Spotify for Classical Music?

Maybe.

The cover for this article (by Dan Gold) may seem not at all related to the subject at hand, but at the moment this article was posted (give or take) I am (or will have been? was just recently?) boarding a plane to fly about a third of the way around the world to leave this place I now call home and revisit my hometown, for the first time in far too long.

And what will I be doing? Besides eating with my elbows touching and trying to sleep without the support of a stranger’s shoulder or something, I hope to be falling asleep through movies I’m probably not terribly interested in, and listening to music. Lots of music. I’m a firm believer now in my AirPods (yes, I’m one of those people), but I’ll be suffering through headphone cables in the interest of active noise cancellation to listen to lots of music on my flight there and back, and a lot of it, despite an already-very-large music library of my own, will come from Spotify.

I’d resisted Spotify (or Apple Music or anything else) for a long time. It tears through your data, right? The options probably aren’t great for classical music, right? Things are probably really poorly organized, right?

Well, I had the opportunity to browse through it on a friend’s phone on the train on the way back from hearing Mahler 3 a few months ago (not like I couldn’t have downloaded it for free and flipped through it myself, but I was rather against the entire idea to begin with). After this experience, and one other, (spoiler alert) I got myself some Spotify and have been using it for a few months now. I’ll take those points above one by one.

  1. Data usage– Turns out, my mobile plan includes unlimited data, so it doesn’t really matter. I listen to lots of music, at home or not, and at the time of this writing (much earlier than the article will actually be posted), I’ve used almost 700MB in eight days’ time, and tons more on WiFi, I’m sure. Again, I have unlimited data so it doesn’t make much difference, but you do have the option in settings to pick a higher or lower audio quality depending on your current situation. If you have unlimited data or are on WiFi a lot, this is no big deal. If you’re paying through the nose for data or have a slow connection, it’s a big deal.
  2. Classical Music Library– Actually pretty enormous. I did searches for Per Nørgård, Milton Babbitt, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberic Magnard, and a few other more obscure people I could think of and they all popped up. I was very impressed. I will say in my later browsings, I have found some corners of the (granted, far more obscure) repertoire that aren’t terribly well represented. For one, I was surprised that much of Robert Simpson’s music is not available, or Ib Nørholm, and I know that all of Simpson’s symphonies (and quartets, and most of his other work) have been recorded, and am quite sure of the same with Nørholm. That being said, I do have to think for a little while to recall the searches I tried that returned few results. Just earlier today I was looking for Paul von Klenau’s symphonies, and found only three or four of his nine, but granted, I’m not even sure if they’ve all been recorded. If they have, though, they might not be available in your region, and I’ve run into that problem a few times as well, where a Google search returns Spotify results, but only for the U.S. (or other) store. If you’re not in one of those places, consider that.
    Commendably, though, it wasn’t but a week or two (I think) after recordings of Philip Glass’s sixth and seventh quartets were finally released that that album (by Brooklyn Rider) was available on Spotify, and it may have been a simultaneous release, but suffice it to say, whether it’s a new release, or the vast majority of the most common composers across a very wide repertoire, Spotify probably (likely, hopefully) has it. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes a matter of finding it.
  3. Organizing and categorizing- This is where it gets me. Like I said, I’ve got a huge iTunes library, and I meticulously organize it with information about the composer, performers, composer’s background (Russian, German, American, British, Brazilian, etc.) Mind you, ‘performer’ can mean quite a bit with classical music, from the pianist in a solo work to the conductor, orchestra, and soloist for a concerto to the four vocalists and choir(s) of Beethoven nine (or more for Mahler 8). If you’re set on finding that one recording of a work (“Solti/Decca” or “Bernstein/Sony”; you know those people are hardcore), then you might have a little bit of difficulty. Why?
    Well, because, let’s say for example you’re viewing artists and you search (or rather, as it’s called, “filter”) for something. Well, in iTunes, as long as you’re viewing the entire library and not a playlist, iTunes will give you all the things that have ‘Bach’ in them for example, including the transcriptions of works for kantele if someone did that and there’s Bach anywhere in the tags for any of the fields, but it’ll also return Christoph Eschenbach’s recordings of the Mozart piano sonatas. Do you see why? If your music library is organized well, this is a fantastically convenient function. As mentioned above, I can even narrow down my results to “Classical: Symphony” for genre, and “Russian” in the comments section and pull up all my Russian symphonies, as opposed to string quartets, or concertos, or operas, etc. I know that’s a little picky and detailed, but it saves me time in the long run

I’m breaking out of the list of three now. An example of the struggle I had trying to find something was Herbert Blomstedt’s recording of Bruckner 7 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus. If you were trying to find that, what would you search? Well, I’d search Blomstedt Bruckner, and I did, partly because besides just that one recording, I’d like to hear some of his other Bruckner too. But as I flipped through item after item of poorly categorized albums, I didn’t see it.

