Monday 25 April 2016

Too Many Records

I used to write for International Record Review, a fine publication which sadly closed its doors more than a year ago. On the back page, they ran a monthly feature called Too Many Records, in which someone in the classical music world would reminisce about a life spent listening. One month, the editor asked if I'd contribute one, as she fancied having a reviewer fill the back page. The magazine folded one issue shy of my moment in the sun. I publish it here for posterity.

It all began with the Russians, I think: first Tchaikovsky and then, sometime later, Rachmaninov. I must have been five or six – not too long after the advent of the CD – when I heard Kyung Wha Chung playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a Decca disc from my Dad’s modest collection of classical albums. Brahms, Beethoven, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all near neighbours on those shelves – they were all old masters to me. But it was that Tchaikovsky that held me entranced. The ecstatic orchestral restatement of the first movement’s main theme sticks in my mind as a moment of musical joy.

A little later, piano lessons brought Bach, Schumann and Mozart, though still no musical ecstasy of the order glimpsed at age six. Not long after, a rare thing appeared in the small town in which I lived: a brand new concert hall. I remember my first visit well. An American orchestra brought Sabine Meyer, playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, along with what seemed to me an interminable Beethoven Symphony and, best of all, Stravinsky’s Firebird. The Russians, I concluded, were rather good at this classical music.

I poked at the piano and scratched away at the violin through my teenage years, though they brought more frustration than pleasure. And it might have all ended there for me and the Russians had I not, one evening while revising for an exam, picked up another disc from my Dad’s collection and pressed play. It was Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn. This was music that spoke a rich and yearning language of feelings that I scarcely knew existed (a response I’ve since discovered is not that uncommon in teenagers) and life became about finding the next fix of moody Russian romanticism.

Prokofiev followed (familiar to me from another album from my Dad’s collection – Lina Prokofiev narrating Peter and the Wolf) and then Shostakovich, who, since my Dad claimed to hate his music, fulfilled another teenage imperative. The good thing about Shostakovich, from the point of view of a collector just developing the habit, was that there were 15 symphonies and as many string quartets to find. Bernard Haitink’s Decca symphony cycle (the first complete set to be recorded in the west) became the prize, particularly as it featured dark and angular cover designs that weren’t far from the artwork emblazoned on the t-shirts proudly worn by my rock and metal loving friends.  Unfortunately, you couldn’t get a Shostakovich “hoody”; I had to make my own.

Visits to the record stores of central London helped my CD collection grow exponentially. You could, over the course of an afternoon, visit Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, then HMV and Virgin on Oxford Street, and a host of independent stores nestled down side-streets. My love of the music-megastore (which are now, incidentally, all gone) was cured by a spell working in the classical department of one of the Oxford Street giants. Said company is now a shadow of its former worth, though even a decade ago, when I was in their employ, the writing was on the wall and head office’s weekly attempts at salvation amounted to little more than shifting around the deck chairs on the sinking liner.

Most of what George Orwell said about bookshops rings true for the record store. We certainly had our own collection of what Orwell called “not quite certifiable lunatics”, some with whom you could share a joke, some from whom you hid. Just like Orwell, I was once asked for a disc for which the enquirer was without the title or artist name, but which he assured me had a green cover. Best of all was the customer who asked if we had a disc of Bach playing his own music.

There were a few old hands on the staff from whom I learnt a lot. One could remember the glory days of the record industry, when one of the major labels flew the managers of the large stores to Berlin to meet Karajan. Another regaled us with tales of the days when record signings had people queuing round the block, be it for Pavarotti or for Bernstein, who apparently necked most of a bottle of gin in a single signing session. If I miss anything from those days, it’s the company of these hugely knowledgeable colleagues, and the unparalleled opportunity to be completely abreast of the new record releases.

If I linger over this period, it’s because access to cheap and plentiful records opened many musical doors. An inexpensive Ring cycle - Janowski’s Eurodisc recording; the first digital studio set - ignited a love a Wagner (I stood through the entire Barenboim Ring at the 2013 Proms, and if that’s not love I don’t know what is). The appearance of Brilliant Classics’ “Historic Russian Archives” relit a passion for Russian music and musicians, particularly for the playing of David Oistrakh, who still seems to me the most compelling of violinists. In the years that followed, working at one of the country’s top conservatoires, I got to know many fine musicians, not least the late Lydia Mordkovitch, who entertained me with stories of her studies with Oistrakh and first hand experiences with Shostakovich.

It’s with a certain nostalgic regret that I must admit that the appeal of owning a “complete” library of every recording imaginable has somewhat worn off, either because of the limitations of space or because of the realisation that working life offers so little time to listen to any of it. I still feel a thrill at discovering, nestled in the racks of a second-hand store’s music selection, that instalment of the Rozhdestvensky cycle of Shostakovich symphonies on Olympia which has so far eluded me. Yet, for me, technology has overtaken the record; I spend far more time listening to digital radio and online streaming services than to CDs or LPs. Mine must have been the last generation to discover music, bit by bit, through physical instalments you could hold in your hand. In an age when everything is available everywhere, all the time, where would you start? That really is too many records.