For the past 6 months, I’ve been listening to classical music almost exclusively. (There’s a much longer post – or maybe a series – about that in the works.) Toronto, like most major cities, is definitely under-supplied with bricks & mortar classical CD stores now. The deep structural changes in the music business over the past seven or eight years have wreaked havoc on what I’m told was once a vibrant classical record store culture. And while these changes have actually resulted in more and better-recorded music being available in the global market, you won’t find most of it in Toronto retail. (New York, I discovered during a visit earlier this year, is not much better.)
What’s left now is L’Atelier Grigorian, a small specialist classical and jazz CD store (very well curated but unfortunately expensive), HMV’s flagship store on Yonge Street (whose classical department upstairs focuses more and more on Naxos, Brilliant and other budget releases), and the classical sections in stores like Soundscapes (whose classical buyer is either myopic or schizophrenic, or both; it appears that only a small selection from mostly major labels gets brought in – surprising in a store that is so ‘indie’ in all other genres). There are classical departments in an ever-shrinking number of second hand CD stores in Toronto but they’re typically not really worth visiting.
Naturally, my eye has drifted online. Amazon.com, Amazon.ca and its various independent sellers have generally been a good, speedy – and cheap source. ArkivMusic (with its very useful catalogue containing syndicated reviews from Fanfare and other premium online review sources) is also very good (though pricier on average, and shipping can take a while).
One of the more exciting options these days is buying music digitally. While I remain deeply skeptical about iTunes (or anything that comes in a low-ish quality and with DRM), there is now an increasing number of credible and accomplished indie labels selling high-resolution digital files directly. In some cases, these are actually higher-resolution than a CD – up to actual studio master quality (SACD resolution or better). Even though I don’t have equipment that would easily allow me to play back high res audio files like that, it’s exciting to imagine that – as computer-based audio becomes cheaper and less niche-y – it’ll be possible one day to fully enjoy a studio quality master at home.
First up in the classical digital download offerings has to be Linn Records. Founded as an off-shoot of the Scottish high-end stereo manufacturer in the early 80s, Linn Records is a boutique audiophile label that is slowly emerging with a limited but excellent catalogue of classical recordings (as well as forays into jazz and singer/songwriter material). I’m a big fan of some of Linn’s Baroque releases, such as the truly outstanding and unanimously well-reviewed Bach Mass in B minor by the Dunedin Consort, a Scottish group that performs this work with one-to-a-part voicings (only one singer for every voice in the choral parts – this has the distinct advantage of showing off Bach’s intricate part-writing and illuminates the music’s overall architecture).
Other Linn releases I love are by various other Scottish Baroque players, many of whom have made big names for themselves in their various specialties since (and, sadly, moved on from Linn Records as a result). Particularly wonderful recordings are by the Palladian Ensemble (featuring the wonderful Rachel Podger, my favourite Baroque violinist) and by Pamela Thorby (who plays the recorder). Thorby’s Garden of Early Delights, performed together with Andrew Lawrence-King on harp and psaltery, is one of the loveliest selections of early Baroque music I’ve heard, beautifully played and recorded with an immense clarity, resonance and a width of sound stage second to none.
In fact, the audio quality of Linn’s work – there’s an interview with Linn’s chief producer/engineer, Calum Malcolm, here – is outstanding on every release. I’ve now bought and downloaded 320 kbps MP3 versions of a number of releases, and everything is breathtakingly well recorded.
Linn offers its own Adobe Air based download manager application, which works very well. The only complaint I have is about the somewhat awkwardly done digital booklets (they are PDFs of the print versions, so the pages are out of order in the PDF) and poor MP3 metadata. This latter issue is somewhat inexcusable for a download store – and while I understand that my 320 kbps MP3s are at the low end of Linn’s offerings and price point, there really is no reason why I should have to spend 10 minutes after every download importing and re-working the metadata in iTunes to ensure that it’s complete and accurate.
Another excellent digital music seller is Hyperion Records. Hyperion is primarily known for its outstanding efforts in chamber music, Lieder and the pre-classical repertoire. Its greatest claim to fame so far is probably the complete edition of Schubert Lieder (something I aim to own – and listen to – one of these years…).
Hyperion offers digital downloads either as VBR MP3s (targeting 320 kpbs) or FLAC (FLAC is generally emerging as the audiophile download format of choice – I grab FLAC where I can for archiving and down-convert to 320 kbps MP3s for the time being, in the interest of portability).
I’ve bought several excellent digital selections from Hyperion Records. Particularly enjoyable have been releases by Stephen Hough, an English pianist whom I admire greatly (and who also has an always intriguing and occasionally amusing Twitter presence). His Mozart Album is a wildly successful recital of Mozart and Mozart-inspired music, and I highly recommend it. I’ve also grabbed two very special Rossini releases – the Soirées musicales song cycle and an otherwise out-of-print edition of the String Sonatas in their original chamber version played by Elizabeth Wallfisch and ensemble.
Downloading from Hyperion is less convenient than Linn Records because Hyperion doesn’t offer a download manager (it references a few on its website, but alas – I use Google Chrome and none of the Firefox plugins support my browser) so you have to actually download each file separately. On the plus side, though, Hyperion’s metadata-labeling is superb and I have no completeness or accuracy concerns to report.
As I build my classical library, lingering doubts remain after every digital-only purchase. “If only I had bought the CD instead. What if MP3 or FLAC aren’t the last word yet for digital audio? If I owned the CD, at least I could re-rip it at a future date into whatever format will then be de rigueur.”
For right now, convenience wins out. 320 kpbs MP3s sound quite wonderful to my ears on most equipment (barring, perhaps, my main stereo in the living room, where they sound merely somewhat above acceptable but lack the fullness and depth of my CD player), and their portability-to-audiophile-to-economy ratio on a 160GB latest generation iPod is quite excellent (especially with one of these line-out iPod dock cables for the car).
There are other classical digital download options. Notably, Deutsche Grammophon offers some 3,500 of its releases, as well as some of the Decca catalogue (both now owned by Universal Music) as 320 kbps MP3 downloads. I haven’t tried this yet, but at first glance, the online catalogue seems somewhat confusing (you can always trust the corporate behemoth to create the dodgiest e-commerce offering). I was a little sad to see that the DG website doesn’t offer all of the newly merged Universal classical labels – I would have liked to be able to access the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi catalogue in this way, as it contains many gems I’d like to get my hands on digitally. Finally, I’m keen to see whether Harmonia Mundi itself, the fantastic French indie classical label, has digital sales plans of its own. Now that would be something…