Instant recording libraries: Classical CD box sets for Christmas

[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.

71fgsdyn1yl-_sl1200_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.

Pacific Symphony: December concerts

Here’s your quick, mobile-friendly guide to December concerts at Pacific Symphony, with links to buy tickets online.

Estonian conductor Anu Tali, recently picked by The Washington Post as one of the top “Female conductors to watch,” makes her debut with the orchestra in a program of Czech and American music (Nov. 30; Dec. 1-2). Smetana’s cherished tone poem “The Moldau” opens the proceedings, and Dvorák’s powerful and undervalued Symphony No. 7 caps them. In between, Gershwin’s Concerto in F gets a ride with noted Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang in the solo seat. Tickets here

Then the holiday programming gets underway. First, there’s “Nutcracker for Kids!” on Dec. 2, a condensed version of the classic ballet featuring Festival Ballet Theatre, Pacific Symphony, conductor Roger Kalia and a visit from Santa Claus. Tickets here

The annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” (Dec. 3) is this year led by a very special guest, conductor John Alexander, recently retired from Pacific Chorale after 45 years as its artistic director. He leads the Symphony, Chorale and soloists in a complete performance. Tickets here

Pacific Symphony will be in the pit at Segerstrom Hall for 13 performances of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” with American Ballet Theatre between Dec. 7 and Dec. 17. That’s a lot of sugar plums. Tickets here

The “Holiday Organ Spectacular” rumbles in Dec. 19. Todd Wilson, head of the Organ Department at The Cleveland Institute of Music, takes charge of the mammoth Gillespie Concert Organ and Symphony musicians Ben Smolen (flute), Elliott Moreau (bassoon and saxophone), Barry Perkins (trumpet), Mindy Ball (harp), Robert Slack (percussion) and Timothy Landauer (cello) make guest appearances. Tickets here

Finally, the multi-talented Seth MacFarlane arrives (Dec. 22-23) to sing holiday tunes and selections from the American Songbook, all in the cool style of the Rat Pack. Actor Gavin McLeod is also on hand for “The Night Before Christmas.” Richard Kaufman conducts. Tickets here

Interview: Conductor Anu Tali

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Anu Tali is on the line from her home in Sarasota, FL, where she is music director of the orchestra (though not for much longer), and we ask her about being named recently as one of the world’s top “Female Conductors to Watch” by The Washington Post.

“There are two ways of answering your question — if female conductors should be named separately, or if I’m happy to be nominated,” the Estonian conductor, 45, says in elegant accent. “An answer: I’m happy to be nominated. Because I’m just grateful when people notice my work. And I think I am done and over with complaining every time your name comes in one or the other row,” i.e. male or female.

There’s no use fighting it, anyway, with women conductors on the rise internationally, and therefore much in the news. It’s just that Tali, who makes her debut conducting the Pacific Symphony next week, doesn’t see the world in terms of gender, she explains.

“For me, there are interesting male and female artists and people, if you please. For me it is one big stock of artists, not separated.”

The conductor recently announced her departure at the end of next season from the Sarasota Orchestra, where she has served as music director since 2013, saying she wanted to focus on her international career and guest conducting. She’s open to another music directorship, too, but isn’t in a hurry.

“I don’t like planning my life ahead so that I can’t breathe anymore. For me, it’s very important to keep options open because I still have two years here. So it’s quite a long time to do your job properly and I’m not going to go al niente diminuendo (diminish to nothing) you know. We want to gradually grow and It’s very important for me to leave Sarasota Orchestra to the next hands in a very good position to raise from there.”

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Pacific Symphony: November concerts

Anton Bruckner

Here’s your roundup of Pacific Symphony concerts in November, on the quick, mobile-friendly, with links to single tickets. There are 11 concerts in all during the month.

It starts with a tribute to the great Ella Fitzgerald on the pops series. Guest conductor Larry Blank leads the orchestra and vocalists Aisha de Haas, Harolyn Blackwell and Capathia Jenkins in an evening of music made memorable by The First Lady of Song. The concerts are Nov. 3-4. Tickets here.

On Nov. 6, community musicians ages 22 and up gather in Samueli Theater for the chamber music edition of OC Can You Play With Us. Pacific Symphony musicians conduct five ensembles. Flutist Cindy Ellis, clarinetist Joshua Ranz, cellist Ian McKinnell, percussionist Rob Slack and conductor Roger Kalia direct homogeneously-instrumented ensembles of amateur musicians in this free concert. Tickets required; tickets here.

In one of the big concerts of the year, Carl St.Clair will lead the orchestra in its first-ever performances of Anton Bruckner’s giant Symphony No. 8 (Nov. 9-11). As prelude, organist Christoph Bull plays music by Bach and Bruckner and the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey sing Gregorian chant. The performance, dubbed “Cathedrals of Sound,” will include a design element by the Prokop brothers of Dusseldorf that will evoke St. Florian Cathedral in Linz, where Bruckner served as organist and is interred. Tickets here.

Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble gives its first concert of the year Nov. 12. Gregory X. Whitmore conducts a program that includes by band classics by Wagner, Grainger, Gordon Jacob and others, as well as a rare performance of John Philip Sousa’s early “President Garfield’s Inauguration March.” Tickets are free but required. Tickets here.

In the first of three concerts this season at the beautiful Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo (Nov. 12), St.Clair and the orchestra offer Mozart’s final two concertos, the Piano Concerto No. 27 (with Benjamin Pasternack as soloist), and the Clarinet Concerto (with new principal clarinetist Joseph Morris as soloist). Also on the program, the Papagena/Papageno duet from “The Magic Flute,” with Yllary Cajahuaringa and Mark Peng. Tickets here.

Roger Kalia and Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra perform a program of Berlioz, Austin Wintory and Stravinsky (“The Firebird”) on Nov. 12 (tickets here); and Irene Kroesen and Pacific Symphony Santiago Strings get their season underway with music by J.C. and J.S. Bach, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Brian Balmages on Nov. 19 (tickets here).

The month winds up (and the next begins) with the Symphony debut of Estonian guest conductor Anu Tali. Her program (Nov.30 and Dec. 1-2) bookends a pair of Czech masterpieces — Smetana’s “The Moldau” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 — with Gershwin’s snazzy Concerto in F as centerpiece. The noted Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang is soloist. Tickets here.

–TIMOTHY MANGAN