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I've been interested in records a whole lot longer than I've been a critic. When I was 1, Dad gave me my first album – Lily Pons singing excerpts from Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. Little did he know what he was unleashing. Collecting, as an art dealer in Hong Kong told me a score of years later, is a disease for which there are only two cures, one of which is moving to a tiny one-bedroom apartment. The other you don’t need to know, in this Age of COVID-19.
My first serious reviews, on the other hand, weren’t until a decade after that.
So records got the upper hand and were particularly important to a guy who came to love classical music while living in the country, east of Raleigh, during a time when the local FM station carried an hour of good music once a week – plus, of course, the Met broadcasts.
Now, the internet has revolutionized everything, literally. Among other things, it's made collecting infinitely easier – there are no more trips to Goodwill or Salvation Army stores, shuffling through dusty old albums. Nor is one reliant on the handful of NY-based record importers to help track down obscure labels from overseas. Today, one goes online to any of the usual vendors or to specialty websites like Discogs or British vendors like Presto or remainder houses like Berkshire or one of the great auction places like Polyphony or Mikrokosmos. A few clicks, a credit card, and voilà! It was with the help of these places – and some luck – that I have been able to complete some collecting projects that have consumed my interest for most of my adult life – seeking out "complete" sets of discs by Weingartner, Beecham, Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Constant Lambert, Talich, etc., and by numerous solo artists and vocalists, including Chaliapin, Gigli, Pinza, Supervia, and Beňačková – some dating back to the dawn of recorded sound. These pursuits have been greatly facilitated by the exceptional work of discographers, world-wide, because one must know what's there in order to find it; among the most comprehensive and extensive online sites is Michael Gray's Classical Discography, updated constantly (I know, because we were long-ago classmates at UNC, which is another story).
But we no longer have to have an original pressing in our hot little collecting hands because in this digital age, a copy is as good as the record itself – assuming, of course, that the person who digitized it knew what he (or she) was doing.
Speaking of which, my favorite transfer engineer in the whole world is Ward Marston, whose piano and vocal music reissues are the very best – and reasonably priced, too.
But I digress, for the purpose of this article is to inform you, Dear Reader, about the vast amount of music you can pull down for yourself, from cyberspace, at no cost. YouTube is the best known of the repositories, and it's fairly easy to search, although beware that some foreign users don't work in English, so locating obscure Russian titles (for example) can take a while. That said, there are foreign-language websites and translation services, too. Be patient. Don't give up.
In YouTube, you may go find all kinds of stuff – all 27 Myaskovsky symphonies, or Popov's six, for instance – or all the Janáĉek operas (in audio and even video) – or the complete chamber music of Carlos Chávez....
Do note that the inventory at YouTube is in large measure live performances, as opposed to commercial ones. In part, that's due to America's positively arcane copyright laws, driven (as has been widely lamented) by the Disney Corp., Sony, and the likes of the late Sonny Bono.
But then what do you do if you want to hold these things in your hands? In that case, you download a wonderful freeware program called Any Video Converter, or AVC. It really is free, and no, you don't need the enhanced version that they offer for sale. Download this to your DVD-burner-equipped PC or laptop (or invest in an inexpensive outboard burner and connect it to your machine with a USB cable). The software is basically intuitive. You need to remember that YouTube deals in video, even if what you are seeking is audio-only, so when you download, say, a symphony, you will get the audio along with a video of some sort – cover art, photos of the artists, etc. Thus all the AVC downloads go to DVD blanks. And the upper limit in terms of time is around four hours – long enough, please note, for Wagner's Parsifal or any of the Ring operas. Just remember to set the AVC basic quality to "fit to disc."
To give a single example, I just discovered a recording of the broadcast of Die Walküre that was Birgit Nilsson's very first Brünnhilde at Bayreuth – 27 July 1960. This is the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDPNMB8vH2k&t=5s. You can find the cast there, and it's one that's hard to beat.
Now, to download it via AVC, copy that link, paste it into the AVC "burn dvd" screen, wait till it downloads and converts (the time required will vary, based on the size of the file, the speed of your connection, etc.), pop a blank DVD in the slot, and when you are ready, click on "burn." Wait till it ejects and you are done. From cyberspace. For free. And you have 3:32:29 of some of the best Wagner in the history of recorded sound.
Bear in mind you can do this will all kinds of things – E.J. Moeran symphonies, Lennie's London Candide – you name it, and it’s probably out there.
The long and the short of this is that no matter how long we're holed up with the social distancing, we shall have MUSIC, by God!
Finally, to listen to this stuff you're going to be downloading, please see an article by the aforementioned Mike Gray that appeared in CVNA a while back – a veritable user's guide to tiny audio – all the components of which are also available – where else? – online. Click here.