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.

Review: Dover Quartet plays ‘Voices of Defiance,’ music of Ullmann, Laks and Shostakovich

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Reading the liner notes to the Dover Quartet’s “Voices of Defiance” before I listened to it was probably a mistake. They gave me the impression that the recording would be tough, unpleasant going.

The three pieces were written in three successive years during World War II. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, the centerpiece of the disc, in his dark and brooding wartime manner, was composed under the least desperate circumstances of the three, at a Soviet-led artist retreat in Ivanovo.

But Szymon Laks wrote his String Quartet No. 3 shortly after he was freed from Auschwitz, where he survived only because he supplied music for the Nazi guards and prisoners, many on the way to the gas chambers. And Viktor Ullmann composed his String Quartet No. 3 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He left the manuscript there with a friend when he found out he was going to be transferred. He was transferred to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers on Oct. 18, 1944.

In his extensive and well written liner notes, Camden Shaw, cellist of the Dover, interprets the music in the light of these and other facts, and rightly so. That is a note writer’s prerogative, even his duty. And I am not suggesting that we not know the stories behind these pieces, or that Shaw’s interpretation of aspects of the music in light of those stories is necessarily way off the mark.

But in the case of the quartets by Ullmann and Laks, I do not think that they can bear the burden of the stories behind them, and I feel it’s an open question what, exactly, the composers meant to express in them.

Less than 15 minutes in length (the second and final movement is less than three), Ullmann’s quartet isn’t expansive enough to express the desperation the composer must have felt when he was writing it. Ullmann’s piece is tightly knit and closely argued, serious and Bartókian, freely dissonant (there are some pseudo 12-tone sections) but basically tonal, ending, in fact, with major chords. “We know we have glimpsed into Ullmann’s great and powerful soul,” Shaw writes of the piece. Perhaps. At any rate, it’s a finely wrought string quartet.

Laks’s Third is, to my ears, a rather cheerful work, Bartók at his sunniest. The themes are Polish folk songs (forbidden at Auschwitz), and “their inclusion here,” writes Shaw, “sends a clear message: he is trying to find his way home.” This may or not be right, but it certainly leads Shaw to read a darkness into the slow movement that I do not hear. He calls it “one of the most impassioned and heartbreaking movements for string quartet.” I hear merely a kind of gorgeous melancholy.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 2 is his second longest, in four movements and lasting almost 36 minutes here. It is not encountered much, and its inclusion is most welcome. It is a fine piece, with typical Shostakovichian characteristics, including masterful counterpoint, folk tunes and simple melodies worked up to agitated and dissonant climaxes, and lonely, disenchanted solos. It ends unambiguously in minor.

In all, it’s a great, unhackneyed program, smartly unified and intellectually stimulating. What’s more, it is played beautifully by the Dover Quartet, a young ensemble that has quickly nabbed a spot in the vanguard of string quartets. Its virtuosity is of the type that doesn’t bring undue attention to itself, with warmly singing phrases and unhurried pace and polished tone that isn’t stretched to a breaking point. The pieces are laid out just so, detailed and expressive, and the ensemble breathes together. The recording — on the Cedille label, made in the Rolston Recital Hall at the Banff Centre — is first rate.

***

Here’s the finale of Szymon Laks’s String Quartet No. 3, played by the Dover Quartet.

Pacific Symphony tubist releases new recording

Longtime Pacific Symphony tubist Jim Self has released a new recording. Like several others of Self’s recordings, this one is jazz. It’s called “Floating in Winter,” and it features both originals and standards. With John Chiding on guitars, Self plays tuba and an instrument of his own invention called a Fluba, which is like a giant flugelhorn. Here’s what it looks like (with Self playing).

Here he is talking about the new recording:

And you can sample the album below:

Audio: Prokofiev ‘Scythian Suite’

Video

When I was in college, a brass player majoring in music, the Chicago Symphony set the gold standard for brass playing, and my fellow music students and I always listened to their records with mouths agape. I was reminded of this again the other day, when I slapped this recording (yes, vinyl) on my record player at home and turned up the volume. It’s the second movement, “The Enemy God and the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness,”  from Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite.” The brass playing is superb and, what’s more, exciting. The percussion section keeps pace, the timpani getting the whole thing off to a nice rumbling start.

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.]

Playlist: Neglected symphonies

Here’s a neglected symphony sampler for your listening assessment.

What, exactly, is a “neglected symphony,” you ask? In this case, these are works which your curator — me — has decided are worthy of at least a few more performances than they get. They range from the obscure to the fairly well known, but in all cases they rarely turn up on symphony orchestra programs.

For this playlist, I have included just the first movements of symphonies by Rota, Rubbra, Freitas Branco, Berwald, Chausson, Schmidt, Vaughan Williams, Tubin, Aho and Shostakovich.

If you don’t already have Spotify, you have to download it to listen to more than a sample (there is a free version). Let us know if you hear something you like. –TIMOTHY MANGAN