A Bumper Crop Of Classical Box Sets
This wound up being a spectacular year for elaborate, lavishly packaged reissues. Given all the fabulous classical box sets that appeared this year, you'd think we were in some kind of boom era for music served up on compact discs. (2013? More like 1993.)
Why? Well, there's always the mercenary aspect of the labels' self-interest to consider — but come on, the 65-CD Benjamin Britten edition works out to something like less than $5 a disc at retail price. More pressingly: As precious treasures in the labels' vaults age, there's increasing pressure for record companies to churn out reissues that extend their copyrights, and therefore allow them to continue to make money from these artists for many, many more years to come.
Whatever the reason for these sets' existence, listeners can enjoy overwhelming bounty. Here are some of our favorite reissues from 2013. With their size and scope, these boxes make elegantly angular packages under the Christmas tree.
Wagner: The Complete Operas
In this Wagner bicentennial year, all 13 of his operas have been collected in one affordable box. For just $75, you can hear the composer's progression from artisan (in his early, rarely heard Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot) to supreme artist. Along with a vivid Parsifal conducted by Georg Solti and a gorgeously sung Tristan und Isolde with Margaret Price (who never sang Isolde on stage), the main draw of the box is probably James Levine's sumptuous Ring cycle with luxury casting including James Morris and Hildegard Behrens in the big roles and revered veterans like Tatiana Troyanos, Kathleen Battle, Christa Ludwig and Jessye Norman in smaller ones. No librettos here, but there's a link for downloading them in PDF form. — TH
Verdi At The Met
Verdi at the Met may not be the biggest box set devoted to the King of Opera in his bicentennial year, but it's perhaps the most interesting, especially from a vocal perspective. It corrals 10 operas recorded live over a 30-year period — from a 1935 La traviata to a 1967 Aida. Opera geeks may argue about a "golden age" of singing, but there's no doubt this set casts a wide enough net to capture many of the best singers ever recorded in performances that teem with personality. There's the incomparable Rosa Ponselle (a Maria Callas favorite) as an emotionally charged Violetta in that '35 Traviata; Giovanni Martinelli, a 30-year Met vet (vastly underappreciated), as a commanding Otello in 1940; Zinka Milanov (also in 1940) with velvety gravitas as Amelia in Un ballo en maschera; Leontyne Price, with silver and smoke in her voice, as Aida in 1967 when no one could touch her in the role; and the radiant splendor of Jussi Bjorling in a red-blooded 1945 Rigoletto matched with a young Leonard Warren and the sweet-voiced Bidu Sayão. — TH
Gary Graffman: The Complete RCA And Columbia Album Collection
There are some artists whose reputations are slowly cemented over decades, and there are some whose brilliance as performers only shines more briefly. The latter is the case of pianist Gary Graffman, a revered teacher and the longtime director of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, who had much of his performance career curtailed after a late 1970s injury that left only the small left-hand repertoire available to him. After sitting on Graffman's combined RCA and Columbia catalogs for quite some time, Sony (which now owns both labels) finally saw fit, in time for Graffman's 85th birthday in October, to release this set. It's a 24-CD edition, spanning everything from his first recording (Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy from 1956) to the one that most touched pop culture (his recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which was used in Woody Allen's Manhattan). It's an opportunity for new generations to discover Graffman's deep and sure-footed artistry. Listen to his blazing and witty take on the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell. — AT
Fritz Reiner - Chicago Symphony Orchestra: The Complete RCA Album Collection
These are the RCA Red Seal recordings many classical fans in the over 50 crowd cut their teeth on. Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for just 9 years (1953 to 1962), but he molded it into an ensemble with agility, power and pizzazz – the envy of orchestras worldwide. And while the recordings in this beautifully packaged, 63-CD box are more than five decades old, many of them remain benchmarks today, sporting precise strings and a radiant brass section that would become a trademark CSO sound. There's a broad cross section of mainstream hits from Haydn to Hovhaness, plus lots of Reiner's beloved Richard Strauss and a string of starry soloists, from Heifetz, Rubinstein and Cliburn, to Leontyne Price and Emil Gilels. But the orchestra is the real star here — and nowhere more in the spotlight than the extraordinary 1955 recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. More than one critic has noted that the CSO plays the music as if it were set on fire. The brass opening of the finale sparks the flame. — TH
Van Cliburn - The Complete Album Collection
There was an eerie sense of circle-closing when Sony Masterworks released their Van Cliburn edition in mid-February; the pianist died just two weeks later. With its 28 CDs of live and studio recordings, hardcover book and video documentary, this collection feels like a loving tribute to a megastar artist. Though the Texan pianist emerged onto the international scene as an all-American hero, there's no doubt from his playing how thoroughly steeped he was in the Russian school, thanks in large part to his legendary teacher, Rosina Lhévinne. Just listen to the rich, singing sound he elicits in Chopin's "Heroic" Polonaise, op. 53. — AT
Benjamin Britten - The Complete Works
Decca pulled together materials from more than a dozen labels to create this homage to composer Benjamin Britten, who would have turned 100 in November. While Britten is one of the UK's most cherished cultural figures, he never really got his proper due stateside. Think of this set as an opportunity for us Yanks to catch up (albeit in a limited edition of 3000). It includes all the major works like the operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd and the War Requiem, as well as showcasing juvenilia, oddities and a very handsome book. Specialists will quibble that even at 65 discs, this limited-edition set is not quite complete, but most mere mortals will be more than satisfied with this opportunity to trace Britten's development into one of the most fascinating artists of the 20th century. The box is heavily reliant on performances by Britten's longtime partner, tenor Peter Pears, as well as the composer himself — as in this first recording of Billy Budd (with a libretto by E.M. Forster) conducted by Britten, with the title character sung by Peter Glossop. Here, Glossop sings the Act 2 aria "And farewell to ye, old Rights O' Man!" — AT