What Our Music Collections Say About Us

A Home Improvement Project Reveals Patterns in Personal Taste

Thursday, August 09, 2012 - 03:00 PM

Fred Plotkin's music collection Fred Plotkin's music collection

If you love music, and live long enough, you will acquire recordings in numerous formats that stand as evidence of your passion. Many collectors—perhaps you are among them—find themselves surrounded by vinyl recordings (in 16, 33, 45 and 78 RPMs—that’s “revolutions per minute” for the uninitiated); audio tapes (reel-to-reel and cassette); CDs (compact discs, not "certificates of deposit"); video tapes to play in VCRs (video cassette recorders); and DVDs, a format that still exists—for now.

For the past few years, a growing number of people have chosen to download music to MP3 players or listen to it on their computers. They scoff at collectors who surround themselves with recordings that provide a sense of personal as well as musical history. I find that music preserved in older formats often sounds better than the compressed sound and tinniness that one hears on downloads. Therefore, I have lived in a typically snug New York apartment surrounded, literally, by all kinds of music not to mention thousands of books.

I am one of those people who makes extensive and carefully plotted resolutions (I call them “goals and projects”) every late autumn so that they are in place and ready to go by New Year’s Day. I revisit the list at least once a month and try to accomplish as many as possible. If I don’t think I can reasonably fulfill a resolution, it does not make the list. 

This year I resolved to build enough shelves to house more than 1,000 LPs, 2,000 CDs and approximately 400 DVDS (and growing faster than other formats). My audio and video tapes have been packed in impenetrable plastic containers and put into storage to await a future resolution. I hired able people to construct shelves for LPs (painted black) and for CDs and DVDs (painted white). I did all of the organizing of these collections, alphabetizing them by composer and then by the name of the work. While opera and classical music predominate, I have a lot more rock, jazz, rhythm and blues, world music, film and Broadway soundtracks and, especially, gospel than you might expect.

In most cases, I have one or two recordings of the great works of the operatic and classical repertoire. In addition, there are many recordings of arias and songs by famous and rare singers. Among the names that figure most are Caballé, Fischer-Dieskau, Horne, Aksel Schøtz (a superb Danish tenor you may not know), Sutherland, Tebaldi and Te Kanawa. I was surprised to find much more Carreras than either Domingo or Pavarotti.

The biggest surprises came in discovering which operas I had the most recordings of. I assumed that a work by Verdi, Rossini or Wagner would come in first, but I was wrong. Perhaps because these beloved composers wrote so many works, I could not find a way to acquire too many of one of their operas. These composers have works that tie for fifth, with five recordings each: Don Carlo; La Traviata; the complete Ring Cycle; and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. I also have five recordings each of three Mozart operas: Così fan tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro and La Clemenza di Tito, plus five versions of Strauss’s Elektra and five of Puccini’s Tosca.

In fourth place, with six complete recordings, is Bellini’s Norma. What is distinct is that I only have three sopranos in the title role: Joan Sutherland (with Adalgisas Montserrat Caballé, Fiorenza Cossotto and Marilyn Horne), Maria Callas (with Christa Ludwig and Giulietta Simionato) and Gina Cigna (opposite Ebe Stignani). I also have a highlights recording of Norma with Caballé and Shirley Verrett. Norma is a glorious opera that requires superb singers in the two female leads and I listen to these recordings often to revel in how the combinations of voices create something otherworldly. Compare performances by Sutherland/Horne and Callas/Simionato.

I was not surprised to find Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier in third place, with eight recordings. Were I asked to guess ahead of time which would have come in first, this is the opera I would have bet on. The story of the romantic but principled poet has some of the most sublime arias for tenor plus a splendid aria for Maddalena de Coigny called “La Mamma Morta" and what I think is the greatest love duet in all of opera.

What is particular about my Andrea Chéniers is that I don’t think any one complete performance is the best, though I am partial to ones that contain Franco Corelli, Mario del Monaco and José Carreras. I have a poorly captured pirate recording of a live performance in Barcelona with Carreras and Caballé that is the best in musical terms but the recording quality is so bad that it is hard to love this record.

I should not have been surprised, though I was, that Mozart’s Don Giovanni came in second. It is often called the greatest of all operas and it certainly is on my short list. I have nine versions, with the following artists in the title role: Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside, Ezio Pinza, Ruggero Raimondi, Samuel Ramey, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Cesare Siepi, Bryn Terfel and Ingvar Wixell. The casts and conductors vary widely. I suppose my favorite is the Raimondi (conducted by Lorin Maazel), but Pinza, Siepi and Terfel make very strong impressions and Keenlyside and Allen show great dramatic insight. Ramey brings a remarkable sensual flair to a recording with an excellent cast led a bit ploddingly by Herbert von Karajan. I also have five DVD versions (with Allen, Keenlyside, Ramey, Terfel and the excellent Gerald Finley as the Don).

