Some people think Im cheap, but Im really just frugal. Theres 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 Ive finally managed to do something about it. And so can you!
Over the past year Ive made an amazing discovery that Id like to share. Shhh -- its the record industrys dirty little secret: you dont 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 werent 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, Id 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 hasnt 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 wasnt 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 Ive 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 dont smother their pricier competition? Marketing prowess and aesthetic snobbery aside, theres 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.
Ive 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 wont. Please dont be insulted; its just a fact of life. Most people dont savor each word of a book they read; they dont study each brushstroke of a painting they see; and they dont 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 cant be ignored. Think about it -- $17 is real money: a nice meal out, a movie date, a new shirt. But whats 99 cents? Just pocket change after youve 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 whats 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, Ive made lots of new musical friends.
But seasoned collectors are not the target audience for these discs, and if youre just starting out theres 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. Youll enjoy anything by Bach or Vivaldi, including harpsichord and organ solos and a wide diversity of concertos.
For intellectual stimulation, its 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 theyre 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. Thats 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. Its 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 youve always wanted to explore. Theyll calm you after a rough day. Theyre nice background for reading. Theyll add a touch of class to dinner. Theyll impress that special date.
Speaking of which, these CDs may not improve your sex life (thats clearly beyond the scope of this column), but they just might improve your mind. My sons 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 dont 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 youre excited about getting some great music for a pittance. If youre not already a classical buff, I envy you theres a whole world of fabulous music out there waiting for you to discover.
In the expanded version of this column, Id like to provide some specific suggestions among the hundred or so super-bargain CDs Ive 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 Ive opted mostly for complete works, youll 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 cant find these specific items, you may come across something comparable.
Its worth reemphasizing its so hard to go wrong at these prices. Indeed, in the entire batch I bought so far Ive found only three outright duds. One achieved the seemingly impossible task of making Tchaikovskys 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 Gershwins inimitable witty style. Even for $2 these were no bargain. But every one of the others was at least enjoyable and certainly good value. Thats an enviable rate of success, even among full-priced discs.
Its true that timings tend to be skimpy, with some discs barely half full. And you wont get any performance notes, pictures or artist bios (or even a booklet just a simple cover card). But to repeat my mantra you just cant complain of such things for a measly one or two bucks.
Ratings are always highly subjective, but Ive 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 musics essence.
-: Marginal, but still fair value for the price.
- -: Youre buying the jewelbox.
Copyright 1999 by Peter Gutmann