The joy of choosing ‘classical’ boxed sets as Christmas gifts – a personal selection ahead of time (with brief comments)

updated version (*)

There’s nothing like great music to lift the spirits during times of crisis – though hopefully the coming Christmas season will offer some respite for everyone. And as cd boxes make wonderful gifts, even when pricey (prices here range from £13.75 to £288.00), I thought that pre-Christmas I’d get in early ‘while stocks last’ (as they say). I’ve divided these personally chosen selections into specific categories, to help you identify which ones might be suitable for which friends or relations. Most should be available online (virtually all my choices were released during the course of this year, or thereabouts) and I’ve either reviewed – or will review – quite a few of them in fuller detail for Gramophone magazine.

You can always drop me a line on this blog at robccowan.com if there’s anything else I can at least attempt to help you with. Perhaps post your query as a response to this feature.

All prices are rounded up to an average.

Ravel complete

*Classic tracks from the earliest days of recording to 2019

Among Ravel’s most magical creations is his concise and occasionally jazzy ‘lyric fantasy’ L’enfant et les sortilèges, a cautionary but ultimately touching tale about a  naughty child who is reprimanded by objects in his room that he has been destroying. The end of the work is a real tear-jerker, so be warned. Warner’s admirable collection includes a vivid 2016 French recording of L’enfant under Mikko Franck, which is followed by performances of other, briefer works under Ravel’s own direction. The riches on offer here are substantial, not least the Daphnis et Chloe under André Cluytens, Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Mother Goose ballet, other orchestral works under the likes of Jean Martinon, Carlo Maria Giulini and Riccardo Muti, piano works with Bertrand Chamayou, Alexandre Tharaud, Samson François and Anne Queffélec and countless rarities. The deal is crowned by superb notes by Ravel expert Roger Nichols.

Ravel: the complete works

Warner Classics (21 cds)  0902952832

£57.00

FOR FANS OF THE BAROQUE

‘Baroque’

A winning collection that offers good performances of key Bach orchestral works (Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral Suites, and Violin Concertos), Corelli’s ground-breaking 12 Concerti grossi Op. 6, Handel’s Water/Royal Fireworks Music and first four organ concertos, Vivaldi (including ‘The Four Seasons’), Telemann (selections from ‘Tafelmusik’ or ‘Table Music’) and so forth. While hardly benchmark renditions, this is a reliable and sensibly priced starting point for anyone who fancies the ‘sound’ of baroque music but isn’t, as yet, too fussed about the finer details.

‘Baroque’

Brilliant Classics (25 cds)

£39

Masters of the German Baroque

Now this really is high quality. Ricercar has over the years issued numerous recordings featuring top-of-the-range early music performers in sound that presents a most beautiful tonal blend. The repertoire featured in this generous anniversary box includes little-known members of the Bach family whose hypnotic works often sound unexpectedly modern (while JSB himself isn’t forgotten), as well as attractive dance music by Michael Praetorius, and compositions by Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehüde, and numerous other composers who are very little known outside of specialist Baroque circles. I have personally derived untold hours of pleasure from this collection and would recommend it unreservedly.

Masters of the German Baroque

Ricercar set RC110 (31 cds)

€50

Iona Brown revisits Handel’s Concerti Grossi at the Academy

Decca recently re-released, in the context of their big Academy of St Martin in the Fields anniversary box (485 0093, 60 cds), Iona Brown’s spirited 1979 Philips recordings of Handel’s complete Concerti Grossi Opp. 3 and 6, claiming Op.6 was a first cd reissue though in fact it wasn’t. Now Hänssler Classic offer a bargain box of her later digital recordings with the same band, stylistically very different, less rhythmically pungent and with added woodwind lines. Also, this later set is less ornamental: note the curlicues in the First Concerto’s second movement that have vanished during the intervening years. I’d say that of the two this newer set is more prone to dance; it’s also lighter on its feet, more keenly inflected and rather more in keeping with current performing practices for Baroque music. The sound is excellent.