I never expected that the opera I would have the most recordings of—12—is Beethoven’s Fidelio, but I am pleased. It is thrilling and life-affirming from beginning to end, with music that is dramatic, beautiful and inevitably inspirational. I suspect I kept acquiring them because I love the work so much and because it is not performed as often as it should be. As Leonore, the heroine who dresses as a young man to gain entry to the prison where he husband Florestan is kept, there are so many noble sopranos in my collection. They include Christine Brewer, Helga Dernesch, Kirsten Flagstad (twice!), Gwyneth Jones (her best recorded performance, I think), Waltraud Meier, Martha Mödl, Birgit Nilsson (twice!), Nina Stemme, Jane Thorner-Mengedoht and Deborah Voigt.

In addition, I have two wonderful DVDs, one with Gundula Janowitz and the other with Karita Mattila. It is hard to pick one of these versions as the best and I am pleased I do not have to. The most exciting Florestan is Jon Vickers with Dernesch, but Ben Heppner is excellent with Mattila and Voigt and Jonas Kaufmann is a fine match with Stemme.

Would I acquire another Norma, Andrea Chénier, Don Giovanni or Fidelio? I think the real question is whether there will be another recording of these operas. There are very few new complete opera recordings on disc, and most that do come out are drawn from live performances. There is, however, a proliferation of DVDs. I happen to like listening to recorded opera more than watching it. When I listen to an opera (on recording or on radio), I create a production in my head that is often more dramatic and faithful to the opera than most stagings I see nowadays. With video, one must sit before a screen unless you wish to treat it like a record and only listen to it. The experience is different because factors such as the production of the opera become part of how it is perceived when you look at it. 

To understand what I am referring to, take a couple of well-spent hours to listen to the wondrous Claudio Abbado lead Stemme and Kaufmann in a recent performance of Fidelio. When recordings like this come along, they are always worth acquiring, no matter how many versions of the opera you already own.

What is the opera you have the most recordings of? Are there any operas you believe merit a new recording? Are there any opera recordings that are so good that you don’t think you need any other version?


More in:

Comments [10]

Paul from Detroit, Michigan

Among my many opera CD and DVD sets, I have 6 CD sets of Beethoven's Fidelio and two DVDs, 4 CD sets of Leonore (the earlier iteration of Fidelio) one of which is the 1806 version, the others being 1805--So I guess that is officially 10 Fidelio/Leonore sets. After that I have seven different CD sets of Bellini's La Sonnambula, three with Maria Callas; three sets of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore; and 3 of Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment (2 French and one Italian version).

I believe that the Abbado CD set of Rossini's La Cenerentola featuring Theresa Berganza as Angelina (Cinderella) is so good that there is no need for another set. And the L'Elisir d'Amore conducted by Muus featuring Valeria Esposito is also the only set you need of that opera.

Jul. 11 2015 10:46 PM
Martha Hart

What a great post - this is me! These commenters are my people!

Seriously... I cheerfully have vinyl and tape along with CDs and - increasingly - DVDs. I'll dash home from the day job to find which opera has the most versions on my shelves.

Thanks for this - it's perfect.

Aug. 23 2012 11:46 AM
Concetta nardone from Nassau county

My collection started with a one dollar sampler. Yes, I am that old.
Do not have more room for recordings and my sons keep gifting me with dvds of opera and books. Need a bigger house for more STUFF. My favorites, Norma with Callas, Il Trovatore with Milanov, Bjoreling, Tosca, same cast, Oh yes, Fidelio, the opera about a brave faithful loving wife. Cannot list them all. Beethoven symphonies, Wagner, etc. etc. etc. Help
SteveNYC. Your comment showed poor form.

Aug. 14 2012 10:02 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To Ebenasire: I am 56, so not quite as tired, old, nor royal as the testy SteveNYC might believe. You (Ebenasire) make a very good point about having more recordings than time. Collectors gather multiple recordings for many reasons (just as wine collectors gather many more bottles than they can ever consume). It provides a sense of choice and possibility. If the recording (or wine) is available it can be discovered. In my case, let us say that I want to hear how a particular soprano performs a section of Fidelio or Norma, I can do some comparative listening among all of my recordings. It does not mean I will listen to the entire recording, but I can if I want to. Nonetheless, it is true that there are CDs in my collection that are still wrapped in their original plastic covering. I have perhaps a hundred CDs that were purchased when Tower Records, Borders Books or branches of Barnes & Noble closed that were purchased on impulse with the thinking that one day I might have a need for them. They are not so much standard repertory as early works by Mozart (Ascanio in Alba, La Finta Giardiniera) for completeness's sake or operas by post-Verdi Italians (Giordano, Zandonai, Pizzetti, etc) whose works I want to know.

Aug. 12 2012 10:59 AM
ebenasire from NYC

One question surfaces: How old are you now?(Approximately) There will come a point when age catches up with you (and with the playback equipment..When will you have the time left to listen to what you already own., not to mention space requirements..?

