Christmas Boxes [Beethoven/Wilhelm Kempff … Beethoven/Barenboim … Giuseppe di Stefano … Alfred Brendel … Dennis Brain … Giuseppe di Stefano … John Field’s Piano Concertos … Chopin/Garrick Ohlsson … Brahms’s Chamber Music]

Written by: Colin Anderson

As 25 December 2008 approaches, so comes the time to choose and wrap presents and for the recipients to unwrap them. What better for the music-loving relation and friend than a box set of compact discs or DVDs? The following may help make a gift – at this or, of course, any other time of year! Please click on each release’s catalogue number to link to Amazon.

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are one of the pillars of piano literature. Wisdom, humanity and a lifetime’s experience inform Wilhelm Kempff’s 1964-65 stereo cycle. In many ways it is one of the wonders of the gramophone. [DG 477 7958, 8 CDs]

If Beethoven’s sonatas with pictures appeal, then Daniel Barenboim’s complete survey should fit the bill – 8 concerts and 6 masterclasses. [EMI 3 68993 9, 6 DVDs]

Chopin is another huge peak for the pianist and piano-music-lover. Garrick Ohlsson’s complete survey of everything Chopin wrote for piano (including chamber music, songs, and for piano and orchestra) will delight the completist and the Chopin connoisseur. Ohlsson (who won the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970) gives us accounts of this wondrous repertoire in weighty and commanding style, aristocratic and impulsive (but not lacking light and shade or contemplative contrasts) and, at times, very sensitive and searching. These vivid recordings were made in the second half of the 1990s and have previously appeared on the Arabesque label. They now sit very well in Hyperion’s catalogue and their reappearance has the written approval (and delight) of the pianist. How appropriate that the CDs have been pressed in Poland! [HYPERION CDS44351/66, 16 CDs]

Hyperion has also issued Brahms’s Complete Chamber Music – stellar artists, fine sound, splendid presentation. Superb! [HYPERION CDS44331/42, 12 CDs]

It was the Ulster-born pianist and composer John Field (1782-1837) who coined the term Nocturne as an entitlement to a piece of music, which Chopin then developed in his numerous examples. Field’s seven piano concertos are each pleasingly tuneful, atmospheric, gently romantic and witty. Míċeál O’Rourke gives stylish and sympathetic performances and is unstintingly supported by the London Mozart Players and Matthias Bamert. An unsuspected delight! [CHANDOS CHAN 10468(4) X, 4 CDs]

Grieg’s piano music may not be in the same league as Beethoven’s or Chopin’s but it is unfailingly attractive, usually miniature in form and cast as ‘song’ and ‘dance’ (invariably indigenous, to Norway), the several sets of Lyric Pieces standing out. Transcriptions of Peer Gynt are included as are both versions of the ever-popular Piano Concerto, the Original from Love Derwinger, the familiar Revision from Eva Knardahl. It’s these two pianists who share the labour of Grieg’s output for piano, Knardahl taking the majority of the music. The set is also a bargain – 12 CDs for the price of 3! [BIS-CD-1626/28, 12 CDs]

Away from the piano, now – to singers. From the past – making recordings so valuable – there is Giuseppe di Stefano who sings various popular arias, from Bizet, Puccini, Verdi and others. Conductors include Karajan and Serafin. The collection focussing on Mirella Freni embraces those composers as well as Mozart, Gounod and Bellini, with fellow artists – all tenors – including Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti and Vickers. [Di Stefano – EMI 2 06075 2, 3 CDs; Freni – EMI 2 06253 2, 4 CDs]

Dennis Brain more than 50 years after his untimely and tragically early death is still ventured as an icon of virtuosity and mellifluous phrasing on the horn. A set of his finest recordings includes (for some) the versions of Mozart’s concertos (with Karajan and those of Richard Strauss (with Sawallisch). Alternative tapings of some of these works are also included and more esoteric fare embraces music by Hindemith and Lennox Berkeley. [EMI 2 06010 2, 4 CDs]

Staying in the musical past – to the Athens-born conductor, composer and pianist Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960). These are broadcast performances. Volume 1 covers 1941 to 1957, Volume 2 is 1945 to 1955, and mostly with the New York Philharmonic (Philharmonic-Symphony as it was then). As a general guide, the performances are intense and vivid, very exciting, but considered. In short these are well worth hearing and the sound is generally very good and is excellently re-mastered. Volume 1 includes Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony, Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, Chausson’s Symphony in B flat, music from Stravinsky’s The Firebird (not identified as the 1919 Suite), pieces by Busoni (always a pleasure!) as well as Berg’s Violin Concerto (Joseph Szigeti) and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 (Jean Casadesus, son of Robert). Volume 2 begins with Mahler 6 (the slow movement placed second), more Vaughan Williams (Symphony No.4), Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet (as arranged by the composer for string orchestra) and “Erwartung” – Astrid Varnay is the soprano in the string quartet, Dorothy Dow (sic, should that not be Dorow?) in “Erwartung” – two of Prokofiev’s piano concertos, the Second played by Pietro Scarpini (an unfamiliar name, maybe, but fully up to the task) and the Third offering us Mitropoulos’s own prowess as a pianist. He also plays – on the piano (no harpsichord!) – in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.5. Last, but not least is Zino Francescatti in Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (minus a movement). Each (desirable) volume has four CDs and sells for the price of three. [Volume 1 – MUSIC & ARTS CD-1213, 4 CDs; Volume 2 – MUSIC & ARTS CD-1214, 4 CDs]

Just to mention the retired (as from 19 December 2008) Alfred Brendel. His discography is of wonderful importance and his recordings made for Vox demonstrate his development as a penetrating artist; with the hindsight of later versions, one can hear certain things Brendel would iron out, but this earliest of Brendel-documentation still reports very select musicianship. All of Beethoven’s piano sonatas are included, many of Mozart’s piano concertos, and there are pieces one now wouldn’t associate with Brendel – Balakirev’s Islamey and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.5 (for example) … and Chopin. But, this set is not absolutely complete, for although the set is candidly announced as “Complete Solo Recordings” this mean that Brendel’s work with other pianists is deliberately omitted. What a great pity – not to have Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances with Walter Klein is a sad loss (yet there is some Mozart with Klein included). Where’s the logic? This set should be truly complete; that it is not is, to say the least, disappointing, although this reservation should not spoil a must-have release. [BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93761, 35 CDs]

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