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Grand designs online

Taking your enthusiasms online can be eye- opening – and expensive

Alan Rusbridger

It would not be right to say that I bought a grand piano off the Internet. But without the Internet it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t now have a gleaming new concert grand in the middle of my sitting-room.

It began with my piano teacher, Michael Shak, saying he’d just spent an hour playing the best piano he’d ever come across in his life. Not a Steinway, not a Bosendorfer, but a Fazioli. No, he’d never heard of it either. Hand-made. Italian. Gorgeous.

At home I tried Fazioli out on Google, which took me to www.telenia.it/fazioli, an impressive Italian website devoted to the aforesaid gorgeous instruments. The appetite duly whetted, I wandered off to www. pianomart.com/grand.htm, a site devoted to the sale of second-hand pianos. There I found a man with a Fazioli for sale.

He turned out to be a proper pianist, Mark Swartzentruber. By the time I had made it across to his house he had sold his piano, but not before I had half an hour on it and, like my teacher, had fallen in love.

Swartzentruber knew a dealer … the dealer had a website … one thing led to another … and pretty soon I had a large overdraft and piano to match. One more illustration of how surfing can seriously damage your wallet.

It is also so fatally easy. No traipsing around in search of this CD or that piece of sheet music. The frustrations are momentary. If website x does not have the particular recording or edition you’re after, website y is but one easy and expensive click away.

Thus, CD Now was the place to go for Nozze Istriane, an obscure opera by Smareglia for which a colleague had for- lornly searched most of his life. But it drew a blank when asked for the first volume of Angela Hewitt’s Well-tempered Clavier. Amazon managed that, but not Smareglia.

Then there’s sheet music. Sheetmusicplus claims to have 304 849 titles in stock compared with 50 000 in the largest wholesalers and 10 000 in your average major city music shop. I searched for versions of the Brahms clarinet sonatas and was offered them in editions by Peters, Henle, Dover, Boosey, Schauer, Ricordi and Warner Bros, which is not a bad choice.

It was also the only site to succeed with a modestly known French composer of jazz piano studies, Charles-Henry.

I’ve yet to find any outlet that can rival this site for sheer range of stock. Some people swear by a site called www.net4music.com, but so far it has defeated every attempt to buy anything off it. There is also a more modest choice of music (and some free sheet music) at www.sheetmusic1.com. This has within it a useful sub-address for composers: www.sheetmusic1.com/Grand.Staff.NOBARLINES.

pdf. It is nothing but plain manuscript paper.

The Web is, of course, an adventure playground for anoraks of all sorts – musical as well as techie. Whatever your instrument, you will be able to commune with people all over the world whose sole obsession is the piccolo or Oboe D’Amore.

I dabble in the clarinet. It is possible to dabble on the Net, but not for long. Soon you find yourself drawn deeper and deeper into other people’s obsessions.

A very good general clarinet site is www.sneezy.org/clarinet, which at a single click will take you to similar sites around the world: the Peruvian and Japanese clarinet societies, to name but two. Another comprehensive site full of links is at www.clarinet.org/Links.

Soon you are down rabbit warrens checking the serial numbers of your instruments to discover the year of manufacture or looking for tips on repair and maintenance – www.woodwind-shop.com/clarinetcare.html.

Only by the greatest strength of character did I resist purchasing a battery-operated portable woodwind leak detector for $89,60.

Listening to music on the Internet is clearly going to be a huge industry, but I feel slightly defeated by it at the moment. A good starting point is Radio Three’s website www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/index.shtml, where you can listen to much of the station’s daily output.

The site also links to http://classicalwebcast.com, which is a compendium of classical music sites around the world. So if Radio Three is playing some dull Albeniz you can tune into Croatia, Holland, Canada, Australia or Pittsburgh to see if there’s something more interesting.

If you’re looking for a specific piece of music, there seems to be endless sites devoted to electronically synthesised versions of a wide repertoire. There is an enormous stock of music at www.prs.net/midi.html – though there may be a limited audience for, say, Beethoven, op. 110 played by a computer.

Still, it is a wonderful education resource for music students. By logging in at www.gmn.com/classical you can allegedly hear John Lill playing op. 110, which is more to my taste. But so far I have failed to download anything from this site.

Dabbling on the Net can be as frustrating as dabbling at the clarinet.

More frustrations: Father Christmas bought me a CD-writer to see if there was any – strictly legal – way of capturing any of this ocean of classical music to listen to in the car later.

The plan was also to transfer a lot of vinyl recordings to CD. I unsuccessfully wrestled with it for a month before discovering that it wasn’t compatible with Macs. The replacement model has also defeated me. So I am also the wrong person to be writing about the miracle of MP3.

The rest of the Radio Three site is a trifle rudimentary, given the archival possibilities. You can check the three-year backlist of Building A Library and there are the modest beginnings of an educational site.

But perhaps the most useful thing on the site is its comprehensive list of links at www.bbc.co.uk/webguide/arts-

culture/classical_music.shtml.

This will, for instance, take you to The Mozart Project at www.frontiernet.net/~sboerner/mozart/index.

html or the best instrument jokes at www.mit.edu/~jcb/jokes or the cornucopia of the classical music webring at www.webring.org/cgi-

bin/webring?ring=classicalring&id=1&list.

The Web will change everything about the music industry, just as it will change most industries. The record industry may be breathing a sigh of relief at this week’s copyright ruling over MP3, but more and more artists may strike out on their own anyway.

Swartzentruber – my Fazioli webmate – turned out to be something of a Net pioneer himself. Formerly contracted to Sony Records, he now has his own label and website, www.solorecords.com, from which he sells his own recordings.

This gives him the freedom – not always possible in Sony’s stable – to record whatever repertoire he likes. The cost of cutting and manufacturing a disc, he says, is negligible. He can afford to hire the best producers and studios and market and sell his own recordings.

There is some very exciting Scarlatti and fluent Schubert playing to be scooped up via his site. If this sort of initiative leads to a broader range of soloists breaking through with a more eclectic range of music than the conventional recording industry can manage, that can only be good.

Eventually Angela Hewitt (a noted Fazioli- fancier) and Mitsuko Uchida will be able to hold masterclasses – or even personal lessons – over the Web.

I should start practising.

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Sukasha Singh
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