White earbuds. People prodding phone screens. Tinny sounds leaking out onto the sidewalk as a plugged-in listener glides by, perhaps mouthing a string of incomprehensible lyrics.
That, for many classical music lovers like myself, has been the standard image of what “streaming” means — listening to music on the hoof, skipping between artists and tracks as the whim takes you.
We don’t do that in “classical,” of course. We take our music seriously, listen to complete symphonies or operas rather than isolated movements, and treat the whole listening experience as a quasi-religious happening.
Or do we? The classical streaming service Primephonic recently revealed that American users of their platform listened to 20% more classical music than usual in the first weeks of coronavirus social distancing.
In France the figure was nearly 50% higher — “stay-at-home” protocols kicked in earlier there, so people have been turning to classical for longer.
Are classical fans finally discovering how convenient it can be to hear virtually any piece of music 6 at the tap of a touch screen? Is streaming belatedly becoming the new classical normal?
If so, it has certainly taken a while. Classical aficionados were not enthusiastic early adopters of getting their music digitally through the internet.
There were good reasons for this. Sound quality was one. How can a scrunched-up MP3 file played on scratchy computer speakers match the glory of a symphony orchestra roaring through a conventional hi-fi system?
It can’t, and those with high-spec CD players, amplifiers and speakers generally continued to prefer them for their classical fixes.
But times are changing fast. The past few years have seen an explosion of classical content on streaming platforms such as Qobuz, Tidal and Spotify, where previously coverage was patchy. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” remains as popular as ever, but you can now flick a finger and get obscure Vivaldi operas, too. (“L’incoronazione di Dario,” anyone?)
New releases often appear online before the CD version is issued, and there’s a burgeoning back catalog of albums long since deleted in physical format.
The issue of inadequate sound has also been addressed impressively. Qobuz, Tidal and Primephonic all now offer streaming of at least CD quality — a big improvement on the heavily compressed MP3 format, especially if you have a decent pair of headphones.
But you can go much further than that. Add a magical device called a DAC (digital-to-analog converter), and you can easily connect your laptop or computer to your legacy hi-fi system.
Log into your streaming service, click on the latest Beethoven or Mahler issue and presto — a wave of lush symphonic sound at least the equal of a CD player will fill your listening chamber.
Choose the right DAC (decent models start around $200) and another brave new world will open for you — that of high-resolution sound, a significant hike from basic CD quality.
It’s here that classical music streaming really comes into its own — 24-bit sound (as opposed to the 16-bit that CD offers) can be a revelation in classical pieces, where nuance and sophisticated dynamics are everything.
Most new releases are available in 24-bit format, but so too are a growing number of vintage performances from the LP era.
Lorin Maazel’s Sibelius symphonies; Wagner’s “Ring” cycles conducted by Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti; Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin Nocturnes — these and many other classic recordings sound bristlingly alive in pristine, high-resolution remasterings.
There are ecological and lifestyle benefits, too. Imagine a world where cracked CD cases are a thing of the past, and the need for new shelving simply evaporates.
Streaming takes the clutter out of domestic music storage, and the guilt out of accumulating industrial amounts of useless plastic.
So what will a classical streaming subscription cost you? The good news is that major platforms such as Qobuz, Tidal and Primephonic are hustling for new customers, and have top-notch deals on offer; $14.99 per month buys you unlimited access to music on both Qobuz and Primephonic, up to and including high-resolution, 24-bit recordings.
With Qobuz you get all kinds of other music, too. So while a typical listening evening might include a big-beast Bruckner symphony, you can chase it with a little late-night Chet Baker or a scrunch of your favorite Led Zeppelin album.
Free trials are available on most streaming services, and signing in takes just a couple of minutes.
From there you’re off into a whirling journey through the riches of the classical catalog, with countless intriguing, serendipitous discoveries awaiting.
Here are three streaming projects for classical music fans to try:
1. Mine your hometown orchestras’ archive.
On the streaming platform Qobuz, tap “Minnesota Orchestra” into the search box, and all of the orchestra’s recordings of Beethoven, Mahler and Sibelius with Osmo Vänskä pop up, in better-than-CD quality. But there’s stacks of other material, too, including albums of previous music directors Eiji Oue, Edo de Waart and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting Strauss, Copland, Bartók, Ravel and Argento. Go further back and type “Minneapolis Symphony,” and you’ll discover classic recordings with Antal Dorati — a historic treasure trove to sift through at your leisure.
2. Hit the historical trail.
Furtwängler, Heifetz, Toscanini, Horowitz, Caruso — great names that line the corridors of fame in classical music. But how well do you know their work? Streaming makes it easy to educate yourself. Qobuz, Tidal and Primephonic are packed with archival recordings of the great performers, stretching back 100 years and more. You’ll quickly develop a connoisseur’s ear for comparing different performances of the same piece, and marvel at the expressive freedom of old-school interpreters compared with the more clinical age we live in.
3. Enjoy the shock of the new.
Most CDs of contemporary classical music sell poorly, because listeners shy away from spending money on the totally unfamiliar. With streaming, you can experiment to your heart’s content. Heard a piece by Missy Mazzoli or Nico Muhly that piqued your interest at a concert? Hear more online, where their cutting-edge compositions are liberally drizzled. Or try out other composers you’ve traditionally steered clear of. Is it finally time to “get” Elliott Carter, or dabble in the avant-gardery of John Cage or Morton Feldman? Streaming sets you free to try out anything, without fear or favor.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.