Debussy Conquers the World


It’s true. As Steve Reich said in an old issue of The Wire, 20th century music was an argument between Debussy and Schoenberg, and Debussy won. That is, tonality endures (atonality has turned out to be a passing mania) while form and structure have opened up dramatically.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the Warner Brothers Complete Works box:


Dipping in to its contents over the past few months has convinced me that this is essential, not only for completeness but the quality of the performances inside. Everything has been great, the orchestral recordings of course, but the Preludes and Etudes are gorgeous, and this version of Pelléas et Melisande (which was new to me) has become my favorite.

So how does this DG box compare? It’s $8 or so dollars cheaper, and that gets you 9 fewer discs, so no bargain. And with 9 fewer, is it really complete? The WB box is everything Debussy left on paper, including obscurities that had never before been recorded and works discovered only recently. The caveat from the DG description is that this is the complete “published” works, i.e. everything previously known and extant—with a bonus DVD performance of Pelléas.

Musical quality is equal between the two. Debussy’s work is some of the best recorded in classical music in terms of performance and sound quality—the great musicians have loved this music and produced great documents. If the money saved is valuable enough for you, the DG box is an excellent purchase, but overall the WB Complete Debussy is superior.

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“I ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling



Consumer Reports: Debussy—The Complete Works

Have your wallet say yes to the complete works of one of the greatest and most important composers in history.


Here’s the first thing to spend your money on in 2018: Available now for pre-order at the cost of about $2/CD for 33 CDs, the prima facie value is clear. But in a market with two other (both 18 CDs) Debussy collections, what is the real value of this new set?

Warner Classic’s owns EMI, so that means the core of this box comes from the EMI vaults, and in the Debussy discography those are essential. The names in here that you want to have and will not find anywhere else include Samson François, Michel Béroff, Gérard Souzay, André Cluytens, Jean Martinon, Michel Plasson, and Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, either as performers or arrangers.

There are vocal pieces and arrangements that are appearing here for the first time, as well as some of Debussy’s own transcriptions of other composer’s works. Other things you will hear for the first time will be the beginning of La Chute de la maison Usher, which he never finished, and Chansons des brises, which were recently discovered.

There is also a recording of Debussy accompanying soprano Mary Garden in the Ariettes oubliées and an exert from Pelléas. Special to this box is Le Martyre de saint Sébastien with the complete d’Annunzio text. Self-recommending in every way, after all it’s the complete body of work by one of the greatest and most important composers in classical music history.

via Debussy Complete Work 2018 – Debussy – The Complete Works (33CD) – Music

Pierre Boulez: The Return of The Magus

Feast your eyes on that beauty above! I’ve been waiting to see this appear in the domestic market since a reader pointed me to a listing for it at Amazon UK a couple months ago.

This box is all the recordings Boulez made for Columbia Records, and that includes fine and important performances of the core of modernism: Debussy, Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Bartók, Varèse, Webern, along with what were, at the time, unexpected selections from Wagner, Mahler, Handel and Beethoven.

The music from the older composers were the first hints that Boulez was exploring the music of the classical tradition through a backwards journey through modernism. There is also a generous set of Berlioz, not unexpected. Less well known but as important are a fantastic disc of music by Berio, and two pieces from Elliott Carter. There are also great performances of Boulez’s own music, including Pli selon pli and Livre pour cordes. You can see the full selection at Presto Classical  where the set is currently for sale at $90 less than Amazon, with an earlier release.

The best current price, though, is at Import CDs: $152, $100 off the Amazon price for the same release date.

There’s another indispensible box Columbia Records box coming out, at the moment only showing at Presto: Charles Rosen – The Complete Columbia and Epic Collection  The 21 discs from this great pianist and thinker cover the baroque (Bach) to the contemporary (Carter), including great Beethoven, Chopin, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Webern. In another week this should be listed at both Amazon and Import CDs.

Never Say No to Rameau

In the There’s Always An Anniversary For Something department, this coming Friday makrs the 250th year since the death of the great composer of the French baroque, Jean-Philippe Rameau. He was a masterful, stylish opera composer and also wrote Treatise on Harmony, which is still informative and relevant.

The classical music business being what it is, this is also a great excuse to exploit the back catalogue for new money! Just out last week, there is a 22 CD box from Erato that collects the recordings the label made of Rameau’s operas. This series returned the composer to prominence, and is a benchmark, with superb versions of Hippolyte et Aricie, Les Indes Galantes, Platée, Zoroastre, and more led by William Christie, Marc Minkowski, Nicholas McGegan, and others.

Christie also recorded some of this music on the Harmonia Mundi lable, and coming this week is a 10 CD box of all of those, which gives a decent sample of Rameau’s operatic work and his excellent harpsichord pieces.

Amazon is the best place to order the Erato box (though the price may drop at ImportCDs), while ImportCDs has the Harmonia Mundi collection for $20 less if you pre-order.

There are other pre-order bargains at ImportCDs on upcoming, worthwhile collections:

Cedille has boxed the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle, which is not only one of the best on disc but is augmented by selected String Quartets from the composer’s peers. It’s currently $22 at ImportCDs, an amazing value, but order it quickly, the release date is September 9.

