Box Sets: Threat or Menace?

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

I hate it when my most cherished assumptions take a beating. I’ve never been a fan of boxes, so imagine my shock and horror this month when Gramophone featured a gushing tribute to Decca Sound: 55 Great Vocal Recitals (Jason Victor Serinus blogged about it way back in June). It’s an authentic bargain. For less than $100, you get 55 CDs of great, semi-great, or “interesting” singers 1945 to 2010. Remastering was done by Paschal Byrne and Craig Thompson, “leading lights of The Audio Archiving Company, Ltd.” who were entrusted to preserve and enhance the work of giants like John Culshaw, Gordon Parry, and Kenneth Wilkinson. Every track presumably sounds as good as it can. (Here’s a link to the complete contents.) It’s obvious this box was compiled with love and care.

Few others can make that claim. Some come off as little more than last-ditch attempts to wring more cash out of recordings that long ago paid back their production costs. The majors’ cynical recycling of the Golden Age gives us good reason to hire the living—i.e., younger artists—as often as possible. But there are other, better reasons:

The best newer recordings do sound better.

Last month I bought a new box, Martha Argerich Chopin: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 479 6068). First thing I did was listen to her 24 Préludes, recorded in 1975, before hauling out Ingrid Fliter’s recent reading (Linn CKD 475) for comparison. First: no contest on the recording quality. Fliter’s piano is captured in big, warm sound and she’s right there with you, in the room. The sour, distant sound of Argerich’s piano in the DG recording really disappointed me. Did they even bother to remaster the old transfers?

Yet I was bowled over by Argerich’s performance. There’s a reason she will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s great artists. Argerich seizes on the expressive potential of each of these brief, highly contrasting character pieces and makes a pepper-laced meal of them, playing almost without pause in a continuous dramatic narrative. You may not agree with all her choices, but you’ll be swept away anyway. Fliter’s work is equally virtuosic but less showy. Reflecting her own sense of Chopin’s classical restraint, it may well possess more coherence and integrity. Absent the immediate memory of Argerich’s sensational, rightly historic performance, Fliter satisfies completely. So: a draw, not a win, for the box, which fills out its five discs with duplicated repertoire (CDs 3 and 4) and radio broadcasts (CD 5).

Some living, breathing artists do better in certain repertoire than beloved stars of yesteryear.

Standards and fashions change over time. I grew up on Vladimir Horowitz’s Scarlatti, but I’ve heard equally fine performances from David Greilsammer—who pairs them happily with John Cage sonatas—and Yevgeny Sudbin, whose magisterial albums reveal Scarlatti as a soulmate of Schumann and Debussy. Fifty years from now, Sudbin will be a Golden Age master worthy of his own box.

And isn’t there important repertoire that the artists of the Golden Age never got around to recording?

Yes, although less than you might think. I recently got a gorgeous new recording, Duos for Violin & Violoncello (Challenge Classics CC72542), by Liza and Dmitry Ferschtman, a daughter-and-father team who really do play as one. Their artistic communication is matchless, and they are so musical. The album, with music by Kodály, Ravel, and Schulhoff, was produced and engineered by Bert van der Wolf, who captures everything with a near-perfect balance of intimacy and electricity. Sonically it’s one of the best chamber music collections I’ve ever heard. Here’s a bit of the Kodály Duo:

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So I thought I’d survey the Golden Age to see whether any of this had caught the eyes of the old guys. Guess what: it had. Specifically, you can find Heifetz and Piatigorsky doing the Kodály Duo on disc 5 of a rather expensive 21-disc box set still available. (You can pick up their Duo by itself for far less, remastered on HDTracks.) They play pretty well, those two! Of course the recording shows its age.

H&P appear never to have recorded either the Ravel Sonate or Schulhoff Duo. Rachel Barton Pine and Wendy Warner did. Indeed, their album repeats the Ferschtmans’ set list exactly, plus throwing in Martinů’s Duo. Pine and Warner hardly qualify as Golden Agers, but you may want to pick up their CD, then check out Heifetz and Piatigorsky’s Martinů. See whether they measure up, y’know.

Or you could just enjoy the Ferschtmans. Sometimes, life really is too short.

There’s good new music out there that didn’t even exist 40 years ago.

Even what’s old can become new. Consider George Gershwin. Professor Mark Clague in Ann Arbor is heading up a massive re-editing project of the Gershwin scores. He’s unearthed some fascinating history in the process. Did you know, for example, that Gershwin authorized a particular set of auto horns for An American in Paris? (See here.) But Toscanini and everyone who followed him misinterpreted the score. This bit of Gershwin was buried alive for 80 years. Only now are we getting it right.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s go meta with this. The fact is, Americans will always need a renewable Gershwin—someone to bundle our continually morphing jazz and pop energies, our relentless enthusiasms, our bluesy moments, into classier packages. Gershwin is dead; long live Meta-Gershwin! Our first Meta-G was arguably Leonard Bernstein, both his music and his protean performances. It’s time for another; I hereby nominate Mason Bates. His background as a DJ gives him an edge in the jazz-and-pop department, but he’s also a master of orchestral color. One of his newest works, Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, premiered last June in Chicago. You can hear it on Classics Online HD, you can check out samples here, or you can get the download. I love the way it echoes Golden Age film composers like Bernard Herrmann. Its drum breaks offer variants on bidda bidda badda badda bodda bodda BUNG, straight out of Wipeout and other American classics. Check out 0’59” in the following:


And here’s some of the Thrilling Climax to Fantastic Zoology. (The badda bing gets underway immediately but builds to its own wipeout at 0’55”.)

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Bates’ box set should be available in about thirty years. Or you could just download Fantastic Zoology in the next ten minutes. Ars longa, vita brevis.

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