Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Aladdin's Cybercave

(FURTHER UPDATE: Norman Lebrecht told me he'd had virus complaints about the recordings, but a distressed message from Brompton's tells me that there's no reason this should be so and that the intention is simply to issue the best historical recordings for free.)

How to win a lot of musical friends very fast: offer free historical recording downloads, just like these ones here. British auction house Brompton's has uploaded a music library which, for historical recording junkies like me, can only be described as an Aladdin's cybercave. Legendary string players all: Huberman in the Beethoven Concerto. Jacques Thibaud in Mozart. Rabin plays Ysaye. Sammons plays the Elgar Concerto. The Budapest String Quartet, Kreisler, Heifetz, Gioconda de Vito, the gang's all there. On your marks - get set - register! (Unless you're in America, which cannot access the collection because of copyright.)

It's amazing how we take the availability of historical recordings for granted, though. When I was a student, back in the 80s, they were rare nuggets of gold-dust to be run to earth on LP in Garon Records (conveniently it was 3 minutes from my bedsit) or dug out, remastered and reissued on those new-fangled CDs from mysterious sources by those in the know, eventually coming to light on labels like Pearl, Biddulph and EMI References. I will never forget the first time I heard a recording of Rachmaninov. I was in Oscar Shumsky's front room outside New York sometime in 1986 and he asked me if I had heard Rachmaninov's playing. When I admitted I hadn't, the great violinist brought out a big, cherished box of LPs and put on some of the preludes and song transcriptions. We all sat there as if hypnotised - partly by reverence at the notion of listening to this beloved composer playing his own works, in person, and partly by the playing itself, rich-toned, multi-nuanced, many-voiced, the phrasing as vocal as Chaliapin. Magic.

While it's fantastic to be surrounded on a regular basis by recordings of the golden greats, it's also good to remember that we have to keep valuing them. On the other hand, if you're a performer today, the downside of all this means that you have to compete for an audience not only with the living, but also with the dead. There are some great musicians around today, too. I hope to be very near one of them this weekend...