Multiple Choice

Most classical music that is available in recorded form, unless it is very new or very obscure, is available in several (or sometimes very many) different recordings by different artists (or perhaps by the same artists at different times, which Heraclitus would tell us amounts to much the same thing).  This means that you are usually confronted with a, sometimes bewilderingly wide, choice when shopping for classical music.

My usual approach, unless I’ve heard (or heard about) a particular performance that I want to get, is similar to the way I go about  buying wine – look for something cheap with a nice label.  In the case of music, this translates to nice cover art on the album, although there are some record labels such as Naxos that I’m generally confident will give me  a decent recording towards the lower end of the budget spectrum. If I’m buying online (which is where I do pretty much all my music shopping these days), I’ll also look for reviews and let them help inform my choice.

Fitting in with this relative lack of concern for who is actually performing the music, I find my preference is to fill my classical music library mostly with a wide variety of different pieces rather than getting multiple copies of the same works performed by different artists.  On the other hand, sometimes – more often by accident than design – I do end up with several copies of the same work.

Usually this comes about because I’ve already got a copy of something but the best way I can find to get a copy of something else I want is to get it bundled with the thing I’ve already got.  For instance, I already had a recording of Bach’s Magnificat in D (BWV 243; performed by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford and the  Northern Chamber Orchestra, on the Naxos label; coupled with Vivaldi’s Gloria RV589) but, when I came to look for a recording of his Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), the most attractive option I could find (which probably means the cheapest available that had reasonable reviews) came bundled with another Magnificat performance, this time by the Gabrieli Consort & Players (released on DG Archiv).   The Magnificat happens to be one of my favourite Bach works, and he’s my all-time favourite composer, so it was no great hardship to have two versions of it in my library.

I can only think of two occasions so far when I’ve deliberately acquired a second version of music I’ve already got (excluding things I had on tape, as I’ve tried to replace most of those with CD or MP3 copies for greater convenience).  Both were with the works of Beethoven.

The first was his symphony cycle.  I got a boxed set, mostly performed by the Ljubljana Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Anton Nanut (although two of them are by the Slovak Philharmonic with a couple of different conductors), back in about 1992.  Apart from the opening two chords of the Eroica symphony, which I always felt to be slightly weedy in this version (certainly compared with the lush recording on the old tape I had of it performed, IIRC, by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan), I am perfectly happy with this set.  I’m sure it’s not the definitive Beethoven symphony cycle recording, if such a thing exists, but it’s good enough for me.

However, when I found a copy of Beethven’s symphonies performed by Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (which I remember watching on TV back in the 1980s, shortly after they were recorded) going for a very reasonable price a few years ago, I snapped them up.  Not only had I (correctly) remembered the Norrington performances as having been excellent but these were pioneers of what, as I recall, was at the time called authentic performance and is now generally referred to as historically informed performance (or HIP) — i.e. they used instruments such as natural trumpets and gut-strung fiddles and aimed to recreate performance practices as they would have been in Beethoven’s own day (such as smaller ensembles and generally faster tempos).  As such, the Norrington recording represented quite a different approach to the works to that taken by the Ljubljana Symphony / Slovak Philharmonic, which stuck to more traditional modern performance practices and instruments (if you’ll forgive the, hopefully intelligible, oxymoron). As a fringe benefit, I also got duplicate copies of 3 of Beethoven’s overtures (Egmont, Coriolan and Prometheus), since these were included in the Norrington set and I already had them on an album of Beethoven overtures performed by Kurt Masur and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

The other work which I purposely bought in two separate versions was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Op. 123).  Again I have a “modern-style” recording by Otto Klemperer with the New Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra and a more HIP style one by John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.  In this case, I can’t remember which one I got first, but I do recall getting the second one as a deliberate contrast to the first.  I enjoy both versions very much, although I’ve not sat down and carefully compared them head to head.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much more of their work I have than any other composers, most of the duplicates in my classical music collection come in the works of Bach and Beethoven (my third favourite, and probably third best represented, is Brahms but I don’t think I yet have more than one copy of anything by him).  However, the single most duplicated piece I have is the Mandolin concerto in C, RV425, by Antonio Vivaldi, of which I have three copies (as well as the sheet music – the solo part is actually quite playable).  One is by Musici di San Marco (dir.  Alberto Lizzio), on a budget label CD of Vivaldi concertos on authentic instruments that I picked up years ago.  Another is by Il Giardino Armonico on a collection of Vivaldi’s mandolin and lute concertos (or rather, concertos featuring those instruments), which I got last year mainly for the Concerto in G for 2 mandolins, RV 532 (when I was getting more seriously into mandolin playing) and the final version came on the CD accompanying the book The Complete Mandolinist by Marilynn Mair (an excellent tutor book, somewhat biased towards classical mandolin playing, and also the source of my sheet music for the Vivaldi concerto).

It is certainly good to listen to different versions of the same piece from time to time, in order to hear different nuances of the music brought out by the different interpretations.  As they say in France, vive la difference!