Edith Picht-Axenfield +
Point 5017 Schutz St. Matthew Passion Wurttemberg Chamber Choir, Kurz o
Point 7187 Smetana String Quartets 1 & 2 Travnicek Quartet +
Point 7186 Stamitz Concertos Camerata Romana +
Point 5084 Strauss Music From Vienna I Vienna Volksoper, Cantieri +
Point 5085 Strauss Music From Vienna II Vienna Volksoper, Cantieri +
Point 5086 Strauss Music From Vienna III Vienna Volksoper, Cantieri +
Pilz 303 Strauss Unforgettable Melodies, vol. 1 Weiner Volksoper Orchester, Falk +
Pilz 304 Strauss Unforgettable Melodies, vol. 2 Weiner Volksoper Orchester, Falk +
Pilz 305 Strauss Unforgettable Melodies, vol. 3 Weiner Volksoper Orch, Michalski +
Pilz 244 Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto; 1812 Overture Czernecka, London Festival Orch. - -
Point 7030 Telemann Tafelmusik # 1, La Lyra Camerata Romana, Duvier, Gmur +
Pilz 157 Telemann Tafelmusik, Vol. 1 Camerata Romana, Duvier +
Point 7039 Vivaldi Concertos Camerata Romana, Duvier o
Point 5005 Vivaldi Concertos Musici de San Marco, Lizzio o
Point 7037 Vivaldi Concertos on Authentic Instrs Musici di San Marco, Lizzio ++
Pilz 229 Vivaldi Famous Concertos I Solisti di Zagreb ++
Point 7036 Vivaldi L’Estro Armonico, # 1 - 7 Camerata Romana, Duvier +
Point 7038 Vivaldi L’Estro Armonico, # 8 - 12 Camerata Romana, Duvier +
Pilz 109 Vivaldi The Four Seasons Musici di San Marco, A Lizzio +
Pilz 173 Vivaldi, et al Baroque Treasures I Solisti di Zagreb ++
Point 7041 Weber Clarinet Concerto, Quintet Schlegel, Philh. Slavonica, Adolph o


 Copyright 1999 by Peter Gutmann

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