Christmas gift guide 2017: indulgent classical box-sets

Gramophone Mon 11th December 2017

A well chosen box-set can greatly enhance even the most well-stocked record collection

For completists, there has never been a better time to spend several hours (or days!) in the company of a much-loved musician or composer through a well-compiled, and remastered, box-set of recordings. And with such gargantuan box-sets as DG's Complete Karajan collection on the horizon (all 356 discs of it), the decadent box-set appears to be here to stay. 

Below are just a few of the most interesting box-sets that we have reviewed in 2017, with extracts from the original reviews. To keep up-to-date with the latest releases, why not treat yourself to a Gramophone subscription? Find out more about our latest subscription offers here: magsubscriptions.com

Callas live

Maria Callas – Live: remastered recordings 1949-1964

(Warner Classics)

There are truly marvels here – we’ll come onto some of the small-print performance details later. But the first and greatest one is that the set exists at all. Warner Classics is to be congratulated. Who would have dreamed, even a decade or so ago, that a major label would release a taking-over and upgrading – a legitimization – of a good selection of the ‘pirate’, off-the-air performances of one of its leading artists? And, let’s be honest, lower the bar of what is deemed acceptable to release from the technical point of view (much of which is explained in specific and unblushing detail on the inner sleeves of each recording).

Let’s get out of the way first what, for some, will be the bad news. Here’s a cornucopia of all the things opera record critics used to hate most: audience noise including hysterical, ill-timed applause; apparently over-loud participation by the prompter (the fault of the recordists’ microphone-placing, not of theatrical practice); voices in and out of focus according to their current stage geography. And that’s before we get on to performances where notes and whole bars are missing: the edition of the score used may often seem criminal in the light of more recent historically-informed researches, and ensemble work can be anything but together and slick. Furthermore a majority of these performances have been available before – and on CD, and for some time.

But this is Maria Callas. The 20 ‘complete’ (heavily inverted commas) opera performances on disc, plus Blu-rays of excerpts from five concerts, plug material gaps in her original EMI (now Warner) catalogue. They have not been as well mastered, annotated and presented to the market previously as they are here now...

Mike Ashman (Gramophone, October 2017)

 

St Johns

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge: the complete Argo recordings

(Decca)

The presentation and production of the box are worthy of Guest’s devoted service to and curation of his choir. Arranged in chronological order, the albums are enclosed in beautifully reproduced original sleeves. The booklet opens with a useful index of all the repertoire therein, and closes with reflections by today’s Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, and an essay by Geraint Lewis on ‘The Sound of St John’s’. The paradox is that such a sound is more difficult to pin down than the much vaunted ‘King’s Sound’. Partly that’s a matter of acoustics – the lower (everything is relative) chapel of St John’s with its shorter decay will not mask imprecision or smudges as generously as King’s or the larger cathedrals – but also of approach. Guest’s singers, whatever their age, adjusted to the music rather than the other way around. The set is all the more uneven but exciting for the strong but fleeting personalities that pass through the choir...

Peter Quantrill (Gramophone, August 2017)

 

Pollini

Maurizio Pollini: the complete recordings on Deutsche Grammophon

(DG)

Behind the understandable awe prompted by a pianist who, even at the age of 14, could toss aside the difficulties of Chopin’s Op 10 Etudes as an irrelevance, lies an undertow of reservation. ‘Technically, he plays better than any of us on the jury’ exclaimed Arthur Rubinstein after Pollini’s first prize in Warsaw. The qualification is perhaps significant. To what extent did the wonder reach beyond such assurance, sheen and mastery? Later there were some who found his Chopin ‘faceless, four-square and pedestrian’ while others referred to playing that is ‘blank and uninvolved, too literal and lacking the rise and fall of phrase’. More certainty than suggestion, such comments tell us that Pollini’s burning clarity is achieved at a price, at a lack of freedom, spontaneity and, ultimately, humanity. Throughout his career he has remained scrupulously true to his own lights, with a greater range than such comments imply. (He himself maintains a generoushearted admiration for many radically different colleagues: for Rubinstein, Argerich and Kempff, who he speaks of as a ‘Goethian’ pianist, one with an infinite capacity for poetry.) Yet the contradiction comes again, though one common to many great public pianists. Gentle, and indeed lovable in conversation on DG’s DVD of Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary, in performance he can fix you with a steely gaze that brooks no argument. This superb 55-CD and three-DVD tribute from DG (selling for about £180) traces a journey through early aplomb to greater maturity and finally, and sadly, to a frequent deadening of impulse, as if long years of public exposure for an essentially private man have taken their toll. It is as if no longer the possessor of exceptional physical command (for mischievous Sviatoslav Richter he had ‘good biceps’) there is too little left in reserve.

