The Good, The Bad, and The Horrible

Before I go on any further, I must explain something.  You will notice that most of my recommendations for a recording will be under the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) label.  There is a good reason for it.  The DG label has almost always delivered a superior performance by a superior artist.  I learned early on that a poor performance can ruin a piece of music.  Telarc is always good technically and that is a big plus, but it is the music that you want to listen to.  For example, I am sure you have heard a midi file on a computer, and with that in mind, you now know what a poor performance is.  When buying music, you may see other labels in the classical bins, but getting the DG version will almost always result in great music and a great performance. DG signs the best artists but they do not have the exclusive rights to every stellar performer.  A few notable exceptions are Sarah Chang and Helene Grimaude who are not on the DG label. 

 Don't buy budget CDs.  Not ever.  Either the performance will be poor, the technical aspects poor, or both.  Very very rarely have I heard a good budget CD.  In short, you get what you pay for...period.   Don't waste y
our time or money.    Avoid whenever possible collections like "The Best Classical Album Ever", "Music for Lovers" or similar titles.  These are just the sprinkles for the ice cream so to speak.   I have tried a few times to listen to budget releases and in the case where I wasn't familiar with the music I was completely turned off by the music.  In the cases where I was familiar with the music, I was appalled and disgusted.  When I would purchase a proper recording by a well known label, the music came alive and was great.  Imagine the movie "Terminator" being acted by sock puppets instead of Arnold.  Imagine the X-Files that featured Pee-Wee Herman and Rosie O'Donnell as Mulder and Scully.  There is a reason that some CD's cost $1.99 and it isn't because the company is being generous.
Recently I heard an interview on the radio of a record producer where the producer admitted that the CDs he made and sold were not what you would expect.  He hired some singers and musicians and called them "The Original Artists"  He sold a ton of recordings performed by "The Original Artists" on television.  Was it a scam?  You bet.  Did they get many complaints.  No.  But I am willing to bet that the majority of people that bought them were not 100% happy either.  

More recently I listened to a program that aired on BBC-4 that explained yet another type of scam.  It was much less offensive but it was a scam none the less.  Years ago there were a few outstanding recordings made by totally fictitious conductors and musicians.  They were fantastic.  What would happen is that a very well known orchestra would be under contract to a particular label.  Along would come this budget label and offer them cash and anonymity for a recording.  People being people, the musicians and conductor would eagerly make a recording for cash.  The performance would generally be stellar (money is a great motivator) and in one case the "fictitious" conductor and orchestra won the UK equivalent of a Grammy for best classical recording of the year.  That was a rare exception and never happens today.

Don't buy budget.  It is poor economy.  

Errata:  Recently DG signed Helene Grimaud to a recording contract.  I wonder if she signed a lifetime contract as Kristian Zimerman did.  I think I would.