Category Archives: Downloads

Steve Reich: WTC 9/11

Who can forget Galen’s choice of music by Steve Reich as his first presentation to the Group? Well, the grand old man of Minimalism (Steve Reich, I mean, not Galen) has produced a new work inspired by the events of 9th September 2001. Its title is WTC 9/11, and it’s scheduled for release on the Nonesuch label on 20th September. The new work is joined on the disc by performances of two other Reich compositions: Mallet Quartet (2009) and Dance Patterns (2002).

Further information about the new work is available at the Nonesuch link above, and the CD can be ordered there as well. In the mean time, the wonderful NPR (eat your heart out Lyric, Classic FM and even BBC Radio 3) provides an opportunity to hear the whole thing as part of their First Listen series. A digital EP is available immediately which consists of WTC 9/11 on its own (downloadable from iTunes or from Qobuz).

I wouldn’t count myself as an especially dedicated fan of minimalism, but I have to say that WTC 9/11 is well worth a listen (especially the final movement). Follow that NPR link and see what you think. The piece is a little over 15 minutes in duration.

In case you don’t catch the link on the NPR page, they also offer an opportunity to hear Steve Reich speak about WTC 9/11.

Incidentally, the photo shows the composer with the members of the Kronos Quartet, who perform all three quartet parts on the new recording.

All of Liszt

Last month, Hyperion released their mammoth collection of the complete piano music of Franz Liszt, an undertaking which involves the massive total of 99 CDs (£250). This month they added a download option (£200). Total playing time for the lot is 7255 minutes 52 seconds, which is just about 5 days of non-stop listening. The recording project was a remarkable undertaking, of course. The first release was in July 1987, the final one in January this year. Leslie Howard has been the pianist throughout.

This all begs the question: why bother? Strangely (and I think I’ve mentioned this at one of our music sessions) my very first CD purchase was of Liszt piano music, despite the fact that I’m no great lover of much of it (generally more show than substance for my taste). I’m not alone in this opinion, and poor old Mr Liszt has been roundly castigated by critic after critic for the often poor quality of much of his enormous output (of which the piano music is just part). The other day, I came across an excellent article by Damian Thompson in The Spectator magazine. In Hit Liszt, he muses about how much of Liszt’s music shows him at or near his best, and how many of the 120 CDs it would take to hold Liszt’s entire output would remain if a collector decided it was time for a bit of spring cleaning. A first attempt reduces things to just 5 CDs, while a more ruthless set of criteria pares things down to just one double album.

I urge you to read the entire article. It’s well written, and makes several good points. Just one quote to give a flavour:

With Liszt, however, not only is there lots of irredeemable rubbish, but elsewhere it’s difficult to distinguish the tinsel from the magnificence, as Schumann put it. The same piece can sound noble or overblown, heartfelt or syrupy, depending on the interpretation. You could never say that Liszt is ‘music better than it can be played’: no composer of piano music is so completely at the mercy of the performer.

A bit harsh? Actually, the article isn’t as anti-Liszt as it may at first appear (the author has nothing but praise for the B minor piano sonata, for instance — “the greatest piano sonata composed since the death of Schubert”), and concludes by making an appeal (sort of) for a re-appraisal of Liszt’s work.

Remember, we’ve scheduled our own Liszt Day on 22nd October. Let’s see then who’s delved a bit and come up with a hidden gem or two.

Another download destination to be aware of

It’s been on my list of download sites for quite a while, but I’d grown out of it when alternatives such as Linn and Hyperion and Qobuz cropped up. What is it? It’s e|classical. From the outset there’s been a close tie-in with BIS records, but the main thing which distunguished it from other places was its offering of “collections” (things like Swedish Concertos or Russian Symphonies and the like), all offered at very competitive prices.

The main reason I went off it was that all its downloads were MP3 only, a limitation which other download sites had outgrown. Now things have changed at e|classical. A site re-design has brought with it a whole new approach to download file formats and a unique approach to pricing, both of which bring it well and truly back into the fold. I won’t risk causing confusion by going into the technical end of things — suffice to say that e|classical now offer 16-bit and 24-bit FLACs in addition to MP3s (the 16-bit offerings are true CD quality; the 24-bit vary in resolution up to what other sites would describe as “Studio Master” standard).

While the inclusion of FLAC downloads is a big step for this site, it isn’t unique among download destinations. What is unique is the pricing structure. Up to now, Qobuz have been ahead of the pack by offering FLACs at the same price as MP3s, and regularly offer a 20% discount for ten days for new arrivals. That’s a good deal, but e|classical adopt a different and highly original approach by charging all their downloads on a per-second basis (16-bit FLACs and MP3s are $0.20, while 24-bit FLACs are $0.30 per second). No other site does this. This is certainly much more fair than the norm, which is to apply varying price points per album, depending on the source and whether the item would be considered full-price or budget in terms of physical CDs. This approach obviously has the disadvantage that an album which offers only, say, 50 minutes of playing time costs the same as one with over 70 minutes. e|classical changes all that.

