The return of a (gladly?/sadly?) irregular event, when I put out the begging bowl and ask for your modest and generous donations so I can keep this thing going.
This is your extra money, of course, your magazine subscription or public radio money, even just change from the couch. Anything and everything helps. And if you’ve found anything worthwhile through this site, it’s a validation for me. As always, the best way to support the site is to buy my book, and/or make Amazon purchases through the links you find here. No extra cost to you, it just takes a tiny bit of the money that would go to Jeff Bezos and redistributes it downard, if you’re into that kind of thing.
To donate via PayPal, just hit the button above or the one at the bottom of this post, or use this link.
And speaking of public radio, I’ve got premiums! Choice items to give away as a thank you note for donations!
$20 gets you a signed, personalized copy of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Add a note in the PayPal telling me how you want it personalized. I have 17 of these total.
As you see from the picture above, I have many collections of CDs to give away. These are combinations of promos I get, duplicates, and things from my library I’m just not going to listen to anymore. Everything is used but completely playable (as a collector I take care of things), and nothing is bad, in fact there is a lot of objectively great music, and certainly things to please everyone. If you’re wondering why I am giving away classic records, like Bernstein’s Beethoven cycle, it’s because I have too much of somethings: I have EIGHTEEN other Beethoven cycles, including one of Bernstein’s, likewise I have more Mahler and Bruckner than I can reasonably pay attention to. I’ve portioned them out into some amazing bundles:
$30 gets you a Grab Bag of 10 randomly selected CDs, some combination of jazz, classical, new/experimental music, all release within the past few years. I can put together at least a dozen of these.
$50 gets you a BOX SET(!!!) grab bag. I have five of these:
• Symphonies 1: Beethoven: Complete Symphonies, Leonard Bernstein & Vienna Philharmonic; Mahler: Complete Symphonies, various artists (the Naxos set); Bruckner: The Symphonies, Roberto Paternostro, Wurttemberg Philharmonic Reutlingen; Dvorak: Complete Symphonies, Otmar Suitner, Staatskapelle Berlin; Vaughan Williams: The Symphonies, Leonard Slatkin, Philharmonia; Mozart: The Symphonies, Trevor Pinnock, English Baroque Soloists.
• Symphonies 2: Beethoven: Symphonies 1 - 9, Roger Norrington, London Classical Players; Mahler: Complete Symphonies, Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic; Bruckner: Symphonies 1 - 9, Günter Wand, Kölner Rudfunk; Schubert: Complete Symphonies, Franz Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century, Sibelius: Symphonies 1 - 7, von Karajan/Kammu, Berlin Philharmonic, Mozart: The Symphonies, Karl Böhm, Berlin Philharmonic.
• Orchestral/Chamber: Bartók: Orchestral Music, Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra, soloists; Mozart: Complete Piano Concertos, John Elliot Gardiner, Malcolm Bilson, English Baroque Soloists; Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Alban Berg Quartet; Satie: Complete Piano Music, Cristina Ariagno; Sibelius: Complete Piano Music, Annette Servadei; Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Mitsuko Uchida.
• Mozart/Opera: Mozart: Complete String Quartets, Talich Quartet; Mozart: The Divertimenti For Wind Instruments, Wind Soloists of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Mozart: Idomeneo, John Elliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists; Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress, John Elliot Gardiner, London Symphony Orchestra; Monteverdi: Complete Operas, Sergio Vartolo, Various, *Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte*, Arnold Östman, Drottingholm Court Theater Orchestra, Various.
$75 or more, I have one of three amazing collections for you:
• Led Zeppelin: Definitive Collection. All 10 original Atlantic albums in a nicely sinister black box.
• Domenico Scarlatti: Complete Keyboard Sonatas. Played by Richard Lester on Nimbus, all seven multi-disc sets together.
• Igor Stravinsky: The Recorded Legacy. The original 1997 collection from Sony, with complete documentation and the black slipcase that encloses the 22 CDs (out of print)—that's it at the bottom of the picture.
(Stravinsky is spoken for thanks to a generous donation)
Donation amounts above included the shipping and the “handling” bullshit. Give what you can, if you can, and enjoy the site.
Some late year miscellany before I post more on the year in music:
Already Dead Tapes was one of our recommended labels in the October issue of the Rail, and starting today they have a “Any 3 Tapes for $10” sale going on at the Bandcamp page. That’s three tapes for the price of two, and the label has 235 releases so far in its catalogue. Recent picks are the latest from Lost Trail, and a set of remixes of Public Speaking, who’s on our roster of recommended gigs for December.
