How can I find good quality classical recordings?
November 6, 2007 1:45 PM   Subscribe

How can I find a good/widely-respected/well-received recording of a given piece of classical music? I know such a thing as "the best recording" doesn't exist in most instances, so I'm just looking to make sure I get a good quality recording.

I studied classical music growing up and so I generally know what composers and/or pieces I like, but I'm overwhelmed by the volume of recordings of a given piece and I'm utterly ignorant about musicians, etc. How do you know what constitutes a good recording in the absence of any knowledge about musicians, conductors and/or orchestras? Are there any websites that might be able to help me with this? Or does anyone have any general tips on how to go about purchasing classical music?
posted by anonymous78 to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Look here for a search engine which provides recommended recordings of many works, from the BBC Radio 3 programme "CD Review". The radio show itself is also well worth listening to.
posted by beniamino at 1:51 PM on November 6, 2007

Classical Net has a lot of recommendations for specific recordings.

Tip: don't just jump to the "Recommended Classic CDs" list on the front page, which in turn links to a relatively small number of longish lists of recommended CDs and is difficult to navigate; use the "Basic Repetoire List" link; upon clicking through to the pages on specific composers, recommendations are made there.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:03 PM on November 6, 2007

Things like the Rough Guide to Classical Music and the Penguin Guide are useful too as they normally recommended at least a couple of interpretations that are readily available.
posted by patricio at 2:04 PM on November 6, 2007

If it's a piece you know, try whenever possible to hear sound clips. (Via Amazon, iTunes Music Store, etc.) I was just sampling different recordings of Carmina Burana the other day, mainly by listening to the 30 second clips from the first two tracks, to compare tempo, sound quality, etc., since those are the parts of that piece I know fairly well.
posted by dnash at 2:24 PM on November 6, 2007

Here and there, lacking anything else to go on, I go by record label. Deutsche Grammophon is one that's never given me a bum recording.
posted by kmennie at 2:27 PM on November 6, 2007

I trust Jim Svejda who has a radio show broadcast on NPR called the Record Shelf. His picks have been compiled into a handy guide with the same name.
posted by Rash at 3:02 PM on November 6, 2007

Slightly off-the-wall, and notwithstanding the fact that I haven't bought a CD in an actualshop for years, but since you didn't stipulate that you were looking for a website, I'm going to suggest that if possible you find a specialist music shop in your area. On at least one occasion, I've gone to such a shop and told them what piece of music I'm looking for, and they've proceeded to pick out half a dozen or so candidates, which we've listened to excerpts of together in the store until I find the one that I like.

These shops tend to be run by enthusiastic and knowledgeable people, and I found the exercise not only meant I came away with a CD I really liked, but that the process was enjoyable and informative as well - I learned bucketloads, not just about the composers and artists, but about what it is that I actually like in a recording of a piece of music.

All of that said, the BBC Radio 3 link and kmennie's recommendation for Deutsche Grammophon are both good'uns.
posted by kxr at 3:11 PM on November 6, 2007

I second the Deutsche Grammophon recommendation. It's at least a good place to start. I also wander through itunes just to give pieces a listen real quick, side by side.
posted by MrFongGoesToLunch at 3:23 PM on November 6, 2007

Search for reviews on Classics Today. I second the Penguin Guide and Jim Svejda's book.

After using those for a while, it's really useful if you can keep track of your opinions about which performers who you like. For instance, I'm almost sure to enjoy anything by the conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the cellist Rostropovich, or the pianist Pollini.

Another strategy is to focus on the Naxos record label. Their CDs tend to be very reliable and inexpensive, but without big-name performers.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:42 PM on November 6, 2007

Naxos buys recordings that have gone out of print. Most of the performers were well known at one time and in their own countries. The quality is usually excellent. Deutche Grammaphone has absolutely stellar standards, and so does Phillips.

You ask a difficult question because we really don't know what you like. It's larglely taste. I am a huge fan of the London and Chicago symphony Orchestras, and I like the Cleveland Orchestra for strings. And I share Svejda's sincere dislike for Niklaus Harnencourt and Sarah Brightman.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:25 PM on November 6, 2007

Find a great record shop that specializes in classical music, pick the staff's brains.

[I sell classical music to pay the rent. I'm mediocre at it but some of my co-workers are amazing with this type of question]
posted by rhinny at 5:45 PM on November 6, 2007

gesamtkunstwerk: naxos does not only buy 'out of print' recordings, any new recordings on their label are recordings that they own outright, and the artists/symphonies never see a dime from them after the initial payout (Which usually isn't that much). They are widely regarded as having somewhat shady business practices.

I'm totally not impartial at all on this question (Working for SonyBMG Masterworks), but titles in our Great Performances series tend to be just that. easily googlable, too.

My suggestion to you is to poke around on or and sample a bunch of stuff. once you get more familiar with your likes and dislikes, then invest in recordings.

Feel free to MeFiMail me if you'd like more information.
posted by softlord at 6:55 PM on November 6, 2007

Damn, I really didn't know that about Naxos.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:00 PM on November 6, 2007

I’ve only recently become interested in listening to classical music, and one of the things that kindled my interest was the Sound Advice program hosted by Rick Phillips on CBC Radio 2. It’s broadcast on Saturdays on the radio and you can (probably) listen to it online through the CBC Radio website. On the program, Rick Phillips reviews classical recordings, and I’ve learned a lot from the show.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 8:18 PM on November 6, 2007

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