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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tales from the CD Changer

I admit it. I'm a completist, and I live in a New York apartment with limited Ikea shelf space. So I have a lot of box sets with the CDs in those little paper sleeves. They take up less space than the old doorstop CD sets. I could probably write six or seven columns on each of the sets excerpted below. They're all pretty good. Here's what I'm listening to at the moment.

Disc One:
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 1-3, The Emerson String Quartet.

Crisp, clean playing and rhythmic attack starts the Emersons' exceptional cycle of the fifteen Shostakovich quartets. These first three quartets are actually from the middle of Shostakovich's career. Following the Pravda attack on his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and the withdrawal of his Fourth Symphony, the composer hid his coded emotional reactions in the pages of these intensely personal works. These are live recordings from the Aspen Music Festival. While the audience applause at the end of each piece is a little distracting, it is certainly deserved.

Disc Two:
Mozart: The Symphonies, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Erich Leinsdorf

This is the famous Westminster set of Mozart symphonies, half in mono, half in stereo, that stand as the first complete recording of the cycle in the stereo era. Leinsdorf, who was a disciple of Toscanini, does his teacher proud with these brisk, no-nonsense performances, played with style and panache. One of the champs, and a very welcome reissue as part of DG's Original Masters box set series. All seven discs have been in and out of the changer in the last week.

Disc Three:
Couperin: The Complete Keyboard Works. Michael Borgstede, Harpsichord (Disc 1)

All four books of pieces for the clavecin, or harpsichord are packed into this dizzying 11-disc set on Brilliant Classics. Over 200 works are arranged into twenty-seven Ordres. Borgstede plays on replica harpsichords that are based on instruments from Couperin's own time. This music evokes the glittering halls of Versaille and the forgotten genius of Couperin. This is an invaluable contribution to recorded keyboard literature, and this set provides hours of fascinating listening.

Disc 4
Sibelius: The Symphonies and Tone Poems, Disc Six, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, cond. Neeme Järvi

There are a lot of Sibelius cycles on the market, but this set of the symphonies and tone poems by Finland's eternally popular national composer features Järvi's powerful, thrusting podium style. This disc features Pohjola's Daughter, Night Ride and Sunrise and Four Legends from the Kalevala. These are not as familiar to most listeners as the symphonies and "hit" tone poems like Finlandia and Tapiola. (Have no fear, they're included here as well.)

Disc 5
Igor Markevitch: Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, Weber Overtures. Berlin Philharmonic

Markevitch made a lot of great recordings in the '50s and '60s, including his exceptional Tchaikovsky symphonies. (There's a complete set of those on Philips, but it might be out of print.) This Deutsche Grammophon box features recordings that the great Russian conductor made with the Berlin Philharmonic in the early days of the LP. This is a slow, Romantic reading of the "Pastorale" symphony that ignores the metronome markings and lets the music breathe and swell. The Weber overtures are nice, too.

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