Absolutely, Totally, Mozart

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.

This is something different though: Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition (200 CD Box Set). This is something you will actually open up and play and enjoy through the years.

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?81os0jbut3l-_sl1500_

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 recordingDon 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.



Recording of the Week: Kristian Bezuidenhout , Mozart: Keyboard Music Vols. 8 & 9

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Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano

This two disc set is the conclusion of Bezuidenhout’s series of recordings of Mozart on the fortepiano, all on Harmonia Mundi. Bezuidenhout has not recorded all of Mozart’s piano compositions, but the series amounts to a substantial body of music: the eighteen sonatas, concertos K. 453 and K. 482, a good helping of fantasies, rondos, variations, fragments, and more—ten discs altogether.

I am sorry to see this project come to an end, because there is nothing like these . Bezuidenhout is a great fortepiano player, he really understands what the different construction and string layout means for timbre and sustain, and has exceptional command of tone and color in all registers (one of the charms of the instrument is that the sound varies depending on how hight or low the pitch is). He is also a great Mozart player.

All these recordings show how much he understands the music,and how much one can do with it, but the opening of the first disc here is an ideal example: the Sonata in C Major, K. 545 (one of the most famous). In the opening sonata-allegro movement, Bezuidenhout ads wonderful ornaments and tiny improvisations whenever the theme is repeated, so organic and judicious that one both notices them and feels they were expressly composed by Mozart. In sequences, and during repeats as well, he is both expressive and judicious with rubato and, pauses, and explores free coordination between hands—you’ll hear this in the repeats as well.

In the Andante movements, Bezuidebhout captures the cantabile quality that is essential in Mozart, the sense that he was so often writing with a soprano, rather than an instrument, in his head.

Everything on here is superb: the Variations on “Dieu d’amour” is poised and moving; Sonata K. 279 has what I can only describe as an exceptional bourgeois quality, elegant and well-mannered, but full of humor; and the rarely heard Modulating Prelude in F-C, K. 624/626a is amazing, an outstanding composition given a bravura performance. Finish or start your fortepiano Mozart with this set, but do get it, unless you can’t bear the thought of not wanting to hear Mozart on the modern piano again.

Consumer Reports

Because it’s the time of year you should also spend some money on yourself, here’s another Consumer Reports …

Theodor Currentzis’ excellent, refreshing recording of Le Nozze di Figaro has a spot on my top classical recordings for 2014, and if that interests you at all, you should take a look at his next installment of his Da Ponte operas recording project, Cosí fan tutte. Like the previous release, you can get the CDs in a lovely, bound book, or pay more for an edition that includes Blu-Ray. The set is currently available at Presto Classical, but if you can wait until the domestic release date of 3 February, 2015, the best price is at Amazon.


If you have a turntable, you can enjoy the vinyl reissue of a fine set of early Steve Reich pieces from Ensemble Avantgarde (best price right now is at ImportCDs). The program is Phase Patterns, Four Organs, Piano Phase, and three different performances of Pendulum Music. This is fascinating music that show Reich in transition to his most familar style, and Four Organs is an avant-garde masterpiece.

If you want to save your dollars for something really special, there are two substantial boxes of recordings from Sviatoslav Richter coming out early next year, The Complete Album Collection on Sony (18 CDs of Columbia Masterworks and RCA Victor live and studio recordings), and the Complete Decca, Philips and DG Recordings, 51 CDs. I don’t really need to say much about these; Richter is arguably the greatest pianist of the last century, and absolutely one of the greatest musical artists of the recording era. These are the kind of things that, if you are serious about music, you acquire, and cost doesn’t really matter.

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These are listed both at ImportCDs and Amazon, the former at much better prices, but it’s worth checking out the balance of price and speed you can find through AmazonUK. What you get there is a better price than US Amazon, pretty fast delivery, and the same pre-order guaranteee available domestically: if you pre-order, you get the lowest price that ever comes up by release date. I ordered my Boulez box that way, got a better price than even at ImportCDs, and it came in three days.