Handel Concerti grossi Opp. 3 & 6

Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Iona Brown

Hänssler Classic HC17035 (4cds)

£25.00

FOR LOVERS OF DISTINGUISHED PIANO PLAYING

Andor Foldes: A musician’s virtuoso

Andor Foldes’s style of piano playing is both spontaneous and perfectionist. You might call him a musician’s virtuoso. No-one surely has tapped out the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata with a firmer sense of rhythm or made Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia sound less ostentatiously virtuosic. Foldes’s major achievement on disc is his survey of Bartók’s solo piano works for Deutsche Grammophon, here supplemented by an earlier version of the Sonata and his only recording of the Second Concerto, which is propulsive, powerful and where needs be elegant. His Mozart concerto recordings are often sublime while other Beethoven – virtually half of the sonatas are included – exhibit formidable levels of understanding. Among other highlights are works by Copland and Kodály, including Foldes’s own imaginative piano transcription of excerpts from Kodály’s Háry János Suite

Andor Foldes: the Complete Deutsche Grammphon recordings

Eloquence (19 cds) ELQ4841256

£70.00

Alexandre Tharaud: from Scarlatti to the Beach Boys

Try Chabrier’s ‘Idylle’, rather like a Frenchified equivalent of a late Brahms miniature, equivocal music, gaily tripping along in its own very private world. The beauty of Tharaud’s approach is that he has the music greeted by countless rainbow hues, the approach both mobile and eventful, quite unlike anyone else’s. There’s charismatic Scarlatti and a most imaginative reworking – Tharaud’s own – of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. For most of the time you could easily imagine that Mahler’s original is in fact an orchestration of what Tharaud plays here.  He also offers us his colour-coded transcription of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, extracts from concertos and numerous modern works from Hans Abrahamsen and a piano piece ‘around the Beach Boys’ to his own Corpus Volubilis. I loved every minute and my advice would be to hide the booklet under the table and listen ‘blind’, just for the fun of it. In that context identification hardly matters, only the music and the wonderful way Tharaud plays it.

Alexandre Tharaud: le poète du piano

Warner Classics (3 cds) 9029518087

£13.75

Russia’s Lipatti

The pianist Rose Tamarkin was once married to Emil Gilels, and died in Moscow at the age of 30 almost exactly seventy years ago. According to Wikipedia’s fairly informative article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Tamarkina ‘Tamarkina started appearing in public at the age of 13, astounding listeners and critics with the maturity of her interpretation, temperament and her virtuosity’. The evidence on disc is unbelievable, most especially the Liszt items (the Rigoletto Paraphrase, Petrarch Sonnet No. 104 and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10), the Sonnet raging with the full force of that ‘temperament and virtuosity’ As to the opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, yes, the piano initially drowns out the orchestra but once into its stride the performance proves among the most compelling ever committed to disc. Also included, a warmly phrased and at times heroic account of Franck’s Violin Sonata where Tamarkina partners the expressive Marina Kosolupova and there are performances of the Brahms and Taneyev Piano Quintets with the Bolshoi Theatre Quartet, the Brahms featuring remarkably clean finger work (as well as the first movement’s sizeable exposition repeat). The final disc opens to a Schubert and Schubert-Liszt sequence, two Impromptus from D899 (the E flat pure filigree), and Liszt’s versions of ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ and ‘Erstarrung’, both recorded live, sometimes minutely flawed, but anguished and full of foreboding.

The Art of Rosa Tamarkina

Scribendum Argento SC819 (3 cds)

*Chic Frenchman with a mind of his own

Fifty years ago this month the great French pianist Samson François died at the age of 46, having recorded Debussy for EMI (Warners) on that very morning (22nd October to be exact). François – who the great Alfred Cortot claimed was unteachable – regularly pushed the interpretative boat out, touting novel ideas that would never have occurred to lesser musical minds. This latest ‘complete edition’ includes a first-ever release of a live Nohant recital given just months before the pianist’s death, minutely flawed its true but with an account of Schumann’s mercurial Papillons that is so personal, so exquisitely nuanced that notated fact becomes musical fantasy. Other live recitals are also included, as are near complete traversals of the piano works of Chopin and Debussy and various concertos, one of the most striking being Prokofiev’s acerbic Fifth (the stereo version under Witold Rowicki) where François merely flicks at the second movement, making others (including Sviatoslav Richter) sound bullish. You’re unlikely to agree with everything you hear, but I’d be very surprised if you leave this wonderful set without having experienced some level of inspiration or stimulation. Also included, an interesting DVD ‘Samson François: The Enchanter of the Piano’.

Samson François: Complete Recordings

Warner Classics (54 cds + 1 DVD) 0190295261863

£135.50

FOR CHAMBER MUSIC AFICIONADOS

Beethoven complete violin and cello sonatas, plus the two greatest piano trios

For starters, beam up the central section of the third movement from the Piano Trio Op. 70 No. 2 (1:54), where the wittily affected string playing-style apes early music, while Melnikov’s response to it is uncompromisingly firm. Real conversation, this. Furthermore, the tipsily descending piano line at 0:41 is one of the weirdest passages in all of Beethoven. The Archduke Trio and sonatas (Violin and Cello) are memorably played, balletic in the faster music, charged with a symbiotic sense of dialogue elsewhere. While not pretending that Busch, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, the Beaux Arts, the Stern Trio et al are kicked out of court, Melnikov and friends have plenty to teach us and I for one was consistently attentive. Just one minor caveat, a production fault on the last cd might mean a temporary delay in availability.

