The Joy of Downloading Classical Music
I admit that I could have added “and sorrow” to the title but this article is intended to be upbeat. It is based on about a year’s experience of regular downloading and, during the last six months or so, a conscious decision not to buy any more CDs. My intended target audience is mostly those who haven't yet embraced this development. The “nuts and bolts” of downloading are laid out elsewhere on the site with links to the main commercial sites and Brian Wilson has a regular monthly download round-up. There are some free (and legal) downloads around but I will only mention ones that I have purchased. There will I am afraid be a UK bias here because the major "superstore" with the greatest coverage and often the most competitive prices is Amazon. At the moment, for reasons that escape me, you can only download from Amazon UK if you are doing so from the UK. Most other major sites are, I believe, global. So I am sorry if the bargains I draw attention to will leave some readers gnashing their teeth.
The first issue is why download? There are several potential reasons and in my case the major one was storage space. After 25 years of collecting over 3,000 CDs and a reluctance to part with many of them, a house move forced me to accept that there is a limit on the number one can sensibly store in a way that they are all rapidly accessible. Electronic storage is cheap and a hard drive capable of containing as much music as I already have can be bought for about £70 and is smaller than a paperback book. Having said that, the first one I bought packed up after a few months so I would advise buying a good one and, most importantly, back-up is needed. This could be to a computer, separate hard drive or to CD or DVD. In the latter case I am not talking about burning but file transfer. A single DVD will perhaps hold about 40 CDs worth of mp3 files. Thus the first thing to do after downloading anything is to make a least one copy – this is perfectly legal and essential to avoid the grief of potential loss down the line. In general, most sites will let you re-download for a short period (although not Amazon unless you make a specific case for it to their customer service) but I very much doubt you will get anywhere if you go back to them months later with a "hard drive packed up" story.
The other reason for copying is to use the flexibility of having an electronic file. I use my portable mp3 relatively little but my car stereo plays mp3 files off a CD and therefore I can carry around a complete Bruckner symphony collection on a couple of CDs. But mostly I want to listen to music on my best sound system and therefore a way of doing that is essential. I started out by burning CDs for this purpose but that pretty much removes the storage space benefit. Sound systems are becoming geared up to downloads but, even if you have something which is not very modern there will be a way of doing this – for example a lead from computer to amplifier. Which brings me to the great sound debate – perhaps the major stumbling block for many. I agree with what David Barker has written on this – unless you suffer from audiophilia, anything at or above a bit rate of 192 kbps is likely to sound perfectly acceptable and you might be hard pushed to tell the difference from a CD. The system you play the file on will be a much bigger determinant of perceived quality than whether (say) an mp3 file is encoded at 256 or 320 kbps so I would suggest focusing your attention on that. If you are an audiophile then lossless downloads are increasingly becoming available although any price advantage over CD will probably be lost.
Some care is needed about sound quality in respect of 50+ years old out of copyright issues. For example, also on Amazon, Beecham’s Ein Heldenleben is a snip on the Past Classics label at 79p but sounds like it has just been taken straight off a crackly LP. On the other hand, there is a treasure trove of over 700 such recordings on Classicsonline, the Naxos Classical Archives label costing £1.99 per "disc" (with no single track purchase options) and my experience of the sound – for example, with Boult’s 1950s Brahms – has been generally positive. These recordings are only available for download so if this catalogue appeals then you will have to bite the bullet!
A big incentive to download is price and so it should be with more efficient storage and the middle-man cut out. The main message here is to shop around and also to look carefully within one site – Amazon UK quite often has the same recording available multiple times at different prices. Best to simply ignore some of the nonsense that is around since quite often it can work in your favour. One big bargain on Amazon UK is a complete set of Toscanini’s Beethoven symphonies made with the NBC symphony orchestra in the early 1950s for £3.99. Why should I care that some of the individual issues from the same series also cost £3.99? The sound can be sampled before purchase - this is often at a lower bit rate - and is really pretty decent for the period although you will look in vain to find out anything about the recording on Amazon UK. My reaction to that is to regard it as a challenge to see what I can find out elsewhere. I know that many deplore the lack of documentation that some sites offer - although this is not so for Hyperion, Classicsonline and the Classical Shop - but in most cases there are alternative sources available on the internet.
