Friday, November 27, 2009

Shopping list

This being "black Friday," the perversely named official starting day of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice shopping season, I thought I should suggest some of the best boxed sets of classical recordings for gift-giving (or, maybe more likely, treating yourself).

The most lavish set on the market this year is "Yo-Yo Ma – 30 Years Outside the Box" (Sony Classical 752307), a 90(!)-disc collection containing virtually every piece ever written for the cello, as well as a great deal that wasn’t originally (Paganini caprices, Cole Porter tunes), played by Yo-Yo Know Who with colleagues ranging from pianist Emanuel Ax to Yang Wei, the pipa (Chinese lute) player who recently performed with the Richmond Symphony. About two-thirds of the 400+ selections are classical, including a number of contemporary pieces that Ma commissioned and/or premiered; the rest chronicles his Silk Road Ensemble excursions into Asian music and his various crossover ventures. The set lists at $790; Arkiv Music is selling it "for a very limited time" for $500.

(I’m quoting, and rounding, prices from Arkiv Music – – which, I’ve found, has the largest inventory and generally the lowest prices among online retailers of classical CDs. But Smokey Robinson’s mama told him he’d better shop around, and you might do the same.)

Nearly as big a box (55 discs), less lavishly priced ($150), is "111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon" (DG 001341002). These discs (sleeved with original cover art) sample the major names on the label’s roster, with some emphasis on currently working artists. Standard European repertory; nice mix of orchestral, vocal and chamber music. The earliest of these recordings date from the 1950s.

Now that we’ve stuffed Bigfoot’s stocking, on to more practical gift suggestions:

* The Beethoven symphony cycle of Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 1825/6, five discs) has been praised to the heavens by every critic on the planet – yours truly included, although I could do without the over-enunciating chorus and rather militant quality of this "Ode to Joy" – and BIS’s high-definition recordings are state-of-the-art or Da Bomb or whatever superlative is favored these days by audiophiles. (They sound very good on little speakers, too.) Purchased one disc at a time, this cycle would run you close to $100. The boxed set goes for $37.

* DG has issued two "Martha Argerich Collections," one of solo-piano recordings (DG 001190702, eight discs, $33), the other of concertos (DG 001319202, seven discs, $37). Argerich is the greatest living pianist (really); so both collections are highly recommended, the solo set a couple or three notches above the concerto set. (Argerich has done her best chamber-music recordings for EMI Classics, which apparently hasn’t big-boxed them yet. Maybe next Christmas.)

* Yuja Wang, who may be the greatest living pianist when we check back around 2040, released her debut album, "Sonatas and Études" (DG 001253402, $11) earlier this year. Wang has dazzled audiences wherever she’s played – twice so far at the University of Richmond, to which she returns with the Shanghai Quartet on Feb. 14 – both with her virtuosity and a musicality that few performers in their 20s have developed. This disc is a genuine piano recital in its stylistic variety (Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Ligeti), and a journey of discovery both in its programming and in the ways that Wang treats these pieces. Her exceptionally clarified, almost Mozartian, treatment of Ravel’s "La Valse" can be heard and seen on the DVD "Verbier Festival Highlights 2008" (Euroarts 3078178, $20), alongside performances by Argerich, Menahem Pressler, Joshua Bell, Gaudier Capuçon and Salvatore Accardo, among others.

* Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic have just toured the U.S. playing Brahms, just as their Brahms symphony cycle (EMI Classics 67254, three discs, $27) hit the market. The concerts have received glowing reviews, the recordings less so. If I were buying a box of Brahms symphonies, it would be the Kurt Sanderling-Dresden Staatskapelle set (RCA 130367, three discs, $19), excellent interpretations, suitably burnished and properly paced, very listenable (re?)masterings of early 1970s analogue stereo recordings. I can highly recommend Rattle and the Berliners playing the Schoenberg orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor and, with Daniel Barenboim, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, on a DVD, "Europa-Konzert at Athens" (Euroarts 2053658, $22), videotaped and digitally recorded in 2004 at the amphitheater at the foot of the Acropolis.

* While we’re on the subject of Europa-Konzerts, the Berliners’ annual trips to striking locales around the continent, I should mention the 2001 edition from Istanbul (Euroarts 2051229, $17.50), with Mariss Jansons conducting. The venue is the 6th-century Byzantine church of Hagia Eirene (St. Irene), a magically stark setting that makes one of the best available recordings of Berlioz’s "Symphonie fantastique" even more desirable. The program also includes very fine performances of Haydn’s "Surprise" Symphony (No. 94) and Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D major, with Emmanuel Pahud as soloist.