[This is an installment of my column Surface Noise, still being published quarterly in Classical Record Collector]

Surface Noise
What People Collect

When I opened my mail order business in the early 1970s, my first large-scale customer was a Japanese man who collected recordings of art songs. If someone wrote concert songs accompanied by drums and electric guitar, he would buy the record. He bought my first rarissima item, a set of 10″ LPs containing master classes given by Lotte Lehmann in California. I remember that one of the student singers was “Marilynne” Horne. I sold this set on consignment from another dealer for almost $1,000, a very hefty price in those days. I presume he was fairly elderly, because he wrote to me at one point that he had arranged for his collection to go to a major Japanese university library when he died. I never saw another copy of that set.

Most collectors are not extremely narrow in their interests. But some of them are, in very distinctive and sometimes curious ways.

Some customers have had collecting ambitions which I considered unusual, to put it mildly. I have already written about the late Joe Greenspan, who attempted to collect every Bach recording ever made. A record dealer in Canada is attempting to collect every Mahler recording made, although he limits himself to published recordings and does not–fortunately for him–include concert tapes.

Some collectors, mostly in Japan, seem to be fascinated by the many LPs issued in the early 1950s, by Allegro, Royale, Ultraphone, Gramophone, Varsity and other associated labels, taken from broadcasts or other companies’ LPs and issued with false names on them. (One of these false names is Leopold Ludwig, who was a real conductor. The Ludwig Royales were apparently not conducted by the real Leopold Ludwig, though.) The collector and researcher Ernst Lumpe has identified many of these recordings, including a few otherwise unpublished recordings by major artists, but most of them remain mysteries. Collectors who seek them don’t seem to care about the identifications, and none of them has ever managed to explain his interest to me.

One of the most interesting collecting specialties I have ever found was that of a man who collected recordings of symphonies. He was interested in anything called “symphony” or “sinfonia,” or any variety of the name, even if the music itself was obviously not a symphony. His most interesting quirk was that he bought only stereo recordings; if a legitimate symphony had been recorded only in mono, he ignored it.

One day he had an epiphany and realized that he was never going to listen to most of that music again. He weeded through his collection, kept relatively few of the LPs and CDs, and sold me the rest of them. Fortunately for me, he had many unusual recordings of symphonies from Russia, which sold very well, since I had a number of customers who were looking for recordings of obscure Russian music.

However, this same collector has not abandoned his pursuit of every recording ever made of a Bruckner symphony, and he does include broadcasts!

One former customer collected classical piano recordings–all of them. We had a conversation early in the CD era and he told me how many piano CDs he owned. I did a quick calculation and realized he had bought an average of 3 ½ CDs per day since the format had been introduced! Another recent customer bought so many piano recordings that I suspect he was also a completist. The entire concept of collecting recordings entirely for their sound quality has always seemed strange to me, but in the past fortunes have been spent and made on such “audiophile” collections.

I am not immune to collector mania. Shortly before closing my business I did a drastic weeding of my own collection to sell off LPs I knew I wouldn’t need anymore. Until then, I had complete or near-complete collections of the recordings of numerous favorite performers. I have retained every recording I had by Sviatoslav Richter, including numerous unpublished items, and what I’m fairly certain is a complete collection of Artur Schnabel. (I once compiled and published a Schnabel discography, and the only additions have been later publications.) I still love the conducting of Hans Rosbaud as much as I ever did, but I finally realized I was unlikely to ever play some of his poor-sounding early Vox and Mercury LPs again. I hope the collectors who bought them from me enjoy them.

–Leslie Gerber

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