primephonic: Classical Music's Service for All Seasons

By LOGAN K. YOUNG, Editor-in-Chief on Apr 01, 2016 12:57 PM EDT
How 'primephonic' is Changing Classical Music Downloading, All for the Better 'SELECTED: Spring,' primephonic's new compilation of works reflecting the many rites of the season is now available for FREE to all readers. Upon checkout, just enter the promo code SPRINGLITE. (Photo : Courtesy of primephonic)

Until now, alas, classical musical had been more than a little late to the revolution. No, not a televised one; the online revolution--that digi-revolt against all the real, tactile records (and tapes) of some 1000 years of performance practice proper.

Blame the medium, not the message, though.

As it turned out, the severely lossy MP3 proved to be a truly losing codec for capturing the psychoacoustical complexities of a live, symphonic orchestra. Even worse for most of the vocal repertoire, especially the grand stage and pit traditions of French, Italian and even British opera.

Moreover, the noise floor was so high on those masked, perceptually coded files of yore that all the subtle nuances of chamber music's sweeter melodies went decidedly unheard by the human ear.

Way back then in those halcyon days of the capitalized Internet 1.0, all periods of classical music--from the ars nova to New Amsterdam--all composers--from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to Babbitt, Boulez, Gavin Bryars and Glenn Branca--suffered the same, seemingly terminal, cyber-disease. Namely, the stark, unassailable fact that, at least on the machines that we haven't ever powered down since--the warm, analog grooves of 180 grams' worth of black vinyl (or, again, hissing chromium dioxide tape) squeezed down to an dumb, inert bit of 1s and 0s simply wasn't enough club for the canon of Western art music.

We wanted, needed and, most certainly, we deserved more from the digitization of the entirety of classical music 2.0: better sound quality, bigger catalog with more precise metadata and more thorough thoughts about it altogether.

Lo, one dutiful downloading distributor would soon oblige: primephonic.

Lowercase, one word.

Classicalites, like all followers and fans of classical music, are true, discerning audiophiles. Fidelity, perhaps first and foremost, is the most fundamental.

To wit, primephonic proudly does NOT sell MP3s.

"MP3 may be the best known format," they do admit, "but the audio data is massively reduced, as it is highly compressed...the true listening experience is therefore heavily compromised."

Instead, you get 16-bit WAVs, surround FLACs and the expert-sounding DSD.

"Direct stream data" only uses one, singular bit. That said, its samples at a rate of 2.8224 MHz, at least.

"Superior sound for premium music." (Photo :

[N.B. As the quality of the recording wasn't intrinsically degenerated in the process, you'll need to purchase an external digital­analog converter to play DSDs.]

But no matter how full of sound primephonic's anti-MP3 furor is, ultimately, it would signify nothing were there not enough records to, you know, actually lend an ear. Any digi-storefront, classical or otherwise, bereft of an exclusive, exhaustive catalog isn't worth the server that hosts it.

Fear not, Classicalites. Once more, the good people at primephonic have you covered. In spades, galore.

Offering one-click, intuitive searches for tens of thousands of tracks off records released by classical music's leading labels--Chandos, Naxos, LSO Live, DSO Live, as well as underrated gems care of indie boutiques like Cedille, Ondine, Yarlung and Reference Recordings--unlike a lot of the pure streaming services out there, primephonic new releases are available to download to your cart on the exact, worldwide, street date.

Waiting not and wanting for practically nothing, here, then, is but a smattering of primephonic's brand new titles here in the first week of April for your mouse to hover over:


Be it Skylark ensemble's most assured outing yet (featuring Classicalite favorite and primephonic favorite Anna Thorvaldsdottir's haunting setting of an ancient Icelandic psalm), a complete and welcome cycle of Rach preludes, Milanese pianist Luigi Palombi's take on classic Duke or the most deft use of Beethoven's "Archduke" piano trio since Haruki Murakami, there is something here for each style and every taste.

Of course, in life and in the realm of classical music, it's not always about what, even who, you know. And certainly online, search and discovery, too, are at least as important in finding new records and repertory you might've missed.

Like, say, tenor Ben Johnson and pianist James Baillieu's riveting renditions of 21 little-known English songs, I Heard You Singing--on Opus Arte, the Royal Opera House's in-house imprint.

REVIEW: The English song renaissance started comparatively late; from the 1880s, it built on the lieder traditions of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. Composers such as Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Quilter, Finzi and Britten went on to produce many finely wrought and serious works, often on pastoral themes. These spring themes were set against a background of popular, tuneful ballads of the day--churned out earlier in the mid-1800s as parlor music or for ballad concerts. The duo of Johnson's tone and Baillieu's fingerwork have uncovered twentysomething light pieces, unashamedly sentimental, nevertheless superbly crafted. And this particularly pairing of performers gives them the more serious treatment they surely deserve. For his part, Johnson is well-suited to the task. His is a clear, warm and lyrical, without any cloying sweetness or reedy timbre. He comfortably flits between changes of mood and dynamics. And with Baillieu's sensitive musicianship at the keyboard, this record is a winning partnership. -- LKY

Ben Johnson, winner of the audience prize in the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. (Photo : Courtesy of Opus Arte)

As a corollary to their catalog, primephonic's search and storefront benefit greatly from the more precise metadata of that very catalog.

For sure, the record industry at large has seen a steady uprising of download and streaming services in recent years. That said, none of the bigger music services such as iTunes, Spotify or even Tidal have been able to get the search for classical music working right. The classification of classical music works and recordings do not fit into the metadata standards set by mainstream genres such as pop, R&B or country.

And as you can see, the primephonic storefront is specifically tailored for the labelling idiosyncrasies of, quote, "classical music."

Filter your search queries further by composer, ensemble, conductor, soloist and even period or category.

"Become classically immersed in premium sound." (Photo :

The results from a simple search term, "mozart," are expansive, with clear and intuitive categorization. In other words, exactly what you were looking for.

On top-tier services like Bandcamp or the late, great eMusic venture "Wondering Sound," catalog still remains king.

Content to support and engage said catalog?

Yeah, not so much.

To that end, primephonic has assembled a brilliant corp of musicologists and critics alike, be they in-house or freelancing worldwide, supporting the overall user experience with both scholarly insight and accessible, oft entertaining panache.

For instance, A Passion for Acoustics by primephonic scribe Jordy van we made sure you didn't miss.

Well-known and widely read classical Independent journalist and blogger Jessica Duchen has proved to be one of their key hires personnel-wise. Meanwhile, you'll find articles posted by industry specialists such as Ralph Couzens, owner of the Chandos label, and Erdo Groot from Polyhymnia International, who produces most of Pentatone's releases.

On the newsdesk side, up-to-date trending posts and primephonic's always informative historical calendar remind you of births, deaths, milestones and other memorable moments musicaux that day in history, all hyperlinked accordingly to keep you clicking the day away.

With its emphasis of the quality of the recorded artifact--nestled up to a catalog of them that's tried, true and growing larger every day, in terms of thoughtful search and purposeful metadata, buttressed by a unique editorial voice--primephonic is not just another content platform.

Herein, Classicalites, we've finally found a rich and ever-evolving source of inspiration and information for classical music lovers all over the internet.

primephonic recently released a compilation consisting selected works inspired by the Spring season, gathered from across the centuries, featuring diverse labels, artists and composers. It includes an interactive booklet which has been carefully curated by primephonic's team of musicologists.

Download this compilation album for free today with the voucher code: SPRINGLITE

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