Classical folks can be notoriously difficult to shop for. Once you do settle on something, the results can be underwhelming. An envelope with concert tickets can barely stuff a stocking. An individual CD seems like an exercise in anachronism. And have you ever tried to wrap a piano?
Luckily, you can still find gifts for the musically minded that boast artistic substance to match their physical heft: I’m talking about box sets. Below are three formidable new sets that will delight the music lover in your life — and keep them busy for weeks.
Maria Callas: ‘La Divina: Maria Callas in All Her Roles,’ Warner Classics
For some people, a perfectly sensible way to celebrate the 100th birthday of La Divina (a.k.a. soprano Maria Callas) might be to simply snack on YouTube highlights — say, her legendary 1958 “Lisbon ‘Traviata,’” or the unforgiving newsreel coverage of her “Norma” walkout that same year. (She was indisposed!) But for others, nothing short of immersive, comprehensive, endurance-based diva worship will suffice.
For those people there is “La Divina: Maria Callas in All Her Roles,” which is precisely what it says on the box. Across 131 CDs, three Blu-ray Discs and one DVD-ROM, the box set collects all the roles for which audio documents exist — including the 43 roles Callas sang onstage, studio recordings and alternate takes. This means no fewer than eight Toscas, seven Normas and Lucias, six Medeas, four Aidas and a joke about a partridge in a pear tree. This may all seem like way too much Maria — and it absolutely is — but each disc in this extensive library feels like an invitation — from the spellbinding early 1954 recording “Maria Meneghini Callas Sings Operatic Arias” to her 1972 master classes at Juilliard.
The DVD-ROM includes libretti and sung texts, liner notes galore, interviews and recording sheets. And a supplementary lap-friendly hardcover book gathers dozens of photos and liner notes in French, English and German. For the most hardcore of Callas fans, this set will provide hours of discovery and pleasure. (Results may vary for their neighbors.)
Various artists: ‘The Avantgarde Series,’ Deutsche Grammophon
In the late 1960s, the esteemed classical recording label Deutsche Grammophon did what a lot of folks were doing at that time: They started experimenting. Between 1968 and 1971, the label released four box sets of six LPs each — handsomely designed attempts to package and market the burgeoning global new music scene. Rather than focus on individual works, the boxes lured hesitant browsers into the wild by organizing around scoring, ideas, principles and forms: an album of string quartets, another of choral works, another of music for early instruments. But these assurances of the familiar quickly gave way to (often literally) uncharted territory.
This 21-disc set collects and reissues that ambitious and short-lived series (apart from three Karlheinz Stockhausen releases, withheld at the request of the composer’s estate), and in the process resuscitates its experimental intrigue. A grouping of string quartets by Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Toshiro Mayuzumi is a tangle of mid-century existential tensions. A trombone-centric suite assembles brass-bending experiments by Vinko Globukar, Luciano Berio, Stockhausen and the ingrown fanfare of Carlos Roque Alsina’s “Consecuenza.” Mauricio Kagel’s “Music for Renaissance Instruments” breaks the Baroque into bits. There are (relatively speaking) some big names represented: John Cage, whose “Atlas Eclipticalis” and “Winter Music” are here recorded simultaneously; György Ligeti, whose molten second string quartet feels like the set’s center of gravity; and Stockhausen, whose “Spiral” sets up a lively dialogue between oboist Heinz Holliger and a shortwave radio.
But the true pleasure of this reissue are its little secrets and surprises: the seaside field recordings of Luc Ferrari; the feral tape manipulations of Roland Kayn; the primordial electronics of Zoltán Pongrácz, Rainer Riehn and Gottfried Michael Koenig. “The Avantgarde Series” shouldn’t be mistaken for a comprehensive cross-section — there’s no New York minimalism, no pre-IRCAM Pierre Boulez and not a single woman to be heard. But its 186-page book does help fill in some conspicuous blanks, and the set’s fearless range and reach offer adventurous ears a compelling retreat to what once were music’s front lines.
Philip Glass: ‘Philip Glass Piano Etudes: The Complete Folios 1-20 & Essays from 20 Fellow Artists,’ Artisan
D.C. audiences are still waiting for Philip Glass’s National Symphony Orchestra-commissioned Symphony No. 15, but in the meantime, all ears have been on the composer and his piano.
A celebration in November at Lincoln Center assembled 10 pianists, including Timo Andres, Inon Barnatan, Lara Downes, Jenny Lin and Nico Muhly, to perform all 20 of Glass’s piano études in one evening. Earlier this month, the Joyce Theater presented “Dancing With Glass: The Piano Etudes,” featuring five new dance interpretations of the études (performed by pianist Maki Namekawa). And a new album of Glass playing a selection of his solo works arrives Jan. 26.
All this activity is swirling around the release of “Philip Glass Piano Etudes: The Complete Folios 1-20 & Essays from 20 Fellow Artists,” a substantial box set not of CDs, but of sheet music folios for his 20 elegantly scored études. Taken together, they are part self-portrait and part autobiography — their repetitive textures helping to obscure the narrative advancement of Glass’s practice (both senses) at the piano. Gorgeously printed and prepared, they’re a perfect gift for beginners and experienced players alike. “If I’m to be remembered for anything,” Glass has said, “it will probably be for the piano music, because people can play it.”
Bundled with the set is “Studies in Time,” a book of short essays from artists and collaborators, including Alice Waters, Angélique Kidjo, Ari Shapiro, Ira Glass, Laurie Anderson and Martin Scorsese — each of whom sing the composer’s praises. (It feels a touch repetitive, but maybe that’s the point.)