The basic methodology many have found to be effective in building a good library of recordings typically uses some combination of the following strategies, depending on the prior experience of the listener and resources available at any given time. You may need to try several approaches to find what's best for you, but the following guidelines can help.
Many college and community libraries have very large collections of classical CDs that can be checked out. Also, listening to classical radio can be a good source. Concerts can be very effective as well, though they can be expensive. Many colleges have free recitals and very low cost concerts available, and community music groups often have low-cost concerts throughout the year. Experiencing live music will help to familiarize you with what real music sounds like and help make you a better judge of recording and performance quality.
Participating in various newsgroups and mailing lists available on the Internet, is also an effective way to become a part of ongoing conversations about music, performers, recordings, composers and many related topics.
When you hear a piece of music you like, note the title, the composer, and the performer. Note the type of music – is it a piano piece or a large choral work? – and it's length. Some listeners are drawn to dramatic works such a operas, some find that large-scale symphonic works are more appealing, and some are fascinated by piano miniatures.
Many people prefer one category over the other, at least initially. It should be remembered that though keyboard music and vocal music are listed separately from chamber music, there is much overlap. Keyboard music is such a large subset of chamber music that it is convenient to list it separately. Likewise, some vocal music, especially leider, can also be considered chamber music.
Knowing the composer is important because this provides a somewhat reliable guide to other pieces that should investigated. If you hear one piece you like by a certain composer, then there is a fair chance you'll like other major pieces by the same composer. Learning about times and lives of major composers can be very enlightening. There are many beginner-oriented biographies and dictionaries available that can provide basic information about a composer's life and works, and about musical terminology in general. Even the notes that come with recordings can be a good source of basic information.
Once you know the piece and its composer, you can then check any one of several sources for the best recording of that work. Periodicals such as the American Record Guide, Fanfare, and Gramophone offer reviews of new releases and re-issues. Once you have some experience you can determine which source best fits your own personal taste and needs. Above all, remember that, in the end, it matters little if your tastes coincide with those of the critics. There is no one "best" performance of a piece for all listeners, so if you like it, and it brings you pleasure, don't be dissuaded by reviews you might read. There are often multple excellent recordings and performances of a major work to choose from, so don't get discouraged by the varied selection. One of the most controversial topics in performance and interpretation is the use of historical instruments, and/or employing historical performance practices (A discussion of historically-informed performance practice). Another thing to keep in mind when deciding on a certain CD may be price. Unlike any other musical genre, there are many great performances of a certain piece, and some of them may cost as little as $5. Don't let the low price fool you. There is often no correlation between price and recording/performance quality, and the extremely low cost of some releases can provide great opportunities for experimentation without a lot of risk. Don't be afraid to trust your own instincts. If a recording and performance moves you, you don't need to check other sources to see if it's OK. Music is, above all, a personal experience.
Finding a good retail outlet from which to buy the CD you want can be a little frustrating in certain parts of the world. My basic advice is to find a store that has a good selection and wait for sales. Most stores have monthly or quarterly sales which can save you $1-4 per CD. This is less critical for bargain ($5-7) CDs. A good store should also have copies of the review guides mentioned above for in-store use. It is also nice if the store has a knowledgeable and helpful staff, but this is very rare. Since many less-urban areas don't have a good store, mail order is often the least expensive, or only way to find the music you want. Any of the above-mentioned publications list several good mail order firms.
OK, so now that you have a good CD of music you really like, what next? This Basic Repertoire List and associated files is designed in such a way that once you know you like at least one piece by given composer, you can begin to branch out to other works, composers and periods. For instance, let's say you've bought a CD of Mozart's symphonies #40 and 41, and like them a great deal. You may try other symphonies by Mozart (e.g., #38), or you might want to try symphonies by a similar composer. In this case, it might be best to stay within the same period (in this case Classicism), so the symphonies by Haydn (#45, 94, 101 and 104) or Beethoven (e.g., #3, 5, 6 and 9) would be a good place to start. If you find you particularly like Mozart, you might start exploring the major piano concertos (e.g., #20, 21 and 23) or serenades (e.g., #7, #10-13). You can then start branching out and listen to Mozart's piano sonatas or string quartets, and so on.
