Tips for beginning (and perhaps experienced) CD collectors

WHAT'S NEW: replaced one of the CD photos

Photo of about 2,500 CDs

Photo of about 1,900 CDs

The photos above were taken in mid August, 2004, in my apartment in RI. The three oak-colored storage units cost ~$160 each. Over 4,000 CDs are shown here. I put all of my Rach 3 CDs together--Can you guess where they are?

Photo of about 1,200 CDs

These are my remaining CDs at home in TX.

Buying classical CDs is one of my favorite activities. It is in fact even more enjoyable than listening to them. Buying classical CDs is really fun, but it won't be fun unless you do the following:

1) First of all, you must know names of composers and titles of some of their works (obviously). How can you get this knowledge? Well, you can read books, take a music appreciation class, ask your friends, etc. When I was a beginner, I used a book (written in Chinese) by the Hong Kong critic Wong Moak. The title of the book, translated into English, is "Musicians and Music Appreciation", published by the Chinese University Press. In the appendix of that book is a list of works by major classical composers which form what the author considers a "basic" classical repertoiry. So, if you happen to be able to read Chinese, go look for this book. Similar lists can be found elsewhere, for example, in the Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide, the Naxos classical CD catalog (the Naxos list can also be found on this page, etc. Just in case you are too lazy to consult a book or take a class, I have made a short list for you:

Addinsell: Warsaw Concerto

Bach: Violin Concertos + Concerto for 2 Violins

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos.8 ("Pathetique"), 14 ("Moonlight"), and 23 ("Appassionata")

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos.5 & 6 ("Pastorale")

Bizet: L'Arlesienne Suites

Bizet: Carmen Suites

Chopin: 1 CD of a selection of his solo piano pieces, including Polonaise No.6, Fantasie-Impromptu, one or more Scherzi, one or more Ballades, some Etudes, some Waltzes, some Nocturnes, some Mazurkas, etc.

Dvorak: Symphony No.9 "From the New World"

Holst: The Planets

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor

Mozart: Symphonies Nos.40 and 41 ("Jupiter")

Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos.20, 21 & 23

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.2

Rossini: Overtures

Schubert: String Quintet "Trout"

J. Strauss II: famous Waltzes, must include "The Beautiful Blue Danube" and "Tales from the Vienna Woods".

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Ballet Suite

Vivaldi: "The Four Seasons"

To get all the above, you will need to buy around 20 to 23 CDs. Don't worry, they are all very easy to appreciate. If you don't get it the first time you listen to it, try again. One needs to have patience to appreciate classical music. After getting the above and you want more, I recommend the following as the second "installment", which entails around 27 CDs:

Barber: Adagio for Strings

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos.3 and 5

Beethoven: Symphony Nos.3 ("Eroica"), 7 and 9

Beethoven: Violin Concerto

Brahms: Both Piano Concertos

Brahms: Violin Concerto

Bruch: Violin Concerto

Chopin: Both piano concertos

Chopin: Piano Sonatas Nos.2 and 3

Dvorak: Cello Concerto

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Grieg: Piano Concerto

Handel: Water Music

Liszt: Both Piano Concertos

Liszt: Various solo piano works, including some Hungarian Rhapsodies, Mephisto Waltz No.1, some Concert Etudes and Transcendental Etudes, Liebestraum No.3, Consolation No.3, etc.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (both solo piano and orchestral versions)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade

Saint-Saens: Symphony No.3 ("Organ")

Saint-Saens: Piano Concerto No.2

Schubert: Impromptus Op.90 and Op.142

Schumann: Piano Concerto

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 ("Pathetique")

If you want to start exploring operas, I recommend you to start with Verdi's Rigoletto, which takes up two discs.

