Monday, May 16, 2016

A Life in Collecting: Thirty Years with the Compact Disc

I collected my first compact disc thirty years ago in 1986. I'd been collecting LPs for twelve years prior to that, having built up a collection of about 1,000 albums on vinyl. The first CD I ever owned was Chandos CHAN 8332 (1984) Mary's Music: Songs and Dances from the Time of Mary Queen of Scots, performed by the Scottish Early Music Consort under Warwick Edwards. I still have it today, and it sounds just as good as it did three decades ago. (Those who claim that CDs somehow 'deteriorate' over time, or are damaged by repeated playing, are clearly misinformed.) In many ways, I have never looked back. My current collection comprises nearly 1700 CD albums (aproximately 3000 discs) and grows a little more each week.

I do recall with some nostalgic fondness the first few years of LP collecting, the youthful thrill of discovery, and the endearing intimacy of the medium. But, if we're being honest, it must be said that LPs--vinyl in general--had a fair number of serious problems related to storage and playback. Not least among these was the utter abysmal production quality of certain American labels in the late 70s and early 80s: buying anything on RCA, Nonesuch, or EMI/Angel was a virtual crap-shoot back then as chances were very good the record would be badly warped or otherwise unplayable. This was one reason I turned heavily towards imported pressings on European affiliate labels--all fine and good when the US dollar was strong and imports fairly cheap in the early 80s (and I certainly did my part to inflate the US trad deficit in those years!) but the party was not to last. CDs were already on the horizon and looking like an increasingly attractive (if not always less expensive) alternative.

I hung on (or held out as it were) for a few years, having invested so much passion, money, and time in my LP collection. But the writing was on the wall. I tried to use the best playback equipment I could afford (a very good Philips turntable for starters), and when the experience was 'on' it was very good indeed. But, more often than not, I would be a nervous wreck, worrying about whether the balance on the turntable was up to snuff, whether my stylus was wearing down the grooves, or whether the records were being stored in the optimal upright position--I spent a fair chunk of money on heavy-cardboard cases--or whether the LP surface was sufficiently clean and static free, given the latest pronouncements in the endless debate about the efficacy of DiscWasher products--I still have my trusty old Zero-Stat gun!--or wondering how some new pop or click had mysteriously appeared on a surface I'd taken pains to assure was pristine . . .

In the end, I spent thousands of dollars, only to discover that I wasn't enjoying the experience very much--that I was effectively being distracted by the medium itself, and these problems were seriously getting in the way of the essential enjoyment of the music.

Not that early CDs didn't have their fair share of  issues. Compact discs were touted heavily in the early 80s with some rather extravagant and 'creative' claims made about the nascent medium that, in retrospect, seem almost comical. In its efforts to gain a market foothold, the industry insisted that CDs were 'virtually indestructible' and 'less prone to skipping' (both assertions quickly disproved), along with the still hotly-debated claim that 'CDs sound better than records . . .' This latter notion was belied by far too many early digital releases, which suffered from harsh trebles, raucous basses, and muddy mid-ranges, mastered at extreme levels, either flat-out, wide-open, speaker-blowingly LOUD (the Swedish BIS label even included a warning on its jewel cases!) or maddeningly muted, so soft as to require a furious right-ward twist of the volume knob that seldom made things sound better. (The Chandos label was conspicuously guilty of excess at both ends of the spectrum.)

Probably the best case for the new technology, Sony Japan's 1985 re-issues of the classic Bruno Walter/Columbia SO recordings of Mozart, Brahms, and Bruckner were stunning, retaining the best qualities of the warm, early-60s (pre-transistor) recorded sound, with a thoughtfully expanded dynamic range and improved clarity of detail (notwithstanding a vestigial hint of tape hiss). These early issues are still very much worth seeking out, especially considering the disappointing quality of many of Sony's subsequent re-masterings:

CBS MK 42024: Brahms Double Concerto 
CBS MK 42929: Brahms Symphony #1 (1960)
CBS MK 42021: Brahms Symphony #2 (1960)
CBS MK 42022: Brahms Symphony #3 (1960)
CBS MK 42023: Brahms Symphony #4 (1960)
CBS MK 42035: Bruckner Symphony #4 (1961)
CBS M2K 42036: Bruckner Symphony #7; Wagner Siegfried Idyll (1963)
CBS MK 42037: Bruckner Symphony #9 (1960)
CBS MK 42029: Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik etc. (1961)
CBS MK 42026: Mozart Symphonies #s 35 and 39 (1960, 1963)
CBS MK 42027: Mozart Symphonies #s 36 and 38 (1960, 1963)
CBS MK 42028: Mozart Symphonies #s 40 and 41 (1959, 1960)

From the beginning, it has been my goal to re-collect on CD virtually everything I once owned on LP. This has been relatively easy a lot of the time, much more difficult and expensive for many things, and nigh on to impossible for a few titles from more obscure labels that seem to have vanished into the mists of commercial oblivion, never to be resurrected on CD or any other format--not to mention those performances the major labels stubbornly refuse to pull from their vaults. Nonetheless, I am always thrilled to re-discover an old friend. Some of my most joyous recent finds include the 1993 re-issue of Bernard Kruysen and Noel Lee's 1973 recital of Ravel Mélodies on Valois (V 4700),  John Eliot Gardiner's lush rendition of Purcell's music for The Tempest (Erato 2292-45555-2 (1980)),  and the 2013 re-issue of Ole Schmidt's 1974 Nielsen cycle (the first complete stereo cycle, originally appearing on the Unicorn label) (Alto ALC 2505).

I am particularly encouraged by the current trend towards retrospective box sets. This not only allows one to collect a great deal of wonderful music at reasonable price, but is, ultimately, the most convenient, least problematic form of packaging for optical media. The jewel case and its myriad variations comes with a whole raft of problems, including inconsistent quality standards, sub-par manufacture, brittle, cheap plastics that can damage disc surfaces, and ill-considered design that takes up too much space on the shelf while affording little protection for the discs. If I have a serious pet peeve, it's broken or cracked 3- or 4-disc jewel cases (difficult and expensive to replace) and media trays that either fail to hold the discs in place, allowing them to rattle around loose inside the case, or are too tight, threatening possible damage to the spindle holes on removal.

Still, all things considered, it's been a good thirty years. In the end, I think, CDs have lasted and will continue to have a place in recorded music because of their ingenious simplicity.

just a small peek at some of my collection!

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