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 and informed opinion. I've focused on sites of particular value to others who share my enthusiasm for historical non-vocal performance. Most are labors of love by devoted fans, whom I've tried to credit wherever possible.
Since my choices are highly subjective, I thought it would be best to provide a narrative rather than a bare list. I've included sites devoted to specific downloadable files, conductors, soloists, composers and commercial producers, together with some more generic ones having valuable opinion or extensive links of their own. If you've found other good sites, please let me know.
One bit of advice, though: since this section was first posted in May 1998, well over half the sites I'd once listed have already 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.
First … some sites that provide a unique and thrilling service to fans of historical recordings. While most websites (including this one) are really just pseudo-books, these take full advantage of the unique capacities of the Internet.
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 amateurs who stream music and scan files. I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not endorsing the sites that peddle unlicensed downloads of currently-available recordings – and even new ones – that are not only illegal but unethical, as they steal revenues from legitimate distributors and artists and undermine the commercial incentive for their valuable work. Rather, I salute those devoted fans who restore and make available older records that deserve to be remembered, cherished and enjoyed. Among their many triumphant labors of love are a nearly complete set of Stokowski acoustic and electrical 78s up to 1940; thousands of cylinders plus their historical background at the University of California at Santa Barbara's Cylinder Digitalization and Preservation Program site; dozens of pioneering 1920s recordings by the Capet, London and Virtuoso Quartets that preserve the style of their time; and the addictive CHARM site, an astounding collection of nearly 5,000 classical 78s, scrupulously transferred (with copious articles and examples about the process) by the AHRC Research’s Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music. In addition to generally excellent sound files available for streaming or downloading (and hence preservation on CDs), most sites also feature informative annotations, appealing graphics and extensive links to other sites of interest – and all for free. Also well worth mentioning is Pristine Audio – although commercial, their sophisticated restorations are offered in a choice of download quality, ranging from mp3 (which sounds just fine to me, especially in their subtly effective ambient stereo) to lossless studio masters, along with printable CD covers, artwork and commentary. Their generous selection of free downloads of complete movements and entire older albums proves that their heart truly is in the right place.
In a sense, these sites redress the problem caused by the ridiculous longevity of American copyrights, which Congress extends for another 20 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 infringement claims (coupled with devastating statutory damages) by heirs of heirs of heirs 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 compensating artists while enabling future generations to build upon their work as a basis for study and their own creativity, or just for sheer enjoyment of our shared culture. As a result, despite tight and perpetual control in America, the entire pre-stereo era of recordings is free of copyright protection overseas. It seems a shame to have to turn to (and pay) Europe and Japan for access to our own heritage, but that’s become the result of our absurd law. Recently, though, the Internet has penetrated these barriers, and so dedicated overseas fans of artists of the past are free to offer us enrichment with a click of a few buttons. One word of caution: presumably due to storage costs, many sites take down their posts after relatively brief periods, so be sure to download anything of interest before it again disappears.
Along similar lines is Pierre Schwob's astounding Classical Archives, which features tens of thousands of full-length MIDI files. While the piano and organ pieces are remarkably realistic, others sound more like a calliope than a genuine ensemble and there's an overall lack of expressive feeling. Still, you can hear a vast amount of great music, including Beethoven's complete piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies. While full access requires a subscription, up to five files are available for free each day. More specialized and even more sophisticated is Monir Tayeb's Berlioz site, a marvellous resource which features MIDI versions of dozens of complete works, together with synchronized full scores and lots of documentation.
Turning back to the written word (or note), another remarkable on-line resource is the Petrucci Music Library, an amazing selection of nearly 100,000 scanned public domain scores available as free downloads. Many works are presented in multiple historic and modern editions, arrangements, piano reductions, individual performing parts and even autographs, all of which afford fascinating opportunities for research and expanded appreciation. The depth and variety is a huge bounty for starving musicians, humble writers who need to consult an occasional score, and scholars interested in comparing various editions. As a single example, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is available in six versions of the complete orchestral score (including the first 1809 London publication and an 1835 Paris edition), eleven individual instrumental parts, and six piano transcriptions (including ones by Beethoven’s student Czerny and by Liszt). I personally find the scores invaluable as an objective basis for gaining a deeper understanding of a complex work and to assess the extent of performers’ interpretive input.
