It’s Friday, time for some Rossini. Here’s the Overture to “L’Italiana in Algeri.” Carlo Maria Giulini conducts the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala di Milano. From 1954.
[This article was first published in 2016. Some of the prices may have changed, but the general situation discussed is the same.]
Browsing through the Amazon classical music section recently, in search of ideas for Christmas, I once again noticed that CDs are now, in many cases, dirt cheap, especially when ensconced in gargantuan boxed sets. They are not only cheaper than downloads, but also higher fidelity, which is to say for you youngsters out there, better sounding.
In some cases, you can make a single purchase and have an instant and respectable library of classical music.
For instance, a newbie could buy “Karajan: Official Remastered Version,” released in September by Warner Classics/Parlophone, and get 101 CDs at about $1.70 a pop, and a large swath of the Western canon to boot. OK, some of these recordings are mono, but with current remastering techniques these will no doubt sound just fine. The orchestras featured include the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and others, in other words some of the best on the planet.
The new complete edition of Mozart, “Mozart 225,” a bestseller, is similarly low-priced, 200 CDs, and some 240 hours of music, for a mere $340.
OK, so you don’t have a couple hundred to blow on CDs, there are plenty of boxed sets for cheaper. I had my eye on the complete Chicago Symphony recordings of the great French conductor Jean Martinon, 10 CDs of wonderful repertoire (by Mennin, Varese, Roussel, Martinon, Hindemith … the Weber clarinet concertos played by Benny Goodman … as well as more common fare) for a mere $19.
Boxes devoted to conductors from the golden age are especially attractive. I have a thing for French conductors (as anyone who reads this blog will know). Decca has released a complete package of the recordings made for the label by Pierre Monteux, 20 CDs for $70, great recordings with the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra. (I probably won’t buy it, though; I have virtually all of it on vinyl.)
Or there’s a hard-to-surpass set of French music recorded by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, 32 CDs of definitive accounts of music by Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Dukas, Martin and others for just $80.
Need a set of the Beethoven Nine? Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic (no slouch) is $11. George Szell’s exceptional traversal with the Cleveland Orchestra is $13. Slightly higher in price is a compelling Nine led by Monteux. Want some history? You can find Toscanini leading all nine symphonies for less than $9, Furtwangler for $16.
Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the nine Bruckner symphonies (9 CDs): $35. Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic in the nine Vaughan Williams symphonies (7 CDs): $18. Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the seven Sibelius symphonies (4 CDs): $13.
It’s not all orchestral. It goes on and on. The Tokyo String Quartet plays all of Beethoven’s string quartets (there are 16) on 9 discs for … $13. There’s a lot more; go look for yourself.
Many labels have also been releasing huge sets of their general catalog. Mercury Living Presence, justly celebrated by audiophiles, has three volumes, of 51, 55 and 53 CDs, respectively, with the highest priced at $119.
No longer have a CD player? Good portable models are easy to find for less than $30.
Update: The complete works of Stravinsky, conducted by the composer, 22 CDs: $26.
None of the six symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) turn up very often on U.S. concert programs, and that’s a shame. The set is certainly one of the most remarkable and satisfying of the 20th century (though No. 1 was written in 1892). The reason they aren’t performed here much is perhaps hard to say with certainty, but I think it probably has something to do with our programming in general, which is overwhelmingly focused on German and Russian classics. There are simply no Danish works in the standard repertoire, Nielsen or otherwise.
At any rate, here’s a rather athletic and terrific live performance of the Third, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1965. (The sound is decent; you can even hear Bernstein stomping at several points. The picture is virtually high def.) Bernstein at one time took up the Nielsen cause with some enthusiasm, and recorded the symphonies 2-5 with the New York Philharmonic, as well as the flute and clarinet concertos. He also recorded the Third with the Royal Danish.
[First published in 2011 on Classical Life, but still true.]
Top 10 lists are big these days in the sophisticated world of the internet and its readership. Even the august New York Times (in January) got into the act recently by naming (or taking a deep breath and beginning to try to start to name) the 10 greatest composers of, like, forever. But never before has the world seen a list like the one we attempt today: The Top Ten Greatest Notes of All Time.
A word on our methods. First, we ate dinner. Then we started to think about doing the dishes but decided to do them later. They can wait. The food won’t stick, not with the dishwasher we have. (We paid a little extra.) Secondly, or thirdly, it’s hard to keep track, we got a committee of the world’s leading musicians together at a retreat in the mountains of Nevada, fed them lavishly and then corralled them all into a small meeting room without heat or air-conditioning and told them not to come out until they had settled on a list of the ten best notes ever. We took the resulting list and compared it to our own and decided to use ours. Theirs was totally wrong, a product of “group thinking” and “political correctness.”
We won’t claim that our list will be approved of by all. We’ve made some controversial choices, for sure, but, in sum, we stand by them. At the very least, we hope that our list of the Top Ten Greatest Notes of All Time will serve as a teachable moment, the start of a further and fruitful discussion, nationally and globally, on this most important topic. Without further ado, then …
How is it that the two symphonies of the British composer William Walton, from 1935 and 1960, have escaped my attention until now? Oh, certainly, the fault is mostly mine; I could have always listened to a recording of them. More to my point, though, is that I never did bother to listen to them because I thought them negligible and unimportant, having never once run across them in my many years of concertgoing. (Of course, what British symphonies do you ever hear regularly performed by American orchestras?)
Well, not to tarry, they are both very good. The First, completed when Walton was in his early 30s, is usually considered his masterpiece. “The claim that his First Symphony is one of the great twentieth-century symphonies is not excessive,” writes Michael Steinberg — a statement which itself seems not excessive. In four movements, the symphony is clearly modeled on those of Sibelius (the foremost living symphonist at the time), though Walton’s style here is more pent up, athletic and intense than it is dark and brooding. Walton took several years to write it and apparently had quite a lot of trouble doing so. (Stuck on the finale, he asked the advice of the composer Constant Lambert, who suggested a fugue. Walton, who was largely self-taught, admitted that he didn’t know how to write one. Lambert sent him to the article on fugues in Grove’s Dictionary and after reading it Walton produced the dazzling fugue at the center of his finale.)
Ostinatos drive the outer movements; the string section is required to leap and bound. The second movement is a biting and gritty scherzo marked Presto con malizia (with malice). The slow moment (Andante con maliconia) initially has a dazed sadness before rising to a more ominous and dramatic despair.
Perhaps Walton’s symphonies are underestimated because they remind us of others. In addition to Sibelius, the First recalls, in spots, Hindemith. The Second brings Stravinsky to mind, especially the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements (Walton’s Second is in three movements, too). But never mind, Walton makes the work his own, and it is enchantingly and elegantly scored. An angular and muscular Allegro molto is followed by a voluptuous, though still acrid slow movement (with moments of “Firebird” opulence). The finale — marked Passacaglia (Theme – Variations 1-10 – Fugue – Coda scherzando) — is a compositional tour de force, with a 12-tone theme and the orchestra put through the paces, a giant, powerhouse machine.
The current recording (on Onyx Classics) comes courtesy of the Bournemouth Symphony, home in the South of England, and its Ukrainian principal conductor Kirill Karabits, who together have made many recordings before, including the complete Prokofiev symphonies. These are confident and kinetic performances, without wasted effort and thrillingly pedal to the metal. The strings in particular deserve praise for their lean and nimble efforts in Walton’s pulsating and skittering lines. It’s all well tailored and well steered.
A playlist of orchestral scherzos that I like. It might also make a good concert program, though you’d probably need to lose one or two.