Hear All of Bach’s Works for Free, if You’re Patient

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The Netherlands Bach Society is running an interesting project: All of Bach. Their goal is to record, and make available, all of Bach’s 1080 works. Each Friday a new work is available, so, if you want to hear them all, you’ll have to wait about 20 years.

So far, they have 17 works on the site: cantatas, works for keyboard, and organ works. There doesn’t seem to be any special order, but the first works they’ve presented are excellent. Take, for example, the wonderfully beautiful cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genung, sung by bass Thomas Bauer, and conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. This is a fine introduction to Bach’s cantatas. (Read more about Bach’s cantatas.)

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(I can’t embed the videos, so I’m including screenshots here.)

Or the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV 851, from the Well-Tempered Clavier, played on a Ruckers copy harpsichord with lute stop by Tineke Steenbrink; this is a great example of Bach’s keyboard works.

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Naturally, waiting 20 years for this project to complete is a very long time. I hope they increase their frequency. In the meantime, if you need a complete collection of Bach’s works, read this article.

I Just Broke the Law: I Ripped a CD

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Updated, from an article originally posted in November, 2013, because it’s still not legal.

I ripped a CD this morning; I violated copyright laws. In the UK, where I live, it is illegal to rip a CD. No one gets prosecuted, but the law is still on the books.

There is actually no law that expressly permits this in the US either, but case law and jurisprudence have allowed this act.

Copyright law is complex, in particular those parts of the body of copyright law that allow such things as time-shifting (recording something for later playback), and the ability to copy content to different devices or formats. Fair use allows much of this, but the laws are still strongly on the side of the content distributors, who would love it if we all bought multiple versions of content we want to use on different devices.

It’s clearly illegal to crack the content protection on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, as well as certain other formats.

Keep this in mind the next time the movie or music industry go on a crusade. They try very hard to limit your choice of what you do with content you own.

Some New and Forthcoming Classical Box Sets

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It looks like it’s going to be another bumper year for low-priced classical box sets. If you’re a classical music fan, you may like picking up these sets, because they fill in your collection, or they let you get a lot of music by a favorite performer or composer. Here’s a list of some of the box sets that I’ve spotted recently, and some that are on my wish list.

(Note: some of these sets are not available, or not yet available, in all countries. I provide links to Amazon.com and Amazon UK, but not all of these sets are currently available or announced in both countries. The links that don’t work yet for forthcoming releases will eventually work. It’s actually interesting to see how many of these sets are released first in the EU and Europe, before reaching the US.)

DG is releasing the second of two volumes of its Leonard Bernstein edition in the fall. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) With 80 CDs, this complements volume one which was released early this year. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) It also complements an early 60-CD set of symphonies that Sony released, featuring Bernstein’s Columbia recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Bernstein was one of the great conductors, and, if you like his interpretations, all three of these sets are worth owning. There’s a lot of duplication, but, to take one example, his Mahler symphony cycles – the older Sony one and the later DG cycle – are both excellent, and worth hearing.

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The Seon Collection features 85 CDs of early music on the long-defunct Seon label, which was later bought by Sony. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This contains music by artists such as Bob van Asperen, Anner Bylsma, Frans Brüggen, Jaap Schröder, James Bowman, Rene Jacobs, Max van Egmond, Lutz Kirchhof, Eugen Dombois, Sigiswald Kuijken, Barthold Kuijken, Wieland Kuijken and others.

61Y+zuKhS5L._SY450_.jpgArchiv has released a 26-CD set of Bach cantatas conducted by Karl Richter. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Among the many interpreters of Bach cantatas, Richter is far from the top of my list, but his recordings represent a style of Bach performance that was important in its time. These 75 cantatas feature singers such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Edith Maths, Peter Schreier, Ernst Haeflinger, Kurt Moll and others.

Deutsche Harmonie Mundi has released a Hildegard von Bingen Edition in September. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) On 9 CDs, this contains – I think – all of Sequentia’s recordings of this amazing medieval music. The project was begun in 1982, and the final CD released in 2013. I have an older 8-disc edition, and this music is mesmerizing, and Sequentia’s performances are impeccable.

815JnQqASPL._SL1500_.jpgSony is releasing a 67-disc set of Pierre Boulez’ recordings for the label in the fall. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) These recordings are Boulez as conductor, and feature works by Berg, Debussy, Mahler, Bartok, Berlioz, Handel, Stravinsky and others.

DG recently released a 20-disc box set of Maria Joao Pires’ solo recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I’m not very familiar with her work, but one of the first CDs I ever bought was her performance of Schubert’s last piano sonata, on a different label. There are six discs of Schubert here, five of Mozart’s piano sonatas, five Chopin, and some others.