Beethoven – Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexander Melnikov

Harmonia mundi HMX (6 cds) 2908873.78

Price not yet available –  probably around £35.00

Beethoven captured live around the globe

Quatuor Ébène’s epoch-making ‘Beethoven around the World’ project shared Beethoven’s quartet cycle between seven international venues though you’d never guess from the consistency of the sound. Nor would you guess that they were recorded live and in rehearsal: there’s virtually no evidence of an audience and no applause. As to the performances, we’re talking nose-to-nose confrontation, lacerating attack too, but in Op.132’s sublime slow movement a matchless level of involvement, at least in terms of digital recordings. If Beethoven’s ‘sixteen’ is on your bucket list, use Quatuor Ébène’s compelling reportage to learn the ropes.

Beethoven around the world (the complete string quartets): Quatuor Ébène

Erato (7 cds) 0190295339814

£41.00

The Smetana Quartet recorded live in Prague 1976-1985 – first Western release

There are times when the Smetana Quartet levels with Quatuor Ébène from brilliance but in general their Prague stereo recordings for Nippon Columbia are less extreme than those of their younger rivals (Op.132’s sublime slow movement clocks in at 16:28 whereas Quatuor Ébène opt for a heavenly 21:00). But tempo isn’t everything and when it comes to refined expression, stylistic appropriateness and the sensitive balancing of parts, ‘rightness’ is a word that frequently springs to mind. The sound too is superb.

Beethoven Quartets complete – the Smetana Quartet

Supraphon (7 cds) SU 4283-2

Beethoven Smetana

£55.25

Russian Chamber Music

The Borodin Quartet (personnel at this stage of their game: Kopelman-Abramenkov-Shebalin-Berlinsky) are handsomely authoritative in a Shostakovich Quartet selection which reaches across Nos. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 12 & 15 alongside the Piano Quintet and Second Piano Trio with the formidable Elisabeth Leonskaja, all compellingly performed. Then there’s the complete run of Tchaikovsky quartets and the sunnily affirmative string sextet Souvenir de Florence and Alfred Schnittke’s arrangement of Mahler’s piano quartet, as well as other pieces by Schnittke and works by Stravinsky and Weinberg.

Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Schnittke, etc Borodin Quartet, Leonskaja, etc

Warner Classics (8 cds) 0190295204631

£22.00

FOR FIDDLE FANCIERS

Celebrating Ida

Eloquence’s posthumous celebration of the violin’s Grand Dame includes a first-release VW Lark Ascending under Sir Roger Norrington imbued with great feeling and a passionate 1982 Sibelius Concerto with Zubin Mehta conducting. The bulk of the set however is devoted to a portrait of the artist as a young girl, recordings of mostly short pieces with some concertos added that report Haendel’s youthful combination of tonal sweetness and breath-taking agility. As an expressive virtuoso Ida Haendel was up there with the best of them, and it’s great to have her rarer 78s sounding so smooth.

Ida Haendel: the Decca Legacy

Decca Eloquence (6 cds) 484 1688

c£35.00 – in preparation

* Henryk Szeryng – the ultimate ambassador of great culture

At the outbreak of World War II the great Polish-Mexican violinist Henryk Szeryng (“Szeryng” by the way a Polish transliteration of his Yiddish surname, which nowadays would be spelled “Shering” in the modern Yiddish-to-English transliteration), who was fluent in seven languages, served as liaison officer and interpreter to the premier of the Polish government in exile, Wladyslaw Sikorski. Szeryng died in March 1988, his headstone bearing the concluding bars of the ‘Chaconne’ from Bach’s Partita No.2 for Solo Violin. All this gives some indication of Szerying’s breadth of culture and this SWR collection while not exactly the last word in ‘hi-fi’ presents consistently insightful accounts of concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Lalo, Mozart, Schumann, Sibelius and Szymanowski. If I tell you that the conductors involved include such notables as Paul Sacher, Ernest Bour and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, you’ll know – or at least guess – that interpretative standards are consistently high. The two Bach concertos are seamlessly played, the Beethoven and Brahms Concertos imbued with a rare sense of musical vision and as for Schumann, Berg and Szymanowski (the Second Concerto), to this day Szeryng has few if any serious rivals. A magnificent set.

