Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday, boxed

“Black Friday,” as the retail industry calls the day after Thanksgiving, has long been the traditional start to the Christmas shopping season, although this year several chains jumped the gun and turned Thanksgiving into “black Thursday.” Next week, there’s “cyber Monday,” online retailers’ answer to black Thursday/Friday.

Classical record collectors needn’t worry about any of those days this year. The record industry has unloaded a heap of boxed sets, which even at list prices are scarcely believable bargains.

Many of these come from Sony Classical, which has plumbed the back catalogues of RCA Victor, Columbia Masterworks and other affiliated labels to assemble boxed sets whose cost works out to as little as $2 per disc. Most are from the 1950s through ’70s, which were the golden ages of those labels.

Universal Classics is also reissuing big chunks of the Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, Decca/London and Mercury catalogues at much the same price per disc – although their boxes tend to be larger and so carry higher price tags. EMI Classics’ batch of boxes is somewhat less comprehensive (so far, anyway), and a bit pricier, averaging $3-4 a disc.

Here are my picks among the many bargain boxes, and what they cost. I’m citing current prices from Arkiv Music – – the leading (although not always the cheapest) online classical retailer. These prices are not typos:

* “Fritz Reiner Conducts Richard Strauss (“Also sprach Zarathustra,” “Symphonia domestica,” “Ein Heldenleben,” “Don Juan,” “Death and Transfiguration,” “Don Quixote,” “Le bourgeois gentilhomme,” “Burleske” for piano and orchestra, “Salome” [excerpts], “Elektra” [excerpts], waltzes from “Der Rosenkavalier”) – Byron Janis (piano), Inge Borkh (soprano), Antonio Janigro (cello), Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner (Sony Classical/RCA Victor 7686992, 5 discs, $21.49).

* Mozart: piano concertos Nos. 1-27 – Murray Perahia & Radu Lupu (pianos), English Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classical 1914112, 12 discs, $28.49).

* Beethoven: symphonies Nos. 1-9 – Minnesota Orchestra, et al./Osmo Vänskä (Bis 1825/6, 5 discs, $34.99).

* Beethoven: string quartets Nos. 1-16, “Great Fugue” – Budapest Quartet (Sony Classical 7776782, 8 discs, $20.49).

* Beethoven: piano concertos Nos. 1-5; Brahms: piano concertos Nos. 1-2, “Handel Variations,” waltzes, Op. 39; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503 – Leon Fleisher (piano), Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell (Sony Classical 1918052, 5 discs, $18.49).

* “Bruno Walter Conducts Mahler (symphonies Nos. 1, 2 [“Resurrection”], 4, 5, 9; “Wayfayer Songs;” “Das Lied von der Erde;” Lieder) – Mildred Miller (soprano), Desi Halban (soprano), Maureen Forrester (mezzo-soprano), Columbia Symphony, New York Philharmonic/Bruno Walter (Sony Classical 1920102, 7 discs, $19.99).

* “Solti Conducts the Wagner Operas” (“The Flying Dutchman,” “Tannhäuser,” “Lohengrin,” “Tristan und Isolde,” “Parsifal,” “Die Meistersinger,” “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried,” “Götterdämmerung,” orchestral excerpts) – René Kollo (tenor), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Jessye Norman (soprano), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Birgit Nilsson (soprano), Hans Hotter (baritone), Kirsten Flagstad (soprano), George London (bass-baritone), Joan Sutherland (soprano), James King (tenor), Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano), et al., Vienna Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony/Georg Solti (Decca 001746302, 36 discs, $109.99).

* “Schubert Lieder on Record” (250 selections) – Lotte Lehmann (soprano), Hans Hotter (baritone), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Elisabeth Schumann (soprano), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Gérard Souzay (baritone), Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Thomas Hampson (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano), et al. (EMI Classics 27575, 17 discs, $46.99).

* “Mravinsky Conducts the Leningrad Philharmonic” (Shostakovich: symphonies Nos. 5, 10, 12; Tchaikovsky: symphonies Nos. 5, 6, “Francesca da Rimini;” Glazunov: “Raymonda” Suite; Mozart: symphonies Nos. 33, 39; Beethoven: symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7; overtures and orchestral excerpts from operas by Wagner, Mussorgsky, Glinka) – Leningrad Philharmonic/Yevgeny Mravinsky (Erato 698905, 12 discs, $37.99).

* “Mélodie Française” (art-songs by Chausson, Hahn, Debussy, Fauré, Poulenc, Chabrier, Duparc, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, others) – Marie-Nicole Lemieux (alto), Sandrine Piau (soprano), Stèphane Degout (baritone), et al. (Naïve 5311, 6 discs, $19.99).

* “Charles Munch Conducts Romantic Masterworks” (Schubert: symphonies Nos. 2, 8, 9; Mendelssohn: symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 5, Violin Concerto, Capriccio brilliant, Octet; Schumann: Symphony No. 1, “Manfred” and “Genovevaovertures; Brahms: symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4, piano concertos Nos. 1,2, “Tragic” Overture) – Arthur Rubinstein (piano), Gary Graffman (piano), Jascha Heifetz (violin), Boston Symphony/Charles Munch (Sony Classical/RCA Victor 7826732, 8 discs, $20.49).

ADDENDUM: And why is the day after Thanksgiving called black Friday? Kevin Drum of Mother Jones magazine traces the term to Philadelphia in the 1950s:

ADDENDUM 2: I neglected to add my usual warning against depending on the performances of one interpreter in music that can be rewardingly interpreted in many different ways. For instance: While I find the Vänskä/Minnesota Beethovcen cycle splendidly played and generally laudable, I find their treatment of the Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” overly punctilious; and observe that listeners who prefer a more romantic or “Olympian” treatment of the Beethoven symphonies may find these performances too brisk or insufficiently expressive. I wouldn’t say that Solti’s Wagner or Walter’s Mahler are the last words on either composer, although I’m tempted to say that of Reiner’s Strauss.