Box-Set Bonanza

Box-Set Bonanza

If the compact disc is (as some say) dying out as a storage medium, it’s going out with a bang, at least as far as great recordings of classical music go. For the past dozen years or so, and at an accelerating pace, venerable major classical-music labels like Columbia/Sony, Deutsche Grammophon, London/Decca, EMI, and Philips/Mercury have been issuing box sets (often dozens of CDs) at bargain per-disc prices of recordings that collectors have sought out and enjoyed for decades.

Sony, for example, has recently released boxes with the complete recordings (from LPs going back to the mono era up through recent CDs issues) of such superb pianists as Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Charles Rosen, Byron Janis, and William Kapell. Other similar sets offer Glenn Gould’s complete Bach performances, Sviatoslav Richter’s Philips recordings, and Murray Perahia’s complete recordings from the first 40 years of his career. Violinists from Heifetz to Szigeti and cellists from Casals to Starker are also collected in box sets, as are conductors from Stokowski and Walter to Bernstein and Boulez, singers from Callas to Pavarotti, and ensembles from the Vienna Philharmonic and Budapest Quartet to the Chicago Symphony and Kronos. Also on offer are anthologies of great vintage audiophile recordings on Mercury, Decca, and EMI (many of these reviewed in past issues TAS). Indeed it’s hard to find any major classical artist or performing group of the past century not represented by at least one substantial box set of recordings.

Musical treasures of such quality and plenitude won’t be coming out on downloads any time soon, and when (or if) they do they’ll cost a lot more. How long they’ll be offered, and at such low prices, is anyone’s guess, but if the twilight of the format has in fact arrived, you’d be advised to grab those that interest you quickly. To give an idea of what these box sets are like I’ve chosen two of them to describe in some detail, one dedicated to an American pianist, one to a French conductor. Together they total about 70 hours of music.

Charles Rosen: The Complete Columbia and Epic Album Collection
Unusual if not unique among modern-era pianists, Charles Rosen (1927-2012) is better known for his musicological studies (The Classical Style, Sonata Forms, The Romantic Generation, Schoenberg) than for his pianistic abilities. Yet, as the 21 discs in this collection of his Columbia and Epic LPs demonstrate, he was a supreme virtuoso and astute interpreter of the piano repertoire ranging from Bach to Boulez. Reissued here in their original LP programs and miniaturized album covers, these recordings date from 1959 to 1972, all but one of them stereo. Sound quality varies; the earliest are clean but somewhat lacking in presence, the later ones (which are the majority of them) excellent: sparkling clear, richly sonorous, and immediate. Original liner notes are also used on most of the jackets, most of them written by Rosen himself and offering a splendid display of his magisterial abilities as a scholarly describer and explainer of historical context, musical architecture, and pianistic devices.

Rosen’s demeanor as a performer combines stunning technical finesse, crisp tempos, and sharp-focused clarity with a coolness and reserve often described as Gallic, though Rosen, more analytical than the typical Francophile, has little interest in sensuous color. Brooding and Teutonic he is most certainly not. Given his classic sensibility and aesthetics, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s generally more persuasive in his performances of Debussy and Stravinsky at their most neoclassic—as well as in Schoenberg, Webern, Elliott Carter, Leon Kirchner, and Boulez—than he is in Schubert, Chopin, or Liszt. Still his Bach is immaculate, his Beethoven sculptured, his Haydn both vivacious and poetic.

Some highlights—and a few lowlights—will illustrate what I mean. Rosen’s renderings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Art of Fugue, for example, avoid any attempt to recapture “period” authenticity; but neither do they impose any personal eccentricities on the music. The result is a pellucid clarity and calm, secure logic that let Bach’s brightness, gaiety, contrapuntal ingenuity, concentration, and, when it is there—as in the sublime 25th variation of the Goldbergs—intensity and expressive eloquence come through strongly but without distortion or exaggeration. There are no Gouldian peculiarities, no Romantic pseudo-profundities, in Rosen’s Bach, and these remain for me (I’ve listened to them for decades) among the most transparent and rewarding Bach performances I know of.

In the last six of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, Rosen is brisk (quite fast but in complete control in Sonata 29’s demanding allegros) and straightforward; there’s no lingering over phrases, no caressing of details. Clarity (especially in bringing out contrapuntal voices), precision, and proportion are ideally balanced with the taut muscularity that Beethoven’s brusque, sometimes jagged figuration requires; but of mystery, exquisite nuance, or visionary rapture, there is little. One comes away feeling that Rosen’s understanding of this music is profound, but his attachment to it more cerebral than adoring. Of course this is difficult, at times forbidding music that requires much from both performer and listener. As such it rewards many approaches, and Rosen’s is unquestionably one of the most noble, thought-through, and pianistically accomplished on record.