Bryce Morrison (Gramophone, June 2017)

 

New York Philharmonic

New York Philharmonic: 175th Anniversary Edition

(Sony Classical)

The New York Philharmonic celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2017, and the responsibility for the inevitable big box-set falls upon Sony Classical, current custodians of the RCA Victor and CBS Masterworks labels for whom the orchestra made the majority of its commercial recordings. Curators James H North and Michael H Gray, together with the orchestra’s historian and archivist Barbara Hawes, have mined the discography for a wellconsidered overview spanning 78 years’ worth of recording activity and contained on 65 discs (listed for about £150 or $140).

If a cursory glance at the contents suggests a skewed representation of the orchestra’s recorded accomplishments under their various music directors, bear in mind that the Philharmonic made relatively fewer recordings between the late 1920s and late 1950s in relation to their Philadelphia and Boston colleagues. With the arrival of stereo and a new, charismatic music director named Leonard Bernstein, the Philharmonic considerably stepped up studio activity, which explains why Bernstein is allotted 25 out of the collection’s 65 discs. Zubin Mehta also presided over a 12-year tenure, yet made far fewer recordings for the label, while Kurt Masur and the Philharmonic appeared only once on Sony Classical (in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma). Furthermore, the recent Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert eras are amply represented via live downloads on the orchestra’s own label. Many of these recordings have held reference status. Little can be added, for example, to the heaps of praise lavished on Willem Mengelberg’s 1928 Strauss Ein Heldenleben (far more disciplined than the conductor’s relatively caricatured Concertgebouw remake), the Arturo Toscanini 1936 Beethoven Seventh (here with the revised ‘alternate’ first-movement introduction take), Bernstein’s Copland and Boulez’s Bartók. On the other hand, two examples of the orchestra’s 1917 vintage under music director Josef Stranksy hold less musical than historical interest. 

Jed Distler (Gramophone, May 2017)

 

Rostropovich

Rostropovich: Cellist of the Century

(Warner Classics)

In his preface to Rostropovich: Cellist of the Century, Yo-Yo Ma remembers a sleepless night after his first encounter with Rostropovich playing the First Concerto of Shostakovich, and he can’t have been the only aspiring cellist to feel likewise. As a teenager he would have been listening to the CBS premiere recording with Ormandy rather than either version in this lavish tribute from Warner Classics, but the point holds. Particularly in the quarter-century between his first appearance in the West and his semi-permanent exile there from 1974, before the status of World Statesman conferred upon him, Rostropovich was simply the most thrilling cellist of his generation.

Every cello recording he made for EMI, Erato, Teldec and Warner Classics is in the box. He was responsible, Steven Isserlis once wrote, ‘for more great works being written than any performing musician in history,’ and they are nearly all here. Principal among them are the works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten, but Rostropovich commissioned in bulk and left history to sort the gold from the dross. When the pan is shaken, how the concertos of Dutilleux, Lutoslawski and Jolivet shine: often for staying true to their own language while finding ways to write against the expectation of how a piece for Rostropovich should behave (in Lutoslawski’s case, by giving the soloist nothing but open Ds for the first minute before plunging into a combat which could be fought with special empathy by one who, like the composer, had suffered personally from an authoritarian contest of no winners and, at the time of composition and recording, no relief).

Peter Quantrill (Gramophone, April 2017)

 

Leontyne Price

Leontyne Price: prima donna assoluta

(RCA Red Seal)

RCA Red Seal’s new box of Leontyne Price’s ‘ultimate opera recordings’ covers a decade of the great soprano in her prime, from 1962 to 1972. It’s probably fair to say that none of the recordings can lay claim to top recommendation status. Two earlier Decca recordings – the 1960 Aida under Solti and the 1962 Tosca under Karajan – are arguably finer than the full-blooded RCA versions from the early ’70s we have here, conducted respectively by Erich Leinsdorf and Zubin Mehta.

The five Verdi roles dominate, and she sails through them all with the same commanding security: her Aida here has filled out after the earlier Decca set, with extra regal grandeur; there’s no arguing with her Trovatore Leonore (1969), even if many will prefer to seek out earlier sets, either on RCA or live from Salzburg under Karajan; the Forza, Ballo and Ernani recordings (recorded in ’64, ’66 and ’67) catch even greater youthful bloom in the voice.

But there will be plenty of personal favourites, I suspect, and every recording here underlines what a glorious voice Price’s was, as well as the sheer quality of her artistry: phrasing is flawless and aristocratic; there’s musicianship in every line she sings, an unfussy dramatic integrity to it all and compelling grandezza aplenty.

