A confluence of blog posts and articles last week about free music sharing led to a fresh volley of arguments for and against the now-ubiquitous practice.
What I didn’t see mentioned was the role of overwhelming choice faced by anyone interested in dipping into classical music.
How many collections of piano sonatas or symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven or recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations can and should audiophiles reasonably expect to keep in their libraries?
How is a newbie supposed to choose, without spending hours comparing, contrasting and, in the process, spending hundreds of dollars if they care a whit about ensuring that hard work gets rewarded with royalties?
Free file sharing is, in my opinion, the only reasonable and logical way to deal with the thousands of choices faced by interested listeners.
I’m going to use the Beethoven piano sonatas as my example here, thanks to the latest installment of Italian pianist Christian Leotta’s survey. Montreal’s ATMA Classique today released the fourth volume in a five-volume complete set.
The 2-CD set jumps around Beethoven’s chronology, combining three early efforts (Nos 1, 4 and 5) with a middle sonata (No. 15, the “Pastoral”) and later works (Nos 26 “Les Adieux” and 27).
Leotta is meticulousness itself, having carefully consulted every credible edition of the works, adhering to the composer’s interpretation instructions, and then laying out each piece on a modern concert piano with a fine mix of warm, elegant restraint and fiery outbursts of virtuosity.
This fourth volume of sonatas is very good. Leotta’s programming mix provides a nice set of contrasting moods and structures. It builds nicely on his previous three releases, which ATMA began releasing four years ago, and bodes well for the final volume, due out next year. (For more details and audio samples, click here.)
But, as must be the case with anyone with a personal connection to — and strong ideas about — the music, I like some of Leotta’s interpretations better than others. I don’t feel compellted to make his interpretations my personal references for every Sonata. And, despite the certain professions by many devotees that Arthur Schnabel or Wilhelm Kempf or Andras Schiff or Alfred Brendel or Daniel Barenboim should be the gold standard here, the very length of that list of the alleged finest modern-day interpreters is but the tip of a massive iceberg of possibilities.
By going to Spotify or Pandora or any of the other sources of free music files, a person can confront the dozens and dozens of options on their own terms, picking one from this interpreter, another from someone else. Just as people create playlists for spinning class at the gym, or for quilting, or gardening, or lying on the dock by the lake, each listener can fashion their ideal progression of Beethoven Sonatas by a parade of interpreters great and overlooked.
Chances are that, given the human need to possess something one loves deeply, one or two individual recorded performances are going to so move each listener to pay for a full download or a physical CD of that artist’s album.
We have to have faith in this process of going from free to slow, cumulative, eventual financial return, because the current state of classical music doesn’t make anything else practical.
At no time in history have we had a wider choice of recordings and live concerts. The choice is overwhelming, even for a professional critic.
Meanwhile, Old Media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television) have systematically cut criticism and comparisons of classical music from their agendas.
It’s not that people have suddenly stopped listening to classical music. They have instead turned to each other for suggestions and tips, which, at this point in time, includes sharing free sound files.
It’s when the free sharing stops that we REALLY have to start worrying about the future of classical music.
I want to use this opportunity to add a plug plug for my personal Beethoven god from among past greats: English pianist Solomon Cutner (1902-1988) — who was known simply as Solomon.
EMI currently has an early-1950s recording of Sonatas Nos 29 (“Hammerklavier”) and 32 available in a reissue. Details here.
Here he is playing the “Moderato cantabile” opening to the “Tempest,” (No. 31):