Some years ago a fellow told me that I should put my money in CDs, and I did, to my regret in one sense.  I thought he meant Compact Discs.  Silly me!  But maybe not altogether.  Since those days, things have changed, but even so, some things never change.

I mean that acquisitions have a way of becoming collections, and collections have a way of becoming hoards or even paralyzing mountains of detritus.  I have noticed that Jay Leno’s vast assembly of collectible automobiles is so huge that it has become rather a problem.  With all due respect to the likeable Jay, it has become a jumble, however valuable.  In contrast, Ralph Lauren’s collection of iconic automobiles is small in number but perfect in its focused exclusivity.  Ralph has exhibited his collection in the west wing of the Louvre, and if you don’t think that a car can compete with the Nike or Winged Victory of Samothrace, think again.  (Think Testarossa.  Think D Type.)  Yet I have to admit that not everyone has the bucks that Jay, Ralph, and I have, nor the managerial aplomb to cope with the perplexities that accompany such portfolios.

But to return to the modest scale of ordinary human beings, everyone is a collector, I think—a collector of something.  Sometimes the collecting is unconscious; sometimes it is programmatic.  Probably most reasonable people don’t collect recordings so much as they collect access to the music that appeals.  And as the technology accelerates its changes, people adjust.  And as the years go by, what was the latest thing becomes the badge of the obsolete and discredited, except to the true believer.  Different collectors, different collections.  Yet I think that all collections are problematical, and collections of recordings are no exception.

We can put aside most if not all of the problems inherent in collecting just about anything, including king cobras (I don’t mean the cars) and Burmese pythons.  After all, even a Shelby Cobra won’t kill you or others unless you crank it up, whereas a king cobra doesn’t even have to be cranky to get the job done.

Some collect Toby jugs (I’m better looking than those), some Limoges china (you can eat things that taste good off plates that reflect your good taste), and some photos of Hillary Rodham Clinton.  (I’ve been better looking than those for ages, and still was, the last time I checked.)  But no matter what you collect, if it doesn’t kill you with venom just for the fun of it, or mistaking you for an alligator, attempt to swallow you whole, or what’s worse, run for president again, it nevertheless has tendencies toward agglomerative obsolescence.  You know you’re in trouble when you collect something for your collection because it’s collectible, rather than because that something is individually appealing.

That wasn’t in my mind when I began to acquire recordings, beginning with the castoffs of someone else’s collection.  I wasn’t smart enough to realize that I was looking at my own future as a collector—all I did was follow my nose or, I should say, my ears.

How well I remember the first time I heard a number of musical works; and in that regard, no doubt I am like many another.  And I have realized since that many first hearings were for me definitive—I was so affected that I was predisposed to the repetitive experience.  Some of this has stuck with me for a lifetime, and I can easily cite examples that I offer not as instruction but only as parallels to the experiences of others.  The collecting trap emerges as the technological changes provoke or excuse the repetitive fixation.  Yes, I thought that Bruno Walter’s second Columbia version of Brahms’s Third Symphony was superb, with a remarkable swing that professionals have acknowledged.  So I followed the old Walter LP with a CD later on.  And I noticed what excellent work he did, as in historic recordings of Acts I and II of Die Walküre.  The 1938 live Mahler Ninth Symphony, presented with unique authority by the man who conducted the world premiere, was recorded in Vienna not only a few days before the Anschluss, but also with the head of state in attendance!  There are other indispensables such as the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Szigeti (1932), and some obscure work (real collector stuff) with Vladimir Horowitz, who named him as his favorite conductor in contradistinction to his own father-in-law, Toscanini.  I wasn’t wrong about Walter, but I did wind up in a questionable position—with no regrets.  Wasn’t it Edith Piaf who exclaimed, “I don’t not regret nothing!”?