One initial big downside for me was the problem of continuity across tracks. This is particularly an issue with opera recordings. There are ways round this and one answer is not to use Windows Media Player but to download some free software called Winamp. I confess that I also have tended to avoid downloading works with lots of tracks where continuity might be an issue. Rather as with price, it is worth looking around. Mahler’s 8th symphony is generally a problematic work in this respect but Kubelik’s recording for Audite only has three tracks in total and costing a mere £2.37 on Amazon UK is well worth the money.
I can’t deny that one of the benefits of downloading is the quick fix. The Toscanini Beethoven set downloaded whilst I had a fairly brief bath - my house move resulted in much better broadband - and not having to wait for something to arrive whenever it might happen to do so is a big attraction. I suppose there might be a danger of overuse or addiction but, if you were already hooked on acquiring CDs, is this really worse?
Perhaps the best designed site of all is Hyperion’s recent development which is incorporated within their website and only offers their recordings. Classicsonline and Chandos are excellent too and offer reasonably wide coverage but with quite big gaps. Amazon has the biggest coverage. I have tried Passionato and e-music and not returned but I have avoided iTunes altogether. Pristine Classical is excellent for historical recordings.
Overall, I feel positive about the development of downloading. Above all, I think it is leading to greater availability of recordings – there is a lot out there that can now be downloaded that is otherwise not available. Also, issues of duplicated couplings can usually avoided by picking off particular works from an offering although there are quite a lot of arbitrary “album only” designations out there. I suspect they discourage rather than encourage purchase and the reasons for them escape me entirely.
To end, below is a personal list of twenty downloads I have particularly enjoyed that should not break the bank, starting with some quite remarkable bargains.
Patrick C Waller
Work/artists/label Website Cost
Pettersson: Symphony No. 5  Amazon UK £0.69
Berliner Sibelius Orchestra/Andreas Peer Kähler (Bluebell)
Pettersson: Symphony No. 14  Amazon UK £0.69
Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Comissiona (Phono Suecia)
Alfven: Symphony No. 4 Amazon UK £0.69
Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Stig Westerberg (Bluebell)
Arensky: Violin Concerto Amazon UK £0.69
Irina Medvedeva (Digital Music Group)
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris Amazon UK £1.38
NYPO/Leonard Bernstein (Sony)
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 Amazon UK £1.77
Dmitry Shostakovich Jnr (Chandos)
Lutoslawski: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 etc. Amazon UK £2.07
LAPO/Salonen (Sony)
Mahler: Symphony No. 8 Amazon UK £2.37
BRSO/Kubelik (Audite)
Dutilleux/Maxwell Davies: Violin Concertos Amazon UK £2.76
Isaac Stern (Sony)
Roslavets: Piano Trios Nos. 2-4 Amazon UK £2.79
Trio Fontenay (Warner)
Liszt: An introduction to the complete recording Hyperion £2.99
Leslie Howard (Hyperion)
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies AmazonUK £3.99
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini (O-Tune Classics)
Maxwell Davies: Taverner Amazon UK £4.99
BBCSO/Knussen (NMC) - see review
J.S. Bach: Inventions and Sinfonias Amazon UK £5.99
Tatiana Nikolayeva (Olympia)
Hindemith: various works including Horn Concerto Amazon UK £6.98
Dennis Brain; Philharmonia Orchestra/Paul Hindemith (EMI)
Brahms: Four Symphonies etc. Classicsonline £7.96
LPO/Adrian Boult (1950s) (Naxos Historical Archives) - see review
Martinu: Six Symphonies The Classical Shop £10.00
RNSO/Bryden Thomson (Chandos)
Scarlatti: 53 sonatas Amazon UK £11.98
Ralph Kirkpatrick (Urania)
Schubert: Piano Music Volume 1 Classicsonline £11.99
Imogen Cooper (Avie)
Richter: Complete EMI recordings Amazon UK £18.99
Sviatoslav Richter (EMI)