The post-pandemic world will be different in many ways that we can’t yet anticipate, but I can predict one personal change with a high degree of certainty: I’ll be visiting charity shops a lot less frequently.
Scouring charity shops for books, CDs and DVDs has long been one of my favourite pastimes. Work used to mean that I got to travel a lot across Scotland, and I always tried to allow time in each destination to nip in to one or more of the local outlets. I had certain favourites that I’d be sure not to miss: Oxfam in Oban for books; Shelter in Raeburn Place, Edinburgh for CDs. I found there was an almost Zen-like quality to getting myself into the zone where, scanning a lot of shelves quickly (before the parking ticket ran out) I could ensure that that special title leapt out at me. More recently, the very handsome boutique Highland Hospice shop in nearby Beauly has often offered temptation beyond endurance in both books and DVDs.
But, what with turning digital, all that has changed. And with it, an entire mindset. The process began when I bought my first iPad back in 2013, and was able to plug Spotify into my hifi. In the eight years since then I’ve not bought a single CD, new or second hand. Worse than that, I’ve barely played any of the 1000+ CDs we already own, let alone the 1500+ LPs from my time as Evening Times music critic, back in the 70s. The stacks of LPs and CDs remain, taking up loads of space, and a part of me can’t bear to part with them (a) because they have so little cash value and I can’t even give them away (the LPs, anyway) and (b) because a little bit of me worries that the whole music streaming world might yet collapse (has Spotify reported an annual profit yet?).
Unlike many music fans, I’ve never been that wedded to the recording as a physical object. I’ve never had any nostalgia for the LP, being delighted to leave behind all that snap, crackle and pop, never mind the time-consuming ritual of cleaning each side before playing. And I’ve written in the previous blog about how Spotify has changed my approach to listening (I think) for the better.
The same is true for DVDs. We’ve never been big buyers of DVDs, not having the need to ‘own’ a film or TV series, and long having been used to recording off air to VHS tapes, then to digital recorders. So, when we marked my becoming an OAP last October by buying a Smart TV, I felt no regret that there’s now so much realchoice available that I’ll never need to buy another DVD. It’s not just that outlets like Netflix (via the BFIPlayer) and Amazon Prime now make it possible to have ready access to a wealth of world cinema, old and new. There’s also all the other ‘content’ that’s available. The arrival on Freeview of Sky Arts has been a real gamechanger, presenting so many films of ballet, opera, theatre and exhibitions originally made for the ‘event cinema’ market, as well as otherwise inaccessible programmes such as the wonderful concerts of film music from the Wiener Konzerthaus under the banner ‘Hollywood in Vienna’.
And having Youtube on the new TV allows access to an extraordinary range of new experiences, from ‘living room’ (wohnzimmer) lockdown concerts from that same Wiener Konzerthaus, to real time 4K walks through the hearts of major cities, from Bruges to Barcelona. For the first time we can enjoy the kind of ‘choice’ that was always promised as part of the deregulation of national TV, but for so long just meant more channels recycling the same content (Midsomer Murders, anyone?).
So, no heartbreak about leaving either CDs or DVDs behind, and some relief that no more storage space will be needed. But I never thought I might feel something similar about books. I don’t know how many books we own, but a conservative estimate would be over 4,000. It partly depends on how you count things like exhibition catalogues, or an almost 40-year run of The World of Interiors. As a child I always wanted to live in a house full of books, and since lockdown my place of work has been the room we call our library, stacked floor to ceiling with Ikea ‘Billy’ shelves. We both love books. We have so many they are double stacked on the bookshelves and sitting in precarious piles on the floor.
Part of me always felt, pessimistically, that one reason for building up our own library might be to prepare for the day when public libraries disappeared. Of course, even pre-Covid, that loss had become a reality for many communities, though fortunately not here in Highland. So, when the first lockdown started, a year ago, and libraries closed, I was happy to get down to reading a large number of books that had been sitting waiting to be finished, or even started. But by October I had run out of new ‘light’ reading—suitable genre fiction for relaxing to, especially whodunnits. And then I made two discoveries about Kindle that changed everything.
First, I realised that, unlike the Bluefire Reader app I sometimes used on my iPad, you can set the Kindle app up to show two open pages side by side, exactly like a normal book. And then I saw that the catalogue for Kindle Unlimited included almost the whole range of British Library Crime Classics reprints. I binged, I gorged, in the first two months I read 12 whodunits on the Kindle app. Since October I have only finished reading one ‘real’, physical book. Everything else has been on the iPad. Part of the pleasure comes from having my iPad sit in a special keyboard, so it can perch on my lap, making reading a wholly hands free experience, so I can juggle coffee mugs, biscuits, and stroking the cat.
I’m alarmed at how quick and complete this change has been. Books as physical objects have been at the centre of my life since I first started going to the wonderful Dennistoun library when I could barely read. My shelves groan under the weight of the hefty tomes that, in those days, you were not allowed to take out on loan (such as the fabulous 10 volumes of the Thames and Hudson history of civilisations) and which as an adult I hunted down and bought second hand. I love being surrounded by them—as Virginia Woolf said, they do furnish a room. But just as I no longer keep back copies of magazines such as the Gramophone or the London Review of Books, because I can access their archives online, do I still need to keep these thousands of books? If I ever do want reread old favourites such as, say, one of John Harvey’s Resnick novels, or Anthony Price’s spy thrillers, I can pay a small fee and download them. Just how digital, how virtual, is my future going to be?
