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September 5, 2006

On listening to the complete Mozart — Episode 2: Price break


In Episode 1 we read of New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's blissful experience spending three months listening to all of Mozart.

He noted that the source of his music was the Philips edition of the complete Mozart, released in 1991 and available in the U.S. as a 17-volume set totaling 180 CDs, with a suggested price of $8 a CD.

That comes to $1,440 for the set.

Now comes Daniel J. Wakin to report, in his story in yesterday's New York Times, that Brilliant Classics, a small Dutch label, has just released a 170-CD edition of the complete Mozart (top), with an astoundingly low price: $149.98 list — and just $119.97 at Amazon.

That's 70 cents a CD.

Interestingly, only a few thousand sets have been sold in the U.S.

The collection is a big hit in Europe, where nearly 300,000 sets have been sold since last year's release, more than half in France alone.

No doubt the disparity is due to at least two factors:

1) An uproar caused by record-industry figures in the French press who wrote that Brilliant was destroying the market with its bargain-basement pricing, resulting in a tsunami of free publicity and

2) The fact no virtually no one in the U.S. — at least until yesterday — even knew that the Brilliant Mozart existed.



Here's the Times story.

    More Mozart Than You Can Shake a Baton At

    You can cradle it in your hands, this small shoe-box-size container filled with one of humankind’s greatest creative achievements.

    It is a complete edition of Mozart’s works, 170 CD’s in color-coded paper sleeves: aquamarine for opera, purple for sacred works, orange for concertos, yellow for symphonies and so on. Inside the top of the container is a list of contents, like the descriptions of nuts and creams in a chocolate box. Program notes and texts fill a separate CD-ROM.

    Issued by a small Dutch label, Brilliant Classics, “Mozart Edition, Complete Works” coincides, naturally, with the (grit teeth here) 250th anniversary of that composer’s birth. The celebration has been exhaustively chronicled; consider this a last gasp of commem-o-philia.

    The set’s list price is $150, and it sells for $120 on Amazon.com, or about 70 cents a disc. Only several thousand have been sold in the United States, where it had a hitch in its distribution, but the collection is a hit in Europe, said Pieter van Winkel, the label’s director. Nearly 300,000 sets have been sold there since the release late last year, more than half in France alone, he said.

    The complete recorded works of composers are nothing new, but this issue is rare for its low cost and popularity, at least in Europe. And there is something compelling about its compactness: your fingers can walk through Mozart’s entire output in a few minutes.

    Discoveries are there for the making: the early operatic efforts like “Apollo et Hyacinthus”; Masonic cantatas and canons; the wealth of piano variations; the six CD’s of concert arias; the utterly charming notturnos for three voices and three basset horns. It is easy to jump from the late piano concertos, with their lyrical wind passages, to the glorious Gran Partita for 13 winds, or from the choral sections in “Die Zauberflöte” to the Masonic music.

    Mr. van Winkel left out fragments and works of dubious attribution. But the very nature of the project — completeness — meant that he had to leave in a vast swath of run-of-the-mill Mozart, particularly the endless dances, divertimentos and serenades that he wrote mostly in the 1770’s, when he cooled his heels as a musical employee of the archbishop of Salzburg. Dances fill five CD’s alone.

    “If you make an edition, you have to record everything,” Mr. van Winkel said. “It’s a very simple thing.” He said that he had not added up the total length of the set, but each CD averages an hour of music.

    Another complete Mozart edition, released by Philips in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of his death, is available in the United States as separate volumes. The Philips edition totals 180 CD’s, arranged in 17 volumes. (The suggested price is $8 a CD.) Universal Classics, which owns the Philips label, declined to release sales figures.

    The Brilliant performances have an early-music feel: swift, dry and light. Many of the recordings are done by specialists on period instruments or in period style, a number of them Dutch, the Netherlands being a hotbed of early-music performance style.

    “We were looking for musicians who are at home in the modern — let’s say, authentic — way of performance practice,” Mr. van Winkel said. “It’s no use to record the symphony with an old-fashioned orchestra that’s not of this time.”

    Few of the performers are household names, although they include the violinist Salvatore Accardo and the conductor Colin Davis. Ensembles include the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Among the singers are Helen Donath, Teresa Berganza, Soile Isokoski and Sandrine Piau.

    Sigiswald Kuijken leads the orchestra and chorus of La Petite Bande and solid young soloists in the mature Italian operas. Charles Mackerras conducts “Die Zauberflöte” with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, led by the early-music specialist Jaap ter Linden, performs the symphonies.

    Critics have praised the set. “Irreproachable technical quality, top-flight interpretations,” Jean-Pierre Robin wrote in Le Figaro, the French newspaper. Rob Cowan in The Independent of London called the performers “quality,” but found the piano concertos and symphonies “more worthy than distinguished.”

    Brilliant was able to sell the collection at such a low price partly by using paper envelopes instead of jewel boxes, eliminating booklets and licensing about 70 CD’s worth of music from other labels. Mr. van Winkel chose what to license based on what was available, how cheap it was and whether the performance seemed up to date and of good quality.

    Universal, a competitor in the total Mozart trade, did not cooperate, Mr. van Winkel said. Universal felt that selling the set at such a low price would “destroy the market,” he said. A Universal spokeswoman, Rebecca Davis, said no one was immediately available to comment.

    The set early on created a mini-fracas in the French press and classical-music blog arena. A manifesto in Le Monde, written by record-industry figures , accused Brilliant of sowing “confusion” about record prices, devaluing recorded performances and helping impoverish the field. Others came to its defense.

    Mr. van Winkel attributed the criticism to “French arrogance” and added that the controversy only helped sales in France.

    The Dutch conglomerate Foreign Media Group owns the label, which consists essentially of Mr. van Winkel, 45, a former classical pianist with a background in record distribution. It sells many of its CD’s through chain drugstores and supermarkets, focusing on low-priced CD’s and reissues of licensed works. It also produces its own recordings with lesser-known artists, who command lower fees than stars.

    “We sell repertoire, not stars,” he said. “If you want stars, you have to pay for them, and not everybody is prepared to pay full price for a star.”

    Brilliant already has produced a complete Bach edition and is working on editions of Beethoven and of Haydn, whose 200th death anniversary is in 2009. The Haydn edition will number perhaps 230 CD’s. “My God,” Mr. van Winkel said, “what that guy wrote. Incredible.”

September 5, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Am I missing it? I do not find the Divertimento in E flat, K 563, in the set. I thought that this set was the COMPLETE Mozart. Otherwise, I'm enjoying the CDs so far - about one fourth through the set. The quality of the recordings and performances seem excellent.

Posted by: Robert Senior | Jan 30, 2007 11:23:32 PM

did you buy it, joe?

Posted by: jennie | Sep 5, 2006 4:05:42 PM

Wonder what the quality is like.

There was a bargin basement classical distributor based out of my hometown that literally flooded the markets with badly recorded material. Apparently, they licensed ANYTHING they could get their hands on and as such, was more about volume than quality.

This is what I'd be worried about with something like this. Sure, if you need it for research needs it might do the trick either way. At the same time, $120 for the collection might not break anyone that into the genre :-) I guess I'll have to see about this when I have a few extra dollars...

Posted by: clifyt | Sep 5, 2006 3:29:05 PM

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