2) However, if you have been to a CD store with a reasonably large classical section, you will realize that the matter is not that simple. For the same work, there are many CDs recorded by different artists on different labels. The prices range from US$0.99 (e.g. the label Pilz) to US$21 (e.g. the APR label) per disc. So, which one should you buy? One important thing to remember is: the price of a disc is NOT commensurate with its quality. What you should look at is who is performing, and that means you have to read books about the performers. This probably will be more difficult than learning about the composers, since there are far more performers than there are composers, and such books are a little more difficult to find too. If you can read Chinese, the several Chinese books written by Wong Moak are all very helpful. (Yes, I know that most of you don't read Chinese, but those were the books that introduced me to classical music.) For books written in English, "The Art of the Piano" by David Dubal and "The Great Conductors" by Harold Schonberg are also good. Once again, I have a feeling that some of you may be too lazy to read these books. Therefore, I have prepared a short list of famous classical artists:

conductors: Claudio Abbado, Barbirolli, Barenboim, Bernstein, Boulez, Chailly, Colin Davis, Dohnanyi, Dorati, Dutoit, Gardiner, Giulini, Haitink, Jansons, Jarvi, Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Kubelik, Levine, Maazel, Masur, Mehta, Marriner, Munch, Muti, Ormandy, Ozawa, Previn, Rattle, Reiner, Sawallisch, Robert Shaw, Sinopoli, Slatkin, Solti, Stokowski, Szell, Temirkanov, Tilson Thomas.

pianists: Argerich, Arrau, Ashkenazy, Biret, Brendel, Cliburn, de Larrocha, Gilels, Hamelin, Horowitz, Hough, Jando, Janis (but AVOID his recent EMI CDs), Katchen, Kempff, Kissin, Lupu, Perahia, Pletnev, Pires, Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter, Rubinstein, Schiff, Rudolf Serkin, Abbey Simon, Thibaudet, Uchida, Weissenberg, Wild, Zimerman.

violinists: Bell, Sarah Chang, Francescatti, Grumiaux, Hahn, Heifetz, Josefowicz, Kremer, Cho-Liang Lin, Midori, Milstein, Mullova, Mutter, Perlman, Repin, Shaham, Stern, Szeryng, Vengerov, Zukerman.

cellists: Jacqueline du Pré, Fournier, Harell, Yo-Yo Ma, Maisky, Rostropovich, Starker.

other instrumentalists: Maurice Andre, Bashmet, Bream, Galway, Rampal, Pepe Romero, John Williams.

vocalists: Alagna, Ameling, Bartoli, Battle, Caballe, Callas, Carreras, Domingo, Fleming, Fischer-Dieskau, Gheorghiu, Hampson, Jessye Norman, von Otter, Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Sutherland, Te Kanawa, Terfel.

Of course it is a very abbreviated list. Also, I picked them not because they are the greatest. They are good, but there are others who are as good or even better but are not included (e.g. Toscanini, Furtwangler, Josef Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, Casals, Ponselle, Segovia, etc.). The above artists are picked because: 1) most of their recordings are stereo and I think beginners should start with stereo recordings (if you want to avoid old, mono recordings, you should find out the recording date. Virtually all recordings made before 1958 are mono. Horowitz, for instance, made many stereo but even more mono recordings, and so you have to be careful), 2) most of them are prolific artists, and 3)they are at least not very controversial (For instance, Pogorelich is a highly controversial figure, and there are as many people who are crazy about him as there are people who couldn't hate him more). You may now be thinking, "What about the orchestra"? Well, I personally don't think that's important. For an orchestral work, I usually just look at who is conducting; for a concerto, the soloist; for an opera, the singers and/or the conductor. But I can tell you that you can't go wrong with Chicago Sym, Philadelphia, Berlin Phil, London Sym, Royal Phil, St. Louis Sym, Vienna Phil, New York Phil, etc.

