Part 1: Adventures in Time Travel
Last week I unboxed a new vinyl-cleaning machine, plugged it in, flipped the on/off switches a few times. I knew the basics of LP care from using a previous machine, so the next steps were easy: select a record, give it a good wash-and-vac. One album had been calling out to me for quite a while: Giulini/Chicago SO/Mahler/Symphony No. 9 (DG, 1977), a two-disc box with a distinctive cover:
The disc surfaces looked okay, but I shampooed them anyway. Then I popped side A onto my turntable, and there it was: Mahler, played with plenty of heart by a great American orchestra, conducted by someone who knew how to maintain the crucial balance between passion and control. Together they offered a convincing vision of the Mahler of 1909, a composer who had spent a lifetime—literally!—learning how to transform personal narratives into symphonies and vice versa. Giulini and Chicago gave us not an exhausted, grief-stricken artist bidding farewell to life (an interpretation that became common during the Bernstein era) but rather a protagonist still in command of his energies yet now focused on ultimate, unanswerable questions. It was a well-considered performance in every respect, its engineers offering soundstage depth and imaging exceptional for that era.
I hadn’t exactly worn the grooves off this set over the forty-plus years I owned it. Considering my casual attitude toward record collecting, I feel fortunate just to have kept it around. Rediscovering it last week led me to ask other questions. For example: how in the world did Young Larry obtain the foresight to buy and hold something that would eventually mean so much to Old Larry?
Some backstory: in 1976 I was studying conducting at USC, so I got to attend certain rehearsals of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The one I most remember was Carlo Maria Giulini’s final run-through of, yes, the Mahler 9. It was no ordinary rehearsal (we can safely assume that Giulini never ran an “ordinary rehearsal” in his life). They played the entire fourth movement without a break, and at the end the orchestra stood up as one and began to applaud. Not that thing where players discreetly tap their bows on a stand or shuffle their feet. No, they decisively put their instruments down and applauded. I can’t remember whether the handful of people in an otherwise empty auditorium joined in. We were probably dumbstruck at the sight of a hundred professionals actually thanking a conductor.
Anyway, I was not surprised when Giulini brought out a Mahler 9 recording, nor was I shocked to discover he’d done it with the Chicago SO, for which he served as permanent visiting conductor during the Solti era. Of course I bought the album.
Part 2: Actual Thoughts on Collecting
More backstory, but not as far back: I didn’t get serious about Mahler 9 again until well into the CD era. I recall acquiring Bernstein’s Berlin recording, and later Michael Tilson Thomas’s with San Francisco. This morning, I couldn’t find either on my shelves. I must have tossed them out after I heard Walter/Vienna PO/1938 (Dutton CDBP 9708), a truly historic and far more lyrical, less labored performance. In 2009 Alan Gilbert turned in a high-res performance in a similar vein with the Royal Stockholm PO (BIS-SACD-1710). I’ve kept those discs, along with an NY PO box, The Mahler Broadcasts, which includes Sir John Barbirolli’s 1962 live performance. I'm looking forward to hearing that one again.
It's not that I became an antiquarian—although once you’ve heard, say, Barbirolli’s recording of the Enigma Variations, it does become harder to sit through Andrew Litton’s very-nice-but-hardly-transcendent reading. It's more that collecting records is a Sisyphean struggle. You can’t always get what you want, largely because what you want is subject to change for various reasons, among them:
You grow up, and your tastes (values, preferences, desires, etc.) grow up too. Or at least they change.
Technology changes, but the ways in which you adapt (or fail to adapt) may vary.
You lack the money or the shelf space to indulge all your whims (values, preferences, etc.).
The phenomenal growth of high-resolution streaming has now produced a whole new set of issues for the collector. Foremost among them: why collect at all? If I can hear almost any recording of a work ever made—or at least the fifteen most popular and/or critically acclaimed recordings of that work—what’s the point of paying more to download certain items? How do I choose what will reside “permanently” on my household hard drives? Should I hang onto my CDs? My LPs? My lifelong itch to buy something?
Lastly: who will get my collection when I’m gone? Who will even want it?
I think I know what works for me, at least this week, this month. More than ever, it’s a work in progress. How's it going for you?
(This column was originally titled The Accidental Connoisseur and included another 900 words about Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. We'll get back to that.)
Header image: Gustav Mahler, etching by Emil Orlik, 1902 (Wikimedia Commons)