Now hear this

As I began writing this I was listening to something called “Niobe.” It’s an opera from 1688 written by Agostino Steffani, and it’s never been commercially recorded. Few of Steffani’s operas have been.

How it came to be on my computer is both simple (the Internet) and complex: Someone in Europe recorded a radio broadcast of a performance at a festival in Germany, then posted it on Usenet. Anyone with access to Usenet can download it.

I was thrilled: Steffani’s a good composer, not widely enough known. Judging from “Niobe,” his operas are tuneful and dramatic, well worth staging and recording. In fact, the Boston Early Music Festival plans to do “Niobe,” and commercial recordings of “Alarico il Baltha” (also available on Usenet, in a different performance) and “Orlando Generoso” were released in the last year.

Here’s another good composer: Johann Joseph Fux. Some of his oratorios have been commercially recorded, and some of his church music, but none of his operas. Yet on Usenet, here are “Julo Ascanio” and “Costanza e Fortezza.” Lots of good music in both.

Known today mainly for a treatise on counterpoint (still in print), Fux was court composer in Vienna in the early 1700s. In this painting, he looks like Jean-Luc Picard in a giant wig; Patrick Stewart should definitely play him if they ever make a movie about him.

“Costanza” was composed for a royal occasion in 1723 and first performed in Prague. Its large orchestra includes eight trumpets, which make quite an impression during the first 20 minutes or so. As a trumpet fan, I’m glad to have it.

Free music? This is where the recording industry goes nuts. And looking at the range of things that I could have downloaded, it’s understandable. People have posted lots of commercial recordings. For the price of Usenet access — say, $9 a month — those recordings could be mine. Some Internet providers include access to Usenet servers as part of the price. You may already have access without knowing it.

If only the Internet – or Usenet – were what people think. “Everything’s available online,” people say breezily, but having looked for used (or free) copies of two recordings that went out of print before I could buy them, I know it ain’t so. Unless there’s a geek equivalent to me out there with the time and tech savvy to post them, I’ll never see them. And both recordings are obscure enough that it’s unlikely the record companies will reissue them.

BitTorrent, I hear someone say. OK, I tried that, too, seeking an opera by Giovanni Legrenzi. Another recording from a radio broadcast, posted by two people. Had it been a single by Rihanna, say, I could have had it in seconds, assembled from the computers of scads of people worldwide. But because it had to come from two people, and was three hours long, it took weeks for just the first hour of it to arrive.

I gave up. On Usenet, I found it, listened to it, burned it to a CD, and will encourage Chicago Opera Theater to look at Legrenzi – and even more, Steffani – for future performances.

Free these recordings may be, but because they’re live, they’re flawed: Wrong notes, clumping feet, rustling pages, audience noise, wandering voices – you name it. But my hat’s off to the performers, who took a risk with little-known music and gave it life. Enough life that other performers and the recording industry should pay attention. There’s still music to be discovered, played, sung and recorded. And bought by people like me.

One Response to “Now hear this”

  1. Helleaasip says:

    Sertne bewartder

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