Consumer Reports: Mahler Monday

This year is unusual in that there were no new Mahler recordings of note (although some important reissues, more on that in an upcoming post). On a personal level, I discovered the recent chamber reduction of the Symphony No. 9 through a great concert from the Argento Ensemble, but I can’t recommend the two extant recordings of that version, they are a combination of mannered conducting and mediocre, wan playing.

But this did catch my eye: David Zinman’s box set of Symphonies 1-10, including the Blumine movement and a full realization of Symphony No. 10, is currently at the unbeatable price of $26.89 at Amazon. This is not the best cycle, nor the worst. The playing is excellent, and the middle Symphonies are fine, overall it’s middle-of-the road. It will satisfy but perhaps not excite. But at this price, it’s more than worth getting, especially if you have a SACD player, because the sound is spectacular.

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-10
Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-10

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.

Consumer Reports

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I remember when I saw the first Naxos CDs in the early 1990s—a feeling of elation and wariness. Finally, someone was producing recordings more in line with the costs, and are these any good at all?

Of course, Naxos now dominates classical CDs, in both production and distribution, but they are no longer bargains. The prices, depending on where you shop, fall in that maddening region between mid-price and full-price, for a commodity that is still cheap to make.

The latest, though not new, kid on the block is Brilliant Classics, based in the Netherlands. They specializer in no-frills, comprehensive box sets that are full of great music, either recovered from the archives of other record companies or newly recorded. I have a dozen or so of their releases, and am getting a new one: the Hanns Eisler edition. You can order the box here for less than $4 a CD, or if digital is fine, the same amount of music is $8.99 at Amazon! I am not an Eisler fan, but he is a notable figure and his Hollywood Liederbuch is great, and holy shit what a bargain! Is this what they mean by creative destruction?

Consumer Reports

Once again, keeping an eye on the bargains for you …

Here’s a great deal on a Hank Mobley box set coming out next week: The Classic Blue Note Collection 1955-1961—five CDs that include true classic albums like Hank, Peckin’ Time, Soul Station, and Workout. Elegant blues and understated funk as only Mobley could do it.

Hitting the streets one week later, FLUX Quartet’s recording of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 1, along with Three Pieces and Structures. This concludes their set of Feldmna’s complete string quartet music on the Mode label (here’s their complete Feldman Quartet No. 2), and as the guys assured me when I interviewed them this spring, they give the music the proper duration. No group is better.

Consumer Reports

Looking out for your dollars, so you don’t have to …

Must Haves and New Releases


* DG is releasing a new Claudio Abbado Mahler cycle. This one collects his live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and completely supersedes his previous cycle in terms of music making and recording quality. Everything is strong, and Symphonies 1, 3, 5 and 9 are among the finest on record. You can pre-order through Amazon or, for half the price, the Presto Classical site. You’ll also get is sooner through Presto, though once the domestic release date nears, the Amazon price is likely to drop below $50.

* Not available in the US domestic market, there’s another great DG box coming out, 23 CDs of recordings from the great conductor Rafael Kubelik. This one collects the complete symphonies of Mahler, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Schumann. These are fine recordings and this box is a great value.

* Beethoven Symphonies 1 – 9, George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. The best first choice for a Beethoven set, and arguably the finest cycle ever recorded, this has gone in and out of print for the last thirty years, but is available again for less than $20. If you don’t have this, order it today.