Think classy, complete, classical

The Baltimore Sun

If you're having trouble finding CDs for the music lover on your holiday shopping list - or if you're just in the mood to reward yourself - three hefty boxed sets practically scream out "classy gift" this year.

Only the most rabid collector can already own everything - everything, I said - that Bach and Mozart wrote. So you can't go wrong with one or both of the impossibly inexpensive, yet eminently respectable, collections devoted to those two composers and released by a small Dutch label called Brilliant Classics.

The firm could just as easily be called Brilliant Marketing. More than 300,000 copies of the 170-disc Complete Mozart Edition have been sold worldwide (it was available in Europe a year before its U.S. release this fall). And the company reports that tens of thousands of the follow-up, 155-disc Complete Bach Edition have been snapped up.

With list prices of $149.98 and $139.98, respectively, you're talking Brilliant Profits, too.

Coming in at a slightly higher cost ($179.98) and taking up about the same amount of space - even though filled with only 21 CDs - is a valuable sampling of eminent pianists of the past and present who all shared a preference for a particular make of instrument.

This Steinway Legends Grand Edition, released in collaboration with Universal Classics, is packaged in a cute, high-gloss black paper box that replicates the form of a Steinway concert grand.

Back to Bach and Mozart. There's something curiously appealing about being able to hold in your hands the entire output of an exalted - and prolific - composer. (If you wanted to listen to the Mozart set nonstop, you'd be literally facing a full 24/7.)

There's also something really cool about having all that music for only about $.90 a disc, less if you snag a set on sale (and that's not difficult to do, online or at some retailers). Even at full price, this is way past the bargain level. More like a steal.

How does Brilliant Classics do it? Advantageous licensing agreements with other labels; lots of second-tier performers; paper sleeves for the CDs, instead of plastic jewel boxes.

In each case, everything is neatly organized by genre - a different colored sleeve for choral works, keyboard pieces, etc.

Obviously, the presentation is the least important thing to the potential owner of these sets. What really counts is the performance quality. The last thing anyone would want to get stuck with is a bunch of recordings by the Lower Slobovian Philharmonic, Strung Out Quartet or Far From OK Chorale.

I haven't made it through all 325 discs in the two Brilliant Classics editions, but the dozens that I have sampled leave a favorable impression - often much more than that.

In the Bach set, the elegance of Jakob Lindberg's account of the solo lute suites and expressive warmth of Jaap Ter Linden's way with the solo cello suites, for example, easily offset the more pedestrian playing by Emmy Verhey in the violin concertos.

If the bass soloist in the St. Matthew Passion doesn't touch the heart in the exquisite aria, Mache dich, mein Herz, rein, the overall performance, with the Brandenburg Consort and two Cambridge choirs, holds up firmly.

The Holland Boys Choir and Netherlands Bach Collegium are up to the challenge of the 200 cantatas, delivered in historically informed style.

Period instruments are the order of the day in the whole box, providing a nice consistency. Standouts include Andrew Manze's group, La Stravaganza Koln, which shines in the orchestral suites, and the Netherlands Bach Ensemble, which does lovely playing in the Musical Offering.

Many facets of Mozart

As for the Mozart Edition, the likes of Werner van Mechelen (title role, Don Giovanni) or pianist Derek Han (the concertos) will not replace treasured recordings of the composer's music made by all the legendary or near-legendary artists over the decades.

Still, there are some major-career performers in the mix. A vintage EMI recording of Idomeneo features the marvelous tenor Nicolai Gedda - can't get much classier than that. And a recent Magic Flute, originally released by Telarc, has a first-rate cast (including Barbara Hendricks and Jerry Hadley) and first-rate conductor, Charles Mackerras.

It's nice to find Salvatore Accardo, an unfailingly elegant fiddler, playing all the violin sonatas. Zoltan Kocsis and Andras Schiff, two top-flight keyboard artists, are featured in the concertos for two and three pianos.

The string quartets fare very well, delivered with technical and expressive flair by the Franz Schubert Quartet of Vienna.

Period instruments play a sizable role in this box, too, including the orchestras used for the symphonies (the spirited Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, led somewhat facelessly by Jaap Ter Linden, the cellist from the Bach set), and the best-known operas (La Petite Bande, led by Sigiswald Kuijken).

Needless to say, Mozart, especially early on, did not always produce masterpieces. But it can be fun checking out the lesser material, such as the opera Ascanio in Alba or works for glass harmonica endearingly played by Dennis James.

A separate CD-Rom comes with the Bach and Mozart sets, containing essays, biographies and texts (no translations).

Artists on Steinways

Steinway Legends is aptly named. The Grand Edition box holds two-disc samplings of 10 major artists: Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, Wilhelm Kempff, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Maurizio Pollini and Mitsuko Uchida.

For good measure, a bonus disc samples the younger generation - Helene Grimaud, Lang Lang and Yundi Li. (There's promotional material for the Steinway product inside, too, of course.)

Serious piano fans will already have a lot of material here, but a handful of selections are new to CD (Arrau's account of Beethoven's Eroica Variations is said to be making its first appearance in any format since 1952).

Chances are, even some longtime collectors will find the collection well worthwhile. It will be extremely valuable to anyone who could use an introduction to (or refresher course in) superior music-making at the keyboard.

Today's younger listeners may find names like Kempff, Gilels and Michelangeli barely registering, if at all. So the well-chosen sets devoted to those musicians command particular attention.

To hear Michelangeli play Chopin is to be taken deep inside to the subtlest layers of emotion in the music. Kempff's Beethoven and Schumann are no less remarkable for insight and patrician control. And for combination powerhouse-and-poet, Gilels remains in an exalted class.

Not everything in this box qualifies for legendary status, to be sure, but each disc has something significant to say about the piano and the art of playing it.

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