The wildly quirky label Hausu Mountain is putting out an intriguing recording this Friday (digitally, vinyl comes in January). Mortal, from Quicksails, is some kind of combination of modular synthesis and free jazz, and I am dying to hear the whole thing after I got through the track below.
You can now read an article I wrote for New Music Box, “When Jazz Was Cool,” a look at the cool we lost, and how jazz was once the mass media soundtrack of the hippest of the hip. Of course, there’s Miles …
52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.
I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.
(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)
Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.
My internet friends (though I have shaken Andy Lee’s hand) at the Irritable Hedgehog label are discounting most of the catalogue for the next month. If you’re not familiar with this (essentially two-man) operation, they specialize—but are not exclusive to—in lesser-known musical minimal and post-minimal composers, and have issued a number of top-notch recordings.
The markdowns are on CDs, which are now the same cost as digital downloads (and the advantage of buying through Bandcamp is that you get an immediate digital download while you wait for your CDs to come). The only thing not on sale is the majestic boxed set recording of Dennis Johnson’s November, but that leaves plenty of terrific music. My personal recommendations are:
Adrian Knight: Obsessions
Jürg Frey: Piano Music
Dave Seidel: ~60 Hz
William Duckworth: The Time Curve Preludes
While you’re checking out their list, grab a free download of recording of a recent concert by the Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes. Just go to this link:
Let me qualify that header before things get out of control here: this not only snapshot of constantly shifting thoughts, but specifically conforms to the ballot Francis Davis sent out for his 11th annual Jazz Critics Poll. Despite NPR losing interest in jazz, they are still going to host the poll, the results of which will be up sometime in December. So I guess that’s something.
Now, one explanation and one major caveat. My experience with these releases—what led me to choose and rank them—is that, among the bevy of fine new jazz recordings I’ve heard this year (at least 200), these are the ones that completely satisfied me without any critical thought. I mean this in the best way; I listened but gave myself over completely to the music, and trusted each and every moment to bring me musically and logically to the next. The music occupied my mind and body. That’s my highest level of response.
The caveat is that the list goes roughly from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving. I have not been able to listen through everything I’ve gotten so far this year (there’s at least 96 hours of music still unheard) and due to release dates there are certain things that I trust will be important that have not yet reached me, especially Strut Records new compilation of Sun Ra’s singles, and Mosaic’s Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49. Look for them in my upcoming full year-end lists, or else in the ballot I fill out for Downbeat next spring. And so, I give you:
10 best new releases (albums released between last Thanksgiving and this, give or take) listed in descending order one-through-ten.
Richard Taruskin had the honor and privilege of writing booklet notes for not one, but two important collections of Stravinsky’s music that were released last year. In Deutsche Grammaphon’s Stravinsky: Complete Edition, he summed up the composer’s rare stature with the following anecdote and analysis. Tarsukin writes that Vladmimir Ussachevsky told him:
‘…after crossing [himself] and rising from [his] knees in front of Arnold Schoenberg’s death mask in [Schoenberg’s] working room, [Stravinsky] turned to Mrs. Schoenberg and said “Now I am alone.” Who, you, who can say that now?’
It was a haunting question. There were still composers one admired, even revered. But Carter, Berio and Boulez were honored in one camp. Copland, Shostakovich and Britten were honored in another. Stravinsky was honored in both: his music was indispensably a part of the academic canon and the performing repertoire alike. People both praised it in the classroom and paid good money to hear it. No textbook or music history course could omit him, and neither could any concert or opera (or ballet!) season. And that was what made him unique among the living while he lived. Stravinsky seemed uniquely to exemplify, among contemporary composers, the appeal that Mozart had exerted in his day…. The same compositions that the professionals have analyzed to death have been recorded dozens of times for the delectation of non-matriculated music-lovers. Is there any other modern master of whom that can be said?
Is there? Perhaps Steve Reich is approaching that status, but his academic acceptance, while growing, is not yet fully settled. Stravinsky was one of the rare Titans, and even rarer was the accident of his birth that brought him together with the advent of audio recording technology.
I’ve said it before and will say it again, because it bears infinite repeating: we have lost something valuable with the demise of the big old record labels. Like the Hollywood studio system, they weren’t usually the best places for artists but like the movie studios, they could bring together amazing amounts of talent to produce enduring and enviably well-made classics.
