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Harriet Smith's Editorial August 2000

We are reproducing Harriet's editorial, with permission, because we on Music on the Web have long campaigned  for better information in CD notes.

Isn't it remarkable how cheaply you can buy CDs these days? Even if you walk into a record store with only a fiver in your pocket, the choice is pretty mind-boggling; from new recordings by Naxos, Arte Nova and smaller labels such as Arts to super-budget reissues from major labels, such as the Decca Eloquence series from Australia and Germany, EMI's Red Line and HMV's own label. Or for a tenner you can choose from a delectable range of bargain twofers on Virgin Classics or Warner's Ultima label. Just think, there's now a choice of Debussy's Pelléas at super-budget price ­ Serge Baudo on RCA Navigator or Jean-Claude Casadesus on Naxos.  

At these kinds of price points are we in a position to quibble with what, if anything, accompanies the disc itself? Is that as misguided as going into one's local café and demanding silver service? Are critics, who have offered a positive review until the deadly last line, 'No texts? No thanks', being unreasonable? I think not. Interestingly, most of the companies who are issuing new budget-price recordings are pretty reliable in their documentation. It is in the field of reissues and historic recordings that some of the biggest inadequacies can be found.

So why is 'adequate' documentation so important, regardless of price? The answer lies in the fact that in order to appreciate as fully as possible what is being performed you need to know what the music's all about. Suppose you'd just bought a disc of Britten's Les illuminations. Listen to it without texts and you'll get a general impression of its moods, its musical landscapes and so on, but until you study the words themselves (and no matter how good the enunciation of a singer, you won't necessarily catch every one of them) you'll miss the finer details, the subtle underlining of a word here, the pointing of a phrase there. It's a bit like buying a tape of a language you'd like to learn and discovering when you remove the shrink-wrap that the book containing explanations and translations is missing. What do you do? Perhaps you get the whole way through the tape, but then you put it away on a shelf and divert your attention to easier pastimes.

Also worth remembering is the fact that the very availability of so many budget-price discs means that the appeal to the casual buyer increases. So you can get a situation where, for example, someone sees a bargain-price Zauberflöte and says to himself, 'I like Mozart's orchestral works. Maybe I'll give this a try: it's only a tenner.' If companies can provide full documentation with new recordings then there seems little excuse for omission by those who are reissuing material; after all, the libretti and translations almost certainly exist in their archives.

The fact of the matter is that any disc, regardless of its price, should be accompanied by proper documentation be it texts, translations or, in the case of purely instrumental repertoire, informative notes and artist biographies. As long as discs arrive without this critics will, and should, keep up the battle cry, 'No texts? No thanks.'

Harriet Smith

Editor International Record Review

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