So, you’ve decided to nerd up your record collection and expand your aural palette by getting into classical music on vinyl? Awesome! But where to start?
The good news is that high-quality classical vinyl is relatively easy to find. The great news is that learning the basics of how to shop for classical vinyl doesn’t require a degree from Juilliard. Here’s what you need to know.
1. Buy used
The classical recording industry switched over pretty much completely from vinyl to CDs in the 1980s. Even today, as more savvy, popular artists take advantage of vinyl’s resurgence, classical recording labels cling to their compact discs.
There are notable exceptions (and here are a couple worth checking out), but newly released classical recordings on vinyl are pretty limited. On the other hand, the 1950s, '60s and '70s were a golden era for classical LPs.
Now, let’s stereotype for a minute: Imagine the typical classical music record collector of the 1960s and '70s. You’re not far off if you picture well-educated, middle-aged folks living in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods with nice sound systems and neatly maintained record cabinets. The thing about these collectors is that many of them took meticulous care of their records, right up until they either a) downsized their collections or b) died. This means the market is flooded with very well-cared for, very high-quality used classical LPs for the rest of us to pillage.
Of course, the majority of hipsters fueling the current vinyl revival prefer classic rock, jazz, blues, pop and hip-hop. They typically ignore classical LPs.
Thanks to all these players acting in stereotypically predictable fashion, we now have really high supply and really low demand, which means this is a buyer’s market when it comes to high-quality, used classical records. Sometimes being unpopular has its benefits.
2. Look for these labels
Just as Columbia, Blue Note and Verve are trusted labels for jazz music, there are a handful of important American and European classical record labels you should know.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list (and there is no need to limit yourself to it), but these are the classical labels you can trust to offer the most consistent quality when it comes to both artists and recordings: Decca (U.K.), EMI (U.K.), Mercury (U.S.) and RCA Victor (U.S.).
3. Pick a genre within the genre and explore
At most record stores, the entire history of Western art music — from medieval chant to Italian opera to 1960s electronic experimentalism — gets tossed into one section labeled “classical.” It helps to break things down. Here are some categories to explore:
Chamber music is one subgenre that typically sounds pretty great on a hi-fi; string quartets are basically the jazz combos of classical music. This music makes for great at-home listening and is sometimes a little easier to get into than a full symphony. You can also explore a wide variety of composers through this lens, all while building a great collection and honing in on which composers resonate with you.
Unless you are a huge opera buff, avoid buying big, boxed sets of complete operas. Instead, look for greatest-hits albums featuring one soprano or tenor. This is a good way to get to know the best arias from many operas while exploring the great voices of the 20th century. Like blues singers, opera singers have distinct styles that are worth getting to know. Here are a few to keep an eye out for: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.
If you want to listen to symphonies, try choosing just one or two composers and exploring their catalog in depth. Ever listened to Beethoven’s Sixth? It’s pretty great.
The concerto is a symphonic work that features a badass soloist totally shredding it (usually on violin or piano). This is another great subgenre to explore.
Don’t be afraid to get weird and see what minimalist and avant-garde composers such as John Cage, Philip Glass and Karlheinz Stockhausen were doing in the 20th century. Their music isn’t always easy listening, but it does pair well with mind-altering substances.
4. Nationalities and heritage are a great clue
Don’t know all the names on an LP cover? Don’t stress it. Make an informed guess by matching performers and composers by nationality (you can often guess based on their last names). In general, Russian guys play Russian music really well and Italians are great at belting out Italian arias. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but you won’t go wrong listening to Horowitz play Rachmaninoff or Pavarotti sing Puccini.
5. Know these orchestras
New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland. These are the “Big Five” American orchestras that dominated classical music in the 20th century. If you really want to have some fun (the classical music kind of fun — it’s all relative), grab the same symphony performed by two or three of these orchestras and compare.
No matter what you snag from the classical bin, remember that you are at an advantage because a lot of vinyl shoppers ignore these recordings. Get them while they’re still not hot!