Sitting on my desk as I write are two objects of wonder and delight. They are a pair of box sets from the Deutsche Grammophon label celebrating the company’s 111 years of existence. An odd anniversary to celebrate, you might think, and I suspect the real reason is that the marketing men somehow forgot the centenary and are catching up late, with the rather lame excuse that the number 111 ‘enjoys a special kudos in musical circles’ because Op. 111 was Beethoven’s last piano sonata.
The first box was released last year, and very quickly sold out. By the time I became aware of it, you could only lay your hands on second-hand copies selling for eye-watering prices.
It was such a success, however, that DG has recently reissued it, along with a second collection. Together they weigh in at half a stone and contain a total of — you guessed it — 111 CDs. Very handsome they look, too, in their cheering red-and-yellow boxes with the discs in compact cardboard slip cases featuring the original album cover artwork. The earliest recording is Victor de Sabata’s 1939 recording of Brahms’s fourth symphony, which still sounds terrific, and the collection comes right up to date with some of DG’s newest artists. A couple of the most recent albums were released only last year, Yuja Wang’s collection of piano sonatas and études by Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt and Ligeti among them.
Taken together, the two boxes offer an extraordinary survey of classical music, from David Munrow’s pioneering recordings of works from the Gothic era to Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and the latest sensation among young classical performers, the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, a band that has recently been receiving astonishing plaudits.
The list of artists involved reads like a Who’s Who of classical music, ranging from the conductor Claudio Abbado to the pianist Krystian Zimerman by way of Bernstein, Barenboim, Boulez, Domingo, Furtwängler, Horowitz, Karajan, Pollini, Richter, Rostropovich, Terfel and countless others. There are complete recordings of Carmen and La traviata as well as Bernstein’s acclaimed West Side Story with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras among the stars, and much sacred music, including Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Monteverdi’s Vespers. Solo piano music is especially well represented, though the allocation of chamber music strikes me as a touch miserly. Nevertheless with recordings by the Amadeus, Hagen and Emerson string quartets one can hardly complain that it has been ignored. I have been especially captivated by the Emerson string quartet version of Bach’s ‘The Art of Fugue’.
Many of these discs are among the jewels in DG’s catalogue and rated in the classical-music guides as among the finest versions of particular works ever recorded. But what’s astonishing — apart from the sheer number and variety of works and artists on offer — is the price. You might think it would require a second mortgage to pick up these lovingly selected, beautifully packaged sets but you would be wrong. Each box costs £74.99 from Amazon. That’s a total of just under £150, or £1.35 a disc — less than the price of an LP in the early Sixties. It is one of the most astonishing bargains I have come across in almost ten years of writing this column.
That DG is prepared to part with these recordings at such an amazing price — less than half the price of a packet of ten cigarettes per disc — is I suppose a sign of the terrible straits in which the recorded-music business finds itself. With so much illegal downloading and file sharing, many young people regard actually paying money for music as absurd. And even a technophobic oldster like me has become addicted to the brilliant online music-streaming service Spotify. If you are prepared to put up with obtrusive advertisements you can listen to almost anything for free. I’ve recently upgraded to the premium service where, for a mere fiver a month, you aren’t even troubled by the pesky ads.
There is little doubt that the days of CDs, and indeed of paying for recorded music at all, are numbered. Wander round an HMV store these days and you will notice that it is selling less music and more DVDs, computer games, T-shirts and books. The marvellous specialist music section in the flagship store in Oxford Street is sometimes almost empty. It won’t be long, I suspect, before the CDs on which I have lavished so much cash and care will seem as old-fashioned as shellac 78s.
So snap up these superb box sets, for yourself or your loved ones, while you can. For though live music continues to prosper, I suspect the golden age of classical music recording is already over and that these marvellous collections will soon seem as much a memorial as a celebration.