Besides memorizing names, there are several CD guides that will help you decide which version(s) of a particular work to buy. The "Penguin Guide" is the most popular, because it is very comprehensive and it has detailed critique for each CD they recommend. However, they tend to lower the standards for budget CDs, particularly Naxos, or CDs performed by English artists. The "Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide" is also popular, but they cover fewer pieces, and only a small portion of all recommended CDs are discussed in detail. The good thing is, they use the same standards for all prices. There is also the "Record Shelf Guide to Classical CDs and Audiocassettes" by Jim Svejda (I think the latest edition has a different name), which is the most fun to read, although it is much more subjective than the other two and the repertoiry covered is not very big.

3) In order to make buying CDs as fun as possible, I always use this as the guiding rule: STRIVE TO USE YOUR MONEY AS EFFICIENTLY AS POSSIBLE. That is, get the most out of the limited amount of money you possess (even Bill Gates has only a finite amount of money). Because of this rule, I never pay full price for a CD (unless it's something I desperately need), by getting nearly all CDs from the following sources:

i) Used-CD stores. The biggest used store I have ever been to is Academy Records & CDs in New York City (12W 18th Street). They have tens of thousands of classical CDs and it's impossible to look through everything in one day, though most CDs are alphabetized, making it slightly easier to find something you need. The prices are pretty good, with many full-priced CDs at only $6.99, and there is a huge bargain CDs section where most CDs are only $2.99 or $3.99 apiece. Many other cities have nice used-CD stores, too. In the spring of 1998, I went to many cities across the U.S. for graduate school interviews. As soon as I arrived in a city, one of the first things I did was look up the Yellow Pages to locate used-CD stores nearest me. In Ann Arbor MI, for example, I found about 10 used-CD stores around the hotel I stayed at, and I visited most of them during my free time. One of them was Encore Recordings, where they had around 10,000 used classical CDs. Boston and nearby Cambridge also teem with used-CD stores. Planet Records in Cambridge has, I guess, 5,000 classical CDs, many of them quite cheap and the first time I went there, I bought 26 CDs! (As of January 1999: most of these bargain CDs have already been relocated to my apartment, and so there are few cheap CDs left in the store now.) Looney Tunes, which has branches in both Cambridge and Boston, has around 2,000 classical CDs in each store. Orpheus Performing Arts in Boston has at least 7,000. Newbury Comics has a few used classical CDs too, which tend to be very cheap because very few people buy classical CDs there. I am happy that I went to graduate school in the Boston area. When I was an undergraduate at UTexas at Austin, I visited the several used-CD stores around campus a couple of times every week. The owner of one of them (Technophilia) was so sad when I told him that I would be leaving Austin after graduation! The best classical used store in Austin is ABCD, which stands for Austin's Best CD. (However, I was recently told that these two stores no longer exist.) Unfortunately, there are very few good used stores in Houston TX, my hometown, although I have bought quite a few used CDs at Half Price Books, and one or two at Wherehouse. There are decent Half Price Books stores in Austin, too. And of course you can find used CDs at auction sites such as eBay, but remember to read all descriptions carefully before bidding, and ask the seller questions if necessary. Now, a few words of warning: 1) Most used-CD stores in the States don't know much about the pricing of classical CDs, and so mispricing often happens. For example, they may sell a Pilz CD for $7.99, which is only 99 cents apiece at Circuit City. So, make sure you are familiar with the prices. I am familiar with the prices of most classical CDs, but sometimes even I am not sure. In such cases, I usually consult the Tower Records website. Look up the CD in their online catalog and find out its price. (Incidentally, Tower Records has some used CDs too!) 2) Since these CDs are used, some may have scratches. Therefore, after buying them, you MUST listen to the whole discs as soon as possible to make sure that they don't skip. Most scratched CDs play fine, but sometimes they do skip. You usually can return any defective discs within a week. (You can imagine what a busy week I had after buying 26 CDs from Planet Records the other day!)

