On the Cheap: Bargain Boxed Sets

Depending on your take on things, you might either say “Finally!” or “Damn!”, but there’s no doubt that labels have literally started dumping larger and smaller CD boxed sets and album collections onto the market that allow many listeners and collectors to buy into a larger chunk of an artist’s or a label’s output cheaply. This might be somewhat frustrating for some collectors who had previously dished out considerably larger amounts of money for the same music they thought might either not reappear any more or simply stay at in that price range, but all in all they might also now have the chance, like I do, to buy into music they might previously not have bought into.Much has been said about the impending demise of the CD, and, at least to me, there are signs visible right and left, but at the moment things are moving swiftly along and with bargain boxed sets at a price range that has seen me invest larger amounts of money again into either filling holes in my collection (these are not really holes but large gaping orifices that needed some money thrown into) or simply giving this or that a try (again) to see if it would fly. In most cases it did.

Bargain Boxed Sets

Let me give you some examples.

Original Albums Series (Warner).

Original Album Series (Warner) & Original Album Classics (Sony)

I’m quite sure you’ve seen those around. These bargain boxed sets are those skinny-looking small cardboard boxes that usually house three to five albums, the albums themselves housed in thin flimsy cardboard replicas of the original LP sleeve. Those replicas are usually cheaply done and can in no way be compared to, say, the usual Japanese quality job in regard to LP-sleeve replicas, but they are incredibly cheap and can be found easily. Whenever I jump on some, especially some that showcase music by some artist or band I might otherwise not have bought into, they usually come at a laughable price.

The other day, I came across a larger sale of these and bought myself the following, all at Euro 6.99 to 8.99 each:

From the “Original Album Series” (containing 5 albums each) run, I got myself the “a-ha”, “Alanis Morissette”, “Dream Theater”, “Foghat” and the “J. Geils Band” sets and from the “Original Album Classics” (5CDs each) series, “Alan Parsons Project” and “Uriah Heep”. And those weren’t the first ones. Previously I had already bought myself the “Chris Rea”, “Doobie Brothers”, “Foreigner”, two “Santana” and the “Scorpions” sets, and those are only the ones I can remember off the top of my head right now.

Yes, these are bare-bones cheapo reissues, they do not in many cases include the best available masterings, one sometimes wonders why certain albums were included and why others were left out, some reissues contain bonus tracks, others don’t; in short: they are at times hodge-podge assemblings of albums that don’t always reflect chronological development or an artist’s or a band’s best output.

But they are dirt cheap, and that it is a major motivating factor for me. I bought the “a-ha” for a few tracks I liked (and now have five albums I’ll probably hardly ever listen to), ditto for the “Alan Parsons” (although often good stuff, I was never a fan), I bought some for nostalgic reasons to see if I could still get into the music, and others I bought just, uh, because they were available.

***

EMI / The Chrysalis Years (header).

The Chrysalis Years (EMI)

Much of the above can also be said for the various “The Chrysalis Years” cheap boxed sets (well, they are not really boxed sets in the traditional sense) I bought into that contain up to five albums each (often with bonus tracks) in chronological order. I managed to get hold of dirt-cheap copies of the two UFO ones (1973-1979 and 1980-1986), the two Robin Trower ones (1973-1976 and 1977-1983) and the “Michael Schenker Group (1980-1984)” one. I didn’t, by the way, go for the “Ten Years After” one simply because their studio albums simply don’t “fly” when compared to their at times blistering live performances that really defined their reputation.

Of course, there are no sleeve replicas as these are housed in larger jewelcases, but at least there’s usually a bit more info in the accompanying booklet when compared to the sets above which just have the (mostly undecipherable) sleeve replicas. For all of the above, I never paid more than Euro 8.99 and at that price, they are practically unbeatable.

***

It’s my comparatively small classical music collection, which up until recently pretty much only consisted of various highlights I bought into, that has gotten a major boost via these “on the cheap” massive boxed sets that suddenly seem to be appearing right and left. Usually, these hark back to earlier times and, to be quite honest, I shied away from single reissues in the past because I was in doubt about the recording and mastering quality, but I shouldn’t have.

The following three cheap boxed sets, which all came with price tags bringing CDs down to around 1 Euro each (and below) when I jumped on them, have brought me some major enjoyment and, yes, a laugh or two, or they simply put a great big smile on my face.

***

Bernstein Symphony Edition (Sony Classical 2011).