Henryk Szeryng: Concertos (the SWR recordings 1956-1984)

SWR Classic (5 cds) 19092CD

£35.25

Isaac Stern at 100: Sony’s analogue legacy

I’d call him the Marlon Brando of violinists – except he was a contender. Stern was a tough player, his tone sinewy and forthright, his playing heartfelt in every bar. Stern’s analogue legacy is full of glorious things, not least recordings made at the Casals Festival in Prades, especially Brahms’s Second Sextet Op.111, recorded, as I recall, at dead of night and achieving all the impulse of the Third Symphony’s heroic opening. Duo-sonatas with Alexander Zakin and concerto recordings with Eugene Ormandy are also memorable as is Franz Waxman’s Tristan und Isolde Fantasy, a brief but emotional roller coaster. If you’re a fiddle fancier, this one’s worth saving your pennies for.

Isaac Stern: The Complete Columbia Analogue Recordings

Sony Classical (75 cds) 19439724272

£267.00

Sony Classical marks Itzhak Perlman’s 75th birthday

Few violinists of the last seventy years have proved more productive in the recording studio than Itzhak Perlman. This particular collection includes Perlman’s early Boston Symphony recordings of concertos by Prokofiev (No. 2), Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, all three with Erich Leinsdorf conducting, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole under André Previn, two discs’ worth of lush film music with John Williams on the rostrum, chamber music and various encore pieces. The playing style is consistently sweet, or brilliant, or both, a workable template for aspiring virtuosos. 

Itzhak Perlman te Complete Columbia and RCA Album collection 

Sony 19439752272

18 cds

£51.50

FOR THE VOCAL CONNOISSEUR

A Belgian seductress sings opera, French melodies and lieder

Among the most erotic of song cycles is Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis, especially the central ‘La chevelure’, a poem about sensual love, which very few singers have managed convey with anything like the requite measure of intensity. One who does is Suzanne Danco whose spellbinding art is celebrated on an 8-cd set that also includes  Fauré’s magical cycle La Bonne Chanson and key cycles by Ravel and Berlioz, various arie antiche and lieder by Brahms, Schubert, Mozart, Strauss, Wolf and Schumann – not least Dichterliebe and the Eichendorff set of Liederkreis – as well as various opera excerpts. Danco’s singing combines tonal sweetness, charm, depth of feeling and impressive interpretative intelligence. Andrew Dalton provides excellent annotations.

Suzanne Danco: The Decca Recitals

Decca Eloquence (8 cds) (484 0868)

£32.00

Soviet Rimsky-Korsakov: great voices and conductors from the Bolshoi in the complete operas plus fragments

Quite a few repertory revelations here and some unforgettable voices (including Andrei Ivanov, Mark Reizen and Ivan Kozlovsky). Mlada is in stereo (under Yevgeny Svetlanov) and includes the sort of ceremonial orchestral writing – more than you’d expect to hear in an opera – that R-K also lavished on Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Among the bonuses is a Tsar Sultan Suite under the maverick baton of Nikolai Golovanov, one of his most memorable recordings – the Suite’s close is especially thrilling. He also conducts two complete operas in the set, May Night and Christmas Eve.  Other notable vintage Bolshoi recordings include Mozart and Salieri, Ivan the Terrible, Kaschei the Immortal, The Golden Cockerel, and many others. Variable sound, it’s true, but if you’re after performance authenticity in Russian opera, look no further.

Rimsky-Korsakov

The Complete Operas and Fragments

Hänssler Profil (25 cds) PH 19010

£41.00

Rudolf Kempe’s finest Ring

Take Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde (or Astrid Varnay in Walküre), Hermann Uhde as Wotan and Hans  Hopf as Siegfried with a generally excellent supporting cast and you have the basis of a Ring where thanks to Rudolf Kempe’s sensitively crafted conducting, his knowing way of when to push forwards or draw back, and the lyrical slant of his overall approach, the music’s impact overwhelms you rather than slaps you full in the face (as it does with Solti in Vienna, for all the spectacular impact of Decca’s stereo engineering). There’s an earlier (1957) Kempe Ring from Covent Garden, equally well cast but a good deal less well played and recorded. This 1960 Bayreuth Festival option pips it to the post with relative ease. Wagner expert Michael Tanner offers brief but highly relevant notes.

