Hot Classical & Jazz Downloads

The long-awaited US launch of Passionato.com, intended as the World Wide Web's "premier destination for classical music connoisseurs," has finally happened. Passionato, which has no membership fee, offers the largest collection of classical-music downloads in CD-quality, DRM-free FLAC and 320kbps MP3 formats yet assembled online.

Passionato's catalog is rich in offerings from Alia Vox (with Jordi Savall), Analekta, BIS, Chandos, Decca, Delos, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI Classics, LPO, LSO Live, Naxos, Ondine, Pentatone, Philips, SDG (with John Eliot Gardner), Signum Classics, Telarc, Virgin, and a huge number of other labels. With Harmonia Mundi, Nimbus, and Sony BMG slated to come online in the next few months, the site promises to be a goldmine.

Downloading is a snap. Given that any snafus have been worked out in the 18 months since the site went live in the UK, downloading files to my iMac was virtually foolproof. Once I'd rapidly downloaded Passionato's download manager, made my purchase, and clicked on the receipt that came my way, FLAC files began to fly into my download folder.

The process worked best when I set my preferences to download one track at a time. Solti's recording of Wagner's entire Ring cycle took a while, but we're talking 14 CDs. Once I'd received the files, the free Max application flawlessly converted them to a format compatible with iTunes. (I chose AIFF, but a host of other formats, including Apple lossless and MP3, are available. Passionato has an entire blog devoted to the subject.)

Passionato also offers a free player, created for the site by MediaMonkey, that plays files, organizes a library, and syncs up devices such as iPods and mobile phones. Squeezebox is endorsed by Passionata as an easy-to-use media server.

At the time of writing, more than 40,000 titles were available, with a good 20,000 more expected over the next few months, for a total of over 300,000 tracks. Downloadable cover art is low resolution—that will change—and liner notes are in process. While the site lists recommendations from Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, the UK's Radio 3, The Penguin Guide to Classical Music, and International Review, neither Stereophile's classical "Records To Die For" listings nor recommendations from other US-based publications and websites are available. But none of those should prove impediments to music lovers, who will find thousands of hard-to-find and immensely desirable titles just a click away.

"I'm planning to offer some high-definition titles in the fall," Passionato CEO James Glicker explained by phone. "We've been talking to major labels, such as Telarc and Universal, about getting some unique stuff. Initially, we'll try 50 to 100 titles. We're concerned about the time it takes to download, because high-resolution files are 2GB or more in size. We certainly want to provide the best listening experience for our customers."

Especially exciting for collectors and lovers of older recordings is an arrangement with Orchard that promises titles from Myto, Pearl, Preiser, and other labels famed for their historic imports. Next to Naxos's historical reissues, which are not sold in the US, these labels are indispensable to lovers of vocal music. Pearl, in particular, doesn't filter older recordings, thus delivering all of the high range (and all of the scratches) that major labels truncate in the process of minimizing pops, clicks, and groove noise.

Equally mouthwatering is the projected availability of the back catalogs of many major labels. When these go online, classical music lovers will have an alternative to time-consuming searches for used copies, or custom-burned reissue CDs from ArkivMusic.com.

One of Passionato's main goals is to develop an online community of customers that can support lively discussions of classical music. Forums will be established within the month, and reviews will receive more prominence than they do on other sites. Passionato.com will have a host of moderators and community leaders to keep discussions on a productive footing. Given Glicker's previous experience—he has worked with Geocities, was head of worldwide marketing at BMG Classics, and served as President and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where he was responsible for engaging Marin Alsop as Music Director—you can expect the posts to remain on track.

Posters can first bone up on the short bios of composers and performers available on the site. Looking now, for example, at Maria Callas's entry, I'm excited to discover four highly prized live recordings on Myto, including an absolutely astounding performance of Rossini's Armida, from the 1952 Florence May Festival, that shows what Renée Fleming could never do. These sets have yet to become available as CD-quality FLAC files.

Blogs are also beginning to appear on Passionato. While engaging bloggers who are experts in classical music are being recruited, Glicker's response to a Pepsi Challenge from poster Proper Discord, who claims that classical listeners can't hear a difference between FLAC and MP3, in all the latter's perverse manifestations, should get audiophiles' juices flowing.

Equally stimulating are the sales. The current offering is 25% off Naxos specialty label Marco Polo, and six complete Naxos CDs (in FLAC, of course) for $30. You save $5 if you go the MP3 route and dispense with all those vital bits that MP3 omits.

On the jazz front, HD Tracks now offers select titles from GRP, Impulse!, Verve, and Verve Forecast in 24-bit/96kHz FLAC format, including albums by Billy Holiday and John Coltrane. Diana Krall's Quiet Nights is currently available in lossless FLAC. Also new are 24/96 hi-rez CDs from the Concord Music Group, which owns Heads Up, Prestige, Stax, and Volt. Pretty fab. A recent multigenre sale at HDtracks included 20% off hi-rez offerings from Chesky, Koch, 2L, and other labels.

If you've found yourself unable to keep up with the seemingly exponential increase in the number of websites offering FLAC and hi-rez downloads, check out DreamStreaming. The free site claims to be "the first website to bring together all the music sources on the web that offer CD-quality or near–CD-quality sound, whether via downloads, on-demand, or streaming." Founded by a Michael Osborn, DreamStreaming can be navigated by content type and quality, as well as by type of music.

There's even more delicious news on the classical front. Cedille, the Chicago-based label whose recordings have won a Grammy, now offers CD-quality FLAC downloads for $10 or less. Their MP3 bastard cousins, however, are encoded at 256kbps, one noticeable step down from Passionato's 320kbps. Coming this month is the world-premiere recording of Beethoven's recently discovered Piano Trio in E-flat, Hess 47, performed by the Beethoven Project Trio, which gave the world-premiere performance last year in Chicago.

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