There are still people around who play 78 rpm records with cactus needles, and no doubt 20 or 30 years from now some people will still be playing records pressed on vinyl discs and rotating at 33 rpm. But less than two years after the introduction of compact discs to America, it is safe to predict that the age of the LP is approaching its end.
The LP epoch was a good time for music lovers, an era of liberation and growth for musical tastes, a period of tremendous excitement. And it is dead -- or at least mortally wounded. By 1990, perhaps sooner, CD will be the standard format for recorded music.
The stiffest resistance to the compact disc has been, curiously but predictably, among hard-core audiophiles -- people who do not blink at a price tag of $5,000 for the new Tandberg TD-50 tape deck or the $42,000 WAMM (Wilson Audio Modular Monitor) speaker systems. Part of their criticism, based on deficiencies of CD sound as heard on state-of-the-art equipment, may be justified. Digital recording and playback technology, at this stage, cannot always match the refinements introduced in nearly a half-century of LP experience.
But some complaints about digital sound may simply mask a deep emotional or financial investment in the obsolescent technology. Some people like to fuss with disc-cleaning gadgets; some have spent thousands of dollars on LP records and years of their lives in search of the ultimate stereo cartridge.
They are welcome to their enthusiasms, of course, but ultimately their arguments will not impress (or even reach) the average music lover who is looking for durable recordings with reasonably good sound in a convenient, acceptably priced format. CDs sound excellent on the average home system, and they continue to sound good, unlike LPs and even tapes, no matter how many times you play them.
They allow you to hear a whole composition (or a whole act of an opera) lasting more than an hour without interruption. The costs of CD hardware and software are going down more rapidly than anyone would have dared to predict. Some CD playback units now cost less than some audiophiles pay for a stereo cartridge, not to mention the turntable and tone arm. And the price of a disc, originally about twice that of an LP, is coming down rapidly. By the end of this year, most companies will probably have a policy of price parity for CDs, LPs and cassettes. Also developing rapidly is the remastering of classic LP performances into digital format.
The next step in the process will be the issuing of CD recordings without bothering to put out an LP counterpart. Major companies will hesitate for a few more years before taking this step, but a first gesture in that direction has already been made by Telarc, one of America's pioneers in digital recording. On Telarc CD-80105, Robert Shaw conducts an excellent performance of Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" that will not be released on LP.
This reflects the fact that Telarc's (largely audiophile) audience has recently been buying CDs at a ratio of 7 to 3 compared with LPs. Filling out the record is an equally impressive performance of Poulenc's "Gloria," which is available on LP coupled with his Organ Concerto. Apparently, Poulenc fans are expected to get the LP while choral fans (still, one suspects, the majority of Robert Shaw's constituency) will want the LP.
The CDs listed below are available in LP format at the moment. I suspect many will still be available in CD long after the LP has been withdrawn.
Verdi: "Macbeth." Mara Zampieri, Renato Bruson, Robert Lloyd, Neil Shicoff; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin; Giuseppe Sinopoli (Philips 412 133-2; 3 CDs with libretto).
The first CD edition of "Macbeth" is appropriately innovative, focusing on clarity and subtlety -- two of the medium's prime virtues. Sinopoli respects what is written in the score more than what "tradition" prescribes; he has rethought the opera thoroughly and conducts it as though it were brand-new. His interpretation is even stronger in dramatic than in musical impact, giving Shakespeare something like his due in this curious Shakespeare-Verdi hybrid. The singers (notably Zampieri, whose voice is more striking than beautiful, as Verdi said it should be) wholeheartedly accept this emphasis and the result ultimately strengthens their musical impact.
This is sometimes a disturbing "Macbeth" but almost always an exciting one. The disc's capacity for more than an hour of music is especially welcome in opera, though the side breaks in this production do not correspond to changes of act or scene; Disc 2 begins with "La luce langue" and Disc 3 with the Act 3 witches' chorus. The sound is splendid.
Debussy: "La Mer"; "Trois Nocturnes." Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Sir Colin Davis (Philips CD 411 433-2). Davis and the Bostonians present a sea more like the Atlantic around Gloucester than the Mediterranean -- brisk and bracing, with taut ensemble playing and crisp accents. Debussy's ambiguously suggestive music allows many interpretations and the orchestra plays superbly. The three sharply contrasted nocturnes are vividly and distinctively characterized; the digital sound has high impact, though a more clearly defined bass would be welcome in some passages.
