Music: Confessions of a Music Reviewer

Here I sit in my study, surrounded by thousands of records and CDs, pondering what to write for my 100th Crisis music column. Recently, I pontificated on “how to listen” to classical music. Interestingly, that article provoked more reader response than anything I have penned during the last ten years. Many e-mails and letters contained queries as to how to proceed after being bitten by the classical-music bug. Where does one go to learn more, and on a limited budget, how does one feed the beast of this new avocation?

To answer honestly, I have to reveal my secrets. So, here follow the confessions of a music critic. Crisis colleague Rev. George Rutler once accosted me by saying, “No one could possibly know that much about classical music!” Defensively, I replied that similar suspicions had arisen regarding his voluble writings on just about everything else. But he was right. I can’t know that much, and don’t. I learn and have cultivated my sources of information over the many years since I was first bitten. I will now reveal them to you—a dangerous thing for a journalist in Washington to do. However, my first sources are lost in the mists of time since they are no longer available and, in any case, have been overtaken by the explosion of available recordings during the past two decades.

I first decided to pursue avidly my interest in classical music as I was about to be sent to a military outpost far from home and everything else. I marched into Rose Records in Chicago (still there) and bought 20 budget-label LPs based on vaguely familiar names and the attractions of the jacket covers. I found the experience so exhilarating that I returned the next day and repeated it. Armed with 40 records, I arrived at post and purchased a used portable record player. The listening adventure began, with each evening ending with a symphony blaring away as I was falling asleep in the Bachelors’ Officers’ Quarters. This exercise was invariably punctuated by an officer at the very end of the corridor padding down the hallway, knocking on my door, and asking me to turn it down. Puzzled by his behavior, I asked those in the intervening rooms why he was the only one to complain. They informed me that they enjoyed the music. It only takes one tin ear.

Once I had digested the first 40 records, I wondered what was next. I then discovered the Guide to Low- Priced Classical Records by Herbert Russcol—a tattered but still prized possession. My eyes bulged at the nearly 800 pages of goodies. So much to hear, so little time to listen. The post PX was a musical wasteland, but I learned that the special-order desk could obtain these treasures for as little as $1 each—mostly on the Turnabout and Nonesuch labels. Each record required a triplicate order form. I would patiently fill them out by the hour to the bemusement of the clerk who was unused to traffic in this commodity. I also began reading the two American classical music magazines, High Fidelity (RIP) and Stereo Review (RIP), for guidance on recent releases and feature articles on composers. They fed my compulsion.

After the military, I sought an even lower income occupation as an actor in New York. This confirmed my dedication to budget labels. After several years of penury, I emerged in the world of academe and then, eventually, the realm of politics and government service. My new guides became the British magazine The Gramophone and the American bi-monthlies Fanfare and the American Record Guide, all still extant. With this shaky foundation, I began writing about music for The Chronicles of Culture and High Fidelity. This opened the sluice gates of complimentary review copies of LPs and CDs and a modest expense account for those I had to buy. Years of this addiction account for the unreasonable size of my collection. To bowdlerize T. S. Eliot, I now measure my life in CD sides. The actuarial tables tell me there are not many return trips left through my collection.

For those of you who cannot, or wisely wish not, to emulate this twisted path, there are remedies less extreme in the pursuit of classical music. The Internet has revolutionized access to information and even the means of purchase. The Internet is a bit like reading TV, so I have not lost my allegiance to the printed word in The Gramophone, American Record Guide, and, most especially, Fanfare, to all of which I still subscribe. Also, while the classical music sites are terrific, a bound book or two is still required to give a more general, guided overview of what is available for the beginner and intermediate-level collector.

With some 60,000 classical music titles available on CD, beginning music lovers need a guide to weed through them, especially as there are more than 100 different recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony listed in the current Schwann catalog. Ted Libbey to the rescue! The single most literate and insightful guide out of this dilemma is The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection, available in its second edition from Workman Publishing Company ($15.95). Appearing for years on NPR’s Performance Today, author Libbey has been called “one of the world’s greatest musicologists” by Mstislav Rostropovich and proves it in his introductory essays to a repertory of 350 basic works that go to the heart of each composer’s contribution. (In the interests of public disclosure, I should mention that Libbey was my editor for years at High Fidelity and Musical America.) He gives several recommended recordings for each work and explains why they merit top ranking. The NPR Guide is simply the best thing of its sort on the market.

Once the foundation has been laid, move on to the more comprehensive Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs (1,566 pages; $25) and Classical Music: The Third Ear (1,200 pages; $29.95). Also, each year, The Gramophone reviews are gathered together in a handy compendium, called The Good CD Guide (1,330 pages; $27.95), that includes brief introductions to each composer from the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The British publications—Penguin and Good CD Guide—are limited by their native prejudices, which include unstinting praise for native conductors and every third-rate English composer, but are otherwise very useful. The brand new Third Ear entrances me. It is obviously written by fanatics and is meant for fanatics like myself. It confirmed a number of my judgments. It praises the underrated Alexander Gibson as a Sibelius conductor and lists Bernstein’s Sibelius Fifth with the New York Philharmonic as the best ever made. This is a must-read for people in the advanced stages of classical music mania. If you have reached the terminal stage, I can modestly recommend my own book, Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music.

The Internet sites that post a staggering wealth of up-to-date reviews (for free) as well as some in-depth articles about composers include:;;; and The Classics Today site is run by a former High Fidelity colleague of mine, David Hurwitz, and is terrific. The UK sites share the same prejudices as the British books I mentioned but are not to be ignored for their incredible wealth of material. And surely you must know that all you have to do is enter the name of a composer in whom you are interested into a search engine like Google or Ask Jeeves, and you will instantaneously have a wealth of research material that used to take me months to track down.

My greatest shopping secret is called Go to this Web site for a catalog of remaindered CD riches at prices that will amaze you. The printed catalog is the size of a small phone book. Somehow, Berkshire manages to obtain even relatively new releases at remaindered prices. For those of you groaning for the old days when one could special-order LPs for a dollar, know that Berkshire offers any number of CDs for as little as twice that amount! This is the place for beginners to start collecting and for hopeless indigent collectors to keep their habits alive without harm to their family’s well-being. Tell them Reilly sent you.

There, I told you. Now I feel better.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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