For records, the outstanding example is Columbia in the 1960s. The studio had under contract Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky, five of the most important musicians of the 20th century. They each had essentially carte blanche to record what they wanted.
Stravinsky is a special case and especially important. His accomplishments were a culmination of the history of classical music that came before him and have been immeasurably and continuously influential. In the timeline of Western art music, there are certain composers who have determined the course of music after them, and Stravinsky is one. And, as Taruskin implied, he was a composer, rather than a musician, and a contemporary one at that—record labels signed musicians, but composers?
Fortunately for us, Columbia did so, and the important became the wonderfully unusual. For the music of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, et al, we can hear how musicians think about their music; interpretation. With Stravinsky, we can hear his own thoughts, as straight from his mind to our ears as possible.
His recordings are musically exceptional. They have been available off and on since the late 1920s, and had been collected in the 1990s as the Recorded Legacy box set. At the time, that was essential for the musically literate listener, just as having Joyce, Hemingway, and Borges was fundamental for someone who valued literature. Last year, that set was superseded by Igor Stravinsky: The Complete Columbia Album Collection. It is both vastly different and better by orders of magnitude.
The difference is clear in both size and organization. Where the Recorded Legacy was 22 CDs, the Album Collection is 56, plus a DVD. The earlier set collected previous recordings in categories like ballets, chamber music, etc. The new box contains CD reproductions of the original albums, arranged chronologically.
Because they are the original albums, there is music from other composers that was paired with Stravinsky on certain releases; those include Bach, Bernstein, Copland, Arensky,Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Their contributions only make up a small portion of the additional 34 CDs, but they allow the chance to hear classic LPs, like 1962’s Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Madrigalists: Tributes to his Astonishing Life and Music—organized by Robert Craft, it has Madrigals from Gesualdo and Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa. This was a teeth-rattler when first issued, and the culmination of Stravinsky, guided by Craft, rediscovering music of the Italian Renaissance.
Another reason for the difference in CDs is that, as reproductions of original LPs, the CDs each don’t hold as much music as on the Recorded Legacy. And another is that Stravinsky made a considerable number of recordings before the most well-known ones in this box. Beginning in the summer of 1928 and concluding with a performance of Mozart and his own piano music in 1938, Stravinsky laid down a series of LPs for British Colombia (later to become part of EMI). These are all in the new box and they are all terrific.
Also, Stravinsky began making mono LPs for Columbia in the 1940s, then re-recorded his body of work in stereo starting again in the 1950s (it is the stereo recordings that are in the Recorded Legacy). All of this is in the Album Collection. Some of the performances are a little rough, like the Divertimento from the Baiser de la fée played by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Mexico (this was new music in Stravinsky’s era, and musicians were learning his idiom and adapting themselves to his considerable technical challenges). And as much as Stravinsky complained about conductors, his own conducting technique was mediocre and he could not manage what he felt were the ideal tempos of works like the Rite of Spring.
But the composer was unsurpassed at conveying his unique style, either on the podium or though his assistant and amanuensis, Craft. The sound throughout is the classic objective surface, which can be warm or cool depending on the moment, and rhythms that can be felt in the body. That these are Stravinsky’s own recordings is immeasurably important. As Taruskin writes in the Album Collection booklet (yes, he got both gigs), “Comparing the risk a new composition runs when performed for the first time with the security of a classic, say by Beethoven, [Stravinsky] complained late in life that ‘what is wrong with the Beethoven performance is evident and cannot damage the work, but what is wrong in the performance of the unfamiliar work is not at all evident, and the line between sense and nonsense in it may, and often does, depend upon its performance.’” Stravinsky used the recording studio as a place to create and disseminate his own idiom.
The results include unsurpassed versions of the three early ballets, of Oedipus Rex, Orpheus, and Agon, and unequalled renditions of Symphony in Three Movements and The Rake’s Progress. These are all collected in the Albums box, but with the inclusion of the early recordings, and the first mono renditions, you also get two versions of Apollon musagète, the original and revised versions of the Piano Concerto, multiple versions of the Rite, and of the Petrushka and Firebird suites, two complete Fairy’s Kiss (and two complete Divertimentos), two Soldier’s Tales, two of each of the major Symphonies, four (!) recordings of Les Noces in all versions, two of Orpheus, Oedipus Rex, and The Rake’s Progress, two different takes of the rarely recorded Persephone, multiple recordings of various songs, and both the exceptional Benny Goodman performance of the Ebony Concerto and that of Woody Herman and his orchestra, the original commissioner.