Wagner: The Ring

Bayreuth Festival (1960), Rudolf Kempe

Pan Classics PC 10418 (12 cds)

£39.00

Fabulous singing rescued from the mists of time

She was lined up for HMV’s 1930s Hugo Wolf Society but because she was Jewish – and the market was German – she was dropped. Not that Lotte Schoene (1891-1977) was embittered. She soldiered on regardless giving performances notable for their charm, beauty of tone, abundance of feeling and technical brilliance. Marston’s beautifully annotated set features copious opera extracts and lieder, including a 1948 performance of Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht’ that will likely take your breath away. Also well worth noting are collections devoted to the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin (5130-2 [13 cds], $175.00), the incomparable Irish tenor John McCormack (51601-2 [16 CDs], $185.00) and Lotte Lehmann (Vol 2, 56004-2 [6 CDs], $72.00), a soprano in a million. I know these sets are expensive but given the level of artistry on offer, and the enormous (ie, successful) work that has gone into making some very old records listenable, they’re worth every penny/cent/euro

The complete Lotte Schoene

Marston (5 cds) 55002-2

www.marstonrecords.com

c£70.00 ($72.00)

FOR DEVOTEES OF GREAT CONDUCTING

Doráti conducts Haydn and Mozart on Mercury ‘Living Presence’

Back in the analogue era Decca recorded the complete run of Haydn numbered symphonies (plus extras) with Antál Doráti conducting Philharmonia Hungarica, an orchestra that was first established by Hungarian musicians who had uprooted after Hungary had been invaded by Soviet troops. Less well known perhaps are selected Haydn recordings that Dorati made earlier for the American ‘hi-fi’ Mercury label, some with the same Orchestra, others with the LSO or the Bath Festival Orchestra. These precision tooled readings (of Symphonies 45, 59, 81, 94, 100, 101, 103), spirited though frequently lyrical, are supplemented by various Mozart selections including two versions of the great G minor Symphony, the first fast and furious, recorded in mono with the Minneapolis Symphony, the second, a stereo production with the LSO, far more thoughtful and transparent.

Mozart, Haydn Doráti

Decca Eloquence (4) 484 0385

c£30.00

Honesty is the best policy: Michael Gielen conducts Beethoven

Gielen’s Beethoven takes a common-sense interpretative route where although scholarship is respected you can tell there’s an individual driving force in charge. We’re given a complete digital cycle of the symphonies plus alternative versions (the Eroica fares especially well, including a DVD), the C major Mass, overtures and a performance of the ‘Grosse fuge’ where the tone palette is varied to mimic the effect of new music. It’s astonishing. No Missa Solemnis, true – but in case you’re interested there’s a superb Gielen-led recording of that on the Orfeo label (C999201).

Michael Gielen Edition Vol. 9: Beethoven

SWR (9 cds + 1 DVD) SWR19090CD

£28.00

Modern music pioneer puts Beethoven symphonies in the can

Years ago, there were two conductors who frequently took Beethoven’s metronome markings to heart, Rene Leibowitz and before him that fearless promoter of new music Hermann Scherchen. DG’s bargain reissue of Scherchen’s Beethoven recordings for the Westminster label includes all nine symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Orchestras, some performances super-urgent (the RPO Fifth for example, or the stereo re-makes of 3 and 6), others taking a rather more conventional course tempo-wise. Scherchen gives terrific performances of various overtures and also included are the ‘Grosse fuge’ and Wellington’s Victory (in very vivid stereo). Not for the feint hearted, but certainly a shot of adrenalin.

Beethoven symphonies, etc  Hermann Scherchen

DG (8 cds) 4838163

£32.00

Mahler as he might have heard himself

Hans Rosbaud gives you Mahler both ways. He’ll play up the storminess of the Fifth Symphony’s second movement while the Fourth, although profoundly affecting, is never touched by exaggeration. The Ninth’s first movement might be the fastest – and most intense – on record whereas the grim reaper element of No.6 is realised with nobility rather than exaggerated rhetoric. Das Lied von der Erde features tenor Ernst Haefliger in especially fresh voice and there’s the Seventh, Mahler’s stream-of-consciousness’ symphony, the one that’s all invention rather than all emotion, and absolutely Rosbaud’s bag. The 50s mono sound is perfectly adequate.

Mahler Symphonies Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9, Das Lied von der Erde

Hans Rosbaud in Cologne and Baden-Baden

SWR Classic (8 cds) (M) SWR19099CD

£44.00

Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin Bruckner: third time lucky

Daniel Barenboim has recorded Bruckner’s symphonies three times, first in Chicago (DG), then with the Berlin Phil (Teldec) and now, ‘live’, with Staatskapelle Berlin, taped in Vienna (Nos. 1-3, 2012) ad Berlin (Nos. 4-9, 2010), again for. DG. My attention was first drawn to the Fifth, a magnificent performance, in the context of DG’s Staatskapelle Berlin collection and immediately went online to order this Bruckner set (which I have to admit I didn’t even realise existed). I wasn’t disappointed, especially by Symphonies Nos. 4-9 where although the earlier versions are extremely fine, these live revisits have a naturalness about them, a sense of grandeur, an all-embracing breadth of vision that really do elevate them above most digital rivals, Barenboim’s own included. Furthermore, the playing is quite magnificent. The recordings, which are technically first-rate, are available either on cd (the way I have them) or as downloads.