Expected at the end of the month is a box from the vocal ensemble La Venexiana, collecting their recordings of Monteverdi’s complete Madrigal Books. A giant name whose music is actually heard infrequently, Monteverdi tends to be obscured by the shadow of Bach and the baroque, which makes it difficult to see deeper into the past. But he is one of the foundational figures in the Western classical tradition, and the Madrigals are at the core of classical music, no less so than the Well Tempered Clavier or Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. The expressive and intellectual style of the music—and the notation—gives it an inherent freedom that is so lacking from contemporary classical music and performances. Again, pre-order price is best at ImportCDs, where you’ll save about $100 from Amazon.


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La Divina

I don’t believe in ghosts, because the stuff of the real world is far more more mysterious and haunting.

Think of sound recordings: they’re not just commodities to sell and deliver a listening experience to anyone who holds them, they are frozen pieces of the past. And because, contrary to the popular notion that we are visual animals, our most important sense is hearing. It’s the noise in the distance we cannot see that reaches immediately to a spot deep inside the brain.

We can read about the past in books, look at it in pictures, but nothing is so powerful as hearing the past. And in a year that has already seen an inundation of classical music CD box sets, an extraordinary one is bearing release: Callas Remasterd: The Complete Studio Recordings.

There’s no shortage of Maria Callas recordings, and this is not the first box set. What sets this apart is the 24-bit/96kHz, high definition remastering of the original tapes, done at Abbey Road Studios. Some samples I’ve heard are breathtaking, with an open high end that adds space to the sound field and life to her voice. The set comes with a 136 page hard-bound book and the librettos are on a CD-ROM.

What is important about this set is Callas. Unwrap the pop-culture obsessiveness with her life and personality, and you find one of the great musical artists of the recording era.  She had the exceedingly rare ability to project a dramatic personality in the simplest and most direct way through singing, and singing in a manner that turns the words into artifice. It is that human depth that made her so much more than La Divina—she has never been surpassed as a communicative artist.

You can hear it all in this set. With thirty-nine separate recordings, it has at least one version of almost every one of her most famous dramatic roles, save for Anna Bolena. There are numerous recital recordings as well.

(All the individual recordings in the set will be released separately, on September 23, October 28 and November 11)

Consumer Reports

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If you saved your pennies on the Mahler/Ozawa box, I’ve found an intriguing way to spend them. Deutsche Grammophon is releasing the first of two boxes collecting the recordings the great conductor Ferenc Fricsay made for the label. A musician’s musician, a great musical artist from the era before conductors were international stars, his personal imprint is an ideal blend of searching intellect and judiciously stoked fire.

This first box, forty-five CDs, is just orchestral recordings (his opera recordings are consistently excellent). Fricsay’s way with the classics is refreshing and he was superior with modern music, which to him was the music of his time. His Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Debussy are as good as it gets, and he was an advocate for now lesser-known, but eminently worthwhile, composers like Boris Blacher and Werner Egk. Looking though the track list, I discovered that he also recorded Henze’s Ballet Variations from 1949—another bit of anecdotal evidence about the current ahistorical fear of contemporary music in the classical music business.

You can sample every track at the DG site, and when the release date comes you may be able to buy downloads from there (it’s not clear), but it looks like this will NOT be available for download in the US via iTunes. For the CD box, the best pre-release price is at Presto Classical, about $80 less than the Amazon price and even better than importCDs.

Another box set to consider is Gluck: The Great Operas, from Decca. This has strong recordings of all of Gluck’s important operas, including the Vienna version of Orfeo ed Euridice and individual tracks of historic and rare aria recordings. This is set for domestic release, but is already available at Presto Classical at $59 for fifteen discs. Best current price is the pre-release one at importCDs.

You can also pre-order Ralph van Raat’s upcoming release of music from Fred Rzewski. The lead composition is Four Pieces, a tremendous work that I heard the composer play at Roulette in May and that equals the brilliance of The People United Will Never Be Defeated! If The People United is Rzewski’s Goldbergs, then Four Pieces is his “Hammerklavier.”

Spend wisely, listen well, and consider a tip to support this site here, through the Paypal button.

Consumer Reports

Looking out for your wallet, once again, so you don’t have to …

You may have seen [this handsome box set of the Mahler symphonies]( on Amazon. Think long and hard about it, Mahlerians: Ozawa is underrated in this music and the sound of the Boston Symphony playing Mahler alone makes it worth repeated listening. But don’t be daunted by the price, the same set is already available for less than half the Amazon price at [](

(If you do shop at Amazon, remember to use the links you find here on this blog. You help support this site by tossing a tiny amount of the purchase price into my pocket, rather than Jeff Bezos’, at no extra cost to you.)

Also coming out and absolutely essential is the final recording made by Claudio Abbado, leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9. Live in concert, this is one of those rare and extraordinary documents of an event. It’s not just that this is arguably the finest recording of this music, but that the combination of tension, expression, the incredibly focussed playing and the live audience makes this an experience that goes far beyond just listening to music. One of the great things you will have in your culture collection.