Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tahra's getting the right idea

Tahra is one of those small, independent record labels that seems to beat all expectations. Run by Rene Tremine and Miriam Scherchen, famously the daughter of Hermann Scherchen, the records are somewhat obscure and hard to find in the United States. Here is a NPR story on the label. I suppose, and they seem to agree, that their issue of Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1954 Lucerne performance of Beethoven's 9th is their best-known CD.

They have started, however, to put some of their recordings on Apple's iTunes Music Store (iTMS). These include Eduard van Beinum's 1955 Mahler 6th and Bustabo's 1943 Beethoven violin concerto with Mengelberg (which performance helped contribute to the premature end of Bustabo's career). I have, privately - though I might have made the sentiment known here, long wished that historical labels would enter the digital age. Their distribution is so narrow and sporadic (Arkiv, for example, doesn't appear to have any Tahra titles in stock) that a digital sales model seems perfectly fit to the situation. Indeed, I have often - after seeing something at Arkiv or Amazon - have wished that Orfeo, Testament, and Music and Arts have had some sort of readily available digital downloads.

Tahra, it seems, is making progress with the digital downloads I have mentioned. My only issue is that they are issuing them in the DRM-laden iTMS 128 kbps format. Another small, historical label - Arbiter Records - is putting out its stuff on iTMS, but in the iTunes Plus (i.e., 256 kbps, DRM-free) format. Now, I suppose this is just me dithering around, but I have two points (vis-à-vis Tahra). First, for the 1943 Bustabo / Mengelberg Beethoven VC, 256 kbps might be excessive. Indeed, it probably is, but I want to find that out on my own. It makes little sense to hear how much sound quality matters to the Tahra folks and then see these apparently carefully crafted transfers in 128 kbps AAC files.

Taking an example from Arbiter, the 1951 Brahms violin concerto with Fritz Busch as the soloist sounds terrible. It sounds, in fact, about ten years older than it is. It could, probably, be pretty happy at 128 kbps, but it's in 256 kbps and DRM-free. It's nice to have the extra bandwidth and to be able to do what I want with the record. Now, the thing about Arbiter is that some of their stuff does not really appeal to me (though they've got a couple of Paul Jacobs collections that are pretty nice - including a very interesting live Waldstein).

That leads me, however, to my next point: Tahra's catalog selections for the online nods are not nearly as broad-based or as comprehensive as I would like. Granted, beggars can't be choosers, but there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason behind their choices, and easy picks - like that '54 Furtwängler 9th - seem to be overlooked. Now, don't get me wrong, the Bustabo / Mengelberg thing is nice, but when you consider the popularity of some other records like that Kondrashin Mahler 7th from Amsterdam, it's hard to square the issued stuff with the popular stuff.

Such, however, is the record business, I guess.

To sum up, Tahra (and Arbiter) is leading the way for independent historical record companies (or record companies with a substantial investment in historical releases). I wish, however, that Tahra would release more of their catalog on the iTMS (or, better still, Amazon's MP3 download store) and in high-definition. So much is made of Tahra's meticulous remastering that 128 kbps seems like a paltry share for the fruits of someone's labor.


At 4:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out Pristing Classical ( for the highest quality downloads of historical performances. They have a lot of the Music & Arts catalog. But they are not cheap.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

No, they certainly are not cheap, but their prices seem to be roughly in line with Linn Records'. It's not a bad site, but the covered repertoire doesn't intersect with my own interests the same way Tahra's does.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Juan Merello Galasso said...

Very nice... But why not to allow prepaid downloads for everybody? Amazon is still exclusivist; also Passionato. Why not to nehave as DG and Decca?

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