Bruckner Symphonies Nos. 1-9

DG 479 6985 (9 cds)

£26.43

Charismatic Dutch rostrum master emerges from the shadows

Try van Kempen’s take on Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, re-orchestrated to spectacular effect while the speed-up at the end finds the Concertgebouw Orchestra racing hell-for-leather yet holding the pace with ease. Then there are Tchaikovsky’s 5th and 6th Symphonies, not dissimilar to electrifying readings by the Orchestra’s reigning maestro for 50-odd years Willem Mengelberg, the 5th especially. Marvellous Beethoven and Reger, too. Like Mengelberg after the War, Van Kempen was accused of collaborating with the Nazis which makes the sessions with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic of Alexandre Tansman’s moving commemoration of the Shoah and tribute to the founding of the State of Israel, his ‘Isiah the Prophet’ (1950), doubly surprising – and very good to have.

Paul van Kempen Concertgebouw, Berlin sessions etc

Decca (10 cds) Eloquence 484 0237

£41.00

*A benchmark set of Franz Schmidt’s four symphonies

The first recording of a major orchestral work by the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt to really hit the headlines was Zubin Mehta’s superb Vienna Philharmonic version (for Decca) of the composer’s grieving tribute to his daughter, his orchestral masterpiece in fact, his Fourth Symphony. Complete recordings of all four symphonies under, for example, Schmidt’s pupil Ľudovít Rajter, and Neeme Järvi, are now joined by a consistently compelling cycle by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Neeme’s son Paavo, who drives the Fourth with maximum ardour but also realises the Third’s Schubertian axis (the slow movement is especially magical) and the very different characters of the First and Second Symphonies. The First in particular opens like a hymn to the sun, the best version I’ve ever heard. Schmidt was an accomplished instrumentalist, praised to the skies as a pianist by the legendary Leopold Godowsky while Mahler regularly chose him for orchestral cello solos when he (Schmidt) was with the Vienna Philharmonic. The music is of genuinely high quality, imbued with a sense of nature – you could say looking towards the mountains from the metropolis whereas Mahler looks towards the metropolis from the mountains. The set also includes the popular Intermezzo from Schmidt’s opera ‘Notre Dame’.

Franz Schmidt: Complete Symphonies

DG (3 cds) 483 8336

£26.50

Glorious John: the complete Warner Classics legacy

It’s all here – everything that Sir John Barbirolli recorded for the Warner Classics group, with various orchestras, though mostly with the Hallé. And in case you don’t realise what ‘everything’ implies, we’re talking old records of orchestral opera potpourris, accompaniments for great singers (Schorr, Melchior, Turner, Widdop and so on), collaborations with such masters of the bow as Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman, pianists of the calibre of Rubinstein and Alfred Cortot, English music (including the celebrated ‘late’ stereo recordings of Elgar and Vaughan Williams), French music, Mahler (not least songs with Dame Janet Baker), Schoenberg and lighter fare such as Suppé Overtures, all of it performed with considerable flair. There’s also affecting spoken material – including Vaughan Williams presenting JB with the Royal Philharmonic Society medal – and so much more that to list it all would be to monopolise this entire column. It’s my reissue of the year.

Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings

Warner Classics (109 cds) 0190295386085

£150.00

The soul of Elgar’s Cello Concerto

For most people of a certain age the mere mention of Elgar’s Cello Concerto means Jacqueline du Pré, one of two versions of the work included in Warners’ Barbirolli box. But for me the version that Pablo Casals recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult in 1945 delivers levels of pathos, defiance and inwardness that no other version on disc can quite rival. Where du Pré offers a candid confessional, Casals allows us a peep at his very soul, with Boult keeping a firm hand on the tiller. It’s the most wonderful performance most recently presented in the context of a 5-cd Casals set on the Biddulph label which also includes four versions of  Kol Nidre – all very unalike – more concertos, and a whole host of sweet morceaux, some in dusty acoustic (ie horn-recorded) sound but all beautifully played. Biddulph have also brought out two of the ultimate antidotes to all those tiresome viola jokes, excellent collections devoted to the legendary viola players Lionel Tertis (LAB3057, 3 cds) and William Primrose (LAB2058, 3 cds), the latter being especially lovely to listen to.

