All Ears

Rock me, Amadeus: Now you can hear every Mozart piece ever written with the Digital Mozart Edition and other collections of the composer’s complete repertoire.
Last week, the New York Times reported on a Christmas gift sure to warm the hearts of musicians and scholars the world over: the Digital Mozart Edition, an online archive of the composer’s complete scores, is now available for free download, in its entirety, at

The timing could hardly be better, since all those notes and staffs pair up well with another recent arrival, a CD set that has been a smash hit in Europe and is working its way to better exposure here. Hardly over a foot long, it’s a box set from the Brilliant Classics label containing every piece of music Mozart wrote on 170 CDs. Here’s the kicker: It sells for the astonishing price of $150, less than a buck per disc. (And that’s retail — Amazon currently has it for $15 less.)

The packaging is intelligently no-frills, just paper sleeves piled into a big, hinged box, split into categories for operas, sacred works, et cetera. It doesn’t even have booklets for the discs — notes and libretti squeeze into PDF files on a single CD-Rom. But listeners wary of bargain-bin classics, which sometimes offer lousy performances and bad transfers of ancient LPs, will be pleasantly surprised. The majority of these discs boast new recordings, and while the artists are obscure, they’re all steeped in the kind of early-music authenticity sought by most contemporary aficionados. It would take a month of 40-hour weeks to listen to the whole thing, but here’s a sprinkling of observations that should paint a good picture of the overall quality:

The first Songs disc,  pairing baritone Bas Ramselaar with Bart van Oort on fortepiano, offers a strong voice with just enough personality to put across occasional dramatic turns; the recording places us in a small, empty-sounding recital hall, where a subtle echo lends a warm sense of place. At the opening of Le Nozze de Figaro, the title character fares better in the recording mix than his duet partner Susanna. The Commendatore in Don Giovanni’s climax doesn’t arrive with quite the infernal grandeur you’d want if you were breaking in a new subwoofer, but chances are most folks in the market for this set already have a favorite Giovanni on their shelves anyway.

It’s when we get away from the greatest hits, of course, that the set’s value emerges. Diving in at random, I come across a disc of dances that aren’t familiar to me, recorded by the Slovak Sinfonietta. The 6 German Dances in B flat, KV 606, all of which zip by in as many minutes, are modestly charming, with a sound quality outshining some of the earlier selections and a performance to match. A random selection from the Sacred Works, Panis vivus (from the Litaniae de venerabili altaris sacramento), features soprano Pamela Heuvelmans making easy work of some complicated passages. It isn’t stirring any religious revelations for me, but with the exception of heavy-duty stuff like the Requiem, that’s not what I expect from Mozart.

For more reliable delivery of Divine transport, I turn to the Mozart set’s cousin: Brilliant Classics’ complete Bach Edition, at 155 discs and $140 retail. This set has sturdier cardboard sleeves and is therefore bulkier, but offers the same high aesthetic standards.

But we were talking about religious transcendence. As a teenaged choir nerd, I found Bach’s endless melismatic fugues intoxicating — was it that I wasn’t breathing often enough? — and it was easy to picture the composer sitting at his manuscript with a direct line to God himself. That feeling is easier to get when you’re actually performing a piece, but listening to the choirs of King’s College and Jesus College at Cambridge sing the St. Matthew Passion is a pretty great second-best, and the Magnificat isn’t half bad itself.

Moving to non-vocal works, The Well-Tempered Clavier came as a surprise, mastered at a higher volume than anything I had listened to up to that point — encouraging the listener to soak up the timbre of the instrument on display, even if Leon Berben plays it with a bit less grace than expected (as with many of the instrumental performances in these sets, the harpsichord itself gets its own credit: “copy after Couchet, by Willem Kroesbergen, 1996”). Happily, subsequent discs of organ works, all featuring Hans Fagius, are just as sonically robust.

Sets like these offer the promise of listening for years without growing tired of too-familiar compositions. But they have another quality as well: I imagine many potential buyers approaching them as if purchasing the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary; there’s something comforting (and, for some of us, ego-enhancing) about having such a leviathan of culture sitting in your study like a brilliant friend who never has other plans. In releasing quality recordings for a fraction the cost of those by bigger labels, Brilliant Classics lets us all enter that tweedy, rarefied world.


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