Price liked to describe her voice as a ‘juicy lyric’. Few would argue with that, yet it’s also the epitome of the lirico-spinto or ‘pushed lyric’ – but with the emphasis always on the lyrical. In the middle and upper ranges it remains consistently beautiful and seductive, never losing its flexibility. At Juilliard, Price famously said, she learnt always to sing on the interest rather than the principal; there’s always excitement and electricity, then, but one never fears for the health of the voice itself.

Hugo Shirley (Gramophone, March 2017)

 

Oistrakh

The David Oistrakh Edition

A significant portion of the collection is devoted to generally well-transferred Melodiya recordings from the late 1940s / early 1950s that appeared on the (now) DG-owned Westminster or American Decca labels featuring the Oistrakh Trio (with Oborin and cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky) including a chipper account of Haydn’s Trio in C, HobXV:27 – the finale really sparkles – as well as Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque, where Oborin’s playing has a Horowitzian intensity about it, a fairly broad account of Dvořák’s Dumky, Smetana’s G minor, Taneyev’s D major and the trios of Chopin and Ravel. Pride of place though must go to early recordings of the Glazunov and Prokofiev First Concertos, both under the young Kyrill Kondrashin, the Prokofiev recorded just three months after the composer’s death and as spruce, pointed and rich in magic as any I’ve heard. The Glazunov, too, strikes me as more or less definitive, Oistrakh’s way with nuancing and varied vibratos making the music all but speak to the listener. There are sonatas and other works with pianist Frida Bauer where the musical partnership is consistently sympathetic, Bach and Mozart with Igor, the E flat Sinfonia concertante under Kondrashin being a special prize while the B flat Concerto, K207 (coupled with Stravinsky’s Concerto) under Bernard Haitink is scarcely less distinctive. Various shorter works, some involving Igor, display Oistrakh’s refined brand of wit but I would single out two slightly longer pieces, Chausson’s Poème and Ysaÿe’s Poème élégiaque as being among the best places to sample the ‘exquisite taste’ that Haylock refers to (specifically in relation to Oistrakh’s use of vibrato).

So, how best to sum up Oistrakh’s style of playing? An aristocrat of the bow with plenty to say, but who conveys what he needs to convey without ever forcing the issue. By most accounts the man was reflected in his playing, a modest, noble, wise presence who transcends the limits of time through his recordings. And these are some of his finest.

Rob Cowan (Gramophone, February 2017)

 

Toscanini

Arturo Toscanini: the essential recordings

(Sony Classical)

The set does well to remind us that Toscanini was a revered Wagnerian. Even the faithful of Bayreuth thought as much. The second of two discs devoted to Wagner is full of good things, notably Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey in a vintage 1936 NYPO recording and the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung (of which

Toscanini conducted the first Italian production in 1895), recorded with Helen Traubel in 1941. This is one of the greatest of all recordings of the scene, the more remarkable for sounding more like the climax to the entire cycle rather than a mere bleeding chunk. The final scene of Act 1 of Die Walküre featuring Traubel and Lauritz Melchior also has its interest.

The other Wagner disc is far from ‘essential’. It includes an unexceptionable account of the Siegfried Idyll and a performance of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger that is light years away from the one we hear on the complete and lovingly restored 1937 Salzburg Festival Die Meistersinger (Andante, A/03 – nla). The timings are identical but what in New York sounds brazen and unyielding in Salzburg has a steady, bürgerlich gait, the Vienna Philharmonic winds tumbling one over another like otters in a river, the whole thing filled with a profound sense of human well-being.

All in all, I found myself excited, delighted or instructed by around 80 per cent of the choices here. I got little pleasure from some of the fillers, including three Weber overtures whose 27 minutes could have usefully been given over to more Berlioz, whose music Toscanini conducted with rare virtuosity and allure. I would not have hesitated to include his 1952 recording of Harold in Italy with Carlton Cooley as the viola soloist. I can see why solo instrumentalists have been banished from the limelight; why otherwise is son-in-law Vladimir Horowitz’s terrific account of the Tchaikovsky concerto not here? But Cooley’s performance is different. It’s a concertante role embedded deep in as fine a performance of Harold in Italy as any on record.

The edition is smartly designed, clearly annotated and comes with an essay by biographer Harvey Sachs. It is also competitively priced (about £40) – the upside of the fact that there are no texts, translations or synopses for the operatic items that take up nearly half the space.

As to the quality of the recorded sound, since the mid-1980s a series of gifted engineers has worked wonders with an archive legacy, some of whose dryly recorded originals defied plausible 78rpm or even LP release. In that respect, there has never been a better time to invest in the recorded legacy of this most potent of conductors.

Richard Osborne (Gramophone, February 2017)

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