Getting lost in the free classical riches available online

Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 00:00

The concert calendar is quiet in the winter, which is the perfect excuse to hole up online for a musical fix, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

It’s around the beginning of December every year that regular musical life goes on the blink. Simply put, there’s a drought of normal concert activity once the Christmas season gets into gear in earnest. This year, for example, the RTÉ NSO’s single December programme at the NCH is a “Three Sopranos Christmas Gala.” Christmas choral concerts, including a plethora of Messiahs, dominate the landscape.

With people’s minds concentrated on another harsh budget, it’s useful to know that there’s a dizzying amount of online music to choose from without paying a cent beyond the cost of an internet connection.

Radio stations are an obvious first port of call. RTÉ Lyric FM and BBC Radio 3 are available as live streams, and both also allow you to listen back, usually for a limited period, to previously broadcast programmes and concerts. The online sound quality of Lyric FM is nothing to write home about, but Radio 3 is much better, offering high- and low-quality streams, both of which are superior to what RTÉ currently offers. Radio 3 is also available in the radio section of Apple’s iTunes software.

There are lots of shortcuts if you want to explore further afield. The selection of classical stations offered on iTunes comes to just under 200. The website listenlive.eucontains links to more than 4,000 stations across Europe, which you can trawl through country by country. The site also breaks down music stations genre by genre and has links to similar sites for Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand., which also has apps for iPhone and Android, has sub-categories within its classical offerings.

Radio is far from being the only source of free music. There are celebrated concert series that stream their concerts and/or make them available for download. Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ( currently has 155 concerts available as podcasts.

Bantry’s West Cork Chamber Music Festival is a newcomer to the field. Its audio archive only went live a few months ago and is still a work in progress. The current selection on westcorkmusic.ieis far from comprehensive – it has just 10 works by Beethoven at the moment, compared to the 50-plus of the Gardner Museum. But Bantry already features 24 recordings by the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, nine of them pieces by living composers.

One of the internet’s largest repositories of free material is to be found at non-profit site archive.orgwhere, as I write, the holdings run to 1,057,387 movies, 109,517 concerts, 1,447,101 recordings, and 3,738,910 texts. If you’re looking for a historic, out-of-copyright recording, a scanned copy of a 19th-century music book, radio coverage in the form of a talk by or documentary about an American composer, there’s no better place to start.

A recent trawl I made there turned up a cello and piano recital by Charlotte Moorman and David Tudor. Moorman achieved unintentional notoriety when she was arrested at a New York concert in 1967 for playing topless, as required by Nam June Paik’s Opéra Sextronique. I found the recital while looking for background on Philip Corner, now 79, who I recently heard at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Describing Moorman’s programme, the archive.orgsite says: “The Corner piece consists largely of detailed performance notes that are followed exactly, much to the amusement of the audience.” His solo with . . . must be one of the few pieces that calls for a performer to fidget and primp and “optionally” to “take hankie from bag”. The notorious Moorman/Paik incident in New York is documented on YouTube. I wouldn’t have looked for it had Corner not led me to the recital on That’s the way with the internet. One thing leads to another, and you end up in totally unexpected places.

Speaking of Huddersfield, when I was at last month’s festival, Richard Steinitz gave me a copy of his history of the festival, Explosions in November,published by the University of Huddersfield Press. The book runs to 300 pages, is copiously illustrated, and, by its very nature, provides an unusual slant on the musical history of the last three decades. Steinitz, the festival’s founder and artistic director for more than 20 years, mingled with the great and the good among composers and performers, and he gives insights into what it was like to negotiate with Stockhausen, as well as how Boulez and Cage reacted to each other in 1989 at what was to be their last meeting. He does of course explain the genesis and development of what is still one of Europe’s biggest celebrations of contemporary music, and along the way he describes the people and the music, the challenges and the triumphs, with vivid engagement.

I left with a book of an entirely different cast after I interviewed pianist Philippe Cassard in Vincennes last month. Cassard seems every bit as passionate about movies as he is about music. And he has taken his passion to the point of authoring a book which links the two interests: Deux Temps, Trois Mouvements, Un pianiste au cinéma, Entretien avec Marc Chevrie et Jean Narboni, published by Capricci.

Let’s face it. Music exists perfectly well on its own. But movies as we know them could hardly function without music on the soundtrack. My French is too poor to take me far into the book. But the blurb at the back certainly whets the appetite, teasingly asking about the affinities between Schubert and Bergman, or Beethoven, Godard and the Rolling Stones, or Jean-Pierre Melville and Morton Feldman. You get the idea.

Talking to Cassard, I discovered that his interest in the conjunction of sound and image is fantastically precise. It’s not enough for him just to experience it. He needs to learn exactly how things were achieved.

Cassard’s 50th birthday recital at the National Concert Hall on Thursday was something of a disappointment. He took rather too long to warm up, and at times sounded stressed, almost as if he couldn’t help pushing himself into a zone of discomfort, especially when winding up the tension in Liszt’s Dante Sonata. I enjoyed his playing most in his selection of works by Debussy and in his encores, the second of which, Chopin’s Minute Waltz, he delivered as a delirious whirl.

Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare, who made his RTÉ NSO debut at the NCH on Friday, was at his strongest in a colourfully virtuosic account of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, and at his weakest in a rather too tangled-sounding reading of Strauss’s Don Juan. He trimmed back the numbers for a nimble account of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, where the svelte and agile soloist was the orchestra’s John Finucane. The young players of the NSO’s mentoring scheme who took part in the concert seemed at all times to blend in perfectly.

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