For an activity that leads to such enduring pleasure, choosing CDs can be a hazardous operation. And not just physically. Even granted you've survived the trauma of buying the right CD player to begin with, and have succeeded in fighting off wall- to-wall Madonna to reach the sound-proof haven of the Classical Department, you still confront the ultimate angst of free will. Your mind goes blank, despite quantities of CD reviews collected and considered for months beforehand. All you wanted was Beet hoven's Diabelli Variations. And there on the shelf are 20 versions to choose from.
Are they so necessary, all those new recordings, reissues, repackagings? In the case of the complex, testing Diabelli Variations, the answer might be yes, for no pianist can present every facet of the score, and the wealth of available recordings - nothing less than the entire recorded history of the work - is but another gift from this age of plenty, when record companies produce more surplus than the Common Agricultural Policy. There's a right choice for you, whether you prefer Barenboim or Backhaus. But other cases are less clear. The aesthetics of record buying, though a beautiful subject, can also be an ugly journey in search of that elusive creature, the "definitive" recording.
In rare cases, it can be caught single-handed. A recording may be identical with the work itself: Stockhausen's Hymnen and Ligeti's Glissandi, for example, are pieces existing in one form only, made on tape. In striking contrast, Ligeti's Poeme symphoni q ue, for 100 metronomes winding down at their own speed, cannot be recorded at all. Here, as in the music of John Cage, the essence of the work is its random content. By definition, a final, authoritative version is impossible.
But between these two extremes lies the vast mass of standard repertoire, where recordings are like snapshots in an album, some more important than others by virtue of their time and place. Benjamin Britten's own account of the War Requiem is the only commercial recording of the piece he made, and is fascinating for this reason. The recordings of Elgar, the first composer to leave a substantial legacy in this area, are likewise sui generis. They do not supersede other performances, but give v aluable leads to the composer's own intentions which have been followed by a range of conductors from Adrian Boult to Giuseppe Sinopoli. Tippett's Second Symphony, written in 1956 but still rarely played, became widely admired in the Sixties and Seventie s throughColin Davis's superb 1967 recording with the LSO. Only recently has a new CD from Richard Hickox displaced it as the "definitive version", and added a new dimension to the life of the symphony: its own recorded history. …