Best Available Recording

Notes on Building a Classical CD Collection (Or Digital File Collection) Systematically

By Daniel McAdam.

Not long after I completed work on Classical Works You Should Know, I began thinking about rebuilding my own collection of classical recordings in a more structured manner.  Like many persons who enjoy classical music, I have not so much "built a collection" of classical CD's as I have "amassed a pile" of them, and even though the pile is somewhat large, it is not necessarily something in which one might take a great deal of pride. 

What I had in mind was the idea of building a collection systematically.  The timing for such an undertaking was reasonably good, partly because a large part of my existing CD collection had ended up in storage when I moved from Vermont, and partly because I'd recently acquired an iPod. There is nothing like an empty iPod to make one rethink one's methods of musical recording acquisition. 

How should one assemble a collection of classical CD's?  That was the question on my mind.  After some contemplation, the first rule that I came up with was:

Rule 1:  Do not (normally) buy compilations of incomplete works.

There is, for someone like myself, no sense in buying compilations that have, say, the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (but not the second and third movement), followed by a 3-minute excerpt from Swan Lake, followed by just one of Holst's Planets.  If a work is worth knowing, and worth owning a recording of, then it is worth knowing the entire work.  Thus, I vowed to purchase no further compilations, like Five Centuries of Spanish Guitar Music or Sensual Classics.  (In my defense, the latter CD was a gift.)

Rule 1 is a good rule, but hardly in and of itself a system.  I reviewed a listing of works that I'd copied into iTunes, and realized that: a) a number of items listed were fairly obscure works by fairly obscure composers, and; b) some major works by major composers were nowhere to be found.  Which brought me to:

Rule 2:  Plan CD purchases by developing a "want list" of classical works, revised on a regular basis.

I think part of the reason for the obscure composers (and yes, I know there's nothing wrong with obscure composers, and I'm glad I own recordings of their works) is that I didn't really know what I had, or what I lacked.  Consequently, when in a record store, or even shopping online, I could never be sure whether or not I owned a certain work of Mozart's, whereas I could be quite confident that I didn't already possess a recording of Luys Milรกn's Seis Pavanas

Rules 1 and 2 allowed me to make great progress in my thinking, but there was still one more issue to resolve.  When it came time to purchase a recording of a work on my want list, how would I know which recording to get?  This isn't really a problem with hard-to-find works; you're lucky to find one recording.  But with major works, it's a huge issue.  Who hasn't recorded Beethoven's Violin Sonata, or Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1?  I realized that I would have to follow:

Rule 3:  For each classical work, purchase the best available recording of that individual work

This isn't as easy a rule as the first two.  For one thing, the word "best" encompasses a number of things, from musical artistry to sound quality.  For another, "best" is a subjective concept.  My idea of what is best will not always match yours, and vice versa.

In practice, though, the rule isn't as difficult to follow as it sounds.  A bit of research (and some comparative listening) usually turns up one "best available recording" for any one particular work. 



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