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Monday, May 24, 2010

A Complete History of the 'Complete Edition'

The Deutsche Grammophon label has just announced the release of two new "Complete Editions": one featuring all the works of Robert Schumann and one with the complete works of Gustav Mahler.

Schumann: The Masterworks consists of 35 CDs including the piano works, choral music and the quasi-operatic "Scenes from Goethe's Faust" comes out this week. Gustav Mahler: The Complete Edition arrives on June 22. It compiles great DG and Decca recordings of the symphonies by a starry galaxy of conductors, including Claudio Abbado, Herbert von Karajan, and Leonard Bernstein along with pieces like Das Klagende Lied and Das Lied von der Erde.

Complete Editions are boxed sets of CDs, featuring all of the works by one composer, gathered into a large budget-priced box. Most often, the sets come with the CDs packaged in simple paper sleeves. There is usually a small booklet, although some labels save printing costs by making the booklet into a CD file and putting it on a CD-Rom.

The now-defunct Philips label put out the first "complete edition" when they repackaged a lot of old recordings and some new ones as the Complete Mozart Edition to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. This consisted of 180 discs packaged in boxed sets, starting with the symphonies and ending with Die Zauberflöte. The total cost was about $3,000. Luckily, the sets were available seperately, and "mid-priced" at about $11 a CD.

Eventually, the set was reissued again, costing about $1,000, but also available seperately. The clunky, brittle jewel boxes were replaced by 16 cardboard cases and paper sleeves But with the absorption of the Philips catalogue into Decca/London as part of the Universal Music Group, the Mozart Edition sets are again out of print. In 1999, Teldec (now Warner Classics) released the Bach 2000 Edition. (153 discs, 12 box sets.) DG answered with a suitcase-sized Complete Beethoven Edition. Both of these are also out of print.

In recent years, Brilliant Classics have put out Complete Editions of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, featuring recordings by more obscure ensembles, along with reissues of out-of-print recordings from the Berlin, Decca, and Telarc catalogues. Priced at a dirt-cheap rate (the $145 Mozart Edition consists of 170 CDs--less than a dollar a disc!), these sets are about the size of a loaf of bread. These exhaustive surveys are a cornucopia for music lovers as well as those scholarly types who write long articles about record company reissues for classical music blogs.

Last year, DG got on the bandwagon (again) with their Brahms Edition, which was 46 discs, a veritable cosmic cube of music. They've also put out an excellent Chopin Complete Edition. With the release of the Mahler and Schumann sets, it can only be hoped that the reissues and repackaging of these excellent classical catalogues will continue in the current decade.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.