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New Classical Box Set: Bach Masterworks, from Deutsche Grammophon

packshot-trans.pngDeutsche Grammophon has released a new Original Jackets Collection box set; Bach Masterworks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Containing 50 CDs, this is an impressive set of Bach’s music, covering his cantatas, other sacred music, organ works, keyboard music, chamber music and orchestral music. It’s far from being a complete works set – that would come to about 170 CDs – but for those who don’t have much Bach in their collection, it’s worth getting. Out now in the UK, this set is due for release on December 10 in the US. It’s currently around £85, or $157.

I haven’t yet found a full track list, but it contains a broad selection from the vast DG catalog, including recordings from Decca, Archiv, L’Oiseau-lyre and other Universal labels. It contains John Eliot Gardiners St. John Passion and Christmas Oratorio, and Paul McCreesh’s St. Matthew Passion, has harpsichord works by Trevor Pinnock (including his Goldberg Variations, the first recording I ever bought of the work), organ works by Helmut Walcha, Karl Richter and Simon Preston, and features many other well-known performers.

This set seems to be full of many recordings that aren’t easily accessible, and would make a wonderful Christmas gift for any classical music collector.

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John Eliot Gardiner’s Complete Bach Cantatas Released as Box Set

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One of the most exciting performance and recording projects of recent years was John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. In just over a year, Gardiner, together with The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists, toured the world, performing all of Bach’s sacred cantatas in dozens of venues. The performances were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, who released only four CDs before throwing in the towel. With all of this music recorded, Gardiner set up his own label, SDG, and released the remaining recordings.

I bought all of these releases on subscription, and this is one of the finest sets of cantatas I know. Now, finally, SDG is releasing a box set of the complete cantatas. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This limited edition set will contain 56 CDs: the 28 volumes from the SDG series (some were one disc, most were two), and the four CDs that Deutsche Grammophon released, so it will contain the entire set of cantatas. There will also be a CD-ROM with an index of the cantatas, sung texts, and full notes.

I have all the individual volumes, including the DG recordings, so I won’t be buying this, but if you like Bach, don’t miss this set. It’s currently listed at £139, which is a bargain, compared to what I paid for the individual discs, or $283, which is a bit more, but still a fair price. Of all the sets of Bach cantatas, it’s my favorite; perhaps it will be yours as well.

Read more about Bach’s cantatas.

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Classical Music Downloads Need Digital Booklets; How Apple Can Facilitate This

As regular readers of this blog know, I buy a lot of music, both on CD and by download. I was reminded by a comment to a recent CD review how frustrating it is to not get digital booklets with downloads. This may not be a big issue for pop and rock music, but it is certainly important to classical music, especially for music that is sung. Listeners may want to read the texts that are being sung, or follow libretti of operas.

Apple has been offering digital booklets with downloads since November 2004, starting with The Complete U2 (which is no longer sold). The 42-page booklet, in PDF form, contains song lists and album information, but no lyrics. Perhaps the most extensive digital booklet is that of the Bob Dylan: The Collection release of August, 2006 (also no longer sold). This 139-page PDF includes all the original liner notes from the albums in the collection. There are no lyrics, but lyrics for all of Dylan’s albums are available on his website.

Classical music took a bit longer to catch up. But there are a couple of reasons for this. First, Apple imposes a specific format for digital booklets. For this reason, record labels cannot simply make PDF files of their booklets[1], but need to rejigger them to fit Apple’s format, which you can see below.[2]

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Above is the first page of a digital booklet for a recent release from the King’s College, Cambridge label, an independent label that issues recordings from The Choir of King’s College at Cambridge University. The booklet contains track information, liner notes in English, French and German, along with texts of the works on the album and biographies of the performers. If an indie label can do this, shouldn’t everyone be able to?

But Apple is remiss in not allowing record labels to add digital booklets in older releases. Apple doesn’t allow labels to add any material to an album after it’s been released. In order to add a digital booklet, a label has to delete the original album and create a new album.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t explain why all new classical releases don’t include digital booklets. The only reason I can think of is that the record labels are lazy. Or that they’re trying to differentiate digital downloads from physical product, in an vain attempt to cling to an outdated form of distribution. Perhaps they think that by not offering digital booklets, they’ll get people to buy more CDs. But an experienced classical record label executive said that it’s not about trying to maintain physical sales; he said that classical labels still think of digital products as inferior, and don’t plan for digital booklets until it’s too late to do cost-effectively.

The same label executive pointed out that iTunes won’t promote digital booklets as being a “feature” of digital downloads (although they did, back when The Complete U2 was released). The iTunes Store is more interested in promoting the iTunes LP, which is more expensive, and more complicated for labels to produce (which is why there are so few, if any, iTunes LPs of classical recordings).[3]

To be fair, some labels are doing it right, providing excellent quality digital booklets. Let me single out a few recent purchases that have good booklets. Hilary Hahn’s In 27 Pieces, on Deutsche Grammophon; Timo Andres’ Home Stretch, from Nonesuch; and GarciaLive Volume Two: August 5th 1990, Greek Theater, sold by the Jerry Garcia estate. I’ve also got excellent digital booklets from other labels, such as Harmonia Mundi, Fuga Libre, Decca and others, but not all these labels’ releases come with booklets.

