Growing Up with Recordings
In my early adulthood I started meeting folks my age who had grown up in far more interesting places than my suburban housing tracts and apartment complexes. It seemed to me that these people had enjoyed a plethora of advantages denied to me in my pedestrian mid-American existence, not the least of which was vastly better access to the artistic goodies of this world. Concerts, of course — living in Denver as I did, there were definitely some decent offerings but pretty slim pickings compared to, say, New York or London. Besides, concerts were all very and good but they required expensive tickets (generally too much for my family) and travel downtown from the suburbs (generally too much for my Dad, who came home after work and was pried away from the TV only at near-gunpoint). So on the whole we could have lived in midtown Manhattan and I probably would have found concert pickings pretty slim.
The real goodies were recordings, which were also in relatively short supply. I suppose, looking back on the situation, that I might have shown enough gumption to explore DenverÕs offerings a bit more fully; IÕll wager that there was a pretty good record store somewhere in town, one possibly that might have even been remotely accessible by public transit (or by driving, once I was old enough to start getting around on my own.) But for whatever reason I was more hopeful (and petulant) than intrepid, and thus my sources for records were limited. One of my primary outlets was a Target store that was within bike-riding distance; of course the selection was vanishingly small but at least there were records available, provided I had the funds in pocket to buy them. Most of the time, I didnÕt. Or I had money for just one, which rendered the selection process agonizing. (TargetÕs limited offerings were probably therefore a blessing in disguise). Then came the thrill of getting it home and listening to it, usually over and over until I had it more or less memorized, on my RCA record player with its detachable speakers covered in red felt. How I loved that record player! Easily my most prized possession, despite its being a fairly mediocre machine on the whole. Audiophile equipment, even of the most modest variety, was totally out of the question. Just having a working record player was luxury as far as I was concerned.
A job in a grocery store during high school opened up a bit more purchasing power for me and I was able to treat myself to regular doses of records, even sometimes indulging to the extremes of buying more than one at a time.
Those were the days of the few big American labels seasoned with a minuscule smattering of European releases. Mostly I was limited to Columbia Masterworks and RCA Red Seal, both of which were solid, upstanding, and well-run enterprises with large rosters of first-class artists. Columbia had the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein, and sometimes the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell, although most of the latterÕs recordings seemed to be relegated to the ŅEpicÓ label which was less conspicuously distributed, at least insofar as Target was concerned. RCA was blessed with the Boston Symphony under Leinsdorf, the Chicago under Reiner, and most importantly to me, pianistic archangel Artur Rubinstein. (At least thatÕs how I viewed him.) Then there was Angel, a.k.a. HMV, a.k.a. EMI. There was lots of cool stuff on Angel, mysterious names like Barbirolli and Klemperer, but a lot of the LPs themselves were shoddy quality, guaranteed to start sounding clicky and scratchy after just a few hearings. For a kid on an extremely limited budget, that was a serious objection. Most of the time I was extremely brand-conscious and stayed within the safe confines of Columbia and RCA, although once I got over my nervousness and spent my hard-won money on a Deutsche Grammophon record I was instantly converted into an ardent DG supporter. DGÕs pressings were the finest around so those records held up extremely well, they had hands-down the coolest cover art even with that obnoxious yellow plank across the top, and best of all they were multi-lingual, which impressed little hayseed me as the last word in wordly sophistication.
There were some records that attracted me by their covers as much as their contents, if not more so. Columbia Records was shrewd in that they included pictures of other releases on the inside liner sleeve of the record, so at any given time I was liable to have as good a notion of ColumbiaÕs current catalog as your average distributor. I distinctly remember lusting for a Tchaikovsky Sixth (Ormandy) primarily because of those inner-sleeve liner pictures; it sported a pinkish border around a color photograph of an onion-dome church. I didnÕt know the Tchaikovsky Pathˇtique from Adam, but one day there it was in the bin at Target. I bagged it with a sense of triumph, of mission fulfilled. Eventually I actually listened to it and discovered the Pathˇtique in what remains a jim-dandy recorded performance even if that marvelous record jacket is no longer on the CD. (I keep hoping that ColumbiaÕs feeble modern incarnation, Sony Classical, will issue an ŅOriginal JacketsÓ series of Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, just as theyÕve done for Bernstein, Stravinsky, Szell, Bruno Walter, and Glenn Gould. I can guarantee them at least one sale provided they include that pink-and-onion-dome Pathˇtique.)
My other primary source for records was the blessed Columbia Record Club. Maybe it was something of a marketing come-on, but I loved it. You joined and got 10 records, ŅfreeÓ as they amusingly put it (of course they were anything but.) Every month you received the Columbia Record Club magazine, which listed the top selections for that month as well as other offerings. The trick was that you had to send in your little card with either your selection(s) for the month, or indicating that you wanted nothing, or else you got the automatic monthly record in your chosen category together with bill for same. You were required to buy a certain number of records during the year no matter what. Viewed from a disinterested perspective, this was obviously a slick machine for Columbia to push more records out the door, often in inferior pressings, and make up for tiny profit margins by sheer volume of sales. Maybe so, but the system worked really well for a music-starved kid in suburban Denver.
