02 November 2008

that I should love a bright particular star

Astonishingly, it was only by a chance visit to ArkivMusic.com, and only because they happened to feature it on their home page when I visited, that I discovered that a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recital new to CD was coming out in about a week. Such is the shifting-sands nature of home pages that there was no trace of it when I went back, and I had to hunt through their user-unfriendly search system to make sure that I hadn’t dreamed it. You’d think there might be a little more publicity at this point, but perhaps the explanation is just that it’s from Wigmore Hall Live, which is a new and high-quality but I assume fairly small label, rather than a major recording company, if any of those are still around. You can find it here, as you no doubt will want to, since this is self-recommending.

It’s a different recital from the one Wigmore released earlier, which itself had been released even earlier by the BBC. The Wigmore release includes Hunt Lieberson’s spoken introduction to the aria from Ashoka’s Dream, and has an attractive picture of her on the booklet cover and more extensive documentation inside, including the astonishing information that she once sang Deep River in the party scene of Die Fledermaus at the Met on New Year’s Eve. I have heard that it’s usual during this scene for celebrity guests to do a number, though I don’t think that happened during the San Francisco Opera performance a couple of years ago. I think I would have remembered it if anyone had sung about anything at all besides how much they all loved champagne.

Normally I would discourage anything that might make Fledermaus even longer than it already is, but obviously I’d make an exception here. Imagine the Met party crowd on New Year’s Eve hearing this woman step out and sing Deep River. That would sure burn a hole in the evening, and I mean that in the best way possible. But there’s the history of opera as an art form right there: on the one hand, frivolity, luxury, and wealth; and on the other, a capsizing moment of burning truth and beauty.


Yvonne said...

User-unfriendly? That's the last description I'd apply to arkivmusic! In fact, I'm forever recommending the site to classical music lovers as one of the very few that understand the hierarchy of classical music and the way its fans think about the repertoire. In other words, Arkivmusic understands the difference between a composer and a performer (and the different types of performers: conductors, ensembles, soloists) and a "work", and they "get" how these elements relate to each other when one is trying to identify or find a recording.

From the homepage, I was able to get to the Hunt Lieberson disc in question in exactly 4 clicks (I might have had to type her name in a search field as well or click a couple more times if she'd been a lesser-recorded artist).

True, the site works more by drilling down through categories and the actual free-search options are limited (but useful). All the same, their drill-down method is so logical that I can't complain.

There's just one area where Arkivmusic's system doesn't work so well and that's in the area of transcriptions and arrangements where there is more than one composer involved. These can be tricky to find, I would agree. But I've spoken to them about this and I understand it's something they're working on.

Shep Huntleigh said...

Thank you, once again, for news of LHL. I have just read your posting and, just as quickly, ordered this CD. Christmas comes early this year. Always a pleasure to check in with you, man.

pjwv said...

Hey Yvonne,
Possibly I think about the repertory differently from other classical music fans, but I'll stick to my description, though I'm glad their set-up works for you. For one thing, ArkivMusic barely has a search function - I would say they don't have one at all, but you mentioned "free search options" so I assume you know something I don't.

As you point out, the site functions by drilling down, which is useful mostly if you already know exactly what you're looking for and where it might be hidden. And it took me several visits to realize that the names listed as you drill down were not all that were available, but merely the most popular (or maybe the ones with the most available recordings?).

When I bought the LHL disc, I figured I had to get something else as well. So I decided on the new recording of The Excursions of Mr Broucek. I drilled down from Opera and didn't see it listed. I swear I checked twice and I even double-checked to make sure I was spelling Excursions correctly, which of course I was. I finally went in through Janacek, and then to his operas, and found it that way. Not really the easiest way to find something, and I knew what I was looking for and where it was likely to be.

I don't find the distinction between composer and performer all that helpful - if you're looking for, say, Finley's disc of Ives songs, you could drill down through Finley, or Ives (but could you drill down through the accompanist, if that's the performer who interests you?) and presumably you'd find the same disc. I personally find it easier to type "Finley Ives" as a search.

Some of this no doubt is learning how a site works and gaining familiarity with its various quirks. The Internet is a passive medium - you have to know what you're looking for to search for it - and I think vendors are still struggling with ways to recreate the serendipitous discoveries that come from wandering through a record store and seeing stuff that looks intriguing that you would otherwise miss. Amazon does this with its recommendations, and Arkiv with its weekly e-mails. My purchases from them have skyrocketed since they started sending out those e-mails.

Another plus for Arkiv - they accept Paypal, so I don't have to dig myself deeper into credit card debt.

And you'll note the link I provided to the disc was to ArkivMusic, not Amazon, because (somewhat surprisingly) it's harder to find this particular disc on Amazon, which sometimes classifies things in inexplicable ways. I'm so used to Amazon by now that I can generally figure out their pages, which are way too cluttered. Their music pages have gotten particularly bad - OK, I was just in the middle of a long diatribe about what Amazon has done to its Opera and Vocal page, but I decided to delete it and save the thought for another time.

ArkivMusic is definitely better than Berkshire Record Outlet, though, which lists discs by label, which strikes me as sort of insane (first, you have to know what label something is on, which is the last thing I would know, or you check a label and get hundreds and hundreds of choices). I do know they have an advanced search function; it's still far from ideal, or even sometimes tolerable.

Another good resource that I've just started using, by the way, is mdt.com.uk. When you check the prices (the non-VAT price) you have to convert them from pounds, but even with the unfavorable exchange rate they still sometimes save you money. And they have many releases much earlier than the USA does, and some releases that don't seem to be arriving here at all: I just bought a disc from a group called Canty of medieval Irish plainchant dedicated to my patron saint, and the DVD of Harrison Birtwhistle's Minotaur (though if you buy DVDs from them you have to check first to make sure they are coded to play in All Regions).

pjwv said...