Pablo Casals: Victor recordings; Complete Acoustic recordings; HMV Concerto recordings

Biddulph LAB 5059 (5 cds)

c£25.00

Epic Russian symphony cycle played with conviction

And from Yevgeny Svetlanov an invaluable ‘limited edition’ package of all 27 Myaskovsky symphonies plus a handful of shorter works. There’s so much to savour from this ‘father of the Soviet Symphony’ as he was sometimes known. The Fourth, for example, which opens to a mournful solo flute line before a more tempestuous mood sets in. And tell me is there much other Russian orchestral music of the period (we’re talking 1918) that’s as deeply affecting as the beginning of the Largo second movement?  The cycle starts in 1908 (the First Symphony, revised in 1921) and reaches its conclusion in 1949, a year before the composer’s death. It’s the sort of repertoire that can hold you captive for hours such is the quality of the music and Svetlanov’s compelling brand of interpretation.  

Myaskovsky Symphonies 1-27, Svetlanov

Alto (14cds) ALC 3141

£48.75

A SPECIAL ONE-OFF FOR REPERTORY EXPLORERS

Polish music in the 20th century

A journey to another galaxy, albeit one clearly reflected on terra firma. The period covered is 1918 to 2018. It’s the inspired work of Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM), established in 1945, principally for publishing scores and books on music but of late cds have also joined their agenda. In this context musical pioneers such as Karol Szymanowski, Ludomir Rogowski, Eugeniusz Morawski and Szymon Laks (scores by the last two are especially gripping) reach through the ages to the likes of Lutosławski (who also conducts), Wojciech Kilar, Penderecki, Górecki, Tadeusz Baird and Grażyna Bacewicz with works ranging from full-scale symphonies to Passion settings by Pawel Mykietyn (St Mark), Krzysztof Knittel (St Matthew) and Penderecki (St Luke). Poland was always at the forefront of the post-war avant-garde and this incredible set offers inspired evidence. Yes, the set is pricey and it’s also bulky. In addition to the 36 cds, there’s a book of recordings and biographies, ten separate volumes on each of the decades dealt with and Danuta Gwizdalanka’s valuable 280-page ‘One Hundred Years of Polish Music History’. Performance standards are extremely high throughout and the same goes for sound quality – many of the featured recordings are fairly recent. Poland’s musical legacy is famous for its kaleidoscopic range of colours, and for those eager to enter the inner sanctum of their own musical imaginations this is without doubt a gift in a million, well worth spending those lockdown savings on – either for you or for someone special. 

100 For 100 – 100 Musical Decades of Freedom (36cds)

Anaklasis Anabox

9788322451298

£288.00

… AND FOR THOSE WHO’D RATHER NOT STAY TOO SERIOUS DURING THE FESTIVE SEASON

Film music fiddler takes to the rostrum

Father of the highly gifted conductor Leonard Slatkin, Felix sung a sweet fiddle on film soundtracks and was leader of the legendary Hollywood String Quartet. And he could certainly train an orchestra, inspiring results that compared with the best that America had on offer at the time – and believe me that was mightily good. This fine-sounding box contains a plethora of showpieces (including an account of Gaité Parisienne that has never been bettered) and, more unexpectedly, some extremely sensitive Delius.

The Art of Felix Slatkin

Scribendum (13 discs) SC822

£36.00

Crossing over in style

‘Sock-it-to-me’ vintage Hollywood-style hi-fi sonics, some of it recorded in London and a range of repertoire that embraces Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Elgar, Addinsell, Wildman, Bath, an extended tone poem based on The Volga Boatmen and a Cole Porter programme where the song So in Love takes on the epic grandeur of a Rachmaninov symphony. Fabulous playing throughout but no annotation

The Art of Carmen Dragon

Scribendum (17 discs) SC820

£41.00

Tristan on the tiles

Some years ago, I chanced up a French EMI double CD album that featured the two-piano and solo recordings of pianists Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet. It included Doucet’s deliciously camp – some would say outrageous – Isoldina, a sort of stride/foxtrot hybrid where the ecstatic climax of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ is thrown off like a flirtatious giggle. Over time I’ve scored many laughs with this track and recently, just by accident, I discovered that in 2013 EMI Classics released the complete Wiéner/Doucet legacy from the 1920s and 1930s on four cds where supporting artists include Maurice Chevalier, Jean, Mireille and Germaine Sablon, and Yvonne Vallée. Other classical masters ‘tweaked’ include Grieg, Liszt, Chopin, Dvorák, Johann Strauss and more Wagner. Gershwin is very well represented, as are Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. There are even super-cool versions of Love for Sale and Saint Louis Blues played by Wiéner on the harpsichord – and a very musical ‘straight’ complete account of Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos K.448, plus Bach.