One of the sharpest memories of those monthly magazines has to do with the music being offered for those of us whose category was ŅclassicalÓ. Of course there were regular offerings from the Columbia stalwart orchestras and performers, which by the late 1960s included Vladimir Horowitz on piano (although I didnÕt like him very much, being very much a Rubinstein loyalist.) But this was also the era of those legendary Stravinsky recordings with the composer himself and/or Robert Craft at the helm. I even recall that some of those recordings were the lead selections for their particular month — do nothing, make no selection, and Igor Stravinsky conducting his own Oedipus Rex will appear miraculously on your doorstep. There were the Copland/London Symphony recordings, admittedly a lot less polished than the Stravinsky stuff, but nonetheless this was music history right in your hands as a major American composer left his own conducting legacy. They offered a complete Webern (which I didnÕt get.) Bernstein was committing an amazing amount of modern American music to disc, while Szell was establishing Olympian standards of orchestra playing in the standard repertoire. Columbia was one hell of a record label in those days, to put it bluntly.
I slipped up one month and forgot to send in my card, and I got a Glenn Gould recording of three Beethoven sonatas. I hated it, but at least it got my critical juices flowing a little bit and more than ever convinced me that Rubinstein was The Man. It also left me aversive to Glenn Gould for years, but I came around eventually and came to appreciate him much more for the glorious original that he was. (Although I never want to hear his Beethoven performances again.)
I still had a lot of my old LP recordings until about ten years ago; I had banished them to moving boxes and piled them up in the garage, expecting to do, oh, something with them someday. Give them away, copy them to CD, throw them away, etc. However, a bad winter rain wound up soaking a fair amount of them so out they went in a cloud of noxious mildew. Finally I went through the surviving boxes and saved about 200 or so of those albums remaining that probably couldnÕt be replaced on CD. But I also kept a few signature items, even though I already had them on CD — such as that Stravinsky Oedipus Rex with its Picasso drawing of Igor on the front cover. The jackets are scrummy and faded, but the LPs with their gray labels remain snugly inside, then you can examine the inner liner jacket; all those LPs being pushed, and how many of them are now considered classics!
In a lot of ways I mourn the passing of both Columbia and RCA. Oh, there are entities around who are the descendants — Sony Classical owns the Columbia catalog, and thereÕs a drooling senility called RCA Red Seal. But theyÕre both pipsqueaks. Just the thought of Sony Classical pulling off a coup like the Stravinsky recordings is ruefully funny, given there isnÕt the slightest question of their actually doing anything comparable. IÕm not even sure if the-entity-called-RCA-but-theyÕre-not-fooling-anyone is making ŅclassicalÓ recordings any more. All the juice has evaporated, it would seem. I distinctly remember buying a recording of StockhausenÕs Mikrophonie at Target, courtesy of good old Columbia Masterworks. I didnÕt care for the piece, but there was a time when a kid in an outlying suburb of Denver could take his allowance money into the local Target and buy Stockhausen, courtesy of a major American label.
This is misplaced nostalgia, to be sure. That same basic kid in that same basic outlying suburb of Anywhere U.S.A. can now pick up Stockhausen much more easily, cheaply, and with infinitely greater selection. Online music stores are the next great godsends to the music business, even if some of the dinosaur record labels donÕt realize that yet. I think back to my fourteen-year-old self and can only imagine what life could have been like for me with an iPod and some money to spend online. I was most definitely deprived. Those big-house labels had a lot of big-name orchestras and so forth, but none of them had the sheer class of todayÕs Harmonia Mundi. There was no golden age.
Nonetheless, I contemplate my current CD collection (somewhere around four thousand albums), my lovely audiophile stereo system in the living room, all the stuff on the computer (my entire CD collection plus a lot more from online purchases). ItÕs great, happy, glorious, rich, opulent. WhatÕs more, IÕve got most of those old LPs in beautiful, pristine digital remasterings. But thereÕs less incentive to agonize over each individual purchase, and certainly less time spent devouring each individual recording. I still remember that red-speakered record player (long gone), and the joy I felt as the Bart—k Second Piano Concerto began to clear up in my mind in place of the initial exciting, if confusing, jumble. By the time the record was sufficiently overplayed into sounding as though it were made out of felt and sandpaper, I had that piece down cold. Philippe Entremont, piano, Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, black cover with darkly-lit profiles of both performers looking off at angles, 3D-ish beige lettering against the black background. Columbia Masterworks, naturally, Manhattan to suburban Denver courtesy of the Columbia Record Club.
IÕd love to hear it again in a nice digital remastering, but Sony Classical let it go out of print.