Another avenue might be to investigate the roots of the symphony (via the concerto grosso, suites and sinfonias of the Baroque era) or to see how the symphony developed after Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn by looking into the symphonies of the Romantic period. The Basic Repertoire List provides a "road map" for any of these explorations. Repeat steps #1-4 each time you identify a new piece you want to know more about, and don't be afraid to customize the process depending on your own likes or dislikes. I've always found that keeping lists of potential pieces or recordings I want to add to my collection (a want list) is very helpful. After a while the whole process will become second nature.
Last time I was at the local music store, I compared several CDs of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture, and noticed that the times differed by as much as 1 minute! Does this mean that it may be slightly cut off in the shorter time performance?
How important is the conductor of an orchestra?
Timing differences are typically due to differing tempi (as set by the conductor) or to the taking of repeats (mostly applicable to older pieces, i.e., classical period or earlier). This brings up an important point. Once you start listening to more music, you may identify certain musicians and conductors you like better than others. So, what does a conductor do? Here's some information to help answer that very question:
During the actual concert, the conductors duties are simply to begin the piece, provide tempo reminders, and give cues of various sorts as aids to the musicians. If an orchestra has been very thoroughly prepared, these might not be necessary. A band director I worked with once said that during rehearsals, he expected 90% of our attention to be on him and 10% on the sheet music, but during performances, 90% of our attention should be on the music, and 10% on him. This seems to be a valid and pertinent guideline.
The need for a conductor during performance was originally identified prior to the time when ensembles had an established repertoire (or musical canon, as some have called it). In olden times (pretty much any time up until the early 20th century), orchestras were constantly having to learn new music, and rarely played a piece over and over again over many years. Given the quick turnover in pieces being played, there often was not enough time to practice a piece thoroughly before the concert. Sometimes orchestras were doing very little more than sight-reading a piece in front of an audience. In these cases, conductors (who were often the composers themselves) played a clearly vital role in keeping the ensemble together, leading the tempi, cueing solos and indicating dynamics.
The director's job these days is really quite different. The director often seeks to create a unique interpretation of a well-known, often-played, composition. This composition may be something like Beethoven's 5th symphony, which has undoubtedly been performed tens of thousands of times (maybe more!) and is undoubtedly well known to the musicians in the orchestra. A good director (who is also a musician), will have studied the score in great detail (all parts), perhaps have studied the history of the piece in order to establish a historical context and/or to check the accuracy of a published score vs. the original manuscript and prepare a performing version of the score if necessary, and perhaps even have listen to the interpretations of others (though any director will have heard and played a piece such as the 5th symphony many times in concert). Based on this investigation she/he will have come up with a unique vision of the piece, and therefore have a desire to realize this vision.
During the process of rehearsal, the director communicates his/her vision of the piece to the musicians in the ensemble, and to varying degrees may adjust that vision based on feedback from the individual members of the ensemble. In essence, the director presents a proposal and then acts as arbiter (though sometimes an autocratic one) for the musical decisions made concerning the way a piece is performed.
A good director is very much more than just a baton-waver. This is why you often read or hear references to various recordings as "Klemperer's Haydn" or "Horenstein's Mahler" or "Norrington's Beethoven". Good directors have a vision of a piece that brings to light, in a penetrating and often touching ways, aspects of the music's artistry for the audience. This is a non-trivial task, and this is why directors are sometimes cherished.
Of course, sometimes an orchestra programs a piece because it's expected, popular, or it may be a contractually obligatation to a recording company. The vision of the director may not be the driving force, and indeed may be almost entirely absent. The performance that results can be mundane or even bad, in many cases it is less than effective, and best forgotten. The instances where: the director's vision is strong; the director communicates that vision to the musicians in the ensemble and creates a unified whole; and the ensemble possesses the necessary musicianship to transmit the music to the audience, are few and far between. However, this type of experience is the goal of an accomplished director, not simply to lead a ensemble through the written music in front of a group of spectators.