Les Années Folles

EMI France 50999 725703 2 6

Amazon

€21.54

8 thoughts on “The joy of choosing ‘classical’ boxed sets as Christmas gifts – a personal selection ahead of time (with brief comments)

  1. Lawrence Letts

    Dear Rob,

    A very interesting post. I see some of your suggestions as possible presents to myself. I did pick up the Les Années Folles box after reading one of your earlier posts, and it is huge fun. Many thanks for the shout.

    Fortunately or sadly, depending on one’s perspective, I seem to have accumulated multiple versions of favourite works: I am too easily tempted to buy yet another Beethoven symphony cycle or Schubert String Quintet. Re the former, the Gielen cycle arrived last week. I have so far listened to the first 3 symphonies. Initial impressions are positive. The performances are relatively swift, but still seem ‘phrased’ and not relentless.

    I am going to be cheeky and ask you, if you could only take let’s say 9 complete Beethoven cycles and 4-5 Schubert String Quintet recordings to a proverbial desert island, which ones might you select?

    With best wishes and hoping that you are remaining safe and sane in these difficult times,
    Lawrence

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    1. Thanks Lawrence. BEETHOVEN FIRST

      Toscanini NBC (1939, Naxos)

      Bernstein NYPO, (Sony)

      Blomstedt (Straatskapelle Dresden, Brilliant)

      Szell, Cleveland (Sony)

      Bruggen, Age of Enlightenment (Glossa)

      Bruno Walter, NYPO (Sony mono)

      Bruno Walter, Columbia SO (Sony stereo)

      Klemperer, Philharmonia (Warners – stereo, with 1950s mono versions added)

      Gielen, SWR Baden Banden (SWR, or EMI)

      AND SCHUBERT … …

      Heifetz-Piatigorsky (fast I know, but wonderfully expressive – RCA)

      Casals, Stern, etc (Sony – possibly a best ever)

      Rostropovich, Tanayev Quartet (Melodiya – Tully Potter put me onto this … very slow second movement. Not for every day but profoundly moving (I didn’t like it at first)

      Amadeus, William Pleeth (DG)

      Julliard Quartet, Bernard Greenhouse (Sony)

      You keep well, too

      Best

      Rob

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  2. Robert Roy

    Thanks for the summary, Rob. The Ida Haendel set looks yummy although she was greatly under-recorded. Actually, I’ve amassed a fair number of her live recordings and they demonstrate what a fearless player she was in person. Her risks didn’t always come off but with such commitment, who cares?! My beloved is giving me the Stern set for Christmas so there will be a lot of violin music playing at chez Roy.

    A question. Does anyone ever see boxed sets as an investment? I accidentally ended up with two sets of the Heifetz edition and sold one on a well known auction site for three times what I paid for it!

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  3. A good question Rob. I think RCA’s Chicago/Fritz Reiner set is another case where you would likely earn three times what you paid for it – others too. It’s difficult to tell what the ‘earners’ would be but it applies just as much to certain single discs, while others remain worth very little. Best and thanks for writing. Rob.

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  4. Lawrence Letts

    Dear Rob,

    Thanks.

    Your suggestions are very interesting and I want to investigate some of them.

    From my own collection, I would want to save Wand’s, Krivine’s and one of Mackerras’ Beethoven cycles for my desert island. For the Schubert, I have and do like Heifetz’s recording, but my favourite historical version is the Hollywood Qt with Reher. There seem to be so many fine modern versions. The Belcea Qt and Erben start the Adagio with a marvellously hushed poise and Janine Jansen and friends are wonderful players who blend well whilst retaining their personalities.

    All the best,
    Lawrence

    Like

    1. Couldn’t quibble with any of those choices Lawrence, especially the two Beethoven cycles. Reher was one hell of a cellist – do try his Don Quixote with the LAPO under Mehta. Fabulous!
      Best
      Rob

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  5. Wonderful and eclectic selection, Rob, many thanks. One question: Is the Smetana Beethoven cycle on Supraphon the same one that appeared on Denon many years back in the early CD era? Please advise, because I own the Denon set. Thanks so much for all you do for music! xoxoxo

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    1. Thanks so much John. I think it must be the same. It was recorded for the Japanese Nippon Columbia label (this is its first release outside of Japan in fact), recorded between 1976 and 1985. Very best. Rob.

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