The record label executive I talked with summed up the situation. “iTunes could have digital booklets with many of their classical titles if they weren’t blindly committed to a set of ill-conceived policies that leave classical music out in the cold.”


  1. This may have changed since I posted the article linked above; I purchased an album last week, The Spirit of Gambo, with music by Tobias Hume, which contains a digital booklet in the same format as those which come with CDs. Or the label might have just snuck through a booklet in a non-approved format…  ↩

  2. Some labels take the easy approach: rather than changing the layout, they just add margins to get the booklets to fit the appropriate size, which Apple defines as 11“ by 8.264”, in landscape format. This isn’t rocket science, and takes a few minutes for each booklet.  ↩

  3. If you look on the iTunes LP page, you won’t see any classical recordings. There may be some hidden in the iTunes Store, but I’ve never come across any.  ↩

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CD Review: Opera Baroque, a Big Box Set from Harmonia Mundi

It’s that time of year again: classical record labels have started releasing a plethora of box sets to tempt you in your Christmas shopping. With boxes of dozens of CDs costing what only a few CDs set you back ten years ago, how can you resist? It’s tempting to buy some of these box sets to fill in gaps in your collection. Others may contain many discs that you’ve long wanted. It’s hard to decide which sets to buy, with so many bargain-priced boxes.

Adding to the temptation this year is Harmonia Mundi’s Opéra baroque (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a set with 39 CDs, 3 DVDs and one CD-Rom with sung texts. Divided into groups by country, this set contains music from Italy, France, England and Germany. There are 17 complete operas ranging in length from single-disc works like Dido and Aeneas to three-disc operas, such as Handel’s Rinaldo or Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. Two of the operas are on DVD: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Handel’s Giulio Cesare. And all this for a bit more than what I paid for just one of these three-disc operas ten years ago.

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It’s fair to say that Harmonia Mundi has one of the finest catalogues of baroque opera, with an extraordinary roster of musicians and conductors. This set highlights the work of William Christie and René Jacobs, the label’s most prolific conductors, and has a list of soloists that include Andreas Scholl, Sandrine Piau, Mark Padmore, Lorraine Hunt, Werner Gura, Simon Keenlyside, Lynne Dawson and many others.

Each country’s recordings are grouped with a small booklet discussing its works. While there are some high-profile operas in this set – Lully’s Atys, Handel’s Rinaldo, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – there are also some works that may be new to many listeners. These include Keiser’s Croesus, Scarlatti’s La Griselda, Telemann’s Orpheus, and Campra’s Idoménée.

I’ve had great pleasure dipping into this set. While I already own about one-third of the recordings, there are many that I wasn’t familiar with, making this a delightful discovery. At £54 or $135 at the time of this writing, it’s a steal; and it’s a limited edition, so make up your mind quickly.

My only criticism of the set is its packaging. Back in the early days of Big Box Sets, these packages were designed to look imposing. They had big jewel cases, and took up a lot of space. In recent years, most labels have released big sets with simple cardboard sleeves to save space. Harmonia Mundi has opted here for digipacks, which more than double the amount of space this could have taken up with simpler sleeves. (The content could easily fit in one of those now-common cube-shaped boxes.) Now that many of us own a lot of box sets, it’s a bit irksome to have another one that’s so big. But, if you’re buying it as a gift for someone, it will take up a lot of space under the tree.

Harmonia Mundi should be congratulated for this set. At a bargain price, it features some of the staples of baroque opera, along with a number of recordings that have been long out of print. As a primer, to those new to the genre, it’s a perfect way to discover the richness of the baroque stage. For collectors, it’s a great way to fill in gaps in a collection. And for anyone, it’s a wonderful box full containing more than 45 hours of musical surprises. Don’t miss out on this one.

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iTunes Store Downloads No Longer Contain Composer Names?

I posted an article today saying that Tags on Music Files Downloaded from the iTunes Store Don’t Match Tags in the Store. I had noticed that, in an album I bought, Hilary Hahn’s In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, there were no Composer tags. This is a bit irksome, because there are 28 different composers on the album, and manually tagging takes some time.

But then I looked a bit further, checking some other recent classical downloads from the iTunes Store. I recently bought Waves, set of music by Ludovic Einaudi, and saw that, when I re-downloaded it on my laptop, there was no composer listed. (I had downloaded it on my Mac mini, in my main iTunes library, and had changed the tags, so I probably fixed the missing tag the first time around, but didn’t really notice.)

I then went back to my iTunes Purchased list and started re-downloading other music on my laptop. Since I have iTunes Match on that Mac, some of the music, which I had tagged manually, didn’t contain the original tags. But there were enough albums to see that there’s a trend: Apple seems to no longer provide composers’ names in downloads.