Another difference at the e|classical site is the question of audio samples. iTunes began the tradition of 30-second track samples, which has since become the norm (only Analekta breaks this mold by offering full-length previews). Now e|classical does its own thing in this respect also by providing whole-track listening, in 30-second segments.

For future reference, I’ve added e|classical to the list of links on our weblog’s home page. Do check it out. One final point before closing: the site is still predominatly devoted to BIS recordings. It includes some recordings from Hänssler, but that list isn’t extensive by any means. The (excellent) British label Signum is also featured, and two others which are new to me (HNH International and Proprius) are represented, though with very few recordings.

Free downloads during December

Danish label Dacapo is running an interesting promotion during the month of December. Every day, as part of what they call their Advent Calendar, they’re offering a free download. As they put it “We pick the album – you choose the track”.

There are absolutely no restrictions within those terms, by which I mean that you’re free to choose any single track from the album of the day, irrespective of playing time or download quality. I’ve been busily working my way through the list, and have come across some fascinating music in the process (on only one day was the featured album one I already had). I have to admit to adopting a general policy of getting the best possible free deal, by choosing the longest track and downloading it at the highest available quality (which in some Studio Master cases is twice the quality available on a standard CD).

The album list is updated daily on this web page, where you’ll also find instructions about how to claim the free downloads. As with all download sites (and this is one of the best label-specific ones), you’ll first need to register and create an account.

And still they come …

Following on the heels of Qobuz and Hyperion, the latest arrival on the downloads block is Analekta, the largest independent classical record company in Canada, which is producing some great stuff and has some excellent performers on its books.

Like many other independents, Analekta offer both MP3 and FLAC (lossless) formats. They charge a premium for the FLACs, but the exchange rate means that it’s still a good deal (the asking price of Can$ 14.99 works out at about 10 euro 70). FLACs are available either in CD-quality or as what’s now widely described as ‘Studio Masters’, which means exactly what it says: these are better than CD-quality, exactly equivalent to the sound heard by a sound engineer while recording. (FLAC quality varies from album to album. It isn’t a question of both CD-quality and Studio Master versions being available for everything.) The asking price for MP3 versions is Can$ 9.99 (7 euro 14), so the exchange rate helps out here also.

Rather than go into any further boring detail here about Analekta’s online store, why don’t you see for yourself what they have to say about it (words of warning about technical stuff: Analekta give the distinct impression that FLAC is a new format — it isn’t — and that there’s something special and remarkable about their MP3s — there isn’t). Happy downloading!

p.s. One further point about the Analekta site (nothing to do with actual downloading) is its approach to music samples. The norm on iTunes and most other places is a mere 30-second soundbite, which really isn’t enough to give more than a simple confirmation that what you’re buying is what you intend to buy. Bucking the trend, Analekta first provided 50% of each track as a listening sample, and have now gone one better by offering full tracks. As they say on the site: ‘We thought 30 seconds was not enough!’ Well done, Analekta.

Downloads, downloads, downloads

I am fully aware that I’m ploughing a lonely furrow about all this, but I’ll keep plugging away nonetheless just in case there may be some conversions, in which case there will at least be some information here in a readily accessible place. Anyway, the reason for yet another blog entry about musical downloads is that, hot on the heels of the last one, two much-admired recording labels have joined the fray and are now offering their catalogues as downloads.

The first (within days of my discovery of Qobuz) is Hyperion the great British independent label. Visiting this site has long been part of my download experience anyway, since Hyperion already provided the best background details about their recordings of any label, including full booklet notes downloadable as PDFs. So I would combine an iTunes download of a Hyperion album with a visit here to obtain the booklet. Now, without any hype or any flashing banners on the site, simply by a restrained addition of a new menu item and an option to ‘Show download options’, Hyperion has become a one-stop shop — and an excellent one.

As I said, the Hyperion site was already a good one, remarkable for its attention to detail and its inclusion of much more information than is usual, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d do something special when they decided to provide a download service. This is most certainly what they have done: do something special. For starters, they provide both MP3s and lossless versions to download. The lossless format is FLAC, an open-source, lossless encoding method which reduces file size but still reproduces true CD-quality sound when played back. Providing lossless files is becoming more and more the norm at download sites, but what’s very, very different about Hyperion’s approach is that they provide the lossless version at no extra cost. This is a big thing! (I’m still glad to have found Qobuz, but things have become less attractive there since the end of their special offer which made lossless downloads available for the same price as MP3s. Whereas both download qualities were previously available for €9.99, the price of a standard lossless download at Qobuz has now increased to €12.99!)

But a surprisingly generous pricing policy is not the only thing which is good about Hyperion’s implementation of downloading. Every aspect is well thought out, very user-friendly, and excellently done. A nice touch is that three levels of download are available: (1) complete album; (2) complete works within an album (e.g. on a CD consisting of, say, a number of string quartets, each quartet is available to download as a separate entity); and (3) individual tracks. Finally, Hyperion already offered bulk discounts on purchases of physical CDs, and they have extended this to downloads also. The bottom line is that I will no longer use iTunes for my Hyperion downloads. From now on it’s straight to the mother ship!

