Is classical music waning? Not to judge by the amazing number and variety of classical websites out there. If anything, they provide heartening proof that the future of this "retro" music is secure as technology continues to evolve.
Among the glitz, self-promotion and commercialism, I've tried to select sites that exemplify the idealistic purpose of the Internet – to share information, informed opinion and, of course, the music itself – and all for free. I've focused on sites of particular value to others who share my enthusiasm for historical non-vocal performance. Many are labors of love by devoted fans, whom I've tried to credit wherever possible. If you've found others, please let me know.
One bit of advice, though: since this section was first posted in May 1998, well over half of the sites I'd once listed have disappeared. So if you find information you want to keep, don't just bookmark the address but download the information or, better yet, print it out. It's ironic but true that, despite the push-button convenience and burgeoning technology of the electronic revolution, a printed copy remains the only sure form of permanence.
While most websites (including this one) are really just pseudo-books, these sites take full advantage of the unique capacities of the Internet to provide the actual sounds of historical recordings.
Amid the collapse of reissue programs by the major labels (and their conglomerate owners), the most exciting recent development has been the emergence of on-line independents and devoted amateurs who stream music and scan tangible materials. I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not endorsing the sites that spread unlicensed downloads of currently-available recordings – and even new ones. Not only are they illegal but unethical, as they steal revenues from legitimate distributors and artists and thus undermine the commercial incentive for their valuable work. Rather, I salute those who restore and make available older records and graphic matter that are out of print yet deserve to be remembered, cherished and enjoyed.
In a sense, these sites redress the problem caused by the ridiculous longevity of American copyrights, which (until very recently) Congress has been extending for 20 more years every time protection is about to expire. And that's a problem – very few old records retain any commercial value and so the rights holders won't reissue them, yet the threat of obscure heirs asserting infringement claims (coupled with devastating statutory damages) prevents others from making them available and deprives us of their splendor. In most of the rest of the civilized world, copyright ends after 50 years – a sensible accommodation between the conflicting demands of fairly compensating creators and their immediate offspring while enabling future generations to build upon their work as a basis for study, their own creativity, or just sheer enjoyment of our shared culture. As a result, despite tight and near-perpetual control in America, much of the analog era of recordings is free of copyright protection abroad. It seems a shame to have had to turn to (and pay) European and Japanese sources for access to our own heritage, but that was the result of our absurd law. Recently, though, the Internet has penetrated these barriers, and so dedicated fans of artists of the past are free to offer us enrichment with a click of a few buttons. (Fortunately, with a few exceptions for lucrative catalogues, the distant heirs and other copyright claimants haven't bothered to enforce whatever infringement rights they might assert and so have left well-intentioned but unauthorized amateur distributors alone.) A word of caution: many sites take down their posts after relatively brief periods, so be sure to download anything of interest before it again disappears.Among the many invaluable streaming and download sites:
A brief digression: Looking ahead, the wave of the future for listening to most recorded music seems heading toward commercial on-line streaming services. In terms of sheer efficiency they make much sense – instead of cluttering a home with physical media or incurring the considerable expense and effort to assemble a private digital collection, why not just pay a monthly fee (currently a mere $10-15) for access at any time and place to a vast library? They've not yet arrived at an informed classical listener's nirvana – the most popular services like Spotify are light on historical recordings and obscure labels and have frustratingly poor search functions, while the two that cater to classical buffs, Idagio and Primephonic, have only superficial descriptive information to identify and distinguish confusingly similar listings; and none provides the often-informative liner notes that graced CDs (and LPs and 78 sets before them). Streaming services are unlikely to ever supplant the sites listed above that preserve and present in context rarities whose specialized appeal falls well short of attracting commercial interest. Somewhat ironically, intriguing historical transfers often can be found (along with some information) on the unfettered and generalized YouTube.
Free on-line discographies cater to devotees of many historical conductors and other performers, whether they're ardent fans or just curious to further explore the talents of an artist who happened to catch their ear. These sites list available recordings, together with details of session dates, venues and original releases, together with subsequent reissues. A few are scans of printed listings, but most enable on-line search functions.
Alas, previously posted on-line discographies for many other luminaries among conductors, including Ernest Ansermet, Thomas Beecham, Eugene Goosens, Jascha Horenstein, Eugene Ormandy, Paul Paray, Carl Schuricht and George Szell, have all slipped off into the far reaches of cyberspace and have not been replaced.
Among great pianists of the past, Glenn Gould has both an official site with an illustrated bio, discography and videos, as well as another in which Michael Davidson has posted lots of textual material. Shura Cherkassky, Svatislav Richter and Earl Wild also benefit from informative sites. Arbiter Records devotes a portion of its commercial site to perceptive pianist biographies by Allan Evans, including Wanda Landowska, Benno Moisewitsch and Valdimir de Pachmann.
Raji Kosloske has assembled an extraordinarily extensive and detailed Pianist Discography site that includes comprehensive listings for nearly three dozen pianists (including many also covered by the sites below), as well as a thorough compilation of recordings of all the piano works of fifteen composers (and he even provides scans of the original LP covers).
Arthur Schnabel's Foundation has posted a scan of his discography.
Efficient listings of recorded performances are available for Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Backhaus, Robert Casadesus, Alfred Cortot, Clifford Curzon Edwin Fischer, Walter Gieseking, Emil Gilels, Friedrich Gulda, Emil Gilels, Julius Katchen, Lili Kraus, Wilhelm Kempff, John Ogdon and Rudolph Serkin. For many of these we have Korean super-fan Youngrok Lee to thank.
