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Friday, November 25, 2011

Superconductor 2011 Gift Guide Part I: Giant Boxed Sets

The Doorstop Division: 20 discs and up.
These boxed sets might not fit under your tree--or down your chimney.
Image by Matt Groening © Gracie Films/20th Century Fox.
In the last decade, as Americans have gotten more obese (see photo) classical music has too. Companies have put out huge, bloated "complete collections":
  • All the operas of Richard Wagner including the Ring. (34 discs, on average.)
  • All the piano music of Franz Liszt (99 discs) 
  • Complete editions of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart (157, 60, 85 and 170 discs, respectively.) 
  • The Great Pianists of the 20th Century (Now out of print, but it was 200 discs and came in two suitcases.)
You get the idea. It might have had something to do with the millennium, as record labels scrambled to push their music out into the world (again) before the Y2K clock fried their databases. Or it might have been the simple greed that has nearly driven those labels out of business. Only Norman Lebrecht knows for sure.

Despite the bloat (and subsequent devaluing of music to something that you buy the same way you buy cheese)these make  great gifts for the hard-core music lover in your life. They can also make a handy doorstop after spending the holidays ripping the CDs into your hard drive. Which is why Amazon.com is now making it possible to download entire boxed sets with a minimum of effort.

Anyway, here's five picks. They're big, but they're really good. I promise.

Bach: Complete Cantatas cond. Helmuth Rilling (Hänssler Classics, 71 CDs) 
There are several comprehensive sets of Bach cantatas on the market, from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner. This entry from Helmuth Rilling, the founder of the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart may not be on a flashy major label, but it is more than competitive.

Vivaldi Masterworks Various Artists (Decca, 28 CDs)
When the Philips label was unceremoniously folded into Decca under the banner of Universal Music Group, the catalogue lost the great Vivaldi recordings made by the ensemble I Musici under the direction of Vittorio Negri.

They're all present and accounted for here, along with great performances from period performance  specialists Philip Pickett and Christopher Hogwood. All the Vivaldi you could possibly want, except for the operas. Those will probably be along on another boxed set, as soon as somebody gets around to recording them.

Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy (Membran, 107 CDs) 
Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the most important conductors of the 20th century, with a unique, flexible approach to Romantic music. This gigantic set preserves his memory with accounts of Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Bruckner, and possibly the kitchen sink. Lovingly packaged with small mini-boxes inside the big case for easier management, the whole set is the size of a small Dachsund. This is the gift for the lover of German music.

Tchaikovsky Edition (Brilliant Classics, 60 CDs)
This shelf-bending set of Tchaikovsky is from Brilliant, the same label that brought you the back-breaking editions of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven mentioned at the top of the column. It includes the piano concertos, ballet scores, and even the rarely performed early operas. Another weighty entry in a comprehensive series of composer surveys from Brilliant Classics. Includes the major operas alongside lesser-known works like Oprichnik and Mazeppa. 

The Liszt Collection (Deutsche Grammophon, 34 CDs)
If you read this blog regularly, you might remember an article that I wrote comparing (in some detail) the huge boxed sets that were coming out this year to celebrate the 200th birthday of composer, pianist and cigar fancier Franz Liszt. For more detail about the Complete Liszt Piano Music (performed by pianist Leslie Howard) and the other competing sets, please consult this article.

From the out of print Giuseppe Sinopoli recordings of the Dante and Faust Symphonies to the piano music and songs sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, this is a sweeping collection that celebrates Liszt the composer, and not just of piano music. That is certainly the core here, but orchestral works get equal time, and there's even some rarely heard choral music.

But wait, there's more!
Check out the rest of the 2011 Superconductor Gift Guide: 
Part III: Beethoven for Christmas
Part IV: Opera Recordings
Part V: Piano Mania
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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.