In 1908, the Victor Talking Machine Co. brought out a recording of the “Sextet” from Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” — a piece that contains not one but two of the catchiest tunes on the planet — in a performance headed up by the most celebrated tenor of his time, Enrico Caruso, and the soprano Marcella Sembrich.
Victor charged $7 for the privilege of owning the record — this, at a time when $7 would buy a luxurious weekend in one of the Willard Hotel’s best suites, pay a month’s rent in less-costly sections of the District, and even serve as the beginning of a down payment on a comfortable house in most of the 46 United States. The performance was indeed a lyrical one, but it lasted only about four minutes and took up one side of a fragile shellac disc that would break into pieces if you happened to drop it. Nevertheless, it sold and sold.
Here, for a change, is some good financial news — right now, you can go online and listen to this recording as often as you want to on YouTube. Better still, a Web site titled archive.org will let you download not only Caruso’s 1908 “Sextet” with Sembrich, but also the other recordings he made of the same piece with Luisa Tetrazzini and Amelita Galli-Curci. Indeed, most of the tenor’s 260-odd recordings are yours for the taking — and Caruso is one of those rare artistic figures whom it is impossible to overrate.
But archive.org has much more to offer than Caruso. You can also find many of Leopold Stokowski’s flabbergasting recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra (100 people playing as though they were all part of a single gigantic pipe organ in the sky). Here also is the complete recorded legacy of the brilliant and path-breaking Bert Williams, the leading African American entertainer of the early 20th century; the single best Gilbert and Sullivan performance ever recorded (a miraculously fleet, playful 1927 version of “The Gondoliers,” peopled with musicians who had known both creators), and hundreds of hours of Grateful Dead performances, courtesy of the band itself.
You ought to explore archive.org for yourself, for it also offers photographs, out-of-copyright books, films and a trove of other material that has nothing to do with music. But don’t forget the Library of Congress and its “National Jukebox,” which began with more than 10,000 discs made by Victor before 1925 and has been adding to its collection ever since.
By any standards, it has never been so simple and inexpensive to surround yourself with music. In the late 19th century, it was necessary to travel to Bayreuth, Germany, a small Bavarian village, if you wanted to hear Richard Wagner’s self-embargoed final opera “Parsifal” and it would almost certainly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Today, we can go online and have a half-dozen recordings of “Parsifal” downloaded in a few minutes to listen to as often as we want without leaving the house.
The shift to online listening is not an unmixed blessing – many of us miss such great old Washington record stores as Serenade and the various Ohlsson’s, to say nothing of the lamented Borders chain. Still, it is startling to sign on to Amazon.com and find dozens of sets devoted to “The 99 Most Essential Masterpieces” — Christmas to cello to chant to Chopin, among others — for immediate download at about $6 apiece. If some of us remain convinced that Camille Saint-Saens and Franz Liszt never came close to writing 99 decent works, let alone “99 Most Essential Masterpieces,” it is nevertheless instructive to immerse oneself in the work of a single composer.
The “99” performances tend to be compelling ones, many of them from Eastern Europe and music-mad Scandinavia. Most listeners won’t recognize the names of all the performers (although the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio is featured in the Brahms set and veteran pianist Abbey Simon is heard playing Chopin), but it is important to remember there are many superbly trained musicians who will never approach “stardom” in our Kardashian culture. Some will find it odd that the Mendelssohn “99” set doesn’t include the magnificent Octet — that rarest of masterpieces, a perfect work and one created before the composer was out of his teens. But the Octet can be downloaded elsewhere, and it is a pleasure to have so much of Mendelssohn’s serene and seraphic choral music gathered together in one place.
Outside of the “99,” I took particular joy in finding the set of Beethoven’s complete symphonies that was recorded by Josef Krips and the London Symphony Orchestra some 50 years ago. Issued initially on budget LP labels such as Murray Hill and Everest, the surfaces of the physical discs always sounded as though somebody had been skating on them, and a later CD reissue wasn’t much of an improvement. But now, finally, these firmly traditional but deeply musical performances have a chance to be heard as they might have sounded in the concert hall so long ago. It should not be forgotten that no less a musician than Glenn Gould thought Krips the most undervalued conductor of his time and, at $5.99 to download the set, the cost comes to less than 75 cents per symphony.
For those who still demand actual, physical CDs to have and to hold, there is even some good news on that front. Several large companies have begun to issue bargain compilations by the artists who once paid their bills — the headliners of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and beyond. In 1982, for example, what was then CBS Masterworks issued virtually all the recordings of the work that Igor Stravinsky either conducted or supervised on LP; the set cost $300. It is presently available for about one-tenth that price on 22 CDs from Sony BMG, the successor to CBS . Stravinsky was not always the most convincing interpreter of his own music. Nevertheless, the breadth and range of his aural vision has never lost its fascination; listen in amazement as he transforms himself from a glowing Russian romantic into a craggy modernist, all the while remaining triumphantly himself over 60 years of musical upheaval.
The music of Anton Bruckner will never be for everybody but it means a great deal to those to whom it means anything at all. The late German conductor Gunter Wand recorded all nine of Bruckner’s “official” symphonies (there is also an early “10th” symphony, helpfully called the “Symphony No. 0”) and, although the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra will never be mistaken for one of the world’s tidiest ensembles, the awe and tenderness Wand brings to Bruckner’s inspired meanderings will win over susceptible listeners. Those who prefer a more brilliant Bruckner are directed to Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Both sets are now under $30 for 10 discs.
Sony BMG has also been reissuing the late ’50s and early ’60s albums by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony and Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, albums that have scarcely been surpassed for their spectacular sound. It is good to have Reiner’s urgently ecstatic performances of the early Richard Strauss in a bargain set — “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Don Juan,” “Don Quixote,” “Ein Heldenleben” and long scenes from “Elektra” and “Salome” with the under-recorded soprano Inge Borkh. The only disappointment is Reiner’s reading of “Der Burger als Edelmann” (“Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”), which seems unduly hard-pressed. We understand Strauss rather differently than we did 50 years ago, and Reiner never quite gave the composer’s profound underpinnings of neoclassicism their due.
Munch (the subject of a terrific recent biography by D. Kern Holoman) is represented in sets of “Romantic Masterpieces” (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn) and “Late Romantic Masterpieces.” One assumes that a set of his totemic Berlioz, which taught a whole generation to revere this composer, is yet to come. Leonard Slatkin, who conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, is featured in a set of the major orchestral works of Vaughan Williams with the Philharmonia Orchestra: His temperate, unmannered approach is ideally suited to this music. And it is a pleasure to hear the Mozart, Brahms and Mahler recordings of the young James Levine from the 1970s, when he was just feeling his way toward the musical eminence that would soon be his. (These discs will be “officially” released in the United States in February, but are already available on import at prices that are unlikely to be much-bettered.)
As somebody who remembers raking leaves and shoveling snow to earn the $1.98 that it once cost to buy a budget LP (a full-price album or a complete opera would require a blizzard) I look upon this plethora of accessible music, so much of it for free, as the fulfillment of a childhood dream, one of those that both came true and didn’t disappoint.
Tim Page, a former Washington Post critic, is a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California and the author, most recently, of “Parallel Play.”