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Music boxes Boxed sets provide long listening for classical fans

You've heard of big-block engines and Hershey's Big Block chocolate bars.

Now it's time to welcome big-block music.

Three box sets of CDs from the EMI label have just hit the market. Each one has 50 CDs, in plain white liners, jammed tightly into a cube about six inches across. There's one for Mozart, one for Beethoven and one for Schubert.

The list price for each box is $100. Scrounge around on the Internet, and you can find them as low as $70.

Each box contains a whopping 55 hours of music. That means all Beethoven's piano sonatas, string quartets and symphonies, as well as many, many other great pieces. The Mozart set boasts all his symphonies, string quartets and piano concertos as well as his major operas, complete.

That's a lot of summer listening. Michael Harris, who oversees classical music at Borders Books and Music in Cheektowaga, admires the sets' sheer comprehensiveness.

"It's great if you don't have anything and you just want to get, say, Beethoven. And there you are with one purchase," Harris says.

"If you don't have any Haydn, don't have any Mozart, don't have any Mendelssohn, box sets can fill that gap."

>Force in recording

Each set includes no liner notes, just a booklet briefly identifying the music and performers. But what performers!

EMI's greatness, as WNED-FM's John Landis points out, can be largely attributed to Walter Legge, their longtime British leader. Legge, who married soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, had an unerring eye for talent and quality.

"He was not a nice fellow. He was an ardent Nazi sympathizer," Landis says. "But he made a lot of great recordings. No one did it better."

A leading force in 20th century recording, EMI boasted in its stable many of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The Mozart set features piano concertos played and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, whose tenderness brings out the music's humanity. Mozart's violin concertos were recorded in the late '60s and early '70s at London's Abbey Road Studios by the Russian maestro David Oistrakh. And conducting the opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio" is former BPO music director Josef Krips.

There are a couple of discs' worth of Beethoven and Schubert songs sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who first showed up at EMI's office as a 22-year-old former prisoner of war. Other singers in the big sets include acclaimed soprano Barbara Hendricks, British mezzo Janet Baker and Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson.

Harris says the reissuing of these historic recordings illustrates a trend.

"I'm seeing much more in terms of repackaging and anthologies -- not so much new releases and new recordings," he says.

Repackaging, though, can mean a bargain for buyers. Landis, who introduces new releases on WNED-FM, Buffalo's classical music station, says that at about $2 a CD, the sets are a very good deal.

"These are not bargain-basement things," Landis says. "One might not go to Barenboim for first choice for Mozart concertos, but Barenboim is no slouch."

Landis' enthusiasm increases as he hears what artists are featured.

Andre Cluytens? "He's very good with French music. He's with the Berlin Philharmonic? Not bad," he muses.

"That's a very good 'Seraglio,' " he says at the mention of Krips' treatment of Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio."

And, of Yehudi Menuhin conducting the Bath Festival Orchestra: "They were good. This is good stuff."

He laughs. "This is prime beef," he says. "EMI has the largest back catalog of any record catalog. They've been in existence since 1898. His Master's Voice, Columbia, were merged into EMI. They have the first Caruso recordings made. They still have masters for the first 10 Caruso records."

>Historical view

It's interesting to see the sets from a historical perspective.

The Schubert box has only one disc of Fischer-Dieskau, arguably the best Schubert singer of all.

"He made most of his Schubert recordings for Deutsche Grammophon," Landis says. "He made very few for EMI."

Schubert's "Die Winterreise" is, oddly enough, sung by opera tenor Jon Vickers. His voice is appropriately haunting, but to a veteran Schubert listener, he sounds weird.

In the Beethoven box, the plum job of playing all 32 piano sonatas goes to Eric Heidsieck. Eric who? Even Landis has never heard of him. Born in 1936, Heidsieck is a French pianist who teaches at the Paris Conservatory. He recorded his Beethoven for EMI in the early '70s.

The '70s were a golden age for EMI, but some of the artists from that era that show up in the boxes are almost forgotten now. Pianist Cyprien Katsaris is hardly a household name. Neither are Mikhail Rudy, Paolo Bordoni, or Setrak, who recorded Liszt's arrangement of Schubert songs in 1978.

So, who is buying these boxes? The audience isn't as elite as you think.

Barnes & Noble's Web Site offers a list of other CDs purchased by customers who bought the Beethoven box. We're told they also bought "The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World . . . Ever!," "American Angels: Songs of Hope, Redemption and Glory" and "25 Thunderous Classics."

For those who enjoy these box sets, one final pleasure is imagining what big box could be next. Brahms? Bach?

"They have an enormous warehouse full of stuff," Landis says. "They can just keep recycling it."

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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