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.

Miscellany

Herbert von Karajan

(Curated classical music news and views from around the internet.)

  • Classical musicians the world over know IMSLP (the free International Music Score Library); now the founder speaks….
  • The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition is well underway; performances are about to begin….
  • You, too, can help save the house of Georges Bizet (in French)….
  • The soon-to-be-released complete recordings of Herbert von Karajan on Decca and Deutsche Grammophon are poised to set a Guinness record….
  • The Albany Symphony has just received a donation of $7 million; meanwhile the Detroit Symphony gets $15 million….
  • Critic Tim Page writes a review of the massive new biography of Toscanini….
  • Sarasota Orchestra’s music director Anu Tali is stepping down; her next stop (in December) is Pacific Symphony….
  • After 25 years as a trail-blazing music director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas will retire….

Playlist: Great moments in Bruckner (scherzos) from YouTube

Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony give the orchestra’s first performances of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 on Nov. 9-11. To help you prepare, we’ve selected four wonderful examples of Bruckner’s music (all of them scherzos) from YouTube.

First classical record

My memory is a little foggy on some of the details. I was in high school, already a burgeoning trombonist, and already getting in amongst my mother’s collection of classical LPs. At some point, though, I decided to buy one of my own and that ended up being a recording of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. To the best of my recollection, chairman, that was my first classical record. At any rate, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Why Bruckner’s Fourth? I had never even heard of the composer, let alone his music, until about a week before. I was taking private lessons with a trombone teacher at Cal State Long Beach and he had gotten me started on what would come to be my daily bread for the next decade or so: orchestral excerpts. In those days they came in books (probably still do), just the trombone parts to famous and not so famous orchestral pieces that had significant contributions from the lower brass: the Overture to “William Tell,” “Ride of the Valkyries,” Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “Bolero,” etc. Thumbing through one of the volumes during a lesson, we came across Bruckner’s Fourth and I remember my teacher playing the opening theme — two quarter notes, followed by quarter-note triplets, a characteristic Bruckner rhythm — and I thought it sounded pretty interesting and my teacher said it was a good piece, with good trombone parts. That was enough for me. I wanted to hear it.

How can I convey the impact that that record had on me? The sound of the Berlin Philharmonic, for one thing, was like nothing I had heard before, plush but gutsy, behemoth but placed by the sound engineers at a certain distance to add to the magisterial magic. Bruckner has a particular way of scoring for the trombones — the parts are often in octaves, and re-enforced by the double basses. This does something to the overtone series it seems, because the trombones sounded huge, monumental. The Berlin trombonists also had a way of adding an extra edge to their tone when playing fortissimo. It sounded like ripping cloth. As a young trombonist I related to it strongly; these Berlin trombonists were my heroes. I imagined myself in their place.

I’d listen over and over, very closely, to this record, on headphones. I remember the glow of the amplifier lamps, the glow of the Deutsche Gramophone vinyl, and the special whoosh it made with the needle in the grooves. (It didn’t sound like my mother’s RCA and Columbia records.) I also remember the liner notes in three languages, and the glossy cover with a picture of a frozen white wing, nestled in snow. All of it added up to a kind of teenage fetish. Needless to say, I still have the record, more than thirty years on.

[Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony perform Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 on Nov. 9-11. Click here for more information.]