All of this is in excellent sound, remastered primarily by Andreas K. Meyer/Jeanne Montalvo, and Martin Kistner. There is more space and bloom all around than on the Recorded Legacy, which has solid sound, and the mono is smooth. With a beautiful hard-bound booklet, it is in every way fabulous.
The DG set in any other circumstance would stand out as essential, but in comparison it is a worthy also-ran, like all those teams that lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the NBA Finals. It collects performances from their own substantial catalogue. The major interpreters within are Boulez, Bernstein, and Claudio Abbado, and while there might be some subjective quibbles (I prefer Chailly to Abbado, for example), these are all contenders for leading versions. Along with the composer’s body of work, it has some wonderful historical recordings; the Violin Concerto in D played by Samuel Dushkin—who commissioned it—with Stravinsky conducting, and Jean Cocteau narrating the Soldier’s Tale conducted by Igor Markevitch. DG has also included Ernest Ansermet’s Petrushka from 1947, and Monteux’s 1956 Le Sacre (Monteux was Stravinsky’s favorite conductor, but the composer had reservations about this recording). And there is a bonus disc of Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim playing Le Sacre for two pianos.
The DG set goes for (currently) about $100, while the Album Collection is $139. Price per disc is actually higher with DG, at $3.33 versus $2.43, which shows that in pure dollar terms the Columbia box is a superior bargain. Aesthetically, the choice is between excellent professional interpretations and a more technically variable but musically and philosophically superior ur-text. But why choose? Get both.
Ramon Casas Erik Satie (El bohemio; Poet of Montmartre), 1891 oil on canvas, 198.8 x 99.7 cm (78 1/4 x 39 1/4) Northwestern University Library
No composer is as loved for all the wrong reasons (there must be a German word for that) than Erik Satie.
Now that we are in his sesquicentennial year (May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925), promiscuous love is erupting all over. This listicle is indicative; no need to look past the title “Composer Erik Satie Was So Much Weirder Than You Realize”—Satie as an object for those who make a fetish of an eccentricity or quirkiness that stands in opposition to their consumerism.
I imagine Satie would have enjoyed that attention, though in his particular irreverent and ironic way. Quite the opposite of eccentric, he was acutely aware of his audiences and his social milieu, and had the calculating self-consciousness to present himself to differently to each audience asthe bohemian, the mystic, the bourgeois master. Those were guises, uniforms, and they continue to effect those who lack the curiosity to hear the music itself. And I do mean hear: another complete misapprehension is that Satie created simple background music, like a naïve outsider artist.
Satie was a skilled composer who put in the hard hours. His music is made with exceptional rigor—the apparent simplicity is a challenge to pull off. Repetition of minimal material is the easiest thing to do as a composer and one of the hardest things to do well, and to make interesting.
He is both graced with and suffers from music that Virgil Thomson said “…can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the history of music.” The result is that millions and millions of people have heard and loved the Gymnopédies, or an arrangement of the Gnossiennes on the soundtrack of Diva, and maybe a few tens of thousands of people have heard one piece beyond that (His catalogue is substantial. Maybe a few thousand have listened through all this works).
Satie, the pop-cult figure, was also Satie, the serious and important artist. As anniversary seasons tend to do in classical music, this one has seen a good number of new and collected releases that treat his legacy seriously and show many different facets of his work. (I recommend the Erik Satie volume in Reaction Book’s Critical Lives series as a fine, compact biographical and critical introduction.)
Because we all know them, the Gymnopédies are the place to start. Even already interested listeners will likely be surprised to find that there is an interpretive argument over this music, that seems so lovely and simple. The nub is captured by the title of a relatively recent release, Satie Slowly.
This is a fascinating collection of piano pieces put out by Philip Corner, who makes the argument that musicians, like the great Aldo Ciccolini, have been playing Satie too fast for decades. And technically he’s not wrong. The tempo most commonly heard from pianists is moderato, a kind of slow stroll. Yet the markings for the Gymnopédies are, respectively, lent et douloureux, lent et triste, lent et grave. Faster tempos brighten the music, and while that is pleasing in and of itself, Satie wanted sadness and seriousness, there can be no argument over that.
The flaw in Corner’s recording is that he is not that good a pianist, he can demonstrate the argument but he can’t quite make it work; playing slowly is more difficult than playing quickly, it means phrasing, not agility, has to work, and phrasing is the thing that separates the greats from the also-rans.
