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 Amazon.com’s classical music section; at magazines like Gramophone; and at web sites like ClassicsToday.com.

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

5 Comments »

  1. Personal preferences – so it goes.

    I have to admit that I know nothing about how critics rate classical CDs so I’ll take your word on that matter.

    Take care – Skip

    Comment by Skip — January 8, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

  2. Why is hitting the pause and/or stop button a problem? “80 minutes is a long time to sit and listen.” OK, fine. But the capacity of a CD doesn’t impose the burden of sitting and listening for 80 minutes upon the listener.

    Alternatively, program the CD player to play a certain number of tracks and then stop.

    You make it sound like, by putting a CD into your CD player, you then become a helpless victim of the person who assembled the album. But you’re complicit in the listening scenario. Just because my car has enough gas to move me 400 miles doesn’t make me feel obligated to drive that distance.

    “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.”

    This is a false dichotomy.

    I’m not arguing that you should feel cheated by a CD that is left 45% or so empty, but rather that filling a CD doesn’t ruin the experience of listening to an album a priori since you have it in your control to simply stop listening after the desired amount of time.

    Comment by Skip — January 8, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    • Hi Skip,
      Thanks for reading the blog post and taking the time to reply.
      You make a good point, and I can’t argue. I especially like the gas tank analogy.
      I like recital formats so that I don’t have to get up and keep changing CDs. I prefer to mix it up.
      I also like to put on a CD and then not worry about using the controls. Personal preference, I guess.
      But you’re absolutely right that I am under no obligation to listen to the whole CD. It’s just a preference.
      Where I do stand firm is that I don’t think critics’ ratings of CDs should focus so much on timing as they often do.
      If it is a great program and a greta performance, you are not being cheated. That is what is important, especially with historic reissues when Lps didn;t have as much time on them as CDs do.
      Otherwise, I don’t think we are very far apart in our views and listening habits.
      So, good listening to you.
      And best wishes for the New Year.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 8, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

  3. […] Excerpt from: Classical music review: How many minu… […]

    Pingback by Classical music review: How many minutes of classical music should … | Review Gallery — January 8, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  4. Dear “Ear”,

    always a joy to read your blog. You do so much
    research! Lucky me, one click and I am up to
    speed.

    Thanks, Dr. Jake

    Comment by Barbara DeMain — January 7, 2010 @ 5:56 pm


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