Hey Shep,
OK, my last answer was very long, so this will be short and sweet - thanks for stopping by, thanks for the kind words, and I don't even need to tell you to enjoy the disc.

Yvonne said...

Appreciate the thoughtful reply. I agree that "search" is technically not the way to describe how Arkivmusic functions (it's searching in the broader sense), and that their system might not suit everyone.

I agree too that serendipity isn't its strong point. But I get plenty of unsolicited serendipity elsewhere. Last year on e-music I found a Mozart's Requiem under "punk/alternative"… So it's nice to be on a site where the cataloguers actually know what they're dealing with.

Re "free search": I think you'll like this. A fairly recent addition to the site has been the "Find a Composer [search box] [Go]" line at the top of the Composers page. Similar search boxes exist at the tops of the Conductors, Performers, Ensembles and Operas pages. Great for going straight to a musician or work that doesn't make it into the Most Popular category. "The Excursions of Mr Broucek", for example, requires one click to get to the opera page, "excursions" in the search field, and you have it.

As you point out, when it comes to a specific recording (work+artist) such as Finley's Ives songs you can from several starting points. I'd go via Finley in your particular example, ’cause I think it would be quicker.

But as you can tell, I spend a bit of time on Arkivmusic (it's as much a research tool for me as a shopping site) and so I probably have absorbed its workings and quirks.

I shouldn't depart without saying how much I enjoy reading your thoughtful and stimulating posts. Thank you.

pjwv said...

Hey Yvonne, Thanks for the kind words, and my apologies for the delay in responding, but I've been distracted by the election like the rest of the USA -- in fact, like the rest of the world; I love that there was universal rejoicing that those gangsters didn't get another four years.

After reading your responses I wondered if I had been a little hard on ArkivMusic. So I went back there and it does look as if they're incorporating more of an actual search function, which is nice. I was going to test it by searching for the fabulous 20-disc set 200 Years of Music at Versailles, which I got from MDT last September, but ArkivMusic was featuring it on the home page so that experiment wasn't really going to work as planned and I figured I'd better get out before something else caught my eye.

And they've apparently already shipped my LHL disc ahead of the official release date, so big points for them.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The search boxes are very new; I cannot remember seeing them before. Believe me, I am wondering WHY ON EARTH they have a separate search box per category. I know a fair amount about search technology and can hallucinate about what's going on. It's a mistake not have unified search available and it's a mistake that the results page doesn't also have a search box so that you don't have to click to some other page for your next search.

pjwv said...

OK, I'm back to being annoyed with them -- the LHL disc is now a weekend special and cheaper than when I bought it, but they're not giving me that discount. Oh, it's not a huge amount, but I've discovered that little things add up. . . .

Yvonne said...

@Lisa: my guess is that wanted to add more functionality within the existing structure of the website. Agree, it's not the most efficient way to do it if you're thinking in terms of a search strategy developed from the ground up. But if you think of it as speeding up the searching (sorry, finding) process within the existing setup then it certainly does do that. Perhaps unified search is on the way?

Meanwhile I'm prepared to tolerate the idiosyncrasies because – in the background – the people managing the database actually know what they're dealing with and understand the categories and hierarchies of classical music.

@pjwv: That's a bummer and not terribly smart on their part. No doubt such situations are covered in the fine print somewhere, but yours was a very recent purchase…

Lisa Hirsch said...

I know of no reason to use multiple search boxes rather than one:

If the recording info is in a relational database with one row per recording and columns for genre, performers, composer, performing organization, conductor, and work, putting up a single search page that translates to SQL queries is not conceptually or technically difficult.

If the search boxes are the front end to a more general full-text indexing search solution, whether it's Google custom search or a Google Mini, or Apache Lucene or the IBM search software or the other various software packages out there, there are better ways to configure the software than what they've got.

Yvonne said...

@Lisa: you're absolutely right. But my point was about the structure of the site not the structure of the database or the interaction with software.

I'm only speculating here, but my guess is they don't want to or aren't ready to change the actual structure of the website's front end to include a single search page as you suggest. It looks like they've set out to add a minor (but useful) enhancement to their existing drill-down system (which doesn't pretend to be a conventional search system) without changing in any major way how the users interact with the site.

Could it be better if they married their cataloguing expertise and the quality of their database with a more sophisticated (and true) searching mechanism using the strategies you describe? Absolutely! I hope it happens. But at the moment it still beats hands down sites such as Amazon where the crappy tagging and mis-cataloguing means that most searches pull up more dross than gold and where frequently you can't find the thing you know is there.

Lisa Hirsch said...

They can have both the drilldown and a real search solution.

LaDonnaMobile said...

Wigmore Hall Live is basically an offshoot of Wigmore Hall. I haven't a clue about the details of who does what and what is outsourced etc, but the recordings are done, live at Wigmore Hall, of concerts that are scheduled. So, for example, a year ago I was at a Gerald Finley recital, as it happens, which was being recorded. Meanwhile, the man who makes announcements from the stage was plugging a separate disc that had been recorded at a previous recital and was for sale.


pjwv said...

Hey Gert, Thanks for the reminder on that Finley disc -- I just ordered it from ArkivMusic. . . (though I realized later I could have gotten it slightly cheaper from MDT). I heard Finley in that program about a year or two ago under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.

That Wigmore series is quite nice, and I'm glad they (and more and more other performing groups) are now issuing their own discs: LSO Live also has some great stuff. The San Francisco Symphony has started doing this as well, at least with their Mahler performances, though their discs tend to be much more expensive than the LSO's, for reasons I don't really know. I mean, everyone blames the unions, but I find it hard to believe that players for the London Symphony are consistently paid less than members of the SF Symphony. There's just an American reflex to blame unions.