710phmLfTDL._SL1500_.jpgSpeaking of Schubert, Decca has just re-released András Schiff’s 12-disc set of Schubert recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I have an older version of these, and this is an excellent set. For some reason, they’ve also released an 8-disc set of his Schubert piano sonatas recordings (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which is more expensive than the 12-disc set, and which only contains sonatas, and not the Impromptus, Moments Musicaux and other works.

How about some more Schubert? Jan Vermeulen has recorded a great deal of Schubert on fortepiano, and I have the first few releases in this series on Etcetera. I bought them back when I was an eMusic member, but never followed up to see if there would be more. Etcetera has recently released a 12-CD set of these recordings. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This is on my list to buy soon; his performances are excellent.

So there’s plenty of great music to be had at great prices. And this is only the summer. We can look forward to lots more as the Christmas season approaches. Maybe there will be that big, complete Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau set that I’ve been hoping for…

Who Had the Bright Idea of Designing a Box Set Like This?

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The John Eliot Gardiner Collection, from DG, has 30 discs across Gardiner’s career, covering a broad range of music: Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, operas and passions, and some symphonies.

I bought this box set last year when it came out, but hadn’t gotten around to ripping it, so I pulled it off my shelf, and had forgotten that some dimwit thought that a box set like this is a Good Idea.

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As you can see, when you hold the box normally, the bottom falls out. I caught it, but it’s quite stupid. I’m pretty sure that DG has other box sets like this. I hope the designer’s been fired.

Some iTunes Store Music Previews Shrink to 30 Seconds

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Since 2010, the iTunes Store has offered 90-second previews of music for tracks that are longer than 2:30. This was done because 30 seconds simply isn’t enough to sample music. But suddenly, many tracks on the iTunes Store are only offering 30-second previews. I checked a number of albums, and found that many have 30-second preview, though there are also albums where this is a mix of 30- and 90-second previews, and some with only 90-second previews.

For pop music, there is a mixture. On Pharell Williams’ Girl, seven tracks have 30-second previews, and three have 90-second previews. Ed Sheeran’s X, however, has all 90-second previews.

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On the other hand, all 40 tracks on the new CSNY 1974 album have 30-second previews.

In the classical section, I checked a handful of albums, and they all had 90-second previews, except for tracks shorter than 2:30.

My money is on a server glitch on the iTunes Store. If all tracks were changed to 30-second previews, then I’d wonder why Apple was making this change. But since that’s clearly not the case, I think it’s best to wait rather than assume that previews have been changed across the board.

Some Modern Classical Recordings to Discover

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In a recent article, I wrote about why I feel that a lot of contemporary classical music is boring. A few comments and emails made me think that, to counter that article, I should present some modern classical music that’s not boring.

I admit that I’m not that familiar with enough contemporary music – by living composers – to be able to make a long list, but I thought I would toss out a few works by composers of the 20th century that classical music afficionados should discover.

One of the problems for me, of 20th century music, is that much of it is dismal and anxious. From twelve-tone music to even more stressful works, such as the symphonies of Alan Petterson, dissonance ruled most of the century. I’m not a fan of dissonance as a rule, though I can put up with it in certain works (such as Ives’ Concord Sonata, or Ruggles’ Sun-Treader, which I mention below).

Here’s a list of works by composers who wrote in the 20th century. Some of them are still alive, and still composing. All of these works are interesting, some more than others, but they are all of a style that is clearly not that of the 19th century. This is a very personal list; I only include those composers whose works I enjoy, and who I feel are truly modern, that look to the future. This ignores such modern composers as Mahler, Sibelius, Britten, Copland, and dozens of others. I don’t mean this to be exhaustive, but simply a list of the great works of the past century that I return to over and over.

mzi.ygtrarrj.170x170-75.jpgCharles Ives’ Sonata No. 2 for Piano, or Concord Sonata, is perhaps the most powerful piano work of the past century. In four parts, named for residents of Concord, Massachusetts in the first half of the 19th century – Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau – this sonata is sui generis. Two interesting recordings are those by Jeremy Denk (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Marc-André Hamelin (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

Carl Ruggles only wrote about two hours of music, but in that small amount of sound, he created a style that is powerful and evocative. Highly dissonant – but not in a formulaic manner, as with the serialists – his 16-minute Sun Treader is a dense orchestral work that has all the power of an hour-long symphony. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

0760623078625_1448.170x170-75.jpgJohn Cage wrote aleatory music; music based on change. As such, his music is hit or miss. Nevertheless, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) remain one of the important works of the postwar period. His later Music for Changes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) was the first work to use his random compositional technique, which he would use for all of his future works.

Philip Glass’s 1976 Einstein on the Beach was an “opera” created with the director Robert Wilson. It’s an opera about nothing, with no real plot, but the music, mid-70s minimalism, is powerful and memorable. There was a revival last year, and it was recorded and filmed, so we should see a release of both discs and videos of the work. But the best approach is the 1984 version, which I was fortunate to see, available only by download from the iTunes Store.

mzi.jdogzsvb.170x170-75.jpgSteve Reich wrote minimalist music that is different from that of Philip Glass. Reich was more interested in rhythm, and his 1976 work Music for 18 Musicians (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the quintessential work of minimalist music. And it’s got great melodies, and foot-tapping rhythms. His Drumming (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a vast piece built around simple rhythms which become complex and vary through phasing effects.

Olivier Messiaen wrote some very complex music, much of it based on the songs of birds he heard in the French Alps, where he lived. (Very close to where I lived for a dozen years.) While I find much of his music to be uninteresting, his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II, is an essential classic of the 20th century. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

513H85XDJGL._SP160,160,0,T_.jpgMorton Feldman was another unique composer of the late 20th century. His works, ranging from keyboard works to orchestral pieces, are slow and meditative, and often transcended time. His later works could be an hour or two, or even six hours long. One of the best ways to discover Feldman’s soundscapes is through his Piano and String Quartet (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a 1985 work that runs about 80-90 minutes, or his two-hour Triadic Memories for piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

Einojuhani Rautavaara is a Finnish composer who, like Takemitsu, created unique soundscapes, but who owes more to western musical traditions. Nevertheless, he wrote a concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Cantus Arcticus. The best way to discover his works is in a four-disc set of his concertos. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

31pTT+VaJVL._AA160_.jpgDennis Johnson’s little-known November (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a 1959 work for piano that runs nearly five hours. Similar in style to Morton Feldman’s music, this astounding work was recorded for the first time only recently. (An earlier recording was never released.) Johnson might have been influential had his work become known, and had he continued writing music (he stopped a few years after he wrote November), but this testament to him is a wonderful example of a certain kind of minimalism.

Toru Takemitsu was a Japanese composer strongly influenced by Debussy and John Cage, but whose work – especially from the 1970s on – developed soundscapes that combined Japanese music and Western music. His longest work, From me flows what you call Time, is a 30+ minute work for percussion – his longest work – and it’s available on an album with his seminal 1957 Requiem for String Orchestra, and Twill by Twilight, a work dedicated to Morton Feldman. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Arvo Pärt, from Estonia, writes music that is minimalist and tonally melodic. Partly based on Greorian chant, and partly based on standard western forms, Pärt’s music has, for me, become predictable, but his 1977 Tabula Rasa, for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano, is a powerful work which deserves attention. I recall hearing it performed live in the late 1980s in Paris, in the presence of the composer, by Gidon Kramer and musicians who recorded it for ECM. It was a memorable concert. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

515SA8VED0L._SP160,160,0,T_.jpgBrian Eno is not considered to be a classical composer, but contemporary classical music blurs the lines between different genres. His 1978 Music for Airports is the seminal work of ambient music, a genre that he essentially created. Based on phasing and tape loops, Music for Airports is a powerful work with piano, voices and other instruments. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

If you’re curious, but not willing to spend a lot, you’ll find that some of the above recordings are available fairly cheaply by download from Amazon or the iTunes Store. Check them out if you’re interested in 20th century classical music, but, remember, this list leaves out much more than it includes, because of my personal tastes.

Is This the Future of Hi-Fi?

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Writing at The Computer Audiophile, Chris Connaker has an article laying out what he sees as The Future of HiFi. As always, he presents a number of interesting points, explaining why the future of digital music is in the cloud, by subscription, and lossless quality or higher.

But Chris is wrong when he suggests:

All music is sent directly from the Cloud to a HiFi component without traversing through the remote control iOS or Android device.

Oh, my, this is the last thing we need. In fact, if this were the case, it would kill music streaming.

There are two reasons why this is not a Good Thing. First, hi-fi manufacturers may be good at hardware, but they’re certainly not good at software. Have you ever seen an AV receiver, or a Blu-Ray player, with a good interface? These devices are clunky and hard to navigate, and the last thing I want is my user experience dictated by companies who know a lot about sound, but not about software. These companies could hire teams to develop software, but the fragmentation would be horrible.

Also, these companies will probably only offer updates to their devices for a few years. They won’t want you to update a five-year old receiver; they’ll say it can’t support new features. I’m not planning to update my hi-fi equipment every few years, and it makes a lot more sense for the streaming to come to the device via a cheap, dedicated device, not directly to the hi-fi device. The only other alternative is having all the hi-fi manufacturers in the world agree on a standard platform, and we all know that’s never going to happen.

The intermediate device makes the most sense, whether it’s an Apple TV, a Roku, or some new, dedicated device that only handles streaming music. But there is a real risk that this platform may not support all streaming services; just look at what exists now. No matter what, this device has to be a low-cost, easy to use device, one that users can update every few years without it being a major expense.

Chris goes on to say:

AirPlay is dead. Streaming through one’s iPhone eats up too much battery and depends on the state of the iPhone to continue playback.

Again, Chris misses the mark when he says this:

In AirPlay’s current state it just can’t compete. Routing music through a mobile device for playback on a HiFi system doesn’t make sense, unless it’s for casual group playback with friends. AirPlay diminishes battery life, requires the iOS device to be on or in a certain state, requires open source “hacked” software or Apple certification, and is as closed as any platform available today. AirPlay is dead without a serious overhaul.

That’s just wrong. In fact, the best device, currently, for streaming content is the Apple TV. It can stream from the internet or from a local computer, and music streamed to it from a local computer is in Apple Lossless format. You can stream any audio or video content from an iOS device, and AirPlay can stream any audio or video from a Mac as well, though remotely controlling that audio isn’t always simple.

However, the Apple TV is currently not an open platform. I don’t expect this to last for long, though it may not happen tomorrow. Apple currently adds “channels” to the Apple TV according to individual agreements, but it’s likely that they will open up the platform to apps in the future, even if this competes with Apple’s own content services.

Even if they don’t, AirPlay is a fine way to stream, and it can be controlled with any iOS device (yes, I know, there are people who don’t want to use iOS devices). If you’re a serious music listener, you could dedicate an older iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to serve as a streaming remote control, or even buy a cheap iPod touch and use it just for that. All the major streaming services have iOS apps, and it’s not that much of a problem to use such a device.

Another thing that Chris assumes is that everyone has the bandwidth, and data contracts, to support such streaming. I won’t go into that here, but we’re still far from having ubiquitous, unlimited internet access, even in the developed world. Heck, here in the UK, where I live, I get 2 Mbps on my DSL connection, and my cell contract is limited to 750 MB per month. I could pay (a lot more) for an unlimited cellphone contract, but the coverage where I live is so bad, that a lack of limits wouldn’t make things any better.

In his conclusion, Chris highlights the price attraction of streaming:

Services such as WiMP and Qobuz are strongly rumored to be coming to America and other countries this fall (2014). … In a few months these listeners should be blown away with access to over 20 million lossless tracks for the price of purchasing a couple albums.

Perhaps. But just this morning, I had an email exchange with someone at a classical record label, who told me the following:

They [streaming music services] are going to destroy recorded classical music. It’s just a question of when.

It would be nice to have everything in the cloud for a low monthly fee, but if that means that new recordings aren’t made, because of the paltry amounts of money record labels and artists earn from streaming, then what’s the point? Streaming certainly sounds good to users, but for the music makers, it leads to a very dim future.

Essential Music: Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos

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220px Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Volume 9Between February, 1962 and June, 1964, Bob Dylan, at the dawn of his career, made a number of recordings for two publishing companies, Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons. These recordings were released in 2010 as The Bootleg Series: Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Dylan had recorded his first album in late 1961, which was mostly covers, along with two original songs. His originals – the ones on the album, but also those that he was performing – were interesting enough to spur his producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, to set up a meeting between Dylan and Lou Levy, at Leeds Music Publishing. The goal was to record songs so that other singers could hear them, and potentially buy the rights to record them. He recorded eight songs for Leeds.

In early 1962, manager Albert Grossman also became interested in Dylan. He suggested that Dylan sign with M. Witmark & Sons for publishing. Since Leeds hadn’t earned anything from Dylan, they let him out of his contract, and he signed with Witmark. In a dozen sessions, Dylan recorded 39 songs for Witmark.

In a way, this minimalist Dylan is the most authentic version of his songs that we have, other than some early live recordings. These songs show Dylan in a very relaxed atmosphere; just him, his guitar, and his harmonica, in a simple studio. The recording quality isn’t always great, and Dylan’s not performing for an audience, but he is clearly aware that he needs to set down these songs in a form that will be nearly canonical. Some of the performances are as good, or ever better than what was released on his albums.

This two-CD set – officially released in 2010, but bootlegged for decades previously – contains an example of the early Dylan showing off his own work, and, while not as perfect as later recordings, stands as a powerful example of his early songs. Many classics are here: Boots Of Spanish Leather, Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Masters Of War, Girl From the North Country, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Mr. Tambourine Man. But there are also 15 songs that Dylan never recorded, showing just how prolific he was in the early ears.

The recording quality ranges from good to merely acceptable, but the music comes through, fresh, powerful, full of the potential that we now know was to come. Dylan knew he was going to be great in this period, and the quality of the songs he was writing must have been a clear sign to producers and publishers that he was to become a star.