I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there are any better gifts than books and CDs. Even in this age of downloads and streaming, an abundance of wonderful CDs has been released this year. Many, of course, would make wonderful gifts.
‘Riccardo Muti: The Complete Symphonic Recordings’
We are living in a golden age of classical box sets. All the major labels have been digging deep into their libraries and releasing a veritable treasure trove of albums with the original jacket art.
The latest conductor to get the treatment is Riccardo Muti, the current music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a true living legend.
“Riccardo Muti: The Complete Warner Symphonic Recordings” (Warner Classics) is 91 discs of pure, musical bliss. Warner (formerly EMI) recorded Muti at the peak of his powers, conducting orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and his former bands, the La Scala Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Give someone this set and you’re giving an instant library of classical music’s greatest masterpieces. The complete symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert and Tchaikovsky are all included, as well as lesser known works like Liszt’s “Faust” Symphony. There are also pieces that Muti has championed over the years, like Cherubini’s sacred music. There isn’t one dud in the entire box.
Muti’s conducting has always been noted for its passion and intensity. There is a high-mindedness and commitment in his approach that is ennobling. These sets go out of print quickly, so I wouldn’t hesitate to snatch this one up.
‘Josquin Desprez: The Renaissance Master’
Known to cognoscenti as the Beethoven of the Renaissance, Josquin wrote complex polyphonic choral music that is both cerebral and spiritually uplifting. No fancy music education is required to appreciate Josquin’s unearthly polyphony.
2021 marked the 500th anniversary of his death, and several record labels have been honoring him with wonderful releases. One of the best is from Harmonia Mundi.
The French label has dipped into its vast catalog to assemble a three-disc tribute called “Josquin Desprez: The Renaissance Master.” Some of Harmonia Mundi’s finest choral ensembles provide stunning contributions, like Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices with the “Missa De Beata Virgine” and La Chapelle Royale conducted by Philippe Herreweghe performing a selection of motets.
This handsomely produced and thoughtful set will be a treasured memento of an important anniversary year.
‘Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra’
Mark the name Susanna Mälkki. You may not have heard of her, but she is one of the finest conductors in the world today. In 2014, she was named chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, and she immediately embarked on a Bartók recording project. Her performances of “Bluebeard’s Castle” and “The Wooden Prince” can take their place with the best of the best, but her latest, the “Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta,” is absolutely stunning.
Listening to this recording through good headphones is an Imax experience. It’s positively hallucinogenic. Her thrilling performance is matched by Bis Records’ stunning sonics. If you think you don’t like Bartók, give this disc a try. I think it will make you a lifelong fan.
‘Rimsky-Korsakov’s Complete Operas and Fragments’
Melodiya, the Soviet recording label, was known for making some of the tubbiest, screeching, horrendous-sounding albums in the 1960s and ’70s. You might think that these recordings from 1927 to 1963 are the stuff of nightmares, but you would be wrong.
Profil has worked miracles making these recordings delightfully listenable. After he heard a prototype of the compact disc, Herbert von Karajan famously said, “all else is gaslight.” Well, these Rimsky recordings are definitely lit by gaslight, but that’s not a bad thing. Gaslight can be awfully romantic and charming.
For fans of Rimsky’s fairy tale operas, these 25 discs are pure magic. The melodies just pour forth. Even if you don’t know the stories or the words or are even an opera fan, just put these discs on, and I think you’ll be amazed how easy and enjoyable they are to listen to.
These remastered discs aren’t sonic spectaculars like Mälkki’s Bartok, but there is an amber glow around the music that only accentuates the magical, fairy tale vibe. Just listen to the opening of Rimsky’s “Christmas Eve” and you can hear the stars twinkling in the midnight sky on a frosty Ukrainian night.