ii) CD clubs. After Columbia House stopped selling classical CDs in late 2003, BMG Music Service and Musical Heritage Society (MHS) became the only CD clubs in America that carry classical CDs. MHS sucks (ridiculously high prices, and ugly CD covers), so BMG is really the only choice. Their CDs are extremely cheap, oftentimes about one third the prices at Tower Records, Barnes and Noble, HMV, or Borders, and that's AFTER taking their notorious shipping and "handling" charges into account. If you want to join, please, please, pleeeeeeeeeeease join through me so that I can get a small commission! Just click on the banner below. (To learn more about how the BMG CD club works, click here.)

iii) Cutout CDs and clearance items in new-CD stores. When I was in San Diego CA, I went to a Tower Records store where there were around 1,000 classical cutout CDs. I was ecstatic! They were extremely cheap, either US$3.99 or US$4.99 per disc. I bought 21 of them in one single day! The Tower Records store on 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C., which unfortunately doesn't seem to exist any more, had an even larger (at least 3,000 CDs!) selection of cutout and clearance CDs when I went there in 1998, though the prices were a little higher ($5.99 - $6.99) than those at the San Diego store. The HMV store in Cambridge (also out of business) used to put out cutout CDs once in a while too, and the prices ranged from $1.99 (yes, $1.99!!!) to $9.99 apiece. Of course I devoured dozens of them! I have also found huge selections of classical cutouts at Borders Books & Music in Houston TX. Berkshire Record Outlet in Lee MA has a gigantic selection of very to moderately cheap classical cutouts and overstocks, and they accept mail/online orders. The first time I ordered stuff from them I ordered 145 CDs!!!!! I received only 132 of these though, since the other 13 CDs were sold out. The 132 CDs arrived in a huge package weighing 28 pounds! (But that was only the third largest single purchase I have ever made!) Some stores also put items that have been sitting on the racks for years on a clearance sale. When I went to the Tower store in Ann Arbor, for example, there were around 800 classical discs (all of them new, intact, non-cutout) in a clearance bin. Top-priced CDs were only US$10.99, and mid-priced ones were US$6.99. These are not cutouts; the store just wants to get rid of them quicker. Clearance CDs can also be found at Borders, where I bought a Biddulph CD of Cortot playing some Schumann works for only US$3.00!!! Remember that these cutout/clearance CDs aren't always put at conspicuous spots, so make sure you look around the whole store carefully.

iv) Online stores besides CD clubs. I used to get CDs from CDnow very often. It is a huge Internet store, and they used to offer a lot of coupons, e.g. $10 off when you spend more than $14.99. Unfortunately, they lost millions of dollars every year, so finally they stopped giving coupons, and more recently they even became part of Besides CDnow, I also took advantage of a storewide 50% off (!!!!) sale at Mass Music, a storewide $2 off per disc sale at (where Naxos CDs were only $2.99 each!), numerous $5 off coupons at CD World, Total E, Music Boulevard, etc. Alas, that Golden Age of online CD shopping is no more. At present, the best online stores to get CDs from are probably CD Universe (30% off new releases) and Tower Records, which still gives coupons occasionally and you should be able to find them by doing a keyword search at Yahoo! or Google. If you have a Discover Card, can be a decent place for CDs. Their prices aren't that great, but they do offer coupon codes occasionally (usually $5 off $50 purchase, but if you are lucky, $10 of $50), free shipping for orders with two or more items, and Discover Card gives you a 7% rebate. On top of all these, you can get free gift cards by becoming a member. I ordered the Mutter plays Beethoven violin sonatas DVD set and the "Art of Violin" DVD at by combining all these methods, and had to pay only $26.02!!! The classical search page on Yahoo! Shopping is a good way to compare prices of the same CD at different online stores. It also tell you how much each store charges for shipping. A & B Sound and HMV, both Canadian stores, also have very competitive prices and have some titles not available in the States, though their search engines are pretty bad. Many European issues that aren't available in the States can be found at MDT (very cheap postage charge to the States), and Totale E used to be many people's favorite online store, due to their low prices and 99-cent flat shipping rate, but they went out of business in June 2001, probably because their prices were so low., another store that had good deals, was bought by Circuit City in March 2002.

