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A not-so-funny thing happened on a recent walk to Tower, my lunch-time refuge from The Law. (Our receptionist thinks I do it for exercise.) Timing is everything, as they say, and my arrival was moments late. (I should’ve ducked that last client call!) The classical department was under siege by a ghastly brigade wielding price guns. In their wake, that $18 CD I had eyed the previous week was now marred by a $19 sticker! On my way back to the office, empty-handed, I recalled the last time this happened. In fact, I recalled it quite well, as it hadn’t been all that long ago. It was then that I made an amazing discovery I’d like to share. Shhh … it’s the record industry’s dirty little secret: You don’t have to spend a fortune to buy a nice collection of classical music! OK, even at 20 bucks, CDs are still a thin fraction of our hourly rates. And let’s not forget that a mere century ago, fragile four-minute 78s cost up to $6 apiece; at that rate, CDs should command $100 (or perhaps a cool grand with inflation). The music industry fosters an aura of value through “bonus tracks” (even though CDs cost less to produce than the cassette tapes that lack them), jewel boxes (i.e., the space-wasting, flimsy, scratchy plastic cases), and alleged “permanence” (even though the same music reappears every few years remastered yet again). Yes, I’m cynical. I’m also thrifty. After all, we have to afford those shiny new associates who command more in their first year than I made in my first decade of practice (and I’m not that old). Anyway, following the last rate hike, I had launched a modest consumer experiment to see just how far the cost of a new full-priced CD could be stretched. At first, the prospects were discouraging. The $10 midprice discs at local record stores (now $12 or $13) seemed pretty pricey, and the so-called $8 budget labels were still well beyond the budget I sought. Of course, there were also those bins of impossibly inexpensive CDs at bookshops, supermarkets, and drug stores. For years, I’d passed them by with only a furtive, disparaging glance. Their garish covers, no-name artists, and hackneyed repertoire screamed cheap in the worst way, devoid of appeal beyond their price tags. And then my salvation appeared. Buried in the back of a Circuit City newspaper stuffer was an ad for genuine classical CDs. The price: a mere 99 cents. Expectations were low. This is the murkiest depth of the classical retailing ocean, where the sunlight of reviews never penetrates and for whose strange creatures no respectable collector would ever trawl. At this price, the package costs more than the contents, and the performers’ names, when given, are not only unknown but often barely pronounceable. Clearly, these items are intended as loss leaders to lure customers. It sure worked for me, but since the CD browsers were right by the cashier, I wasn’t tempted to toss a $500 television into my shopping cart. Some retailers could learn a few things from the guys who design those Las Vegas casinos where you have to pass through miles of slots to find the all-you-can-eat buffet. From the bargains paving Circuit City’s streets I assembled a wide-ranging collection of solos, sonatas, quartets, concertos, symphonies, songs, and even masses. All turned out to be at least decent, and many were amazingly fine. I was so thrilled that I bought dozens more and even went on to splurge for the comparative extravagance of $1.99 for the Eclipse Point Classics label — and all of this for what I often drop in a week on “normal” CDs. Nearly every one of these discs is at least competent to convey the overall sense of the music, and often they do so quite well. They also compel appreciation for the wealth of talent that lies out there in the vast world beyond the major artists’ publicity machines. Yet, to be fair, most of these frugal treasures don’t smother their pricier competition, and with good reason. It’s not just a question of marketing prowess or cultural snobbery. Concert artists collect huge fees playing pieces their audience already knows by heart, and collectors amass dozens of versions of their favorite works because each has something unique and compelling to say. Many of these performances, though, tend to lack the supreme insight that marks a genuinely great interpretation. The notes are all there, but often without consummate inspiration. Great musicians further distinguish themselves through exquisite attention to detail, a professional sheen honed through a lifetime of devoted study and practice. The unforgiving permanence of records and the magic of editing have shriveled our tolerance of technical errors. Many of these discs suffer from lapses of concentration that suggest inadequate preparation or an aversion to retakes. As a result, few of these performances truly dominate their field. The best present older music where a secure sense of style is more crucial than the special interpretive touches and precision of the masters. The more complex sensibilities and demands of the romantic and modern repertoire can prove more elusive. But do you really care? While some may appreciate a tangible difference in style, inspiration, and finesse between these discs and their pricier peers, chances are you won’t notice. Please don’t be insulted; it’s just a fact of life. Few people savor each word of a book they read, each brushstroke of a painting they see, or each note of the music they hear. Most music buffs are casual listeners, to whom such distinctions are far too subtle to warrant a huge price differential. If you look to CDs to conjure visions of fifth-row center and dream casts, then read no further. But for the rest of us, the question of value just can’t be ignored. Think about it — $19 is real money, but what’s a few bucks? Which would you rather have: a cappuccino or an hour of great music to enjoy for the rest of your life (or, according to the manufacturers, for the lives of your descendants unto the 10th generation)? But don’t rush out to buy your dollar CDs just yet. Distribution of these discs is spotty, and specific labels and selections come and go. In fact, reeling from my recent bout of sticker shock, I returned to my old haunts and found only $3 and $4 discs. At that price, you can get more respectable stuff on the standard deep-budget labels. So just cruise your local stores and grab anything that looks interesting. At these prices, it’s hard to go far wrong. Just be sure to get real music and avoid jumbles of thematic clips or “Beethoven and Thunderstorms” stuff. If you’re not already a classical fan I envy you — there’s a dazzling world of fabulous music awaiting your discovery. For meditation, try Gregorian chants or music by Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Palestrina, or Josquin Desprez. Although specifically composed centuries ago for the church, this mysterious, reverential music evokes the most elemental and eternal human feelings. For classy background music, go for baroque, with its steady pulse, intertwining lines, and constant invention. You’ll enjoy anything by Johann Sebastian Bach or Antonio Vivaldi, including harpsichord and organ solos and a wide diversity of concertos. For intellectual stimulation, it’s hard to beat the structural logic that underpins the music of the late 18th century. Nearly any disc of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or the symphonies, concertos, or quartets of Joseph Haydn is worth exploring. If you just want to relax, try soothing piano collections of Mozart, Frederic Chopin, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, or Claude Debussy; solo harp or guitar programs; and waltzes by Johann Strauss. You can also find weightier stuff — Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, and even Gustav Mahler. As an entree to romantic symphonies, concertos, and operas, they’re all certainly worth their tiny price, but the competition from established artists here is much tougher. (Or, in the immortal words of Sly Stone: “The higher the price, the nicer the nice.”) And if you’re tired of the war horses, there are some surprising obscurities — Christoph Willibald Gluck trio sonatas, Johann Friedrich Fasch and J.L. Krebs guitar concertos, a Eugen Suchon serenade, and recordings of anything at all by Vladimir Godar and Johann Georg Lickl. Would I have ever risked $19 for such obscurities? Not a chance. For 99 cents, though, I made lots of new musical friends. So go ahead and stock a shelf with days of great classics for the cost of a mere handful of regular CDs. They make a fine introduction to music you’ve always wanted to explore. They’ll soothe you after a rough day. They’re nice background for reading. They’ll add a touch of class to dinner. You’ll enthrall clients with your cultural finesse. You’ll impress that special date. And what about trudging through those endless depositions, analyzing arcane case digests, or tweaking knotty contracts? Well, my son’s science fair project found that classical outranked all other types of music (and even silence) as an aid to concentration, memory, and recall. So just think about that — while listening to classical music, of course. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. communications firm Pepper and Corazzini and can be reached at [email protected] Other music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at http://www.classicalnotes.net/.

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