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The Mozart-ologue

Allan Clayton, Rod Gilfry, Philip Cutlip, photo by Carol Rosegg

(A review of New York City Opera’s Cosí fan tutte, and a dialogue with Olivia Giovetti)

Dear Olivia:

Now that I’ve seen New York City Opera’s new production of Cosí fan tutte, I’m caught up with you, and I’ve also quickly found myself in a similar position. I have a one-word takeaway: excellent.

We have a similar viewpoint about this and the other Da Ponte operas, and I come at mine as an opera composer (or at least that’s how I like to think of myself). In a musical tradition that has produced many true, enduring masterpieces, Mozart is the composer I always turn to for lessons in how to create music drama, he’s that essential. Not just to me, but to all of opera, which started off as a mature form under Monteverdi and then, weirdly, almost immediately entered a decadent phase as shallow entertainment produced by and for the wealthy fools of the Pre-Enlightenment .01%. Mozart not only revived the form but returned it to the integration of music and drama, and added an inherent humanity. The connection between what he put on stage and the philosophy of the Enlightenment is real and worth exploring, but what I personally love about his operas is that he put people on stage, not archetypes, and treats them with so much sympathetic imagination. <iframe class="alignright" [amazon_enhanced asin="0393313956" /]

I think more highly of Le Nozze di Figaro than you, in fact I think it’s perfect. The characters are real, what they think and feel speaks directly to all ages, and of course, the music is incredible, both in the moment and on the larger scale that integrates the arias, recitatives and ensembles into a structure that is always pushing at the tensions of the relationships and the plot, allowing the characters to speak for themselves and ultimately moving everything towards ultimate reconciliation and resolution. The problematic ones, for me, are Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte, and Joseph Kerman expresses my reservations best in his essential book, “Opera as Drama.” The problems comes from Da Ponte’s libretti, which leaves the Don-Leporello axis underdone in the former and hones everything to mechanical, inhumane perfection in the latter.

<iframe class="alignleft" [amazon_enhanced asin="0520246926" /]Cosí, Kerman thinks, is too perfect, leaving no space for the messy complexity of how we all actually think, feel and behave that would make the proceedings sympathetic. I have no problems with the music, which is fantastic, and I love the opera on record (it’s had some fabulous recordings, like Bohm’s and Jacobs‘). It’s on stage where it ends up being shiny and cold, and I’ve never seen a production that makes it live and breath. Until this one. Here is where I want to emphasize what I’ve said before, which is that the budget issues that City Opera has been struggling with are a blessing in disguise. When spectacle is economically impossible, all that’s left is drama, and when a 2,000 seat venue is unaffordable, then all that’s left is halls that are the perfect size to present that drama. Mozart is not grand and blustering, he’s intimate. Christopher Alden gets that and, with incredibly modest means, does so much. Through costume and setting, he sets the opera in bourgeois culture, with all it’s post-Marx, post-Freud psycho-sexual/eco-social hangups. Cosí is a very modern sex farce with a clear-eyed view of its characters. Mozart is not condemning them, he understand their sentimentality about themselves but doesn’t treat them sentimentally. If anything, he is saying that an artificial emphasis on chastity and sexual loyalty is not honest, loving intimacy. Philip Larkin wrote that “sexual intercourse began/in nineteen sixty-three,” and contemporary audiences suffer from the viewpoint that their passions and paraphilia are all new, that no one could have thought about this stuff before, much less done something about it. But Mozart and Da Ponte (himself something of a libertine) lived in an age when Casanova and de Sade were real presences.

What I’ve seen onstage in that past has been dizzy, ditzy and patronizing, a view of the opera as the frivolous production of an age that didn’t know any better. The couples are fools, Don Alfonso is a buffoon and Despina is effervescent. Our culture likes to think it is a legacy of the Enlightenment, but Romanticism has pulled us back into fervid and solipsistic sentimentality. Lay on structures of political and intellectual ideology, and we seemingly know more but see a hell of a lot less than Mozart and Da Ponte did. In City Opera’s Cosí, Alden takes advantage of our era’s smug viewpoint to show exactly where we came from and where we are. The key is his Despina, who here, instead of a flute of champagne, is a shot of bourbon.

