The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: How many minutes of classical music should go on a CD?

January 7, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I must be one of the few classical music consumers who don’t resent it when a record company doesn’t  exploit the full timing potential of a CD.

One of the most common criticisms of new classical CDs is that the label or performer doesn’t use the full 80-plus minutes of space now available on CDs.

If you doubt that, you have only to browse reader reviews at’s classical music section; at magazines like Gramophone; and at web sites like

But a recent purchase of some reissued CDs (on Deutsche Grammophon) by famed pianist Martha Argerich caused me to once again question to received wisdom. (The set of solo performances is a great deal, with eight of the original vinyl LP recitals that have been digitally remastered, that sells for about $35 retail or $21 on Amazon.)

First off, when you combine former LPs into CDs, something often happens and pieces get lost in the selecting and editing. So until this set, Argerich’s reading of Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” was out of print. Now we have it in the eight solo programs from 1960 to 1986 that also includes music by J.S. Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Ravel and Prokofiev.

More importantly, 80 minutes is a long time to sit and listen.

Recitals and concerts are usually planned with about 45 minutes before and then 45 minutes after intermission.

But that means one CD is not really enough for a full recital. Plus that intermission is important – as important as the rests and silences are in music.

So I don’t feel cheated when a CD has, say, 45 or 50 minutes or music – if it is a well-planned and well-played program.

In fact, I particularly like recital formats that use maybe 45 or 50 minutes – and if the program is well planned, I don’t care about the unused minutes because I hear an organic, holistic program with synergy among and between the various pieces.

True, there are understandable exceptions. Operas often need to use the full space available on each CD. And with 80 minutes, you can fit Beethoven’s Ninth and, Mahler and Bruckner symphonies on a single CD – a big advantage.

But the important thing is how convincing the music-making is – not usually how effectively the label uses the full timing potential of a CD.

Go for the music, not the timing.

Do you feel cheated if a classical CD has less than 70 or 80 minutes of music?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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