Aug. 12 2012 10:23 AM
Jim in Minneapolis from Minneapolis

Wonderful blog, as usual Fred. It made me curious. I have a large collection, having initiated it by taping broadcasts off the radio starting in 1971. The collection is probably not as large as Thomas Hampson's, as far as what I have heard, but more than enough to get lost in! So I wandered over to check on what I believe is the most of any opera that I have. In addition to 23 complete Ring Cycles!, I have more than 40 Walkuere's. So what does that say about me? Not sure. Because in 2nd place, the honor goes to Il TROVATORE, of all things, at 41. So maybe a tie? After that, our dear NORMA with 37, and a close next choice with 30 FIDELIOs. So it is all across the boards so to speak yet I have always had multiple versions of operas I wanted to like or learn to love, like LA GIOCONDA. A recent learn to love opera at only 19 versions. And the occasional edge of the repertory item like I VESPRI SICILIANI with 11, JENUFA which I have adored from first hearing in 1974 with 14, and a close match with FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN with 15, What about dear DR. FAUST with 5 versions? Or CLEMENZA with 8? Or I DUE FOSCARI with 6? It might be scary to find out some time how many FIGAROs, COSIs and especially ZAUBERFLOETEs exist in my collection - ! So thank you for the lovely opportunity to look at what I have in a different way. And here's to hearing EVERYONE in works that I adore!

Aug. 11 2012 02:11 AM
Brad from Venice, IT

I was also surprised when, inspired by your article, I looked to see which opera I have the most recordings of. It's an opera that I enjoy but which is by no means my favorite--Tosca. It turns out I have twelve of them. I suppose the reason is because, if there ever was a singer's opera, it's Tosca. Almost every truly legendary prima donna has put her mark on the role, and several tenors, Corelli and Bergonzi especially, have given performances that make you think the opera should have been called "Cavaradossi." It's also the only opera that was central to the repertory of both Callas and Tebaldi, and therefore it's the only opera wherein it's really fair to directly compare their relative merits. To whit, I have 2 Toscas with Callas and 2 with Tebaldi. It's also an opera in which a lot of sopranos overlooked by the major record companies have managed to record for Italian radio, such as Olivero and Frazzoni (and I have versions with both of them). There are also exciting live versions from the Met with Steber and Price. Moreover, the opera's also a conductor's showcase, as has been proven by recordings by legendary conductors, from De Sabata to Sinopoli. Indeed, there are several other great versions out there that I haven't managed to get yet. It's an opera that's been very fortunate on record, and comparing the different versions is fascinating. (It's almost a shame that the great Callas-Gobbi-De Sabata recording has been called the "last word" on that opera, because there are so many other great versions out there.)

Aug. 10 2012 10:06 AM
Nick in Milwaukee

Tristan( Boehm, Karajan,Furtwaengler, Thielemann) and Parsifal(Solti, Karajan, Knappertsbusch,Barenboim) tie at 4 recordings each for me. Growing up, my Dad and I would spend many Sunday afternoons comparing the Solti Ring with the Karajan Ring so it is no surprise that Wagner operas dominate for me. Your mention of Gwyneth Jones in Fidelio brought back great memories of seeing her as Fidelio at the Vienna State Opera as an 11 year old and I remained a loyal fan for the rest of her career, considering her awakening as Bruenhilde in Siegfried in the New York Ring of 1993 one my greatest operatic experiences(despite the wobble that crept into her voice).

Aug. 10 2012 01:35 AM
Mathew from Columbus, OH

"Norma" is, without a doubt, the opera of which I have the most recordings. At 15 and counting, the singings feature Callas (5), Sutherland (2), Caballé, Sills, Gencer, Eaglen, Verrett, Suliotis, Scotto, Gruberova. In High School, my first full-length opera recording was a live recording of Callas singing the role in Rome, 1955. At the time, I knew little about opera and nothing about Callas, but I was struck by the ferocity of her rage and her crushing despair. Further digging brought other singers to my attention, and each singer brought something new and interesting to the various principle roles. But, of course, Norma is about the priestess herself, and there seems to be no way of playing her the same way twice - even by the same singer. Though my interests have, along the way, grown and changed, I always find myself coming back to Norma for the heat of those emotions that I felt while playing that scratchy, mono recording of Callas, del Monaco, and Stignani for the first time.

Aug. 09 2012 09:50 PM
Ian from Brooklyn Yo!!

Fred - I'm like you. I eschew the downloads (for the most part) and am hanging on and yes, still accruing (to my wife's dismay) LPs, 78s, R2R tapes, and CDs. As an audiophile, I agree 100% that the traditional formats for the most part sound better than digital downloads. Analog sources in particular surpass most of what is downloadable via the internet. One thing that you might consider is the Squeezebox touch. This device allows you to stream music from your computer wirelessly to your home stereo. You can listen to internet radio, files from itunes, and via the subscription version of spotify, almost every opera recording known to man. The sound quality via spotify is very good but made even better with an inexpensive D to A converter like the Chinese Matrix-I Mini. It won't sound better than your LPs and most of your CDs but the quality is damn close if you have a decent system.

Aug. 09 2012 09:39 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore


Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore