Many music lovers have an inordinate fondness for "the good old days" - a time when, it is firmly believed, musical giants roamed the earth spreading unparalleled artistry as they went. Personally, I get enough pleasure from so many of today's music-makers that I couldn't possibly dismiss the present. But hit me with a classical golden-oldie, and I can start waxing about the superiority of the past, too.
That's what I've been doing lately, ever since falling under the spell of Angel/EMI's Classical Archive series on DVD, one of the most notable achievements yet in the art of excavating musical vaults. This audio and visual evidence easily supports the contention that they don't make 'em like that anymore. These 17 DVDs present a parade of luminaries from the 20th century, several of them already in danger of being forgotten in the post-digital age. If you're still shopping for classical music fans on your holiday gift list, I would expect any of these items to be gratefully received.
The footage on these DVDs, mostly in black-and-white, comes primarily from England's BBC and France's Institut National de l'Audiovisuel. Don't expect a lot of fancy camera work. Some of the programs look quite primitive by contemporary TV standards. And once in a while, the sound isn't great. But technical shortcomings, audio or visual, are the exception, easily overlooked in light of all the magical music-making.
Credit Stephen Wright, managing director of IMG Artists Worldwide, with spearheading the rescue of that magic from storage. The 10-year project involved securing licensing agreements, viewing more than 1,000 hours of TV film and re-mastering the selected programs.
Each disc, named for the performer(s), contains bonus material, often worth the price of the DVD (about $25) by itself.
Here, in no particular order, is a Classic Archive sampling:
Leopold Stokowski: The grand old conductor, age 87, leads a noble, broadly paced account of Beethoven's Fifth with the London Philharmonic in 1969. He seems less in charge at 90 conducting a Wagner overture with the London Symphony, but this 1972 performance still clicks. BONUS: Pierre Monteux, filmed in 1961, the year he became the London Symphony's principal conductor (at 86!), guides that ensemble with quiet authority in a delectable version of Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Regine Crespin: This eloquent soprano, filmed 1965-1972, sings Berlioz (a mesmerizing Le Spectre de la rose), Schumann (a sublimely poetic Mondnacht), Brahms (with one arm leaning on the piano, she communicates Dein blaues Auge with disarming intimacy), and more. BONUS: Marvelous souvenirs from 1959 and 1961 of another French soprano, Denise Duval, in music - much of it written for her - by Francis Poulenc, who accompanies her.
Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Gregor Piatigorsky: Not, alas, performing together. An octogenarian Rubinstein delivers thoughtful, mostly persuasive Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 4, 1967) and, as the bonus track, aristocratic Chopin (1968). Heifetz is heard in trademark repertoire (1949), Piatigorsky in a sterling 1957 account of William Walton's Cello Concerto, written for him.
Mstislav Rostropovich, Sviatoslav Richter: The cellist and pianist in an amazing 1964 recital from Edinburgh devoted to Beethoven's five cello sonatas. Their exceptionally assured, insightful collaboration lights up the screen. BONUS: Richter in a penetrating 1966 Moscow filming of Mendelssohn's Variations serieuses.
Carlo Maria Giulini: The Italian conductor is elegant and dynamic in works by Mozart, Verdi, Mussorgsky and de Falla - 1960s concerts with London orchestras. BONUS: What may be the only film footage of the highly talented, died-too-young Guido Cantelli conducting a tantalizing 1950 rehearsal of Rossini's Semiramide Overture with the La Scala Orchestra.
Andre Cluytens, Emil Gilels : Cluytens leads idiomatic Ravel (Daphne et Chloe excerpts) and vivid Mussorgsky with the so-so ORTF National Orchestra, 1960. A 1959 broadcast finds the French conductor lending supple support to super-pianist Gilels in an alternately majestic, tender and incendiary performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1959. BONUS: Gilels in a definitive, 1959 account of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 3.
Teresa Berganza: Artistry and glamour from the Spanish mezzo, who sounds terrific in arias by Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini, not to mention songs by Spanish composers. BONUS: Sheer heaven for lieder fans. Filmed 1959-1962 and backed by quintessential accompanist Gerald Moore, we get a who's-who of eminent German singers - Julius Patzak (worn, but wonderful), Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christa Ludwig (regal and thrilling in Strauss' Cacilie).
Herbert von Karajan: The German conductor is already well-represented on film, but this 1970, in-color outing with the Orchestre de Paris from 1970, devoted to Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, boasts artsy camera angles and inspired music-making. BONUS: British conductor Sir John Barbirolli leads a sparkling performance of Berlioz's Le Corsaire with the Halle Orchestra.
Nathan Milstein: The supremely patrician violinist puts his distinctive stamp on works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and more, filmed 1957-1968. BONUS: Another legendary fiddler, Mischa Elman, in delectable performances of Fritz Kreisler gems, 1962.
Igor Markevitch: This Russian-born, poker-faced conductor imparts musical depth to 1960s concerts with the ORTF National Orchestra. His Wagner glows; Stravinsky's Symphony of Pslams gets a vibrant workout. BONUS: Igor Stravinsky leads the New Philharmonia in his own Firebird Suite, filmed in 1965, when he was 83 and showing his age. But he's very much in control, eliciting a performance of great beauty and power. Excuse the cliche, but the only word that fits something like this is priceless. Come to think of it, that description can be applied to the entire Classic Archive series.
A wealth of holiday concerts remains on the calendar. Among the possibilities well worth checking out in the days ahead:
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society in a classical, jazz and sing-along program at 7:30 tonight at the Basilica of the Assumption (for tickets, call 410-523-7070); the Concert Artists of Baltimore in a Christmas cheer program at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Engineers Club on Mount Vernon Place (for tickets, call 410-625-3525); "The Many Moods of Christmas," a free concert with the Chancel Choir and Orchestra at Central Presbyterian Church in Towson (for more info, call 410-823-6145).
And Anne Harrigan, founder of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, will make her final appearances as music director of that ensemble in a holiday program performed at 8 p.m. Dec. 17 and 3 p.m. Dec. 21 at Second Presbyterian Church (for tickets, call 410-426-0157).