Hight Definition Classics Review Update

Introduction

Well, I said I might update my previous review if there was anything worth mentioning.  Well, there is an old adage that applies for this update: be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

A few days ago my Big Box copy of The Baroque came in.  I quickly made a copy for my music player, and started looking through the tracks.  The update is below.

Over the weekend I received my copies of The Symphonies and The Opera & Ballet Big Boxes.  Originally I had mistakenly said that I couldn’t find a copy of The Opera & Ballet.  Obviously that was incorrect.  The Big Box I haven’t ordered is The Romantic.  For some unknown reason, that one Big Box is going for $50+ USD.  As I said in the first part of this review, I wouldn’t spend more than about $16 USD for these boxes, and I am sticking to that.

The Baroque

In my original review I stated that I was unhappy with the Bach orientation of the Volume I, and suggested that maybe Volume II would be more oriented towards other composers of the period (but I also said I thought that was unlikely).  Well, it turns out that I was wrong: Volume II contains predominantly selections of Handel and Vivaldi.  Along the way it also manages to include some Albinoni, Telemann, and even Marcello.

But, this is where the another issue that I had mentioned earlier comes up again: duplication of selections.  This time not only is there some duplication, but it’s even more rampant. For example: every Handel selection in Volume I can also be found in Volume II.  And, to make matters worse, even within Volume II there is duplication of the Handel pieces.  This is particularly true with the Water Music: one of the discs contains the complete work, all three Suites.  The very next disc in the collection repeats Suite No. 1.  And, Suite No. 3 is also in Volume I, and on the complete Suites disc.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  Way too much duplication.  And, despite Volume II not being as heavily Bach oriented, I still found myself wishing that the range of composers selected for this compilation would have been better.

On to the performances.  These are overall quite nice, especially for such a value oriented set of CD’s.  I won’t say that any of them are outstanding or exceptional.  However, as I have stated before, all the performances are competent, well delivered, and easily numerous steps above the Vienna Masters Series, or other “battle axe” recordings.

The Symphonies

If one wanted to summarise this Big Box in three words, they would have to be: Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.  I stated in the first part of this review that I felt Haydn had been under-represented on The Masters Big Box.  I still stand by that assessment, despite the better representation of Haydn on The Symphonies. It’s a fairly narrow view of Haydn to represent him in this way.  He did so many other types of works: inventing the string quartet and writing over 70 of them (many of which were major innovations in form and structure), he was a mentor and inspiration to both Mozart and Beethoven, he wrote numerous Masses, Oratorios, Concertos, Trios, and Sonatas.  One could argue (and I often do) that Haydn should be second only to Bach.  Mozart and Beethoven should be seen as secondary to Haydn.  And yet, seeing as this is a box of symphonies, it is at least good that Haydn is well represented here.

And, yet again, we find that there were very few other composers represented.  Mendelssohn, Brahms and Franck are present, but only for one or two pieces each, out of all 16 CD’s.  And yet, certainly there were other composers that should have been worthy of some space in these recordings.  A few names that come to mind: Bruckner, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak.  All of which go unrepresented.

The recordings themselves are excellent overall.  The performances are good and fiery where it’s called for, layered and nuanced when appropriate.  These are performances that have drive and direction, the performers are very invested in getting the best out of the material that they are able to.

The recordings themselves are excellent, as with The Piano collection, these were very well engineered, and balanced.  Excellent clarity, good staging and imaging.  The sound quality could very well rival recordings costing 5x-15x as much.

Unlike The Masters Big Box, these CD’s are sequenced much more reasonably.  No interweaving of movements from different symphonies.  There is duplication, but it seems to be a little less (but I could just not be noticing it as much).

The Opera & Ballet

I have to admit up front that I am definitely not the most knowledgeable when it comes to Opera.  I have something of an aversion to Opera, I am unable to reconcile the libretto’s with the musical settings.  That being the case, it is rather awkward for me to comment on Opera, unless it is something like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or Stockhausen’s Donnerstag Aus Licht.

Ballet is something that I haven’t honestly paid all that much attention to.  Certainly we’ve all heard quite a few of the pieces, and I do think they are nice, light entertainments.  However, they don’t tend to hold my attention in the way that a Symphony, Concerto, String Quartet, etc. do.

So, recognising my limitations in these areas of the repertoire, I will say this: I find that these are definitely acceptable interpretations of pieces that many of us are well familiar with.  You aren’t going to start listening to this set of discs and think “why the hell am I listening to this?”.  In fact, I have been quite enjoying my time with this set of CDs.

I am possibly enjoying these discs much more than I thought I would, because this set represents the kind of dosage I can assimilate and digest quite easily, with performances that don’t drag or bore.  (Something that is a major plus for me.)  Another reason I believe I am enjoying this set is that Johannes Strauss is well represented both for his Opera’s and dance numbers.  I’ve always been a sucker for a good Viennese Waltz, even if I have two left feet.

