Evaluating Classical Music Albums

How do you evaluate classical music albums? 
First, what do you look for when you’re deciding which album to stream or buy? Is the conductor/orchestra more important, or is the record label? How important is the date of the recording?
Second, what do you listen for in an album that you already have to determine the quality of the recording? This can obviously be divided further into the musical quality and the sonic quality of the recording. What factors are important in evaluating these qualities?

Thanks for the advice. 
First off, I gotta say that the criteria you mention to earmark your decisions are pretty right on. But if you don’t know nuthin’, a good place to start is with record label, as the best labels usually have both the best ears and the financial reach to capture the most compelling artists in performance. London/Decca, DG and EMI Angel are all good places to begin your journey.
deciding which album to stream or buy
The performers of course! The rest is secondary (not that a good recording isn't welcome!)That said, edcyn above is right: traditionally, big companies have the means to capture the most compelling artists...

quality of the recording
Dynamics, the frequency extension, correct soundstage, clarity and timbre

Does anyone have an opinion on in-house labels such as LSO Live? Several orchestras are moving to this business model. 
If you do not go to live concerts there is no way .
THE best label in classical is the Swedish BIS .
Not all performers are equally good in all repertoire.  Your favorite Wagnerian soprano may sound silly singing Handel.  Frequently recorded Conductors made many records that didn’t suit their strengths—think Karajan’s Debussy “Das Mer”.
Pianists that excel in Bach and Beethoven may  sound lost in Bartok.
  Streaming , or You Tube, is a great help because you can sample before buying
I agree with mahler123--after playing with them the past week, Idagio and Primephonics are a great way to sample recordings for good performances as well as sonics.  I also admit to being influenced to a large degree by the record label when I look for recordings of music I want to add to my collection--there are plenty of threads about which ones we prefer for classical music.  

As for the orchestral labels, I have found the San Francisco Symphony recordings to be quite good, both sonically and musically.  I would expect the Berlin Philharmonic label to offer excellent performances, I'll have to listen to the streaming to see how the recording quality holds up.  The LSO Live discs are good in SACD, but I'm not a big fan of the acoustic they record in, seems fairly dead to me.  However, as they are live performances, occasionally you get those special moments when things just gel in a way that you don't often get in studio recordings, so I tend to buy them in hopes of finding those moments.
I check the Daily Deals on eClassical (a download source owned by BIS Recordings). It is a great way to get good-sounding and well performed repertoire. Any downloads can be refunded, if you don’t like them, within 30 days. So risk free. And BIS recordings tend to have better sonics than most others. For sound and performance, their Bach Cantata series is outstanding. The disc of Schubert Male Choruses is breathtaking -- I prefer it in both sound and performance to the Shaw version on Telarc. And so on....

I also subscribe to Classics Today, an online review source that helps me decide what to try. As with audio reviews, I don’t like everything they recommend, but I often listen on Qobuz to see what I think.

I specifically don’t care about Harry Pearson’s favorites. I am more interested in timbre than spatial effects and not interested in blockbusters. And I want NEW recordings, not endless reissues, though some old things (e.g. Bernstein’s Haydn) are musts.
Forgot to mention, if you still like hard copy magazines, BBC Music is a good read, with reviews of new CD releases each month that focus on performance as well as sonics; as you hear some of the CDs reviewed, you will get an idea of which reviewer's tastes most closely resemble yours.  Plus it has the BBC 3 radio schedule, for those of us who listen to it on internet radio.  And as a bonus, they have a CD with each issue, usually well-recorded and performed.  I have been introduced to a lot of music I would not have heard through those CDs.

1. By and large Studio is to be preferred over Live.  

2. There are many orchestral recordings in 60s that are great.  This was a time of great optimism in Europe and it comes out in the playing.  This typically means that you have to go for LP.

3. The popular orchestras and popular conductors are generally safe bets.  The trick is the smaller labels / artists.  A striking example is Sibelius Violin Concerto performed by Dylana Jenson with Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.  (LP version only, I'm afraid).  Another is the Punkt Label that put out Haydn Symphonies.  Just too many to mention.

4.  Hi-Rez (not more that 96Khz) is often good.

5. Be aware of reissues.  For example the Sibelius mentioned is disappointing on CD.  Likewise the other way round - new music 'remastered' for vinyl.  

Not all that helpful sorry but I think you know it is a thorny issue.


Most orchestral releases are from concerts, due to the lack of funds for studio recordings.  I prefer live performances anyway 

We shouldn’t confuse recordings of concerts with recordings made in halls where concerts are held. While it is true that most orchestral recordings are not made in studios, most orchestral recordings are not of actual concerts. There are few recording studios that can accommodate an entire orchestra in a way that does justice to the music; for practical as well as sonic reasons.

I beg to differ.  Most recordings that I have purchased made in this century have audience noise present.  Resolving systems can detect this well

What I've noticed is that the orchestras' private labels generally use live performances (LSO Live, SFO, Royal Concertgebouw and Berlin Philharmonic, at least in some cases), while most of the commercial labels like Sony, Decca, DG and Phillips still do "studio" recordings, though in the orchestras' concert halls.

rcprince is exactly right. Practically no orchestral recordings are made in actual recording studios; that was the main point of my comment. My personal experience is certainly not the final word, but I would also say that of the recordings that I have been a part of, maybe a third have been of actual concerts.

Being a fan of mostly classical music (modernism, serialism, avant-garde, etc)  from the mid 20th century up through the present, it is often a fact that I do not have too many recordings to choose from. Many times I only have one recording of a piece.

Many great composers only have one recording for most of their pieces. So, I have to choose that one recording, or not listen to their music.

So far, though, most of them have been extremely good performances and recordings.