Marie Lenormand as Despina, photo by Carol Rosegg
She appears as a slightly addled, homeless woman and will gladly, amorally, do anything for money. Through her lens, everything else is believable. A standout performance too by Marie Lenormand, in a consistently fine cast. This is always the fundamental strength of City Opera, performers who both sing the music and play the parts. That combination obviates the usual fussy comparisons of things like Allan Clayton’s Ferrando to Leopardo, and Sara Jakubiak and Jennifer Holloway to Ludwig and Schwartzkopf. Who cares? They, and Philip Cutlip as Guglielmo and the Rod Gilfry as a great, funny, sinister, altogether real Don Alfonso, made the drama onstage work, and made it sound great, and that’s the bottom line.

Alden really has the courage of his convictions too, which is rare and admirable. At the resolution, which is musical but not social, the couples look like they’ve been through a car wash in a convertible with the top down. They are exhausted by what they’ve discovered within themselves, which is that they’re not as pretty as they imagined. Instead, they are people like you and I, doing their best, imperfect, causing pain to those they care about but able to accept and forgive and still live and love. That’s real drama.

Jordi Savall, La Capella Reial De Catalunya, Le Concert Des Nations: Mozart, Requiem

[amazon_enhanced asin=”B004DY5B2Q” /]Jordi Savall is one of the leading music-makers of any kind in all the world. The range of his accomplishments is beyond those of mere mortals; a virtuosic, improvising gamba player, a conductor, musicologist and impressario, everything he does balances ambition and accomplishment, intellectual investigation and simple pleasure. His musical values come together in this remastered and repackaged recording (originally from 1991) of the Mozart Requiem, along with the short Maurerische Trauermusik K477.

Playing classical music on period instruments is no longer a novelty or a specialty. Well into the second generation of the style, as exemplified by the likes of Savall and Rene Jacobs, it has gone past didacticism into what is the most humane way to make music. The ensembles are small in scale and in sound, and even such details as hearing, in greater detail than with modern instruments, the yard head of a drum stick striking the skin of the timpani adds a human touch. It is the sound of people, rather than ideas. Savall is a master of this.

He has a ringer in his wife, Montserrate Figueras, one of the most unique singers around, in any genre. She combines technical finesse with an astonishingly earthy, even eerie, sound, and takes Mozart out of the realm of the esoteric. Requiem masses are for the living, and Savall’s version is just that. It is not grandiose but dignified, it is not anguished but quietly restless, not tragic but clear-eyed. There are certain technical things he does that are wonderful; a gorgeous blend of vocal and instrumental choirs, a properly and thrillingly swift tempo in the “Dies Irae,” clearly pointed rhythms in the “Rex Tremendae” that are almost menuet-like, and a consistently moving way with shaping phrases. But the most important thing he does is really unquantifiable, except in the ears and the heart. He has the musicians play this music with a narrative line that I have never heard, and always wanted to hear. It is the tale of death, grief, wonderment and an acceptance that offers that resignation is possible, but resolution is better. It is the comfort of inevitability. This music is so well-known that from the first moment, we know how the ending will be and how we get there. In his simple way, Savall makes everything almost surprising, deeply involving, and so even more satisfying at the end. Exquisite in every way. Simply one of the best recordings of any kind you will hear in 2011.

September Songs

I don’t have the standard recommended listings this month; since the performing season gets its official start, I’ll be doing some individual posts on different organizations, what they’ve been doing and what they have coming up. Expect the usual suspects, i.e. City Opera, the Phil, Miller Theater, Issue Project Room . . .

I do want to point out some worthwhile recorded/streaming audio that will be coming out in September:

UPDATED: Fixed typo, added link to Oval appearance