Jeroen van Veen is a great pianist who has no such problems with Satie. He has recorded all of Satie’s piano music on the Brilliant Classics label, and it is fantastic, superseding all previous collections, including those from Ciccolini (yes, I have loved it too) and more recent ones from Jean-Yves Thibaudet, et al. At $8.99 for digital (CDs are also available), it is also the finest value in the Satie discography.
Van Veen plays the music slowly, more slowly than Corner, with exceptionally graceful, limpid phrasing. Each line and the accompanying counterpoint flows along like a gentle, mesmerizing country stream, rippling steadily. In great sound, this set is utterly gorgeous and completely fulfilling, making and winning the implicit argument that this is all great music.
Van Veen has also accomplished the seemingly impossible, of producing a complete recording of Vexations, all 840 repetitions, sitting at and playing the piano straight through for 23 hours and 51 minutes.
This may seem a stunt, the piece a gimmick, and some people think so. An article at Hyperallergic, “Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane” takes as its premise that the music is nothing but an effect. But it’s a report on a rumor, something someone heard about, like taking an urban myth seriously. It’s about an attitude about Vexations, because the writer has never experienced the entire work.
If the music was ever to drive anyone mad, is was Satie himself. Written in the difficult aftermath of a failed love affair, it is tonal but unsettled, packed with diminished chords and with a solo theme that hints at constant modulation. This harmonic ambiguity, free of Wagnerian drama and without inherent meaning, is the epitome of Satie’s art. The command of 840 repetitions is a natural part of his irreverence, and there is more than a little wisdom in the idea of constant repetition of a harmless, meaningless task as a way to soothe the mind and soul. It turns out to be surprisingly easy and pleasurable to have Vexations playing for 24 hours—the music not only is lovely, but the constant flow makes for an actual realization of the musique d’ameublement concept, especially because the digital files are played from an object that is part of our contemporary furniture.
There are other excellent new recordings of Satie. Noriko Ogawa’s first volume of Satie’s piano music (on the Bis label), has something of a superficial gimmick: she plays the music on Satie’s own piano. But like Corner and van Veen, she has thought this through.
Her approach is the fast one, and it is superb and absolutely convincing. Ogawa’s approach to rhythm—different than any I’ve heard with Satie—shows how to make a quicker pace work. Like van Veen, her phrasing is terrific, and Satie’s piano turns out to be far drier than the one’s contemporary ears are used to, as well as far drier than those heard on other Satie recordings (you’d think that Satie indicated reverb in all his scores for the way they are engineered). All these elements combine in a view that is a revelation for the composer’s construction of rhythm and pulse; his scores often eschewed bar lines, and Ozawa’s is pretty much the only playing I’ve heard that makes the music sound that way. This is essential as Van Veen’s take.
Satie also wrote songs, many of them stepping out of the classical tradition and into the popular styles as they existed in the theater and dance hall in turn of the century Paris. He also wrote Socrate, a work for voice and piano (or voice and orchestra) he ironically called a “Symphonic drama.” It may be better known as the springboard for John Cage’s Cheap Imitations (Cage was a deep admirer of Satie and made a two-piano arrangement of Socrate).
Soprano Barbara Hannigan has recorded the piece, accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw, and it is another exceptional new release in the Satie discography (Reaching this point, I’ve reached the conclusion that there was a consensus in the musical zeitgeist to rethink Satie, go back to his core, and present him anew, and van Veen, Ogawa, and Hannigan have made that happen). This is a lovely recording all around, sung and played with simple grace, and it filled out by two other sets of songs and by Hymne. Absolutely recommended on its own qualities, not just for the value of hearing some of Satie’s vocal music.
These new recordings don’t invalidate the older ones, Ciccolini and Pascal Rogé still deliver pleasures. And Sony has dug through their considerable back catalogue and put out a superb 13 CD collection, Erik Satie & Friends – Original Albums Collection. This is one of the most enjoyable archival releases of the past few years. It is Satie, with a generous helping of piano, vocal, and orchestral music, and friends (or at least colleagues); there are pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Ibert, Milhaud, and others, with the special highlight being Francis Poulenc. Poulenc was indeed a true friend, and he is represented both as composer and artist, playing his own piano music and that of Satie.
Those albums are particularly wonderful, but so is everything else in one way or another. There is something special about hearing the great pianist Robert Casadesus and his wife Gaby playing Satie, or Regine Crespin singing his songs. Those performances represent how at one time the composer was at the core of the modern, and especially French, repertory. The new thinking noted above should bring about his return.
