Christmas has long been the season of wretched excess in America. With raw wealth dominating our thoughts as never before and a millennium celebration arriving only a week later, Christmas 1999 has to be something especially grandiose. But how to top the standards of excess already set?
This is a particular problem for purveyors of classical music. The record companies are running out of stars capable of selling a million discs, even with incessant plugs from PBS. Virtually every piece of music composed in the last millennium has already been recorded at least once, and usually repeatedly. And new recording, particularly when a union orchestra is involved, is so expensive that even a star name on the label doesn't guarantee a profit.
The solution for many of the formerly great labels has been repackaging. If there is no new von Karajan, the old von Karajan is still very much with us at every price point the market will bear, from budget twofers up to premium price "complete-works-of-X" sets. After all, you already have the stuff in the vault: Why not reconfigure it, wrap it up prettily, and see if you can squeeze just a few more dollars out of it?
The result is sometimes actually interesting, both historically and musically. Last year Nonesuch (a division of the behemoth Warner) issued a 10-disc bundle of music recorded over the last quarter century or so by the idiosyncratic artists known as the Kronos Quartet. Since Kronos (founded by ex-Seattleite David Harrington) plays only contemporary music, and commissions most of what it plays from living composers at that, the set was inherently more intriguing than the typical repackage job. It sold well enough to persuade Nonesuch to try again this season.
This time Nonesuch's focus is not on a performer but a composer. John Adams has been spending as much time on the podium as at his desk recently, but he remains one of the tiny handful of contemporary composers whose every new work is sure to be performed, reviewed, and recorded. The John Adams Earbox (10 discs, $99.90) covers Adams' entire composing career, from the early faux-simple Shaker Loops through the notorious theater works of the 1980s (excerpts from Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) to raucous showpieces for orchestra like Lollapalooza and the neoclassic Violin Concerto. No one on earth will want to sit down and listen from one end of the set to the other, but for sampling and exploring it's a fine package to have.
For sheer size and specialization, it's hard to beat The Rubinstein Collection (BMG, $1,500): 106 hours of music on 94 CDs compiled from 50 years of recording—usually recording the same music over and over and over again. It's pretty much all here: 706 individual items, including every note Chopin wrote for piano (three times over), all the Beethoven concertos (ditto), and a few items unaccountably never before released, such as Saint-Sa뮳' Second and some odds and ends of Albeniz and Schumann. The huge package comes with its own 380-page book and carrying case.
It's hard to imagine such a compilation being much use to anyone except desperate obsessives (of either the gifting or receiving persuasion). By contrast, another just-completed, even-more-gargantuan rebundling offers virtually any classical music lover, whether neophyte or experienced, the equivalent of a ticket to Wonderland.
Immodestly but quite accurately entitled Great Pianists of the 20th Century (Philips, two box sets of 100 CDs each, $1,199 per box), the collection attempts to do nothing less than assemble recital-length anthologies of the recorded output of 70-odd virtuosi of the keyboard— purely on the basis of musical quality from studio recordings, air-checks, and miscellaneous treasures long buried in the vaults of recording companies living and defunct.
Philips' Tom Deacon freely admits that the project was an "Everest-like challenge; it may have been foolish to do something like this or even to try it. The central problem was simple. If we were going to put out something worthy of the name, we would need to have work by artists who never recorded for one of our labels (Philips, Decca, Polygram). Negotiating with every label was different: Some got the idea in five minutes, others were still wavering right up to the last minute. But by June of '98 I knew it was going to work."
The Great Pianists series is the polar opposite of pure. Each two-CD package (some artists are represented by as many as three) is different. "Take the two Rosalyn Tureck volumes, for example," says Deacon. "I concluded during planning the edition that there was a place in it for the complete Klavier-ܢung of Bach. Now, Rosalyn Tureck and Bach are practically synonymous, and Tureck had made a magnificent recording of these works for EMI in the 1950s." So Great Pianists boasts four CDs' worth of the lapidary Ms. Tureck's now-unfashionable but utterly hypnotic way with Bach, pushing tone-painting to levels that might seem extreme in Ravel.
Because each volume is drawn from recordings old and new, studio and live, each presents a unique image of its artist. Take the second volume of Walter Gieseking: He was world-famous for his Debussy and Ravel, and here they are in 1936 London studio recordings. But here too are Gieseking's revelatory readings of Beethoven's "Waldstein" (Berlin, 1936) and "Appassionata" (New York, 1939). Wilhelm Kempff was the king of Schubert; on the third of his CDs in this collection he blows us away with a dizzy live reading of an obscure set of Mozart variations, and pushes the limits of the expressible with Faur駳 eerie sixth nocturne.
Multiply these banquets of surprise and substance by 100 and you've got the Great Pianists package. And if you're not ready to pony up $2,398 for the two-box complete set, why not pick up just one or two of the sets at $23.99 each? Bigger isn't always better, but best is better than anything.
Roger Downey is a senior editor at Seattle Weekly.