When were you last tempted, in a music store or online, by one of those massive sets of classical recordings on CD, presenting all the Bach “your family will ever need”—sets in which quantity threatens to outweigh quality? All too often, the so-called “greatest performances ever” turn out to be marketing ploys for the latest—and least—among new recording artists who happen to be under contract to a given company. Not to mention the 20-CD sets from Delta Entertainment such as Passion—the Most Famous Orchestral Spectaculars or A Little Night Music—the Ultimate Mozart Collection, better designed for heaving at the hapless gift-giver than for actually listening.
But three recent releases from EMI Classics, offered by their Encore imprint, deftly sidestep this pitfall. These fifty-CD sets of archival recordings—in good sound—are devoted to the music of Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. And, mirabile dictu, quality and a sense of serendipity are present in them, as well.
The original recordings were made in the 1960’s, and—especially for the Schubert and Beethoven sets—include much worthy and long-neglected material. Some anonymous compiler with real musical taste, that rarest commodity, must have been at work, burrowed deep in the EMI offices. Among the recordings unearthed are a cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by André Cluytens (1905-1967), a Belgian-born French conductor who possessed an acute understanding of the German repertory. A 1960’s cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets by the magisterial Hungarian String Quartet is complemented by a long-unavailable set of the Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano from 1959 by the ardent French violinist Christian Ferras (1933-1982) and the vivacious, unjustly neglected French pianist Pierre Barbizet (1922-1990).
Sure, there are duds in the EMI Beethoven set, like a dry series of Beethoven piano sonatas by the French pianist Eric Heidsieck (b. 1936), an heir to a champagne fortune, whose performances are all too un-fizzy. And the Mozart set has its rough spots, as well: a series of symphonies unyieldingly conducted by Jeffrey Tate. But good recordings vastly outnumber the bad in both. The Mozart set also includes so many youthful performances by the pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim in both genres that it amounts to a kind of referendum on his talent. Then as now, Barenboim’s performances at the keyboard are more generally reliable than those at the podium.
And the Schubert set’s rate of success is, if anything, even better. The violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, a devoted Schubertian, conducts the composer’s symphonies with his own Menuhin Festival Orchestra—also known as the Bath Festival Orchestra—in fluent recordings dating from 1968-69. The Melos Ensemble of London deftly handles chamber works like Schubert’s Octet, while the Hungarian String Quartet excels once again in Schubert’s quartet repertory. The presence of the sensitive German pianist Christian Zacharias makes up for a fairly motley group of other pianists included here.
In short, the Schubert and Beethoven sets are must-haves, and often revelatory, while the Mozart is rather less so. But rarely, if ever, has marketing hype in classical music been so well-matched by actual quality of performance. Bravo, EMI.