Should one look only for DDD recordings as opposed to ADD or AAD?
The simple answer is: no. The SPARS code is often meaningless in and of itself. There are many awful digital recordings (and digital recordings of awful performances) and many, many incredibly good analog recordings of great performances. If sound is a main concern (and it is for most people) you will probably want to stick to recordings from the late 1950s through the present, though some early stereo and even late mono recordings are excellent (much better than you might guess). High-quality magnetic tape equipment started becoming available about 1954.
The definition of the SPARS (Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios) code included on many CDs is:
Why the SPARS code can be nearly meaningless:
The letters in the code indicate what type of tape recorder was utilized at each step in the process – original recording, editing/mixing, and mastering/ transcription respectively. Digital tape recorders are fairly inexpensive these days, however, a 32- or 64-track digital editing/mixing console is still pricy. So what is often done is to make a digital 32-track recording of the original performance, run it through a D/A converter into an analog mixing console, back out through a A/D converter to a 2-track digital edit tape. This same process may occur on the way to a digital master tape. If the SPARS code was meant to represent the totality of the technology used, then the code would be something like DADAD, but according to the definition, the CD can carry a code of DDD, even though the signal has been processed in its analog form several times in the process.
Some companies are adding "pure digital" or "completely in the digital domain" to their labels to signify that the entire process was digital, with no D/A and A/D conversion. Some companies actually do without the first step entirely (analogous to direct-to-disc LPs) and mix on the fly, then transcribe to the digital master. For instance Digital Music Productions, a jazz label, is known for this. For this type of recording, the SPARS code might be – DD.
As CDs are digital, then by definition the master tape from which the CD is made must be digital as well. Therefore, all recordings that were originally analog, are re-mastered to digital for the CD medium. Be aware that the phrase "digitally remastered from the original analog tape" may mean nothing more than that a necessary step was followed in getting the music into the digital domain and ready for encoding on the CD. Though a analog recording may be remixed/edited digitally as well, this is not automatically implied.
As to which is better: Taken by itself, the code is not an indicator of recording quality in any specific sense. Depending on your leanings regarding the acceptability of digital technology in general, utilizing digital technology might be said to result in a higher potential for low noise, wider dynamic range, low distortion, etc, recordings. As with any tool, though, the technology is only as good as the application. It's perfectly possible to make a terrible recording using the latest in digital technology. If anything, the more sophisticated and complex the gadgetry, the more potential for error. Early digital recordings often fell victim to engineers who didn't grasp the subtleties of the technology.
For classical recordings, which have a long history of fine engineering and depend greatly on the musicianship and interpretation, the SPARS code should not be a prime determining factor in choosing one recording over another.
Should one look for particular conductors/orchestras performing that piece?
Yes, but this can be very subjective, and preferences can change dramatically over time. Move slowly and form your own opinions based on your own listening and reading. This is one of the more interesting and fun aspects of collecting, and it's not really as hard as you might imagine. There is no single best way of interpreting all music, so conductors invariably have better success in some works than in others. A great conductor of Mozart, may not have any affinity for Mahler, and vice versa.
I was recently listening to The Planets by Holst. Strangely enough, as much as I liked the movement with the title "Mars", I thought the remainder of the CD was boring.
This could be due to the performance. It could also be due to the fact that good classical music has a great many nuances that may not be apparent on first hearing. Some have defined a musical masterpiece as a work that pleases upon first hearing, but upon repeated listenings reveals even more musical wonders. Most really good music requires a bit of attention and experience. Much as a great painting might require more than a quick glance for full appreciation. Listen to it again carefully. Put it on as background music while you do something else. Put it away for a while and listen to other classical music. No guarantees, but your impression of a piece after living with it for a while may be quite different. Art is rarely well served by snap judgements.