v) Sales at new-CD stores. Tower Records has more sales than any other stores I have visited. At Tower, different labels take turns to be on sale. For instance, all EMI CDs are on sale for two weeks. After that, all Sony CDs are on sale. Then, Universal, and so on. The deal is typically $3 off for each top-priced CD, $2 off for mid-priced ones, and $1 for budget CDs. However, every once in a while they may put many $12.99 CDs (e.g. the Originals series on DG) on sale for only $7.99 each, which means you can get new CDs at almost used prices! It seems to me they are having this kind of sale quite often recently, not only for classical but also for jazz CDs (especially the Verve label). One of my favorite deals is when they sell two Essential Classics CDs for only $10 during a Sony sale at Tower. I bought 10 Essential Classics CDs during one such sale! HMV has sales too, though they are much less frequent than Tower. The sales I have seen are either 15% or 20% off either for a particular label or for the whole classical department.

Making myself get CDs only from these sources not only saves money. It also makes the process more enjoyable by making it harder to get certain CDs I want. Now I can't just walk into Tower on any day and buy everything I like. I have to wait for a sale, or to wait until I find it at a used-CD store. Because it is not easy to get a particular CD, I feel more rewarded when I buy it.

As I got more and more advanced as a CD collector, I started to buy CDs according to certain themes. For instance, I bought all commercial recordings Horowitz made, the 180-CD Complete Mozart Edition on Philips, all of Beethoven's compositions, the entire 21-CD set of Richter's "Authorised Recordings" on Philips, all of Verdi's 28 operas, and all of Wagner's 13 operas. Even though I am much less excited about collecting CDs than I once was, I am still diligently collecting the entire "Complete Liszt" series played by Leslie Howard, the other "Complete Liszt" series on Naxos, the complete RCA Toscanini series (it's very close to completion!), among other themes. And each of these CDs will have to be obtained from the above-mentioned cheap sources. Buying CDs this way is really fun, though it can be frustrating at times, for instance I have been looking for the remaining two titles in the Toscanini Collection for over three years! But this frustration actually adds to the excitement of collecting CDs. If you are even crazier than I am, you can also try a few more approaches, including buying at least one CD of each label, buying all CDs of a particular label, and buying all versions of a particular piece (I am actually doing that for Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto and all recorded sets of Beethoven's piano sonatas.). A more advanced collector might try something even more absurd, like buying 500 copies of the same CD and covering the walls of his/her study room with these CDs, i.e. using the CDs like a wallpaper. Buying all CDs with catalog numbers that end with the digit "3" is another approach. Buying all CDs with attractive women on the cover is something I have been doing. The most advanced collector will just go ahead and buy one or more copies of each CD ever released, including out-of-print ones. This is VERY difficult. It's not just a matter of whether you have enough money or not. Many out-of-print CDs are very hard to find, for example I have been looking for Ohlsson's Rach 3 on Nuova Era for a long time. And there are many CDs that have never been seen in the market in America (Italy, Russia and Japan in particulr have a lot of weird stuff). The greatest CD collector in the world probably has only around 10% of all classical CDs! And I guess I have less than 0.1%!

When I find a great CD at a bargain price, or when I have completed a particular theme, the gratification I get is indescribable. The process of buying CDs is fun all along: from saving money for the next month and searching for a coupon, to looking up the Yellow Pages and visiting a CD store. None of the various steps involved is unenjoyable. If you don't believe me, try it yourself! Start with the ~20 (or ~50 including the second installment) CDs I recommended for beginners. Keep building your CD library in the manner described above. Before long, you will find yourself addicted to this most worthwhile of all human activities! Just make sure you don't go bankrupt!

Feel free to send me an email.

Last Update: January 31, 2005