Amazingly, among the legions of violin soloists of the past only Bronislaw Huberman seems to have inspired a thorough and attractive site by Patrick Harris, hailing from New Zealand. Again thanks to Youngrok Lee, we also have discographies for Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein, Erica Morini, Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Jacques Thibaud, as well as for the Budapest, Hungarian and Smetana Quartets A more rudimentary listing is available for Yehudi Menuhin.
For violists, Bradley Barlow has compiled a discography for William Primrose.And for organists, Youngrok Lee has a discography for Helmut Walcha.
The vast majority of sites devoted to an individual composer seem content with a cursory biography and a few pictures and external links.
Consistent with his universal appeal, the site for Bach created by Jan Hanford and Jan Koster is of particular value to record collectors. Beyond a profusely illustrated biography and extensive links, each work is extensively cross-linked to reviews of past and present recordings.More specialized and sophisticated is Monir Tayeb's Berlioz site, a marvellous in-depth resource which features MIDI versions of dozens of complete works, together with synchronized full scores and lots of documentation.
A site devoted to Handel by Dr. Brad Leissa is especially well done, including an annotated list of compositions and contemporaneous performances.
The Bruckner Society of America maintains a phenomenally detailed discography by John F. Berky listing the timings of each movement of each issue of each recording of each version of each symphony.
A Wagner site by Hannu Salmi provides extensive background and literary sources for his major operas.
The prestigious British Gramophone magazine has generously posted every review it has published since 1983 together with many informative articles. Alas, the exceptional reviews and articles of its American counterpart, Fanfare magazine, are now cached behind a pay firewall available only to digital subscribers and American Record Guide only sells back issues and individual reviews; the excellent International Record Review ceased in 2015 and its former archive of reviews is no longer available.
Back in the day, two American monthly magazines published equipment and record reviews together with related articles on music and musicians: High Fidelity and HiFi/Stereo Review (later modernized to just "Stereo Review"). Nearly every issue has been scanned and posted on-line (along with nearly complete runs of hundreds of other magazines) by the marvelous American Radio History resource, together with internal search engines. They provide a fascinating time-capsule of changing critical perspectives; perhaps my favorite, albeit perverse, review is from the October 1966 High Fidelity in which its chief pop writer Gene Lees greeted "Blonde on Blonde," often ranked among the top albums of all time, thusly: "Dylan's poetry is ridiculously inept; with an asinine woolhat dialect ... his voice is as bad as his guitar playing, which is abysmal. ... [H]is total impact on the course of America and the world measures nil."
For material unpublished in print, Classical.net, Classical CD Review, Audiophile Audition, Musicweb International and Classics Today all have large sections of CD reviews by distinguished and well-informed writers, with sufficient emphasis on historical reissues (although the last stashes its newer reviews behind a pay firewall). Hailing from Singapore, The Flying Inkpot combines reviews of specific discs with helpful overviews and introductory surveys.
The British Broadcasting Corporation has posted a fabulous archival trove of nearly 200 of its weekly "Discovering Music" programs, presented in their full 45-minute length and with fine fidelity. Most focus on specific works from Bach to Adams, integrating extensive and cogent musical examples with perceptive and accessible analysis and commentary about the music and the composersí intentions and methods. Other shows address topics from rhythm and harmony to musical fairy tales and Indian ragas. And, at least to these Yankee ears, the pleasure is immeasurably increased by those splendid British accents!
All but the most obscure CDs (and even some LPs) offered for sale on Amazon tend to be coupled to multiple customer reviews that support user ratings. Some are nonsensical and should have been purged (e.g., the jewelbox was broken; praise of a recording as the very best of a given work, while admitting to never having heard any others), but a surprising number are informed and gratifying.
Collectors and others who seek complete lists of 78s issued by companies both prominent (Columbia, Victor) and obscure (Ammor, Par-O-Ket), or who just want to know the date of a record they've just found, can become absorbed in the remarkable 78 discography site.
Rudolf A. Bruil's Remington Site began in 1999 as a tribute to that early LP label (oft-reviled for its rotten pressings and fidelity) and has blossomed into an eclectic panoply of writings ranging from biographies of obscure artists to tracing the evolution of record album art. For more of the latter, the Collecting Record Covers site displays a huge variety of inventive designs, with special emphasis on the pioneering work of Alex Steinweiss. And thanks (yet again) to Youngrok Lee for his preservation work, this time for perpetuating John Edward's collection of the first two decades of Deutsche Grammophon LP covers and Mitagawa Himahito's of Decca LP covers, together with his own horde of English Columbia and French Erato covers (all with illustrated surveys of the evolution of the cover and label designs). Fans of RCA Living Stereo have the Shaded Dog site.
Frank Forman has compiled a thorough and thoroughly annotated listing of acoustic chamber recordings, available as a free download.
For those whose interests extend to opera, the Operadis website lists all known recordings of hundreds of operas, including casts and references to reviews.
And last, but certainly not least, Dave Lampson's vast Classical.net site extends beyond thousands of record reviews to extensive lists of distributors, publications and music societies (although many of its links are no longer viable).
Hopefully, searching these sites will reward you with some splendid discoveries amid the dross. Of course, no two fans will ever agree as to where the greatest treasure lies. And that, to me, is the true wonder of the Internet – somewhere out there in the vast reaches of cyberspace awaits the site of your own musical dreams, whatever they may be.
copyright © 1999-2020 by Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.