Harmonia Mundi is a good place to start as is Naxos. The 70s were a good period for recordings. Only recently has digital recording become competitive with good analogue recording. A lot of early digital was bad. Check classical reviews for sound quality. THE GRAMOPHONE publishes a guide, or use to. Check their web site.
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and JVC and FIM XRCD's
as well as the labels mentioned before
Here's an older thread on the topic that may be of interest
Reference Recording of Classical on CD's
Dawgcatching, as usual, I'll take the minority view. If you want to learn about classical music, there are only 3 things of any importance: repertoire, repertoire, and repertoire.
The Naxos label is overall an amazing resource with a very large catalog of both standard classical repertoire and rarely performed works. . . mostly good to excellent recent recordings from newer less known performers, and legacy remasters of performances by the old maguses.
I have also become extremely fond of the Dutch label Brilliant Classics. This very low cost label seems to be specializing in publishing boxes of up to 170 CDs, containing complete bodies of works by major composers like J. S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brams and Haydn, with Dvorak apparently in progress. Individual recordings may vary in technical quality and performance level, but the sets constitute invaluable tools for building representative collections at a reasonable cost. I paid $113 on Amazon a couple of years ago for the 155 CD box of the complete Bach Edition. In come cases, Brilliant Classics and Naxos may be the only labels where you can find some rare repertoire. . . e.g. the complete piano works by Antonin Dvorak. The links below will bring you to pages that list several Brilliant Classics complete editions:
Brahms complete works:
Chopin Complete Works:
Arcangelo Corelli complete works:
Haydn Complete Edition:
Mozart Complete Works:
Are you sure the ones from the 40's and 50's that sound flat and one-dimensional aren't mono? Just about all releases through at least the mid-50's, and often later, were in mono. They would only be stereo on cd if they were initially recorded with multiple microphones or stereo microphones, and the producers were able to obtain and work with original master tapes containing those multiple tracks.
That said, among stereo re-releases of early material I would highly recommended the Chesky cd re-issues of Horenstein conducting the Royal Philharmonic or London Symphony orchestras, ca. 1962. Best in terms of sound quality, imo, is the Dvorak "New World." Particularly on a system with tube electronics, you will not believe you are listening to something that was recorded with 1962 equipment.
Also, you might want to try some of the Earl Wild piano recordings on Chesky.
For chamber music, and considering relatively recent recordings, Wilson Audio (that's Dave Wilson, the builder of super-expensive and highly regarded speakers) has put out some excellent cd's. And just about anything on the Dorian label is likely to be very good as well.
Unfortunately,when it coes to Classical,Vinyl still rules.The Quality of the musics and the abundance of unique performance in Vinyls,make it a worthwile for any Classical music lovers to invest in analogue rigs, even a basic one.
SACDs are not bad,but still a long way behind in term of large scale orchestra.
Thanks for the responses. This gives me somewhere to start. The local classical music store has a huge Naxos catalogue, so that suggestion is helpful.
Regarding what I am looking for: I really don't know! Growing up in a small rural town and getting my degree in chemical engineering didn't exactly introduce me to a range of music, so I am not familiar with what I like enough to be on the lookout for any particular piece. You could consider me musically illiterate. Probably my favorite 2 pieces that I have heard are Brandenburg Concertos and the 4 Seasons. I have both on Naxos re-releases.