Bernstein Symphony Edition (Sony Classical 2011)

This massive reissue LP-format boxed set clocking in at 60 CDs and covering Bernstein’s 1953-1976 symphonic recordings with the New York Philharmonic, adds a comparatively extensive and large-sized book with plenty of photos and recording info. The rather spacious stero imaging comes across in excellent recording quality and, a large plus of this set, the cardboard CD sleeves, when thrown up into one of my shelves, actually have legible titles on their spines so you don’t have to pull out the somewhat flimsy mass of them at once to find something. The only quibble I have with the set is that the “complete” label is, as is often the case, just not correct. Symphonies that were recorded several times way back then are only included in one recorded version and, in one or two cases one has to wonder, why the particular one in the set was favored over another one.

Still, considering – as I do – that Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic simply sounded best at the time of these recordings, this was a steal at something around Euro 68.- and has brought me some major listening enjoyment.

Symphonies included:

Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9 (Complete)
Berlioz: Symphony Fantastique
Bernstein: Symphonies 1-3 (Complete)
Bizet: Symphony in C
Blitzstein: The Airborne Symphony
Brahms: Symphonies 1-4 (Complete)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Copland: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, 3
Dvorak: Symphonies 7, 8, and 9
Franck: Symphony in D Minor
Goldmark: Rustic Wedding Symphony
Harris: Symphony No.3
Haydn: Symphonies 82-88; 93-104
Hindemith: Symphony in E-Flat
Ives: Symphonies 2 and 3
Liszt: Faust Symphony
Mahler: Symphonies 1-9 (Complete)
Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3, 4, and 5
Mozart: Symphonies 35, 36, 39, 40, and 41
Nielsen: Symphonies 2, 3, 4, and 5
Prokofiev: Symphonies 1 and 5
St. Saens: Symphony No. 3
Schubert: Symphonies 5, 8, and 9
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4 (Complete)
Schuman: Symphonies 3, 5, and 8
Shapero: Symphony for Classical Orchestra
Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 14
Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7 (Complete)
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-6 (Complete)
Thompson: Symphony No. 2
Vaughan-Williams: Symphony No. 4

***

"Mercury Living Presence" and "The Decca Sound”.

The Decca Sound (Decca Records, 2011)

The 50 CDs included here, all housed in cardboard replicas of the original LP sleeves, are a rare treat, simply because in the mass of classical boxed sets, this one, at least to my yes, approaches things from the quality and not the commercial angle (if you ignore “The Three Tenors – Carreras Domingo Pavarotti in Concert”, one that sticks out like a sore thumb here).

“The Decca Sound” is, indeed, legendary, and it is captured perfectly here, presenting equally “legendary” performances. Decca didn’t take the easy way out and includes more cerebral and “difficult” stuff, often moves out of the standard repertoire range and hence offers real value for money. A lof of this music I had either never heard (my bad) or had previously shied away from.

I’ve had a real blast listening to a lot of this music and I have yet to discover more gems that I haven’t had the time for yet. Very highly recommended!

01 – Ernest Ansermet – Falla & Debussy
02 – Ataúlfo Argenta – Showpieces of Spain & Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
03 – Vladimir Ashkenazy plays Rachmaninov
04 – Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts Sibelius & Mussorgsky
05 – Cecilia Bartoli – Italian Songs
06 – Joshua Bell – Barber, Walton & Bloch
07 – Herbert Blomstedt – Richard Strauss
08 – Karl Böhm – Bruckner Symphony No 4
09 – Willi Boskovsky – New Year’s Day Concert in Vienna
10 – Benjamin Britten – Britten War Requiem
11 – Riccardo Chailly – Messiaen
12 – Kyung-Wha Chung – Mendelssohn & Bruch
13 – Clifford Curzon – Mozart Piano Concertos
14 – Christoph von Dohnányi – Schoenberg, Berg & Webern
15 – Antal Doráti – Stravinsky
16 – Charles Dutoit – Ravel
17 – Renée Fleming – Great Opera Scenes
18 – Nelson Freire – Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 & Schumann Carnaval
19 – Bernard Haitink – Shostakovich Symphonies No 5 & 9
20 – Christopher Hogwood – Purcell Dido & Aeneas
21 – Janine Jansen – Beethoven & Britten Violin Concertos
22 – Herbert von Karajan – Holst The Planets
23 – Julius Katchen – Bartók, Ravel & Prokofiev Piano Concertos
24 – István Kertész – Dvorák Symphonies No 8 & 9
25 – David Willcocks – Haydn Nelson Mass
26 – Alicia de Larrocha – Granados & Falla
27 – Ute Lemper – Berlin Cabaret Songs
28 – Radu Lupu – Beethoven Piano Sonatas
29 – Peter Maag – Mendelssohn
30 – Lorin Maazel – Respighi
31 – Charles Mackerras – Janácek
32 – Neville Marriner – Tchaikovsky & Grieg
33 – Jean Martinon – Ibert, Bizet, Saint-Saëns & Borodin
34 – Zubin Mehta – Varèse & Ives
35 – Pierre Monteux – Ravel Daphnis et Chloé & Elgar Enigma Variations
36 – Karl Münchinger – Bach
37 – Georg Solti – Wagner The Golden Ring
38 – The Three Tenors – Carreras Domingo Pavarotti in Concert
39 – Joan Sutherland & Luciano Pavarotti – Puccini Turandot (highlights)
40 – Philip Pickett – Susato
41 – Pascal Rogé – Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos
42 – Christophe Rousset – Pergolesi Stabat Mater
43 – András Schiff – Bach Goldberg Variations
44 – Georg Solti – Romantic Russia & Suppé
45 – Georg Solti – Mahler Symphony No 8
46 – Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti & Marilyn Horne – Live from Lincoln Center
47 – Takács Quartet – Beethoven Late String Quartets
48 – Renata Tebaldi – Puccini La Fanciulla del West (highlights)
49 – Vienna Octet – Mendelssohn Octet & Beethoven Septet
50 – Andrew Litton & David Hill – Walton & Parry