If you’re in New York December 13, you can catch Anthony de Mare and other pianists presenting “The Velvet Gentleman: Eric Satie at 150,” at the Sheen Center
What a year. There are more concerts to come, but my experience hearing Simon Rattle lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler 6 Monday night at Carnegie put a cap on a run of unforgettable performances. Read my review of last night at the New York Classical Review here, and catch up on these reviews from earlier in the year of New York Philharmonic performances: Mahler 6 with Semyon Bychkov, Mahler 9 with Bernard Haitink, Das Lied von der Erde (and Sibelius 7) with Alan Gilbert.
Sharing reviews is always tinged with the frustration of not being able to share the experience, nor of recalling anything but the memory of an overall impact. But there’s a welcome exception: the Philharmonic has released a digital recording from the Bychkov/Mahler 6 run, and it is as great as my memories, one of the finest performances of the symphony you’ll hear. You can stream it/buy it from iTunes, or do the same at Amazon, where the audio is better. Note that the cover image has Gilbert’s name, but it’s Bychkov conducting.
This might be something like the experience of buying a multi-volume encyclopedia in days of yore: you didn’t know you needed it until you saw and coveted it, then there it sat on your bookshelf, admired by visitors yet rarely visited by yourself.
Yes, it’s expensive, and cost alone is an issue. So is it a value?
200 discs for $410 = $2.05/disc, which is only slightly more than the per track cost of the latest pop hit.
Actual cost can be lower than $410, which is the Amazon price as of this writing. Presto Classical has it for $344, but shipping costs are high. Amazon UK has this for the best price (again as of this writing); with shipping included the price in USD is around $350. That’s $1.75/disc.
That per disc value only matters if the contents are, well, valuable to the consumer. And if you want a complete Mozart box, the Brilliant Classics one is $169 and it’s quite good, full of solid recordings. Is this box 1.5 – 2 times better?
In my critical opinion—as long as you wish to have recordings of all of Mozart’s works—it is:
I have not heard the whole set (and am certain no one will be sending me a promo), but I am familiar with a substantial number of the recordings collected—there is a PDF of the CD contents here.
The first thing to note is that there is a heavy emphasis on period performance. The box collects Symphonies from the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music, the English Baroque Soloists, and a handful of others, all excellent ensembles (the bulk comes from Trevor Pinnock’s excellent English Concert recordings). There are also the fortepiano Piano Concerto recordings with Malcolm Bilson and Robert Levin, which are full of improvisation and are absolutely essential.
There are also some period performance recordings of the operas, but not exclusively so, and here is where the virtues of the box are most clearly represented. This is a Decca release, but Decca is currently under the ownership of UMG, which also owns Deutsche Grammaphon, Archiv, etc, which means that they have a superior, rich catalogue to choose from. Here are some of the opera recordings included:
La finta giardiniera, Mozarteum-Orchester Salzburg, Leopold Hager
Zaide, Staatskapelle Berlin, Bernhard Klee
Idomeneo, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood
Le nozze di Figaro, Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra, Arnold Östman
Don Giovanni, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séquin
Così fan tutte, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Georg Solti
Die Zauberflöte, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
These are the best versions in the company’s archives, no matter the philosophy, mixing period and modern performances.
There are also many CDs with what are labeled “Classic” and “Historical” performances, so the piano works from Uchida and Brendel are augmented by Gulda and Haskil and Horowitz, the Symphonies are duplicated through a handful of Karl Böhm’s recordings, which at their best are fabulous. And these just scratch the surface of material that is supplemental to the core purpose, but generous and essential for delivering insight into the legacy of recording Mozart; there are 7 CDs of classic aria performances, there is the complete Erich Kleiber Figaro, which may be no longer essential but is incredibly musical. There are 3 CDs of music meant for private performance, 21 CDs of fragments, music that Mozart arranged (his own and others), and incomplete works finished by others, and a further 7 of what are labeled “Doubtful Works.” (Five hours of the music included has been recorded new just for the set.)
So yes, this is the one, complete not only in that it presents all of Mozart that is in common practice, but complete in that it is every work that the man produced, and with multiple views of some of the most notable ones. Documentation includes of a new Kochel guide.
This is a lifetime supply of the greatest musical art. Available October 28.
P.S. In the spirit of less perhaps being more, I also strongly recommend the upcoming release of Teodor Currentzis’ latest Mozart opera recording, Don Giovanni. Currentzis is the only conductor who is as interesting as René Jacobs in Mozart, and his style and ideas are dramatically different and equally rewarding.