Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Soundstage website reviews The Classical Shop

June 1, 2009

The Digital Music Revolution: What Download Sites Have to Offer -- Part Eight

My latest download stop was The Classical Shop (www.theclassicalshop.net), a site presenting a few frustrations, but boasting a catalog of titles and labels so extensive that it’s well worth the effort required to snag some.

The Classical Shop is owned and run by Chandos Records, a pioneer label in the digital revolution. One of the very first digital recordings I heard, long before the launch of the Compact Disc, was Chandos’s LP edition of Holst’s The Planets, with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting the Scottish National Symphony Orchestra. It makes sense that Chandos should be at the forefront of the new digital-download movement. And Gibson’s recording of The Planets is available at the Classical Shop, still proudly standing up to the competition 30 years later.

The site is a good-looking one, with "New Releases" and "Recently Added Highlights" sections. It operated very much as do many of the sites I’ve already visited. After filling out a brief profile, you sign in with a user name and password. It’s then easy to access an account and attach downloads to it. The Classical Shop takes most major credit cards.

The higher-quality downloads are all lossless, but most are at only the standard CD resolution of 16-bit/44.1kHz. There were quite a few at 24/44.1, but I found only one at 24/48. I know that many Chandos masters were recorded at 24/96; it seems it will be only a matter of time before that resolution, too, is offered for download. Meanwhile, the resolutions Chandos offers now are not to be sneezed at.

I believe in using numerical measurements as guidelines, but ultimately it’s my ears that matter, and 95% of the recordings I downloaded from the Classical Shop sounded excellent -- as good as any CD I’ve ever heard, and better than many. The remaining 5% were below par not because of lower sampling rates but because of faulty microphone placement or some other original technical problem, such as a difficult recording location. The Classical Shop also offers its titles as MP3s, but that will be little significance to audiophile readers.

The Classical Shop offers lossless downloads in the FLAC, AIFF, WAV, and WMA formats. There’s no onboard download manager for the first three, but with WMA you can download up to 20 tracks at once. All of the Shop’s downloads border on the painfully slow, especially if you’re used to the simplicity of HDtracks’ fast and simple process. But loading one track at a time, very slowly, using FLAC, AIFF, or WAV, was beyond the call of duty for me, so chose WMA files, which were converted to Apple Lossless when I loaded them into iTunes. All of the tracks loaded properly, even titles comprising more than 20 tracks each -- I downloaded them in two separate chunks to the same folder on my desktop, and everything was sorted out correctly.

All of the files offered at the Classical Shop are free of Digital Rights Management (DRM); once you’ve bought them, you can use them however you see fit. Costs vary: Because Chandos is based in the UK, the prices are in pounds sterling, and the rate of exchange changes daily. As I write, the pound is worth $1.52 USD, so the cost of each download is between $12 and $18 -- not cheap, but not as high as the downloads from the UK sites of Linn and Gimmell.

The list of titles is enormous. The Chandos catalog alone has hundreds, and Chandos is but one of about 50 labels offered here. You can search for recordings by "New Releases" or "Advanced Search"; the latter lets you search by composer, artist, label, genre, or any combination of those fields. And you can listen to samples before you buy -- a handy feature for a site that offers so much lesser-heard music.

Some specific recommendations on Chandos: William Alwyn’s symphonies and film music, conducted superbly by Richard Hickox; Arnold Bax’s symphonies and tone poems in definitive readings by the late Vernon Handley, as well as Handley’s Grieg disc, featuring the Symphonic Dances; Leif Segerstam’s cycle of Mahler symphonies, spaciously recorded with no loss of detail; Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s dramatic Nielsen symphony cycle and his thoroughly idiomatic recordings of the symphonies of Borodin; any title in Chandos’s film-music series, but especially the Korngold; and some big oratorios, done to a turn by Hickox, who was the backbone of the Chandos conducting staff, and whose sudden death last year is being felt in many ways: Elgar’s The Kingdom, The Apostles, and Caractacus, and Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress.

As for other labels, one in particular stands out: Arts Music. Regular readers of my columns know that I’ve raved about the Baroque music performances of Diego Fasolis and I Barocchisti on Arts Music SACDs, and you’ll find them at the Classical Shop. Perhaps even more important, you’ll find a large number of performances led by the late Peter Maag. The Swiss maestro was very well known in the early days of stereo for his impeccable recordings with the London Symphony of works by Mendelssohn and Mozart. Late in his life, Maag re-recorded these works for Arts. Though these later recordings were made with lesser orchestras from Venice and Madrid, they played like world-class ensembles for Maag. He had a way with Mendelssohn that surpasses any other conductor’s touch, and for Arts he did all of the composer’s symphonies. Also at the Classical Shop you’ll find all of Maag’s recordings of Mozart’s late symphonies, his Beethoven symphony cycle (all studio recordings except for No.6), and much more.

Each of the other labels at the Classical Shop also has special qualities and offers specific repertory. It’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: there’s a lot to see. Plan to spend a long time looking around.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstageav.com

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