***

Mercury Living Presence – The Collectors Edition (Decca Records, 2012)

In shape and form, this boxed set is pretty much the same as “The Decca Sound” above and it houses 51 CDs (the last CD features an interview with producer Wilma Cozart Fine) of more standard repertoire when compared to the above Decca set.

For collectors, this boxed set is a must-have. The “Mercury Living Presence” series is a legendary one, spanning more than 130 reissues on CD since the early 1990s. This boxed set here is then a subset of these reissues, and that’s where things get a bit more complicated. Although, I would assume, the (again, assumed) commercial success of this box might well warrant a second one, if the rest of the reissues are not released in another similar boxed set, one has to wonder which criteria were applied to the selection process for this one right here. To quote an Amazon customer,

“this collector’s edition gathers all the Janis from the Mercury CD series (5 CDs), the Bachauer (4 CD), the Szeryng (3 CDs), the Romeros (3 CDs), 6 Starker out of 7 (missing is the Chopin Sonata), 2 Kubelik out of 4 (missing Dvorak’s New World and the Kubelik/Dorati compilation of Hindemith Schoenberg Bartok Kodaly). 14 CDs conducted by Dorati (other than Concertos) provide the main bulk of the programs featured in the box, but still those selections only skim the surface. Among the missing ones are his complete Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies and Swan Lake, his two Respighi and two Rimsky CDs, his Schoenberg-Berg-Webern collection with the London Symphony Orchestra, three Bartok out of 5, Dvorak Symphonies 7 & 8, Beethoven Symphonies 5-7. The Paray selections are only apetizers, out of 18 Paray CDs the box offers a paltry 2. There are 6 out of the 18 Fennell CDs (I can certainly do without hours an hours of Marches!), 3 out of 16 Hansons (only one out of three of himself conducting his own works, and not his Gershwin with Eugene List), and none of the 3 Puyana CDs. The rest is the famous Russian Balalaika and one Skrowacewski.”

No matter what, I’ve really had great fun and, in some cases, a real hoot listening to these (some of them already several times). Personally, I prefer the more cohesive Decca box, but only by a negligible margin.

***

"The Complete Masters" (Universal France).

Sidney Bechet. The Complete American Masters 1931-1953 / Ella Fitzgerald. The Complete Masters 1935-1955 / (Universal Music Classics & Jazz France, 2011, 14 CDs each)

Laughably cheap and also offering similar cheap boxed sets for Charlie Parker (1941-1954, 13 CDs), Billie Holiday (1933-1959, 15CDs) as well as Louis Armstrong (1925-1945, 14 CDs), this bare-bones reissue series is a somewhat ramshackle affair.

Obviously, the bargain price was the main motivation here, and it shows (flimsy box, flimsy generic cardboard sleeves), but when initially released, these were so cheap that one simply couldn’t resist.

The Ella Fitzgerald one had two faulty CDs (which were replaced by Universal France in a timely and speedy manner), and despite the “remastered” label, one has to wonder where Universal France got these tracks from. I do own some of the more shady “Classics” releases from the 90s and saying they are identical isn’t too far off.

Still, the two sets I bought will tie me over, in the case of Fitzgerald, until Mosaic gets its hands on much of this material and, in the case of Bechet, fills a sizable hole in my collection which I now also consider filled. I’m not the biggest Bechet fan, and this reissue box will have to suffice.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *