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Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Superconductor Holiday Gift Guide: Mega Box Sets

Johannes Brahms after Black Friday.
Instead of battering down the doors of the local emporium this year, Superconductor presents our guide to great bargains, box sets, and musical experiences to lend the glorious sound of good music to the holiday season.

Gosh, that sounded pompous. Let's try that again. Here's some holiday stocking-stuffers for the music fiend on your Christmas list. And if any of them get returned, let me know.

We start with the box sets.

Verdi: Great Operas From La Scala
This set has been mentioned on my page a few times. It makes a great gift for the lover of Italian opera in your life. You get recordings of most of the major Verdi operas.  The "big three" are here (Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata) alongside essential recordings of Macbeth, Don Carlo, Aida, and Un Ballo in Maschera and a good Verdi Requiem. Most of these recordings were made in the heyday of vinyl, and about half of them are conducted by Claudio Abbado, a fine Verdi conductor.

The real picks here are the Boccanegra with Mirella Freni, José Carreras and Piero Cappuccili as the Doge. This is one of the best Verdi recordings ever made. The Trovatore features Carlo Bergonzi singing his lungs out in the title role. 21 discs for about $40.

Bach: Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas

John Eliot Gardiner is one of the most important conductors working in the field of 'period' instruments: playing classics on the original instruments used in the 17th and 18th centuries or facsimiles thereof. Here is a reissue of all of his Bach choral masterworks: both Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, the Mass in B Minor

There's also twelve discs worth of cantatas. These were recorded as part of a projected plan to record the entire cycle of Bach cantatas. That plan was aborted by the label when the conductor and his orchestra were unceremoniously dumped from DG Archiv as part of the great classical music purge around the turn of the century. However, the English Baroque Soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and their conductor  recorded a complete cycle of the cantatas on the Soli Deo Gloria label.

These are fine recordings with strong casts, wonderful ensemble playing and a sense of overall guidance from the podium. If you want to start listening to Bach's vocal music, this is a good place to start. 22 discs for $55.

The Complete Brahms Edition and Schumann: The Masterworks
Two big white cubes of 19th century romanticism from Deutsche Grammophon. The Brahms box is a reissue of a project that originally came out in the '90s. You get songs, symphonies, piano works and more in a vast sweep of the Universal Classics vault. The Schumann is more interesting, even if the works herein are more obscure. Good symphony recordings (John Eliot Gardiner in Romantic mode) piano music, songs, and best of all, the rare vocal works: Scenes from Goethe's Faust and Die Paradies und die Peri. Great stuff for less than $100 apiece.

Bernstein: The Symphony Edition
A whole load of Bernstein recordings made in conjunction with the New York Philharmonic back in the salad days when "Lehnutt" was music director of the Big Apple's biggest orchestra. The Sony Classical set includes complete cycles of symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn's "Paris" and "London" symphonies, Mahler Schumann, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and of course, Bernstein. But there's also modern music by Schuman, Shostakovich, and others. 60 discs for about $100 and they've all been remastered.

Karajan 100th: The Complete EMI Recordings:
Vol. 1: Symphony and Orchestral. Vol. 2: Opera and Vocal
This was actually released in 2008 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Herbert von Karajan, the Austrian-born conductor who was instrumental in bringing recorded music into the digital age. The EMI recordings are available in two box sets, of about 80 discs each. The trade-off: all the discs packed tightly into cardboard sleeves.

The sets include many classic HVK recordings: his Der Rosenkavalier with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the Pelleas et Melisande with Frederica von Stade, and a vast legacy of symphonic recordings from Mozart to the modern age. Best of all, these recordings date up to 1984, before Karajan's late-career decline and the "Karajan Gold" series. Each set is about $130 apiece, which comes out to $2 a disc. Your ears will thank you.
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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.