What makes a record collection basic? One standard, of course, is enjoyment—the Desert Island test. What music would you want if suddenly you found yourself stranded on a desert island with nothing but a stereo set and a very long extension cord? We decided, however, on a different test: what records would a modern-day Noah hustle onto the Ark at the first sign of rain? Our panel of experts—regular Texas Monthly contributors W. L. Taitte (classical) and Chet Flippo (rock and country), and San Antonio jazz critic Doug Ramsey—have responded with a 110-album library of what they—and we—feel is our most essential music.
One other thing: no one has money to throw around these days, so we asked our experts to limit expenses to $500. The more mathematically minded readers may calculate that $500 divided 110 ways is $4.54, less than the list price of many records.
Oh, well. Everyone has to hunt for bargains these days.
Classical. The principle behind this particular list was to choose music that is both immediately appealing and of permanent worth. This music is for listening rather than for background, and generally falls outside the “pops” category—the “light classical” pieces that are attractive on first hearing but wear thin relatively soon. Lots of these works are light in mood, but they are substantial enough to be heard over and over again.
A basic library will necessarily focus on the orchestral repertory, but there are samples here also of works you won’t hear at symphony concerts. I have tried to choose examples from these categories—songs, works for solo piano, and chamber music—which will whet the appetite for more. Many of these intimate works were written to be performed in the home, and since few of us can play or sing them ourselves anymore, records are the ideal medium for hearing them.
All the works here have been recorded by many different artists, which is one of the problems faced by every newcomer to classical music. In most popular music the work and the performance are inseparable; there are not ten different versions of, say, Sgt. Pepper by ten different groups. But that war-horse of war-horses, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is currently available on 33 records on 13 labels. How to separate them? One method is price. Labels like RCA Victrola, Odyssey, Seraphim, and Nonesuch often have brilliant performances at budget prices. Another is originality. But if a purchaser hasn’t heard the others, a highly original interpretation may only sound ordinary—or worse, weird.
To demonstrate the problems involved, let’s pursue the case of Beethoven’s Fifth. DGG has just released a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlos Kleiber that may well be the best since the classic by the conductor’s father, Erich Kleiber, whose version is twenty-odd years old, mono only, out of print, and thus out of the running. But could I in conscience recommend this expensive, imported, two-sided Fifth when Seiji Ozawa’s recording with the Chicago Symphony on RCA is almost as good, costs a dollar less, and includes a fine version of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony? Or should I recommend the excellent box of all the Beethoven symphonies on Columbia played by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell? Surely there are no more “basic” items in the repertory than these nine, and in this set you get performances in each case competitive with the best, and for an unbelievably low total price (I have seen the set on sale for less than $20 during the last year).
I avoided this dilemma by recommending two other Beethoven symphonies instead. In any case, I don’t recommend buying boxes of complete works when you are just getting acquainted with the music. The prudent listener gets to know one piece thoroughly before going on to the next. Choosing a new record which will give a first taste of one of the great masterpieces should be a delicious experience. You ought to prolong and multiply it as long as possible. Similarly, even if you should decide you must have everything on this list or perish, do not go out and buy