Collectors and others who seek complete lists of 78s issued by companies both huge (Columbia, Victor) and obscure (Ammor, Par-O-Ket), classical and pop, or who want to know the recording date of a record they've just found, can spend hours absorbed in the remarkable 78 discography site.
A testament to the ardent devotion that Wilhelm Furtwängler still inspires a half-century after his death is the remarkable compendium by Henning Smidth of articles, reviews and commentary, organized by subject and language, that puts Furtwängler's "official" site to shame. Beyond thousands of entries in English and German, would you believe several dozen each in Chinese and Finnish, and even six in Estonian? An extremely thorough Furtwängler discography, compiled by Zoltan Rockenbauer, Karoly Dan and the Furtwängler Society of Hungary, lists all of his known recordings (78, 45 [!], LP and CD).
Perhaps it's a sign of the degree to which his reputation has faded, but Arturo Toscanini, the other undisputed giant of 20th century conducting, somewhat amazingly has no thorough website to speak of. John Wilson compiled a Toscanini discography but it's limited to CD transfers and doesn't appear to have been updated in years. More comprehensive and current is a Japanese discography compiled by a Mr. Yocchan and a Mr. Sakamoto which also includes specialized lists of Toscanini concerts for each of the ensembles he led, reprinted from Maestro magazine.
Completing the triumverate of departed European conductors who aroused reverent devotion, Sergiu Celibidache's websites are disappointing, but Tatsuro Ouchi has compiled an amazing list of all Celibidache performances. You can narrow the list to recordings by using "LP" and/or "CD" in the site's internal search engine.
The most idolized American conductor (and composer and teacher) was Leonard Bernstein, whose official website is organized as a virtual museum with videos, sound clips, photos and scores (and, alas, a souvenir shop).
Among British fans, Sir Thomas Beecham aroused equal enthusiasm and devotion, both musical and national. Brendan Wehrung has compiled a Beecham CD discography.Wehrung has also compiled CD discographies of Willem Mengelberg, Paul Paray and Eugene Goosens.
Fans of Leopold Stokowski are blessed with Robert M Stumpf's annotated discography that discusses all the CDs (and there are a lot of them!), but not the 78s or LPs.
An Otto Klemperer discography compiled by Cynthia Remmers is limited to currently-available CDs, but is enriched with brief reviews from various published sources and avoids blind adulation by including unfavorable ones.
Eugene Ormandy, respected more than revered during his long career, has inspired a surprising number of good sites, accessible through this listing by Robert L. Jones.
Sorry, but that seems to be about it! I've omitted sites devoted to such luminaries as Ansermet and Koussevitzsky because they're rudimentary and those of Monteux and Mravinsky that seem to have already slipped off into cyberspace, as has an extensive discography of Stokowski's huge shellac and vinyl output.
Among great pianists, Martha Argerich inspires the most extensive site by Andrys Basten, although many of the links are commercialized. Glenn Gould has both an official site with an illustrated bio, discography and audio clips, as well as another in which Michael Davidson has posted lots of textual material. Svatislav Richter, Leopold Godowsky, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Vladimir Horowitz, Ivan Moravec and Earl Wild also benefit from informative sites.
Efficient listings of recorded performances are available for Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer, Walter Gieseking, Emil Gilels, Leopold Godowsky, Friedrich Gulda, Wilhelm Kempff and Dinu Lipatti. For many of these we have Korean fan Youngrok Lee to thank. Mark and Laura Arnest have compiled discographies for the 21 students of Liszt who are known to have made disc or roll recordings, including d'Albert, Friedheim, Greef, Lamond, Rosenthal, Sauer and Weiss.
For other giants of the keyboard, there are two wonderful omnibus sites. "The Piano Wizard" features cogent appreciations of piano masters, including Rachmaninoff, Hoffman, Cortot, Schnabel, Backhaus, Rubinstein, Arrau, Serkin. Arbiter Records devotes a portion of its commercial site to dozens of perceptive pianist biographies by Allan Evans that range from a few sentences to several pages.
Amazingly, among the legions of violinists and other great instrumental soloists of the past only Bronislaw Huberman seems to have inspired a thorough and attractive site, hailing from New Zealand, on which Patrick Harris lavishes many audio cuts. More rudimentary listings are available for Yehudi Menuhin, A HREF:"fischer.hosting.paran.com/music/Milstein/discography-milstein.htm" TARGET="new_window">Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh, as well as for the legendary Budapest String Quartet.
The vast majority of sites devoted to an individual composer seem content with a biography, picture and links. Consistent with his universal appeal, the site for Bach maintained by Jan Hanford and Jan Koster is of particular value to record collectors. Beyond a profusely illustrated biography and extensive links, each work is catalogued by title, chronology and BWV number and extensively cross-linked to reviews of past and present recordings.
A site devoted to Handel by Dr. Brad Leissa is especially well done, including an annotated list of compositions and contemporaneous performances. Berlioz has inspired both an "official" site of the Berlioz Society and one by ardent enthusiast Matthew Tepper. Lani and Judy Spahr's Anton Bruckner discography includes extensive analyses of the various editions of each of his works and their respective recordings. A Wagner site by Hannu Salmi provides extensive background and literary sources for his major operas. A Gustav Mahler site is a marvelous resource for record fans, as Derek Barker considers with great perception the numerous recorded versions of each major work. Of equal quality and depth is another Mahler discography by Tony Duggan. Another site by Jason Greshes features a substantial Mahler biography. And a young visitor (we sure need more of those!) from Colorado kindly pointed out a set of links to material about 25 composers.
Regrettably, most of the major labels have vapid, stale websites and tend to treat sincere listener inquiries with benign contempt. Three smaller independents that specialize in historical reissues have informative sites that focus more on their philosophies and details of their releases than on how to order - Music and Arts, Tahra and Doremi; the former is enriched with hundreds of audio clips. Iconoclastic Naxos has a fine series of carefully-restored historical reissues at incredibly low prices (but most are no longer available in America due to possible copyright restrictions); the Naxos website offers generous sample tracks (often an entire album) to audition and enjoy. An especially valuable resource for out of print historical CDs is Berkshire Record Outlet.
The most comprehensive archive is by the prestigious British Gramophone magazine, which has generously posted every review it has published since 1983. Recently, its American counterpart, Fanfare magazine, posts some of its recent reviews and articles but its archive is accessible only to subscribers. The International Record Review site features sample reviews from its monthly publication and links to hundreds of record label websites.
The British Broadcasting Corporation has posted a fabulous archival trove of nearly 200 of its weekly “Discovering Music” series of 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 composers’ intentions and methods. Other shows address topics from rhythm and harmony to musical fairy tales and Indian ragas. And, at least to these American ears, the pleasure is immeasurably increased by those splendid British accents!
For unpublished material, the Classical.net website, Classical CD Review, Audiophile Audition, Classical Musicweb and Classics Today all have large sections of CD reviews by distinguished and well-informed writers, with particular emphasis on historical reissues. Hailing from Singapore, The Flying Inkpot combines reviews of specific discs with helpful overviews and introductory surveys.
Many of the sites listed above have specialized links sections. Youngrok Lee has compiled a helpful listing of sites devoted to individual artists, many of which include discographies (of which I've provided direct links to the most valuable in my own listings above). Among others, Dave Lampson's Classical.net is the largest, extending beyond the usual composers, artists and record companies to dozens of classical radio stations and audio manufacturers and loads of introductory essays, lists and reviews.
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 © 1999-2011 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.