Of the classical boxed sets released this year, here are six collections that have given me particular pleasure. May they provide comparable listening cheer to you and the music lovers on your Christmas gift list.
"Vladimir Horowitz Live at Carnegie Hall" (Sony Classical, $105.31): This extraordinary set ranks as the piano collection of the year, bar none. Here are the complete recitals and concerts Horowitz recorded for RCA and Columbia between 1943 and 1978, presented on 41 CDs and one DVD (a historic mini-recital CBS televised in 1968). Some of this material has been issued previously, but the vast majority has never been released unedited, until now. The fire-breathing brilliance, lyrical legerdemain and overwhelming charisma that made Horowitz one of the towering pianists of all time have never been heard to better advantage than here. Included is a 300-page hardcover book packed with photos, essays and an appreciation. As producer Jon Samuels, who supervised the restorations, writes, "The likes of him will never be heard of again."
"Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic" (Kultur, $134.99): The second volume of Bernstein's landmark television programs, nine DVDs containing 27 digitally restored videos, means that the entire series of TV broadcasts from 1960-72 is now available on home video. Can you imagine any broadcast network today devoting prime air time to classical music such as CBS did for Bernstein back then? Lenny was the greatest pitchman for serious music the world has ever known, and when he died, an entire era in American culture died with him. These invaluable sets bring it back in all its black-and-white glory.
"Verdi at the Met: Legendary Performances from the Metropolitan Opera" (Sony Classical, $63.99): Fanciers of historic vocal performances may feel they've died and gone to heaven when they dip into this 20-CD trove of 10 Met radio-broadcast recordings, which Sony is issuing in honor of the Verdi bicentennial. Included among the riches are the young Jussi Bjoerling in "Ballo in Maschera" and "Rigoletto"; Rosa Ponselle in a 1935 "La Traviata"; Leonard Warren in "Simon Boccanegra," "La Forza del Destino," "Rigoletto" and "Falstaff," the latter conducted by Fritz Reiner. An accompanying book contains essays, photos and track listings for each opera.
"Carlo Maria Giulini: The London Years" (Warner Classics, $32.89). "Concerto Recordings" (Warner, $33.77)."The Chicago Years" (Warner, $23.65): Warner Classics gets the drop on the 2014 centenary celebration of the beloved conductor Carlo Maria Giulini with three boxed sets containing almost his entire EMI orchestral discography, minus operas and choral works, on 30 CDs. The first set is mainly devoted to his 1950s-1970s recordings with the Philharmonia and other London orchestras. The second box offers his collaborations with Itzhak Perlman, Mstislav Rostropovich, Claudio Arrau and others. The third set contains all the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings he made for EMI from 1969-1976. "The London Years" is of particular interest since it contains a bonus audio documentary on his life and career, adapted from a 90th birthday tribute Jon Tolansky produced for Chicago fine arts radio station WFMT. A treasurable survey of a great maestro's art.
"Selected Signs III-VIII" (ECM, $61.05): This sampling menu of excerpts from ECM recordings made under the supervision of the label's founder and producer, Manfred Eicher, was created to accompany a 2012-13 exhibition in the Haus der Kunst contemporary museum in Munich, Germany. More than seven hours of music reflect his eclectic, idiosyncratic tastes, from medieval to contemporary art music, film and trans-cultural music, to jazz classics of the last 30-odd years. Such mainstays of the ECM stable as Gidon Kremer, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek and Kim Kashkashian are well-represented. The minimalist packaging – six white wallet-packs enclosed in a white cardboard box, sans liner notes – is as much an emblem of Eicher's singular artistic vision as the musical contents.
"The Complete RCA Album Collection, Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner" (Sony Classical/RCA Red Seal, $135.49): Sony is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of the former CSO music director with a boxed set all the recordings the feared and fabled conductor made during (and just after) his Chicago tenure, 1953-63. The vast majority of them have never been surpassed in musical or technical excellence. To have them all under single cover – 63 remastered CDs, including a bonus disc of hard-to-find Reiner bits and pieces – at super-bargain price should encourage every collector, not to mention every student of the art of conducting, to snap up this important collection while it's still available. The paper sleeves are adorned with the original cover art, and the sturdy slipcase includes a 156-page, hardcover book with an illuminating essay on Reiner as podium perfectionist.