alan little’s weblog

currently listening to …

28th September 2005 permanent link

Schubert’s magnificent String Quintet in C Major, of which I have four recordings: Hollywood Quartet, Hungarian Quartet, Borodin Quartet and Casals, Stern & friends. They’re all good: the Hollywood Quartet and Casals, Stern & co. are almost always near the top of “best recordings” lists for this piece, and I personally think the Hungarian Quartet are even better. All of them (Note To Music Industry) are on CDs I bought legally – three new (two even at full price in England: and if you come from somewhere else and think CDs are expensive, just try buying them in England) and one used on ebay.

Anyway, despite already having four perfectly good recordings of the piece, two of which are wonderful, I decided I felt like getting another one[*]. Browsing I discover that there’s a controversial 1960s version by the Smetana Quartet, with a wierd not-very-slow slow movement that people seem to either love or hate. That sounds promising – more so, anyway, than the kind of bland technical perfection I’d be likely to get from modern ensembles.

It’s on Testament, a British record label that specialises in re-releasing legendary performances from the classical recording golden age in the 1950s and 60s. There’s at least a fifty-fifty chance Ludwig Beck would have it, but I don’t feel like going shopping again at the moment; it’s Oktoberfest time and town is full of drunk tourists.

So, Amazon. Amazon has a vast classical music catalogue, but its search is useless. The Smetana Quartet – one of the top ten chamber music ensembles of the last half century – isn’t listed under “browse performers”. Searching for "Smetana Quartet” brings up all five hundred recordings of the string quartets the composer Bedrich Smetana wrote, with no option to sort them by anything useful like performer or recording date. I trawl down the list until I eventually find one performed by the Smetana Quartet, open it and click on Performer. Back to the same list of five hundred recordings by other people.

I spend at least as much time on and as I would otherwise have spent making a side trip to Ludwig Beck on my way home from work, without success. Eventually I find the CD on, but getting Amazon orders shipped from the States is too slow and expensive. It occurs to me to try cutting and pasting the ASIN from the url to and voila! My CD is there, it’s just that you can only find it if you already know its Amazon item number. Ordered.

The Smetana Quartet also recorded most of Beethoven’s string quartets in the 1960s. These recordings are legendary. I have heard one of them, and it is one of the most inspiring performances I have ever heard of any piece of music by anybody. I’d love to hear the rest, but they’re absurdly difficult to get hold of.

They were recorded by Czech record label Supraphon – who, however, haven’t seen fit to re-release them on CD. Supraphon had/have some kind of joint recording and marketing deal with Denon, the Japanese hi-fi equipment maker who also have their own record label. And as far as I have been able to find out, the complete Smetana Quartet 60s Beethoven is currently available on CD, with “Supraphon” even written on the labels, but actually only on Denon and only in Japan. Japanese online music stores charge reasonable prices for CDs, but their shipping rates outside Japan are expensive. Denon CDs occasionally show up in Europe on ebay or in second hand shops, where they fetch high prices as cult rarities. Note To Denon: just how incompetent are your marketing people? Get a frigging distributor for christ’s sake! The very concept of “cult rarities” in a digital medium is absurd.

So Amazon’s classical music search is useless, and some record companies don’t choose to sell their stuff where Alan lives. Another big so what? Is there in fact going to be a point to all this? I’m getting there.

[*] “It’s not necessary to own 50 Beethoven cycles, 46 of which you never play, when you can be just as happy with 20 of them, 16 of which you never play” – David Hurwitz

related entries: Music

all text and images © 2003–2008