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The age of musical curiosity is back.


The means to discover music we don’t even know exists has been threatening to die for a while - an ancillary fatality as the CD store threatens to go the way of the auk. But now, massive musical archives - some of them previously inaccessible - have parked themselves online, which is particularly good news for classical-music types who tend to be too isolated and specialized to enjoy the kind of word-of-mouth recommendations common in pop-music circles.


The Metropolitan Opera now has 212 videos and audio recordings - from its most recent galas to the 1937 “Carmen” that drove the legendary Rosa Ponselle into retirement - available, usually for $14.99 a month for streaming (www.metplayer.org), but with a special free-of-charge deal for the current weekend. Live opera from nearly everywhere but the Met surfaces at OperaDepot.com, which has 150 titles, both downloads and hard discs, even including a student recital by Gwyneth Jones.


Naxos Music Library has 31,890 CDs waiting to be streamed for the price of a $25-per-month subscription - or downloaded for reasonable prices on its sister site, Classicsonline.com. Other more distant archives are suddenly closer to home. The Hamburg Archiv fur Gesangskunst, almost all vocal, has about 500 discs available through Amazon.com (search for HAFG in Music).


My favorite Web site at the moment is PristineClassical.com, which has roughly 300 titles for downloading, streaming, and hard-disc purchase, including remarkable remasterings of classic Arturo Toscanini performances as well as blues and jazz, such as Duke Ellington’s Carnegie Hall appearances.


Waiting in the wings is the Swedish-born, British-based Spotify.com, perhaps the largest music library of all genres, with hundreds of thousands of tracks being added each week - I feel like I’m swimming with whales. Though Spotify is now off limits in the United States, with a U.K. proxy server it doesn’t have to be.


Ultimately, musical properties will exist in the thin air from whence they came - on microchips that render your well-stacked shelves obsolete, and on outside servers that won’t even clutter your hard drive.


Even now, such libraries could be to the current recession what the board game Monopoly was to the 1930s (a way to pass the time endlessly), though we shouldn’t marvel unconditionally: For ultra-literate consumers (whose catalog-like recall of details can rival that of sports fans), 212 titles from the Met do not constitute Aladdin’s Cave. The Naxos Music Library turns as up at least a half-dozen performances of any given piece, but there’s a certain proportion of indifferent performances left over from the label’s early years, when performers and repertoire weren’t as thoughtfully chosen as now. The Hamburg archival stuff has such bare-bones packaging, you’re lucky if there are even recording dates.


But the sociological breakthrough represented by these libraries is this: So much music accessible in one place accommodates the kind of wandering - no matter where you’re located - that’s still possible in the bricks-and-mortar world only at specific spots like F.Y.E. (For Your Entertainment), where you can still pop in with 20 minutes between meetings, hit a play station, and walk out with something that expands your worldview. (Enjoy it while you can - even in New York City, the two Virgin Megastores are closing).


The lush diversity offered by these Web sites is such that, in a world where every masterpiece is recorded dozens of times over, you discover why one performance is not as good as another, giving you a sense of the endless rebirth of classical music - particularly with the decline of major labels. Major artists have taken refuge in less-visible boutique labels - witness Stephen Kovacevich’s new recording of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” on the indie Onyx label, in a deeply cultivated postscript to his complete Beethoven sonata recordings made in recent years on EMI. And in the Naxos library, Onyx - one of roughly 100 non-Naxos labels - is as accessible as the majors.


Historic context, dry as that sounds, can be exhilarating while trawling through the Met Player. Take Verdi’s “Otello,” for instance. More than usual, the tenors in the title role transform the complexion of the entire opera. In 1940, Giovanni Martinelli’s reckless fury is incomparable. But in the 1978 “Otello” video with Jon Vickers, you get the cool surface precision of his voice with a coiled-snake intensity beneath - countered by the equally formidable Desdemona of Renata Scotto. Placido Domingo rarely came close to Vickers in this role, and unlike most Met telecasts, this one has never (to my knowledge) come out on home video. Vickers’ “Otello” is documented elsewhere, but always in a compromised form that led to a limited commercial shelf life.


Cyber-libraries have their technological limitations, but that’s temporary. The Naxos Classicsonline.com will have a sound-quality upgrade during its relaunch later this year. On my somewhat aged but many-times-upgraded computer, the Met Player videos have limited depth of field and occasionally go out of sync with the sound (which is very good). But even so, Met Player is a great resource tool.


Just because cyberspace has endless expanse doesn’t mean that quaint matters such as local licensing agreements and copyright laws don’t get in the way. Here’s one case history: At a hole-in-the-wall used-CD shop, I stumbled on a disc of Schumann piano music played with staggering authority by one Fabienne Jacquinot. She was a famous child prodigy who retired to teach and came back in later adulthood. The one place in the world that has other Jacquinot recordings is the Naxos library, but alas, this was part of the 1.6 percent of albums unavailable in the United States because of copyright issues. How, as Noel Coward would say, do we rise above it all?


Spotify.com? Since October, the massive Spotify library has been the talk of U.K. cyber-circles with its promise of free streaming of nearly everything in the world (with the occasional exception - Led Zeppelin, the Beatles) and sound quality richer than MP3s, thanks to a new encoding process known as Ogg Vorbis. And the site will link to Naxos’ Classicsonline.com. Tapping into that through a foreign proxy server can only go on so long for U.S. customers; they’re being found out as we speak. Even if Spotify.com arrives here, Fabienne Jacquinot and I will still be separated by copyright issues. Oh, well.


The danger of cyber-libraries is that you’ll look at more of what you already know, which defeats their purpose. In the Hamburg archive, is my life really enriched by a 1952 Russian-language “Carmen”? Nah. In contrast, the PristineClassical.com Web site offers sample clips of extremely generous length, and a 1920s performance of Schubert’s Quintet in C major by the Cobbett Quartet threw open the door to a 19th-century performance practice that changed my view of what chamber music could be.


Revisiting the familiar, though, can have its advantages. Luciano Pavarotti in his first Met opera telecast, a 1977 “La Boheme” with Scotto, sounds pretty basic. But even though I remember the room I was in and the people I was with during the telecast, I don’t remember Pavarotti being such a revelation. There he is, living his role, moving like a sylph and singing effortlessly. At the time, opera pundits complained that his high C was “the size of a pea.” Bah! It’s just dandy. What gives the telecast extra poignance is knowing what followed: Mildly plump Scotto dropped weight, leaving her high notes (and career) compromised. Pavarotti’s weight gain killed what acting technique he had. Watch it and weep. Tell your opera-singer friends. And maybe history of this sort will be less likely to repeat itself.

Tagged as: classical music | opera
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