So, Ludwig, that was the year that wasn’t. A shame that your big 250th birthday bash had to coincide with a pandemic, and a tragedy that so many concerts and other live events had to be cancelled. But, three months into a new year, and the flood of new recordings of your works shows little sign of abating. It’s as if absolutely everybody in the classical world wanted to make their mark in your semiquincentennial year.
Almost exactly five years ago I blogged about a new set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas which had entranced me. So, it will come as no surprise that throughout 2020 I had a wonderful time comparing no less than fivecomplete new sets of the sonatas on Spotify. Four of these, perhaps not coincidentally, were from pianists from Russia, or of Russian extraction. More telling though, is the common factor that all five pianists were men.
There are of course many wonderful female pianists who have recorded individual sonatas but, for whatever reason, very few have committed the entire cycle of 32 sonatas to disc. One writer, back in 2019, thought that only four women had ever done so , but I’m pleased now to prove him wrong. Back in the early 2010s a Japanese pianist based in Berlin called Yu Kosuge recorded a complete cycle for Sony in Japan. In the past, that would have meant the recordings could only have been available in the UK as expensive and hard to get imports, but of course, in the world of streaming services, they’re just a Spotify search away (other streaming services are available).
So here’s one answer to a common question: just how many more Beethoven recordings do we need? Well, if Yu Kosuge’s set is indeed just one of five compete sonata cycles ever recorded by women, then we clearly haven’t reached saturation point. Last year there was also an astonishing glut of new sets of the five piano concertos (six if you count, as some pianists do, the piano version of the Violin Concerto) but only two of those sets, as far as I can tell, featured female soloists and neither, to my ears was particularly distinguished.
Yu Kosuge’s piano sonatas, however, are in a different class entirely. And although I haven’t listened to all the sonatas yet, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, for me, her recordings surpass all the five new sets from men that I’ve listened to. And yes, that includes the Gramophone Artist of the Year, Igor Levit. Yu Kosuge has it all: technique (that goes without saying), a sure sense of architecture and form; passion, pacing, and above all, humour. She brings just the right level of fantasy and imagination to performances that are intended for repeat listening. I really hope that, some day, when the concert halls have returned to some kind of normality, I get to hear her play live.
But why isn’t she better known? Why are the CD versions of her Beethoven recordings only available on Amazon UK as imports at extortionate prices? Perhaps she’s the kind of dedicated musician who shuns the limelight. Or maybe it’s just because she’s a woman.
Even more startling is the fact that, as far as I can tell, no female conductor has ever recorded a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. I believe I read once that there are something like 150 complete symphony cycles on record, and a huge number of those are readily available as record labels try to make as much income as possible from their archives. And there are many female conductors well up to the task: Marin Alsop, Simone Young and Jane Glover among the older generation, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla among the rising stars. So, what’s the problem?
Well, I’m glad to say that one female conductor has taken up the challenge, and Estonian-born Kristiina Poska has embarked on what may very well be the first ever recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies with a female conductor. Ok, it’s with an orchestra most of us will never have heard of, the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, and on an equally obscure label, Fuga Libera. But at least, thanks to Spotify, it’s readily accessible for all to hear, and I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed the first disc in the series: refreshing, intelligent, and no sense that I wasn’t listening to one of the world’s top rank orchestras. Roll on the next instalment!
But, in all other respects, as the dust gradually settles down from the anniversary year that wasn’t, is it time to call a moratorium on further new Beethoven recordings for, say, a decade? Here’s why I don’t think so. The idea of owning, and listening to, only one recording of a major work (or a handful if you can afford different versions) is less than a century old, from when the first complete recordings of symphonies, sonatas and concertos started to emerge. Now perhaps it’s time to think about how really odd it is to be able to repeat a single performance endlessly, to get to know every nuance, to analyse every key stroke or bar of music, to wait in anguish for that click or scratch, if you’re listening to vinyl. To replace a sense of adventure with one of cosy familiarity.
For me, Spotify has been wonderfully liberating. Every time I choose to listen to a favourite piece, I can select a different performance, hear a different perspective, find something in the music that I’d never spotted or appreciated before. And in this past year, with no live concerts to go to, that has been a real boon. Even something as familiar, as jaded, you might say, as Beethoven’s Fifth or the Moonlight Sonata, can be fresh, surprising, and engaging if you’re listening to a performance or recording that’s new to you. As I write this I’m listening to Bruckner’s Third Symphony from a complete set recorded by the Korean Symphony Orchestra, no less, conducted by Hun-Joung Lim. It’s terrific. Perhaps not up to the Berlin Phil, but full of the excitement and energy of discovery. Here in the West, the death of classical music is regularly, and prematurely, announced. In the East, they’ve barely got started.