HomeCD JunkiesCD Junkies: David Rowe of Classical CD Reviews

CD Junkies: David Rowe of Classical CD Reviews

Classical music enthusiast David Rowe is our latest CD Junkie. Rowe runs the blog DavidsClassicalCDs.com, where he reviews new classical CD releases. Rowe, 62, is a retired banker living in Pine, Colorado, a small community about 50 miles southwest of Denver.

Growing up in a musical family, Rowe was introduced to classical music at a young age. He started piano lessons in the 2nd grade and joined the band in the 5th. He played flute and clarinet in school and community bands and orchestras throughout his youth and went on to major in music in college. After getting a full-time job, listening to classical became his passion – an escape from the workaday grind.

According to the most recent tally, Rowe has about 9,300 classical CDs (!!!) on his shelves. He has another 500+ in boxes (he ran out of room). Of these discs, 950 are SACDs. In addition, he has about 250 orchestral film score soundtracks. In this interview, Rowe discusses his favorite recent CD releases, the very first classical CD he bought over 35 years ago, and the magic of RCA Living Stereo.

360°Sound: How long have you been collecting classical CDs?

David Rowe: I began collecting CDs shortly after they were first introduced in 1986. I had quite a few LPs but never really loved them – the scratches, the surface noise intruding on soft passages, the difficulty in finding a specific section on the record, etc. And I hated cassettes even more! So, I fell in love with the CD immediately. The classical industry was slow to respond, and selection was pitiful for several years.

My very first CD was the Tchaikovsky Ballet Suites on EMI (Ricardo Muti/Philadelphia Orchestra). I can remember listening to it for the first time like it was yesterday. I was stunned with the clarity and immediacy of the sound. And even more with the silence surrounding it. I still have that CD and listen to it occasionally.

In the mid-‘90s, I discovered how much better music can sound with higher-quality components and speakers. Thus began the quest to assemble the best stereo I could afford, and out went the Sears rack system! This is when my obsession with collecting CDs really took off in earnest.

What do you love about the CD format?

Two things: the convenience and the clear, dynamic sound.

From day one, it was the ability to press a number on the remote and immediately hear that track, which hooked me for life. No more hunting around on an LP or fast-forwarding through a cassette trying to find the passage you want to hear. This is particularly important when listening to long pieces comprised of many movements, as opposed to pop music with its 3-minute songs. Plus, the longer playing time capacity is particularly useful for accommodating longer pieces without having to interrupt the music to flip over the LP.

And the sound, of course – clean and clear with no extraneous noise. Plus, wide frequency extremes, uncompressed dynamics, and the clarity of inner details in complex orchestral passages so often obscured on LP. The CD clearly demonstrates how limited the LP format really was.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on Witches’ Brew and the RCA Living Stereo series. I found that a lot of audiophiles hold those late ‘50s/early ‘60s recordings in high regard. Are you a fan of the Living Stereo series?

Oh yes, I am a big fan of those (although not necessarily the Witches’ Brew album). I also highly admire the Mercury Living Presence series from the same era. I think the RCA Living Stereo series really put classical music into the living rooms of everyday music-lovers. Stereo was such a vast improvement over mono, and RCA was in the forefront in mastering that process, utilizing very few microphones (usually two, sometimes three) with minimal processing. These recordings made a symphony orchestra sound real and captured the majesty of the hall acoustic in which they played. The sheer impact and tangible presence of the orchestra are rarely experienced with the same level of realism on modern recordings, which tend to favor a more relaxed, laid-back perspective.

But it wasn’t just the technology; RCA had the talent, too. Some of the very best in the series are those with Fritz Reiner in Chicago, Charles Munch in Boston, and Arthur Fiedler with the Boston Pops. (And for Mercury, Dorati with the London Symphony Orchestra.) What amazing performances! And they still sound good today, especially those which were remastered for SACD in the mid-2000s. RCA again demonstrated their technical skills with amazing remastering techniques. Those old recordings sound new again.

However, for me, it’s not just the recorded sound but the music-making itself. These were made back when orchestras still had character and individuality – and charisma. They engaged conductors who demanded precision – crisp articulation, unanimity of ensemble, and energetic dynamics – which today’s orchestras can rarely match.

