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The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Classical Music: Where to Begin?

  7th February 2024

7th February 2024


Of the many questions we’re asked by our customers, one of the most difficult – posed to us just recently – is how to start a classical music collection. Where to begin? Without knowing the person, their character, likes and dislikes over a wide range of subjects from film and literature to food and clothes, it’s almost impossible to give a helpful answer. In music, there’s no ‘one size fits all’. When the old and much-revered Penguin Guide to Classical Music wrote sniffily of one slightly esoteric album that ‘it will not appeal to everyone’, it begged the question: what will? Mozart concertos might be a safe bet for some, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for others, but there’s no music that is guaranteed to satisfy everyone.

One very obvious starting point is to find out whether the prospective newbie likes the sound of the human voice, particularly the classically-trained singing voice. For some, ‘warbling’ – no matter how finely executed – is an absolute turn-off. My late mother couldn’t abide solo singing, although she enjoyed her choral music; others will find that even massed voices grate. In which case, opera, oratorio and song are all no-go areas, at least as starting points. So the next thing to discover is whether a single instrument (most obviously the piano) might interest them, or whether several or many instruments together would be more compelling. For many listeners, orchestral music is a thrilling starting-point: begin with Beethoven’s Fifth or Pastoral symphonies, and in time move on to the glories of the late sonatas and quartets. Or the ubiquitous ‘Moonlight’ Sonata might equally be a way of entry.

Some listeners find the regular phrase lengths and pulsating rhythms of Baroque music immediately appealing, while others will feel that even the more nuanced approach of the current crop of period instrument performers is still too much like ‘sewing machine’ music. Maybe the more relaxed, cantabile lines, the easy distinction between melody and accompaniment of the Classical era would be a better option? Still others will find the direct emotional involvement of High Romanticism (Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsky et al.) immediately gripping, or the big sounds and unexpected textures of Late Romanticism in Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Nevertheless, there are always those for whom such mainstream recommendations will feel too ‘old school’, and for whom the outlying periods of Medieval, early Renaissance and modern music will hold greater fascination. If your hinterland includes folk music, Medieval secular music (i.e. not composed for church services but for court, tavern or wayside) might be just up your street, and some experimental modern music – Cage, Feldman, and more recent sound-sculptures using ‘found objects’ – could be on the list too. If you’re a movie buff, film music could be a starting point, whether the currently ubiquitous John Williams, Ennio Morricone, or classics by the likes of Vaughan Williams, Walton and Malcolm Arnold.

Style is such a difficult thing to pin down – as generations of academics will testify – that guessing what particular styles and genres of music will be to the liking of someone is a notoriously tricky business. Just as difficult for the newcomer is negotiating the way round performances: which recordings of particular works are the best for my collection? And again (as we’ve previously discussed here), there’s no easy answer. The venerable recordings of yesteryear are untouchable greats for many collectors, while younger listeners (whose wider range of listening frequencies will be more sensitive to things like tape hiss) will often prefer the cleaner sound of modern recordings. Even there, the choice between no-holds-barred expressive involvement or a more analytical, detached style of execution with greater emphasis on detail can be a deciding factor.

The solution to all these questions? Firstly, listen as widely as possible: to the radio (whether BBC Radio 3, Classic FM or Scala), on YouTube or Spotify, to find out what clicks with you. If radio, have a notebook to hand so that you can jot down particulars of works and performers, or search the (often helpful) playlists listed on the online schedules. Computer algorithms mean that YouTube will often come up with relevant (and sometimes unexpected) links to other music and performances in a similar vein. After this, read around: print versions of the old Penguin and Gramophone guides can still be found, though both are now rather out of date. Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine will vary from issue to issue. If you can, subscribe to the online Gramophone reviews database, although many of their most interesting features, including the Gramophone Collection, are often trickier to find. Other online review sites such as ClassicsToday.com and MusicWeb International have thousands of free-to-access reviews, which can be daunting for the absolute newcomer but often give very helpful pointers. And Radio 3’s Record Review has a large archive of Building a Library podcasts which is well worth exploring.

Don’t take everything you read as gospel, however! Even the opinions of seasoned critics are ultimately personal, however informed they are by years of listening. Ultimately, you should trust your ears. If your interest has been piqued by, say, the recent news coverage of John Cage’s ORGAN2/ASLSP, why not take the plunge with the more manageable (and considerably shorter!) recorded version of the piece on Wergo and see where that takes you? (Organ music is another notorious turn-off for some listeners, but the music of Bach, Widor, Messiaen and others is essential listening for many.) In fact, just diving in is probably the safest recommendation of all. Classical music isn’t about amassing a library of Great Works endorsed by critics, but potentially a lifetime’s voyage of discovery, which can take you to an endless variety of surprising and enchanting places. Happy listening!

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A big thank you for the many supportive messages received during my recent necessary absences. They are much appreciated, and the circumstances were pressing and unavoidable, but I’m happy to be back and will do my best to keep you informed, educated and entertained throughout 2024!

Recommended recordings:
100 Best Classics (multiple artists) 9029597556
Frozen Time: Works for Organ by Cage & Hosokawa (Dominik Susteck) WER73682

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