Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Listening choices - YouTube, Naxos, etc.

As I said in a previous blog, today we have more access to media than ever before.  We can listen to much of the classical repertoire for free and often watch a video of the performance. 

As an "old guy" I can bear witness to these changes and find them on the whole to be very positive developments. I don't use these new resources as much as younger musicians do, since I still have an extensive library of CDs, LPs and even a couple of 78 rpm records (also some wax cylinders!) to refer to.

In the "old days" there were certain "gate keepers" -- record companies, critics, agents, sponsors who chose musicians for their projects.  In most cases these musicians had paid their dues through auditions, competitions, concertizing, etc. Although there was certainly cronyism at times, mostly the performers were given recording opportunities based upon the marketplace as controlled by the record companies and the buying public.  If it didn't sell, you weren't given another opportunity.  If you didn't perform in support of your recordings, generally they didn't sell well.

While my above description may be over simplified, this was basically how it was.

Today many of the gate keepers are gone or are much less powerful.  More opportunities are available to enterprising, self-motivated musicians. 

As I've said before, though, with increased freedom and opportunity comes increased responsibility. When control is taken away from critics and record companies, the listener has a much wider field of performances to choose from.

In the classical world this poses an especially thorny problem. Classical music is by definition devoted to quality.  In order to grasp the full essence of a great piece of music, it's very important to seek out the performances and recordings that best showcase this.

Over the past couple of years, I've noticed my students have been using on-line sources like YouTube, I-tunes and Naxos Music Library more and more for their study.  I think everyone would agree that, along with many excellent performances, there is a lot of junk on these sites.

People use them for many different purposes - entertainment, serious study, novelty, etc.

Here are some guidelines I'd follow if I were a young bassoonist:
  1. Before listening, educate yourself on which soloists, ensembles, etc. are considered tops in their field.
  2. When possible, try to choose recordings by those artists.
  3. Remember that many of the best performances have yet to be uploaded to YouTube and other sources. There is a whole ocean of great recordings from the past out there. You might be missing something.
  4. Therefore, if you are a college music student, your school's music library is probably your best source for listening! Don't be afraid of those dusty LPs sitting on the shelves!  A little crackle and hiss won't hurt you!
  5. Regarding style, remember that amongst bassoon players there is still something of a divide between German, French, and American styles and sounds.  Some of the best bassoon soloists are German or French, but sound, vibrato, etc. may not be what we go for in the U.S. and vice versa.
Below is the first page that comes up on YouTube when searching for "Mozart Bassoon Concerto".  On the page you will find a few commercial recordings, several live performances by students, one recording on trombone, and even a clever ad for an old Sony cassette player being sold by a former student of mine, using a performance she did of the Mozart while studying with me to demonstrate the cassette player.

Next I searched for "Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto".

Note the first several names on this page:  Heifetz, Oistrahk, Perlman, Jansen, Kremer, Chang.  Violinists visiting this page will have a much easier time finding great performances of this piece than bassoonists will on the Mozart page!

What gives here?  Certainly there are more famous violin soloists than bassoonists, but where are the recordings by Thunemann, Turkovic, McGill, Garfield, etc. on "our" page?

Who has an opinion on this?  Let's hear from you!


  1. Hi Mr. Stees,

    Quite a few of my friends see me as the "go to guy" when it comes to finding quality early music recordings. Unique to the movement from the modern performances which you talk about is the fact that there is quite alot of crap with a nice looking CD case out there.

    As most of my correspondence is usually online, I only use itunes, NML, and youtube to link to my friends (though I rarely use youtube or itunes). I've found that the best way, for my purposes, to use naxos music library has been to discriminate by record label. I can safely bet that recordings on Naive, Alpha, Ricercar, CPO, Glossa, and Atma are worth listening to, but others such as Naxos label, virgin 'classics', and centaur I feel slightly skeptical about before listening. 

    I don't mean to trash them, but the performances are much more variable on the latter labels than the former. There are, of course, plenty of other labels on NML which have great stuff, but those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head. Also, you can easily search what you're looking for on NML by typing the name of the piece, or instrument, and the name of the label to find a specific recording. Super Handy! 



  2. Mr. Stees,

    Agreed! Fortunately, iTunes is doing a decent job making the more reputable bassoon recordings available. Because of iTunes, I now have twice as many recordings of the Mozart Bassoon concerto, from bassoonists less obscure. What I do appreciate about youtube is the ability to find recordings of rather obscure chamber pieces. I find this useful in gaining an idea of what a piece will sound like and if I'm interested in purchasing it. In particular, for my wind trio, we are constantly surfing around youtube to preview music before we spend money to purchase it. Recently, I have enjoyed listening to the recordings of Maurice Allard now found on youtube. I think these recordings are truly an incredible treasure! For young bassoonists still developing their concepts of sound and musicality, youtube is indeed filled with a myriad of musical landmines - but what an adventure to be able to do that kind of exploration in their own home.

    Best ~ Beth (Ball) Crawford