Sure, there’s no denying modern recordings can sound better than those classic, venerable ones – depending on your preferences and playback equipment. Many prefer the more atmospheric, mid-hall acoustic favored today. But the music-making is so often banal and routine. Today’s orchestras tend to all sound the same – overly refined, meticulously accomplished and largely disinterested. That’s why so many older recordings are still cherished today. The involvement and passion in the playing back then was extraordinary.

What are a few newer classical CD releases that really blew you away in terms of performance and sound quality?

Two string quartet recordings come immediately to mind. The Dover Quartet’s complete Beethoven cycle on Cedille Records is spectacular (2019-2022, 3 volumes, 8 CDs). Their playing simply redefines the art of string quartet playing today with incredible precision of ensemble and articulation, wide dynamic range, and uniformity of expression. They bring new life to these works which will hopefully attract a new audience to Beethoven.

The other is Quatuor Hanson’s 2021 collection on Aparte Records, Not All Cats Are Gray. They play with many of the same impressive qualities of the Dover, but in music which had been unfamiliar to me. Their performances of Ligeti and Dutilleux are so enlightening they’ve inspired me to explore these composers further – which, for me, is the most rewarding (and exciting) part of listening to new recordings.

Turning to concertos, I was dazzled by Alexandre Kantorow’s brilliant Saint-Saens set on BIS (2 SACDs, 2019-2022), with his father, Jean-Jacques, conducting. What’s most impressive here, other than the fabulous piano playing, is the choice of tempos throughout – not so fast that it’s hectic and breathless (as is the common trend these days), but musically so very right. The results are engrossing and positively exhilarating. The sound is very good too (if not quite state-of-the-art).

Also, some of the most joyous Mozart you’ll hear comes from Romain Guyot playing the Clarinet Concerto and Quintet on Mirare Records (2013). Uplifting and heartfelt, this is exquisite and beautifully recorded.

On the orchestral front, I have been mightily impressed with some recent SACD releases from Chandos. John Wilson’s Rachmaninoff 3rd with the Sinfonia of London is quite simply one of the most spectacular orchestral recordings of recent memory. So is his previous recording with the same orchestra: The Hollywood Soundstage. The dynamic range, the enormity and spaciousness of the hall acoustic, the airy string tone and rich orchestral colors are absolutely amazing.

How do you feel about the future of the CD? Do you think we’ll see a resurgence like we’ve seen with vinyl?

I am extremely concerned about the future of CD. First, I grow more frustrated each month with the increasing difficulty in finding product to buy. Retailers are becoming scarce, and those once-reliable sources are often “Out of Stock” or “Currently Unavailable from the Distributor” – even on new releases. And I am discouraged at how many titles are being released as digital download only.

Second, I’m disheartened at the lack of variety and distinction in today’s classical releases. I remember the good old days when there were literally dozens of classical labels which issued dozens of titles each month. Now, we’ve got the few big names (SONY, DG, Warner), which have swallowed up so many labels of the past, regurgitating endless reissues and rarely producing anything new of real interest or importance. And thankfully, a handful of truly excellent specialty labels are still hanging in there. I am eternally grateful for them! But goodness, their numbers are dwindling and their releases are becoming hard to obtain.

I’m perplexed by the resurgence in vinyl, as I was never a big fan in the first place. However, I’m happy to see people buying music on a physical medium rather than just listening to downloads on a portable device. I don’t see the CD making a comeback, though. All the signs indicate its days are numbered and the world is going all digital. Streaming and download services are cropping up everywhere – not only from the popular apps and Amazon, but of course Apple has joined in. And even classical labels themselves are offering downloads on their websites. Even worse, CD retailers such as Presto Classical in Europe (from whom I buy most of my new CDs) are aggressively promoting their own streaming services.

I have enough CDs in my collection to last me a lifetime – as long as I can still find a working disc player (which is another issue altogether). I’m too old and set in my ways to start using a new format and I have tailored my stereo system to sound its best with CDs. So, I’ll stick with being a “CD Junkie.” [Editor’s note: God bless you, sir.]

Don’t forget to check out David’s outstanding reviews on DavidsClassicalCDs.com

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