Here’s a screenshot of one track each from seven albums; as you can see, none of them contain Composer tags:

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What about others? Are you seeing this issue? Have recent classical downloads included names in the Composer tag?

Why would Apple be removing the composers’ names from the tags? This is essential information for classical music.

Update: Several people have already confirmed that they’re seeing this. One person on Twitter told me that anything purchased after 10/1/13 has no composer name, and re-downloads of older purchases do not either.

Update 2: I understand that Apple is looking into this.

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App Review: The Liszt Sonata

002.pngThere are many ways to explore classical music other than by just listening to it. If you’re a musician, you’ll read scores, either on their own or while listening to a work. You may also want to watch videos of performances, to see how great musicians play your favorite works. Or you may simply want to hear a musician talk about a work, giving you insights into its structure and form.

Touch Press’s $14 The Liszt Sonata app (iPad only; 637 MB) lets you do all of these. Looking closely at Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, this app lets you examine it in many ways, together with the great pianist Stephen Hough. There are extensive introductory sections, both in words and video, describing the work, discussing the sonata form, the structure of this sonata, and giving some background on Liszt’s life (which was fascinating).

The performance section of the app shows Hough playing the work. You get three angles, one from the side of the piano, one showing Hough face forward, and another above him, showing his hands. These views are all synchronized with the score, which has a cursor that moves as Hough plays. There’s also a sort of “guitar hero” view, showing which fingers are played.

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You can choose which of the top four views is largest; just tap the one you want to take up the most space. You can play and pause, and you can also listen to a commentary by Stephen Hough as you listen to the sonata, or read his commentary in subtitles.

As you listen and watch, you can move ahead or back through the timeline or the score by swiping. I’d find this more useful if there were some waypoints, letting you quickly get to specific sections the sonata, but if you’re familiar with the work, you’ll be able to find which section you want when you go through it.

I’m not a pianist, so the score doesn’t help me understand the work. But the introductory sections do give me a great deal of information about this sonata. Watching Hough perform is interesting, but it lacks the choices that a true director would have made with more cameras. However, a pianist trying to tackle this demanding work will certainly find all of this very useful.

If you want to immerse yourself in this sonata, this app will let you see it as you never have. If you’re a pianist, you’ll want this; if you don’t play, you may still enjoy looking closely at this work. It would be interesting if Touch Press were to release similar apps for other works. Bach’s Goldberg Variations would be a prime candidate, as understanding the different variations and canons help to appreciate the work as a whole.

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Jonathan Biss Presents Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in Free Online Course

Pianist Jonathan Biss has started presenting a free, online course about Beethoven’s Piano sonatas. Running five weeks, and sponsored by the Curtis Institute, this course covers the context of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, as well as specific sonatas and aspects of performance.

Biss expected about 1,000 people to sign up for the course, and was “flabbergasted” that some 32,000 people registered. The first week’s lectures discuss the context of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: the three main composers who preceded Beethoven (Bach, Haydn and Mozart), as well as the sonata form

Biss has recorded a number of Beethoven piano sonatas (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes ), and also wrote a Kindle Single, Beethoven’s Shadow. Biss is also one of the pianists in the Barenboim on Beethoven Masterclass DVD.

If you’re interested in Beethoven’s piano sonatas – arguably some of the greatest keyboard music ever written – by all means, check out this free course.

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CD Review: A Walking Fire, by Brooklyn Rider

61zrxQn3MvL._AA200_.jpg (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)

Nothing in the title of this album gives you an idea of the hour of music you’ll encounter when you start listening, but this fascinating disc by the New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider combines three disparate works into a coherent program.

Starting with Culai, by Ljova, a Gypsy musician, the quartet takes listeners on a trip to a distant yet familiar sound world. We can all recognize the sounds of gypsy music, and this five-movement string quartet goes through all of the phases of a life. Culai was the nickname of a gypsy violinist Nicolae Neacşu, and this work is the story of his life. Using all of the resources of the string quartet – solid ensemble playing, emotional solo violin, and some sweet phrases where the two violins play in unison – this shows that “classical” music comes in many form.

The next work on this disc is Béla Bartók’s brilliant String Quartet No. 2. Bartók took many of his themes from folk music, and the rhythms of the second movement of this work may even have been influenced by his discovery of Nigerian music during a visit to that country in 1913. Written between 1915 and 1917, this work is full of the sadness of the First World War, in Bartók’s familiar, yet not always easy to penetrate, musical idiom. Brooklyn Rider play this work beautifully, and its position following Culia links this quartet with the folk roots that Bartók so often used in his music.

The third and final work is Colin Jacobsen’s Three Miniatures for String Quartet. These three pieces are influenced by Persian miniature paintings, and feature tonal ideas that follow from Bartók. The first piece is dense and rhythmic, with Middle Eastern colors. The second sounds more like an arabesque. And the third features melodies that could be Gypsy music, taking this disc full circle.

Brooklyn Rider’s judiciously selected program works very well, providing an hour of exhilarating music that takes you on a musical voyage across cultures.

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