Cherubini: "Medea" (highlights). Maria Callas, Mirto Picchi, Giuseppe Modesti, Miriam Pizzarini; La Scala chorus and orchestra, Tullio Serafin (Rodolphe CD, RPC 32376). This is part of the more-or-less complete 1957 recording that was once available from Mercury. It is not generally considered one of the great Callas recordings or even one of her better performances of "Medea," but in the digitally remastered sound and the carefully chosen excerpts, she is quite impressive. There is a bit of tightness in some of the top notes, an occasional hint of fatigue in the tone, but the voice is generally well controlled, much less strained than in her later years and dramatically compelling. The sound is remarkably good for its age.
Mozart: Symphonies No. 39 in E-flat, K. 543; 40 in G Minor, K. 550. Bamberg Symphony, Eugen Jochum (Orfeo CD, C 045 901 A). Modern instruments have begun to sound old-fashioned in Mozart, and this exquisite interpretation might easily be overlooked in an era when small orchestras playing on old instruments at a lowered pitch have become fashionable. But Jochum is a great conductor working with a good orchestra, and his Mozart, "authentic" or not, has always been something special. There is poetry in this performance, from the grave, superbly styled introduction to No. 39 through the brisk, optimistic finale of the pensive No. 40. The sound is superb.
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor ("Scottish"); "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Overture. Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (Orfeo CD, C 089-841 A). This is a magnificent performance, beautifully recorded -- the first on compact disc and easily equal or superior to any on LP.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64; Octet in E flat, Op. 20 (arr. Zuckerman). St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Pinchas Zuckerman conductor and violin soloist (Philips CD 412 212-2).
A chamber orchestra, particularly one as proficient as Zuckerman's in St. Paul, is quite enough for the transparently scored Mendelssohn concerto, and the soloist-conductor has obviously given careful thought to his interpretation in both capacities. The performance is fresh, distinctive and intensely communicative, with its effectiveness enhanced by the small scale of the performing forces. Zuckerman's arrangement of the Octet for string orchestra (an interpretation permitted by Mendelssohn in the original manuscript) gives the music a pleasant variety of textures without losing its intimacy. The playing is good in both works and this is a highly enjoyable recording.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (arr. Wilhelm Popp). Spohr: Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 47 (arr. Chr. Gottlieb Belcke). Andras Adorjan, flutist; Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, David Shallon (Orfeo CD, C 046-831 A). Composers of the 19th century seldom wrote flute concertos, but flutists of the 19th century remedied this oversight by expropriating parts of the violin repertoire for their own purposes. Andras Adorjan, principal flutist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, has found two vintage 19th-century transcriptions and presents them in exemplary performances. A must for flute lovers, an interesting novelty for others.
Hans Pfitzner: Lieder. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Hartmut Ho ll, piano. (Orfeo C 036 821 A). There are two points of interest: the composer, whose representation on records is shamefully inadequate, and the baritone whose long and honorable career must be at or near its end. On the evidence of this disc Pfitzner's songs are a major 20th-century continuation and development of the tradition dating back to Schubert. Fischer-Dieskau's voice, on this record, is no longer the glorious instrument it was in the 1950s. But a substantial part of the old splendor remains, and the artistry is still amazing. A leaflet with the disc supplies texts but not translations; clearly, this is for hard-core lieder enthusiasts, and for them it is highly recommended.
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; "Posthorn" Serenade. Prague Chamber Orchestra (Telarc CD 80108). Mozart has been a favorite in Prague since the first performance of "The Marriage of Figaro" there, after it flopped in Vienna. Under the baton of a fine interpreter of 18th-century music (making his Telarc debut), these favorite serenades are beautifully performed. The digital sound is rich and natural, equally impressive in the massed-string tone of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and the rich, brass-flavored passages of the "Posthorn."
Ein Straussfest: Explosions Polka, Blue Danube, Radetzky March, Tales from the Vienna Woods and 8 other selections. Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel (Telarc CD 80098). This disc bears a warning: "Lower levels are recommended until a safe level can be determined for your equipment." Those who have had to replace fuses after playing Telarc's "1812" Overture will want to pay attention. The first sound on the record (an explosion opening the "Explosions" polka) will serve as a test, and the disc itself is a fine demonstration of CD's potential for conveying with total realism the sounds of the popping champagne corks, rifles, train whistles and bells that are part of this music. Behind the sound effects, Kunzel (Arthur Fiedler's true successor in this repertoire) conducts with a true Viennese lilt.