The first time I heard Weber’s Konzertstück in F minor, Op. 79, for piano and orchestra, the performance was by Robert Casadesus and George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.  I was most impressed but didn’t realize that, apparently, no performance since the days of Franz Liszt has been so brilliant, nor that George Szell had a way of getting things done in his days in Cleveland.  It so happened that I had blundered into the best performance there is, to this day.  No wonder I wouldn’t let go of it, even though Claudio Arrau recorded it three times.  And when I bought some other version of it, not long ago, I was quite disappointed.  Later on, I was to become tired of Szell’s aggressions, but I never forgot the Weber or a Richard Strauss album he did back in the day—the best Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan I ever heard.

Then there was Fritz Reiner and the “Chicago paradox.”  Let me explain.  The first time I heard Fritz Reiner and his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the occasion was Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and as I recall, the sparks didn’t fly.  (Today, the best recorded performance that I can remember of that work is that of Jascha Horenstein.)  But there were other recordings of Reiner that were better, such as the Scheherazade of Rimsky-Korsakoff, and most of the work he did for RCA back in the late 50’s and a bit later.  The sound was awfully good, and the performances were the kind that stood up to repeated hearings.  And then we come to the Chicago paradox.  As the old catalog of RCA was digitalized, the music lovers realized that Chicago was competing with itself, because there on the shelf were Reiner/Chicago and Solti/Chicago side by side, but one was cheaper and better, both for sound and exposition, and guess which one!  Not only was the orchestra competing with itself, but as time went by, the conductors did, too, competing with their earlier musical selves, as with Von Karajan and Bern stein in their silvery phase.

But as it was in those days, I had a lot to learn, and some of it was easy to remember because it was so hard to forget.  I don’t hear much these days about Charles Munch, an underrated conductor but a star in the days of Reiner and Szell.  His Berlioz was really something, and so was the Boston orchestra of those days.  His versions of the Symphonie Fantastique and the Requiem and the Roman Carnival Overture are fixed in my mind as models never to be excelled, and I also recall that Munch did very well in the German repertoire—his Brahms First Symphony is an example.  I never heard Munch in concert live, but I heard raves from those who did.  I did later on spend some time at Tanglewood and talked at length more than once with the manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Perry, and the spirit of Munch and even Koussevitzky was palpable on those grounds.  Mr. Perry made a point of showing me the lightning rods Charles Munch had given him as a house present.  I remember an excellent concert there conducted by Josef Krips, and the worst serious musical presentation I ever heard, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, that was “unforgettable” in a sense of the term unknown to Nat “King” Cole and his daughter, Natalie, I hope.

But speaking of Brahms’s First Symphony, the first recording I ever heard of it (an exciting one) was by Toscanini—one of my earliest acquisitions.  I later cooled to Toscanini when I discovered Furtwängler, but I do remember the shadow that he cast.  Everyone knew who he was.  His place has not been taken, though attempts have been noted.  We can now see that his place will not be filled, and probably that is as it should be.

Another conductor who impressed me with his version of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (I still have a favorite CD of it today) was Dmitri Mitropoulos.  After he was betrayed by the man who had copied some of his mannerisms and repertoire, Leonard Bernstein, Mitropoulos kept working productively and effectively, to the end.  He is not forgotten today and is even something of a cult.  To me, he always was a cult and was the man who rediscovered Mahler before Bernstein tried to lasso that composer as his own or even as his self.  But that’s another story.

So I have tried to show something of the collecting virus as it is, and how first impressions count for much.  The early sounds we hear are determinative.  Now that we have ceded so much of the first musical impressions to be decided by youth itself, we can see that the future of the best music is challenged.  Culture means, among other things, a standard of expectation.  If music is to be defined as electrically boosted and even ugly and loud, then young people are going to have a destructive image that distorts their aural expectations.  That is why first hearings matter a lot.

I had some good fortune when I was a kid: I heard great music, which was a break, and I liked it a lot and wanted to know more.  And as things unfolded, I followed where the music led.  When I went off to school, there was an abundance of folk singers and a lot of rock music in the background—but many if not most of the students were musically enlightened.  That is not so often found today, though digitalization has solved much of the storage problems of collecting recordings of musical performances.  Today, those problems are more cultural than they are physical or financial, but problems even so.