What words jump into your mind if I say “Hyperion”? I tried it out on a few musical friends and the answers were “classy”, “stylish”, “imaginative”, “honest”, “musical”, “unfussy”…you get the picture! People like the label as much for its “image” as for its confidence and flair. For some years I’ve tended to employ the word “Luddite” when it came to Hyperion’s digital visibility (true, iTunes does carry the bulk of the catalogue in all territories except the US). Well, that word “Luddite” was tossed gently back at me at this year’s Awards. Simon Perry, Hyperion’s boss, told me that things would be unveiled within a couple of months. And true to his words, a new download facility has appeared, as if by magic, on the Hyperion website (hyperion-records.co.uk). And all those laudatory words I mentioned above might just as well apply to this new venture. It’s very classy indeed!

The first thing to say is that there is much evidence that people have actually sat down and asked all the right questions (unlike so many other new ventures which have you wondering whether anyone involved has actually downloaded any music before taking on such a huge and no doubt expensive task). There are many nice touches that characterise the Hyperion approach.

The download element has been overlaid on the existing site, so if you’re a regular user then you won’t have to change your approach. You simply activate the download function (and it’s dotted about throughout the listings pages, so there are plenty of opportunities). Then you decide whether you’re interested in MP3 format (using Variable Bit Rate and equal to 320kbps) or lossless (FLAC): you can have both displayed or simply one. Interestingly both are priced the same (do check whether you can cope with FLAC files – iTunes, as the most used player, will not play them but Hyperion sensibly offers various test files so you can check without spending your money).

The individual albums have been laboriously linked so that not only is buying individual works from a complete disc simple but they are rather more sensibly priced than in many other stores. Take the new set of piano sonatas by York Bowen (and if anything characterises Hyperion’s philosophy this is it – terrific music, great performances, elegant packaging, superb notes). There are six sonatas spread over two CDs (£26.98). Buy them as downloads and they’ll cost you £14.49. However, you can also buy the individual sonatas, and they’ve been priced rather more sensibly in a system that hasn’t been dictated by pop music. So, for example, the First Sonata (8'09"; 5'30"; 2'06"; 9'42") will cost £3.20, while the rather shorter Sixth will cost you only £1.90 (that works out cheaper than the blanket 79p per track from iTunes – and you have more flexibility in acquiring complete works without running into the annoying “Album only” restriction).

A very clever idea that Hyperion has had for discs that intersperse a work with, say, chant, is to “detach” the main work and offer it as a single download. Take the Westminster Cathedral Lay Clerks’ recent disc of Victoria’s Missa Gaudeamus (CDA67748). It interleaves the Mass itself with “a liturgical sequence for the Feast of the Assumption, with organ music by Girolamo Frescobaldi” – so the tracks featuring the Mass are Nos 3, 4, 11, 16, 17 and 19. But if you click on the title “Missa Gaudeamus” in the track-listing, the six Mass movements will be strung together and offered as a single work for £4.40. Its application is probably relatively limited but it demonstrates the thought that has gone into the site.

If you’re a regular on the Hyperion site you’ll know that pretty well every sleeve-note is available to read. Now you can also download the booklet as a PDF making the package complete – though I’ve still not really come up with a satisfactory way of filing these. I tend to read them once and dump them; after all, they’re easy to find if you need to consult them again. Of course, if you burn your downloads to disc then you could, with a little effort, make up a CD complete with booklet. The texts also come embedded into the downloaded files so if you’re playing back in iTunes a Ctrl+I will reveal the words. Very neat!

Pricing has been sensibly pegged at (usually) £7.99 per album, though total timing can bring this down as low as £4.99. Helios reissues are priced at £5.99 and, again, could be lower depending on length. One very nice feature – which lifts this site above a number of its competitors – is the ability to pre-load your wallet in £5 increments. In other words, you can pre-pay, say, £40 and then draw on this “kitty” without laborious credit card transactions each time you want to buy some music. And, generously, the more you buy the greater the reduction that will be applied when you come to check out. Again, a little thought reaps huge rewards.

Though aimed at CD purchasers there’s a Special Offers area that has a couple of thought-provoking triggers to purchase. “Forgotten Birthdays” steers you away from 2009’s Big Four and suggests music by the other anniversary composers – Albéniz, Avison, Bacewicz, Martinu, MacMillan, Spohr and Villa-Lobos. Straight into my shopping basket goes Christopher Hogwood’s series of the Martinu concertante violin works and Howard Shelley’s two discs of Spohr symphonies. Though the offers apply to CDs (priced at £9.09 or £4.54 for Helios), let’s hope downloads follow suit. The other feature which appeals to my very English support for the underdog is called “Please, someone, buy me”. It’s a list of the top (bottom?) 10 albums that no one in the world has bought for the longest time. It’s certainly an eclectic list and, at the time of writing, contains a disc I’ve always been rather fond of – Robin Holloway’s reflections on Schumann’s Op 24 Liederkreis complete with a performance of the Schumann itself from Toby Spence and Ian Brown.

It’s worth also pointing out that this new phase in Hyperion’s development does return a large number of out-of-print releases to circulation. So if there’s been a disc you’ve long been wanting, now’s the chance to get hold of it.

One thing you quickly learn on acquaintance with the Hyperion website is that navigation is “super-intuitive”. Because there are few navigational gadgets to steer you around the site (once you’ve accessed a particular recording the limited navigational aids are no longer visible), you have either to use the “back” page facility or – and this where the site works beautifully – use the myriad links from pretty well every bit of information on a page (just about everything is linked). You also need to realise that the Hyperion logo in the top-left hand corner contains a quick link back to the Home Page.

This is a very nice website that has sensibly learnt from others’ mistakes. It’s discreet – I hope not too discreet – but it’s also extremely practical and easy to use. Any label contemplating a new download site would do well to spend some time chez Hyperion, and any in the midst of a revamp could benefit too.

To welcome Hyperion into the digital world, I’ve compiled a playlist of some of the label’s gems – but how to choose just 10?

A neat new App comes from Bachtrack and will work with iPhone, Blackberry, Android, certain Nokia phones and Palm webOS. Bachtrack is a very stylish site that helps – among other things – steer you towards concerts of your favourite composers and artists. Of course, being mobile you can actually find out, using GPS, if there’s something that appeals near you. Simply steer your mobile’s browser at m.bachtrack.com (you can also look at the app from the main Bachtrack site – bachtrack.com). I’m off to Japan in the new year and will certainly be using it.

The Essential Download Playlists No 30: Hyperion

Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1-9 SCO, Philh / Mackerras

Hildegard of Bingen A Feather on the Breath of God Gothic Voices

Magnard Symphonies Nos 1-4 BBC Scottish SO / Ossance

Martin. Pizzetti Masses Westminster Cath Ch / O’Donnell

Purcell Anthems and Services, Vol 3 King’s Consort / King

Rachmaninov Preludes Osborne

Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos Hough; CBSO / Oramo

Sauer. Scharwenka Piano Concertos Hough; CBSO / Foster

Simpson Symphony No 9 Bournemouth SO / Handley

Schubert Edition, Vol 17 Popp, Johnson

James Jolly

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