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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Classical Masters

TWO APPROACHES SEEM TO WORK best for box-set re-packaging in the classical music world. There’s the lavish set that reproduces original artwork and, if we’re lucky, program notes, with some value-added notes or discs – as in the recent sets honoring conductor Fritz Reiner and guitarist Julian Bream. Then there’s the bare-bones set, lately embodied by Sony Classical’s “Classical Masters” collections, which sell for next to nothing.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Although they’ve been available in Europe for quite some time, and have thus been obtainable online for reasonable prices, a slew of them have recently been given official domestic releases courtesy the Naxos distribution network. Something here will strike your fancy.

They range from four CDs (Paul Crossley plays Debussy’s piano music; George Szell conducts Haydn symphonies) to 14 for Wagner’s Ring, although that Ring illustrates the challenge of CD collecting. It was recorded in the early 1980s with Marek Janowski conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, featuring such notables as Theo Adam (Wotan), Rene Kollo (Siegfried), Jeanine Altmeyer (Brunnhilde), Peter Schreier, Matti Salminen, Siegfried Jerusalem, and Jessye Norman.

This early digital recording stands up well in terms of sound quality, and as of this writing the new Classical Masters release can be found for about $35. But the same price gets you the identical recording in a more lavish release from a year ago, with a libretto that includes an English translation by Stewart Spencer.

On the other hand, the 14 discs comprising “Leopold Stokowski: The Stereo Collection 1954-1975” are a wonderland of core repertory (Beethoven’s Eroica, Brahms’s Fourth, Mahler’s “Resurrection”), core repertory that Stokowski messed with (Dvořák’s “New World,” Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”), less-known works (Menotti’s “Sebastian” Suite, Canteloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne”), and some of the conductor’s trademark arrangements of Bach and others. These were originally recorded for RCA, which issued the identical CD set in 1997. Now that RCA’s catalogue is now owned by Sony, the collection could have been fleshed out with ten LPs-worth of stereo recordings Stokowski made for Columbia, also owned by Sony – but you can find them in a two-year-old “original jackets” box.

Beethoven’s music figures prominently in these sets. The symphonies are conducted by Leinsdorf, in a highly underrated series of BSO recordings, Bernstein (with overtures and the Violin Concerto), and (in a “Classical Masters” box not part of the Naxos releases) Szell. The piano concertos are traversed by Leon Fleisher (one of the best-ever cycles, here issued with his incomparable Brahms concertos), Rudolf Serkin, and Glenn Gould – but get the last-named only if you’re ready for Gould’s brilliantly wacky cadenza for the Concerto No. 1, and his almost contemptuous interpretations of a bunch of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. (To be fair, there’s a sublime Gould plays Bach box in this series.)

The violin sonatas by Beethoven are performed by Pinchas Zukerman in a set acclaimed upon its original 1992 release, and you get two shots at the Heifetz recordings: one is a seven-CD all-Beethoven set, including the Violin Concerto, the Two Romances, and a wealth of chamber music; the other is a nine-disc all sonatas set, ranging from Handel to Howard Ferguson, with the three by Brahms, two by Bloch, a couple by Grieg – and the three solo sonatas by Bach, but not the partitas.

You can get Beethoven’s complete String Quartets in a nine-disc Tokyo Quartet set recorded in the early 1990s and featuring the neglected Quintet, Op. 29; there’s also a more vintage set (1958-61) of the complete quartets by the Budapest String Quartet.

There’s also a five-disc set of Beethoven’s piano concertos, Violin Concerto, and cello sonatas with Bruno Weil conducting Tafelmusik, but, although it’s in identical packaging to the Classical Masters series, it’s slugged Vivarte and isn’t part of this release gang.

But I’m hardly scratching the surface here. The 12-CD set titled “Eugene Ormandy conducts 20th Century Classics” is available for under $30, mixes RCA and Columbia recordings made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and includes a selection so extensive I’m moving it to the end of this essay.

Other orchestral sets include two featuring Bruno Walter (seven discs of Mahler, six of Mozart), two with James Levine (Brahms, Mahler), two with Charles Munch (“Romantic Masterworks” and “Late Romantic Masterpieces,” but not the Berlioz collection), two Sibelius symphonies sets (Lorin Maazel and Colin Davis), Barenboim conducting Schubert, Reiner conducting Richard Strauss, Gunter Wand with Bruckner, Andrew Davis with Dvořák, and a Prokofiev box featuring Leinsdorf and the BSO, but annoyingly lacking the Symphonie Concertante with cellist Samuel Mayes.

Although there’s not much else dedicated to chamber music – a box of the Guarneri Quartet playing Mozart and one of the Juilliard Quartet playing Schubert and Brahms – pianists are all over the place. There’s a box apiece of Rubinstein playing Chopin and Brahms, with Kissin offering competition in a rival Chopin box.

Robert Casadesus and Murray Perahia have dueling Mozart boxes while Emanuel Ax plays Haydn sonatas and concertos. Vladimir Horowitz plays great sonatas, Van Cliburn plays great concertos, and Emil Gilels splits the difference with great plays sonatas and concertos. And I’m especially delighted to see a reissue of the complete William Kapell box, covering his brief decade of a career that ended in 1954.

Whether you’re old enough to have owned these recordings before or you’re trying to fill out a collection, here’s a cheap, unglamourous source of some classical music’s finest recordings. Let the Ormandy program below be testimony to its breadth.

Eugene Ormandy conducts 20th Century Classics:
Alfven: Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (1968)
Barber: Adagio for Strings (1957)
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra (1979)
Berg: Lulu Suite (Luisa De Sett, soprano; 1967)
Britten: Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra (1974)
Copland: Appalachian Spring (1969)
Debussy: La Mer (1971)
Elgar: Land of Hope and Glory (1972)
Enescu: Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 (1972)
Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain (Arthur Rubinstein, piano; 1969)
Gershwin: Rhapsody In Blue (Phillippe Entremont, piano; 1967)
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler (1962)
Holst: The Planets (1975)
Ives: Three Places in New England (1974) and Symphony No. 2 (1973)
Kabalevsky: Galop (1972)
Khachaturian: Dances (1964/1966)
Kodály: Háry János Suite (1975)
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Lili Chookasian, Richard Lewis; 1966)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (1973)
Orff: Carmina Burana (Janice Harsanyi, Rudolf Petrak, Harve Presnell, bar.; 1960)
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 (1961) and Violin Concerto No. 2 (Isaac Stern, violin; 1963)
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Van Cliburn, piano)
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 (Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; 1975)
Ravel: Rhapsodie espagnole (1963), Bolero (1973), and Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 (1971)
Rimsky-Korsakoff: Capriccio espagnol (1966)
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (John Williams, guitar; 1965)
Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy (1971)
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 (Yo Yo Ma, cellist; 1982) and Symphony No. 5 (1975)
Sibelius: Valse Triste (1973) and Finlandia (1968)
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier suite (1964)
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (1955) and Petroushka (1964)
Webern: Im Sommerwind (1967)

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