The second label to recently join the download band-wagon is Dacapo Records. This is another site which has long been on my bookmarked list, one which I visit at least once a month to check new releases. My most recent visit was last night, and that’s when I discovered that Dacapo have also launched a download facility. They’ve done it much more dramatically than Hyperion did, with a completely re-designed site immediately signaling that something has changed. It took me a moment to realise what the change was, but once I did I spent far too long browsing and then far too much adding things to my virtual basket and finally pressing the Buy button.

I have to say, though, that I can’t see myself buying much direct from Dacapo. Their pricing policy is a bit crazy, quite frankly. As with Hyperion and Qobuz, Dacapo offer their downloads in alternative formats. As well as MP3s, they provide CD-quality lossless, and in some cases also go one step further and include what is becoming known as Studio Master quality (basically, the original digital files from which their CDs are produced: these are better than CD quality, but are also sunstantially larger files than either MP3 or CD-quality lossless). This is where the problem arises. Dacapo immediately get off on the wrong foot by asking €11 for an MP3 download of a single album, as opposed to the €9.99 which has more or less become the industry standard thanks to iTunes. Unlike the wonderful guys at Hyperion, Dacapo then pile insult on injury and ask higher prices for the other formats: €14 for CD-quality lossless, and a whopping €20 for Studio Master!

Dacapo’s download facility was launched at the beginning of December, and they’re celebrating with a range of special offers during December — all downloads are half price for the entire month, and there is also a 3-for-the-price-of-2 promotion which applies right across the shop, whether Downloads, CDs, DVDs, SACDs or Boxed Sets. It is only because of the half-price promotion that I added some stuff to my basket and pushed that dreaded Buy button. As I said, I doubt I’ll make a habit of buying here, especially when most of the Dacapo catalogue is available in the iTunes Store. I’ll still check out the site for new releases and to obtain the liner notes which are now being provided for the first time. Still, even if Dacapo have decided to price themselves out of the market, the very fact that they’ve joined the download bandwagon is significant.

New (download) kid on the block

Actually, I don’t know how new it is, but it’s new to me at least. I heard about it thanks to the email newsletter from Gramophone Magazine, in James Jolly’s monthly Tune Surfing article. Mr Jolly’s piece contains some technical inaccuracies (mainly in terms of his simplistic comparison of apples and oranges when it comes to bit-rates), but he’s bang on the money when it comes to usability (far, far better than Passionato, which he also mentions).

So, what is this download site? It’s Qobuz, a French (and French-language) enterprise. It has several strengths (not all of which James Jolly covers). Apart from being an attractive and very user-friendly site, one of its main strengths is the wide range of recording labels which is on offer (all the majors apart from silly old Warner are there — which unfortunately means recordings from labels such as Erato and Harmonia Mundi are not included. Hopefully they will come on board in due course.). That in itself is not so different from, say, iTunes, but other important factors set Qobuz apart:

  • [Be warned : Technical stuff] — The standard quality for downloads is MP3, encoded at 320kbps, but Qobuz (anyone know where that name comes from?) also offers Lossless versions (true CD quality, but reduced file size) and, in some cases, ‘Studio-Master’ quality. (In relation to this, I was pleasantly surprised when I checked out the site and saw that they were offering Lossless downloads for the same price as MP3s — most unusual — but then I spotted a banner which mentioned that this is a limited-time offer.)
  • Most (if not all) download sites make no price distinction between CDs which would be full-price, mid-price or budget in off-the-shelf terms, presumably arguing that a digital file is a digital file regardless of how it may have been physically packaged, but Qobuz (uniquely, as far as I’m aware) honour the pricing differences. This is big! On iTunes, for example, it costs €9.99 for both a newly released Hyperion album and one of their budget-priced Helios releases. The standard Qobuz charge is also €9.99, but Helios albums are priced at €6.99.
  • The site includes an excellent advanced-search facility. One thing I miss with iTunes, for instance, is being able to restrict a search to a particular label. This, and many other saech variants and combinations, is readily available at Qobuz.
  • [This may not a consideration for most Group members, but it is important for me and for other Mac users] — Qobuz provides a Download Manager application which simplifies the actual download process. Again, this is not unusual, but Qobuz are truly Mac-friendly and automatically offer a Mac version for Mac users. (In terms of digital formats also, Qobuz is the only site I know which offers downloads in Apple Lossless format.) So it’s thumbs-up in this department also.

I only found out about this new download destination yesterday, and I’m already very, very impressed. Naturally I played with it a bit and downloaded one or two things. Perhaps the main difficulty is the pure fact that Qobuz is French and that the site makes no concessions whatsoever to speakers of other languages. This is really only a potential problem when it comes to things like registration and so on, though. I don’t even have schoolboy French, but I managed just fine to set up an account, download and instal the Download Manager, order and pay for some stuff, and successfully add it to my musical collection.

Bottom line: I recommend Qobuz unreservedly.