I can’t complain (as much, at least) that there isn’t a good range of composers represented: Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Verdi, Glinka, Rossini, Offenbach, Mozart, Wagner and Bizet.  The one composer that, while represented, seems quite under-represented would be Wagner.  Only a couple of Wagner selections are presented throughout the course of the 16 CD’s in this collection.

What I will complain about with this package goes back to possibly my two biggest complaints with this whole series of CD’s, with an additional twist.  The two things that I complain about are (a) track duplication, and (b) sloppy indexing / crediting.

The duplication level of these CD’s may be at an all time new high: Bizet’s Carmen is all over these disks.  Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty are represented numerous times.  Stravinsky’s Petrushka is on numerous discs.  Glinka’s pieces are represented all over the place.  I would hazard a guess that there is maybe a 30-40 percent range of duplication.  For a set of discs that are supposed to represent a collection of “Over 16 hours” of music, that amount of duplication is quite extraordinary.

I do, however, have something of a theory about the duplication.  These sets are grouped in four disc “volumes” and within each of those volumes, each disc within the volume represents a “sub-theme” or “concept” that fits into the volume.  (These are rather questionable at points as the themes / concepts are sometimes sketchy at best.)  I think the idea is that you will (the intended audience) will likely only listen a disc or two when the mood strikes, and therefore won’t notice all the duplication, or accept it as fitting the themes / concepts that are represented.

Of course, in these days of digital downloads, portable MP3/OGG players, and computers with many many gigs of drive space available for storing your own personal copies of this music, it is less likely that you will listen to these recordings in this manner.  Yet again, this is another case of ill-conceived marketing, or marketing to a different generation.

The subject of the sloppy indexing / crediting of the pieces was driven home to me by The Opera & Ballet Big Box.  For whatever reason, only 4 of the 16 discs in this set were in cddb or MusicBrains, leaving me to actually hand-create the metadata for my copies of the CD’s.  This turned into an an arduous task that I don’t relish most people having to do (I did not submit my metadata for reasons that will become clear).

First, the index list that comes with the box is difficult to read.  The print is fairly tiny in many cases (I would guess 6pt), and the layout of the information is inconsistent.  Sometimes listing the credits for a group of pieces correctly, and sometimes listing pieces in such a way that it would appear to be part of a group, when it wasn’t, and it wasn’t even by the same composer.  In some cases there were just mis-identified tracks: one of the CD’s listed Mozart as the composer of The Nutcracker.  Ironically this was one of the last discs in the set when there had been at least 3 or 4 other representations of The Nutcracker that were correctly credited to Tchaikovsky.

Then there are the plain and simple typographic errors (or mis-spellings if you’d rather): such as “Olinka” instead of “Glinka”, and “Russini” or “Rossin” instead of “Rossini”, “Mozzart” instead of “Mozart” and “Verde” instead of “Verdi”.  But, those are only the composer names and relatively easy to figure out.  However, when the piece titles are mis-spelled it can be both quite comical and quite frustrating…  How about “Wilhelm Tell” for “William Tell”, or “Appolon” vs. “Apollon” (I’m still confused with that one), or “Rusan” vs “Ruslan” and “Ludmila” vs “Lyudmilla”.

And, to make it more “interesting” there were two CD’s in the set where the track counts were wrong.  One CD was a track short, and another CD was a track long.  I still don’t know what is what with those discs, not having had the time to try to identify everything on the.  Which is why I won’t submit my metadata to either CDDB or MusicBrainz: there are defintely some things that I know are still wrong.

If anything, the sloppiness on this point is the one reason that I might consider skipping these CD’s…  As a tool for being introduced to the music they are quite good, however with the bad information on the pakckages, it will be difficult to make certain you can identify a piece correctly.

Conclusion

I think this is a good place to end this follow-up piece.  Once again, they are longer than I intended (and probably add less to my original review than I had hoped).

In my original review I said that I was giving these discs a qualified approval…  And I still approve them, given the quality of the recordings, the performances and the pricing (except for The Romantic set, which I still don’t understand).  But, I have to say more loudly that the duplication of pieces, the inaccuracy of the track information make me have second thoughts about recommending these recordings.

Another issues that still bothers me: 400 hours of original material?  These recordings only represent a maximum of 96 hours, and more like 65 hours if you take into account the duplication.  So, why are so many composers under-represented, or missing altogether?  I know this is an introductory series of recordings, but really, I would think that it would have been an objective to represent as wide a range as posible.

I might seriously look for a collection from Naxos, or Brilliant Classics.  Especially if the price difference isn’t an issue.

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