What’s the problem? Well, turns out the album is titled “Anton Bruckner: Sinfonie nr. 7 E-dur.” Two things jump out at me here. For one, I wouldn’t have thought to search the German ‘Sinfonie’ rather than the English ‘symphony,’ and I always use composers’ surnames first; I have my composers categorized that way. But here’s what it comes down to: it isn’t consistent.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone’s on a first-name basis, but I do love the black interface. Not so blinding at night.
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You’ll notice that Kalevi Aho and J.S. Bach have their surnames in album titles, but Scriabin, Pettersson, Bruckner, Berger and many others are first name first. Granted this is the responsibility of the recording company, but it makes it all the more imperative to be able to search more specifically for what you want across all those fields, or edit them yourself.
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Don’t even GET ME STARTED on album titles that include words like ‘classics’ or ‘masterpieces’, or a year. Adams and Aho are the only ones here that are speaking my language. Again, I know this is the record company’s fault, but I can get around it in iTunes by knowing EXACTLY how I’ve categorized everything else, or just by CHANGING the title of the album to something more meaningful, if there is such a title, like Bruckner

Sometimes the ‘artist’ field is the composer; others it’s the conductor, or the soloist, or the orchestra. Granted, that’s a more complicated issue for classical music than elsewhere, and I don’t really use those fields (artist vs. album artist) consistently if one album is a mix of various things (like the same pianist playing works of different composers. Then the album artist is the performer, obviously.) For me, the composer and genre fields are the most useful in iTunes.

Composer is pretty straightforward! Last name, first name.

For genre, I use “Classical: Something.” That way I can use “classical” as a search term to get ALL of it, but also search the ‘something’ (be it ‘violin concerto’ or ‘cello sonata’ or ‘piano quintet’ or ‘chamber music’ or ‘organ’ or whatever) to narrow down what I’m looking for.

When it comes down to it, I don’t care what the album is called formally, be it “A. Bruckner Symphony in E-Flat Major: Romantische” or just “Bruckner 4/Blomstedt/Gewandhaus.” The latter conveys all the information I want to see, and if there’s a soloist, they can get thrown in there too. If, like Karajan, who is intentionally quite poorly represented in my library, a conductor has recorded a work more than once with the same ensemble, then we can add either year or record label to that title, and then I know what’s what.

But with Spotify, I’m finding myself relying on memorizing album art and scrolling through an ever-growing list of albums or artists (the latter with nebulous and varying definitions) to find what it would take literally less than two or three seconds to find in my iTunes library.

The biggest problem, aside from the above, and the thing that could be fixed to alleviate some of the above, is that the ‘browse’ function (for the entire Spotify library) searches across all fields (album title, artist, etc.). Great. Viewing your library, however, say if I’m viewing by artist, I can ONLY search artists. So if the artist listed for that Bruckner album is Gunther Wand and not Bruckner, I won’t find it. That’s immensely frustrating.

Overall, I’d say the great advantage is hearing other recordings of familiar pieces; people like Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, etc. are well-represented, and for a music lover like myself, it’s a joy to have access to a plethora of recordings and pick and choose the ones you want and try them out without taking the risk of buying it unheard. (Speaking of not finding certain things, either Spotify doesn’t have Mariss Jansons’ recordings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic, or I just haven’t yet been able to find it.)

So that’s that. Really an enormous amount of options, but obviously not everything. If you’re looking to hear a wider variety of stuff you might already know, or expand your knowledge of (really more than just) the core repertoire, and don’t mind burning through a bit of data here and there, Spotify is excellent.

If you’re picky about your organization and categorizing, though, and are really intent on finding that one recording of that symphony, then your patience might be tested. For example, I was absolutely positive they’d have Celibidache’s (in)famous Bruckner recordings with the Munich Philharmonic, but couldn’t find 5 or 6 or 9. Why?

As it turns out, the album title is “First Authorized Edition Vol.2” with the artist listed as Celibidache, no mention of Bruckner anywhere. I just happened to recognize the zen covers eventually. That’s absolutely ridiculous. The best solution, for now, that I’ve found, is to create playlists to gather disparate installments of a cycle of symphonies or some collection of works or recordings into an easily-accessible place, since users can’t modify track/album/artist information. Out of five stars, it loses them a full one, down to four.

I know classical music is a more complicated area than all the stuff most of the kids listen to these days, but it’s also been around much longer. Real music folks will appreciate the attention to detail, so maybe… sometime in the future we can have some better handling of these kinds of albums and composers. I’ll probably post a followup to this article in another few months. I really love everything else about Spotify, so if you’re thinking of giving it a shot, I’d still recommend it with the caveat that it may take a little bit of patience and data.

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