When I was a snot-nosed brat in, I don't know, maybe fourth grade, my parents bought a set of classical LPs for me at a garage sale. I can even remember whose garage sale it was. That's how important this set of records was in my life.
The album, titled something like "Readers' Digest Music of the World's Greatest Composers," came with 12 vinyl records and a booklet of biographies of the composers represented in the collection. Outside of piano lessons and Bugs Bunny cartoons, this was my first exposure to the world of fine-art music. It featured works by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Franck, Brahms, Dvorak, Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss, Verdi, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, and Stravinsky. I don't remember who else.
The set had recordings of many pieces that remain among my favorites today. It packed several complete symphonies, plus overtures, tone poems, and orchestral suites. I played them over and over until I had many of the pieces memorized. I read the book to tatters. Together with a similar set of LPs handed down to me by an uncle, these formed the musical universe that lived in my head until I was in, say, eleventh grade.
I don't recall the title of the second set. It didn't have a booklet, but it did have several concertos, the entire B-minor Mass by Bach, and other stuff I hadn't heard before. Eventually I collected more classical LPs on my own. I had some good ones. I particularly remember the full set of Bartok string quartets. But gradually I started replacing the vinyl disks with CDs. They were easier to store, and (dupe that I was) I thought they would last longer and produce better sound. Eventually, the LPs landed in a garage sale and made someone else (I hope and trust) as happy as they had made me.
I regret those LPs now, especially the original Reader's Digest set. Partly it's just nostalgia. How comforting it would be to hold that booklet in my hands again and revisit the place where I first got to know so many of my heroes! But there is another factor in my regret. It's the fact that several of the pieces in that set surpass the quality of any other recording of them that I have heard. Rimsky's Russian Easter Overture is one example: the vinyl version was exquisitely balanced and engineered, while my current CD version is noticeably inferior. Another example is Franck's D minor Symphony, of whose first movement the LP contained the only performance I have ever heard that didn't drag tediously. Something of the shining mystery and magic of many of the other pieces seems to be missing from commercial recordings I have heard since then. The last time I heard Mozart's 40th on the radio, the first movement went so slowly that one heard fussy, jerky, individual notes where there should have been cascades of them.
I guess they just don't record fine-art music as well as they used to. Isn't it a pity! Current technology is broadening horizons of the clarity and depth possible in a sound recording. But, it seems, today's sound engineers, producers, and performers are trusting the technology too much. How else can one explain the fact that some old recordings, made using less advanced technology, remain the most compelling performances and the most finely balanced and nuanced recordings available? How else can one explain that even a long-time CD nut like me - and I'm no audiophile; my current sound system is a $40 boombox from Wal-Mart - can clearly recall hearing better stuff off a vinyl LP that I last heard in about 1990?