The Price Is Right for Some Classical CDs

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

As the debate rages over whether CDs are overpriced and whether the major retailers should sell used CDs along with the new, it might be kept in mind that one can build a decent classical CD collection these days without going into hock or resorting to what in the luxury-car business is called “pre-owned” product.

For the major labels with a lengthy history, say RCA Victor and Sony (formerly Columbia/CBS), a vast amount of product is available from which to select budget and even super-budget reissues, although RCA seems unwilling to commit to the lowest end of the price scale.

Sony has been sneaking some unexpected items into its cheapo “Essential Classics” line: not their stock-in-trade star reissues from the 1960s (Ormandy, Stern, Szell, etc.) but material from such less-publicized figures as the Chinese-born British pianist Fou Ts’ong Ts’ong has been little heard from lately but recorded some superb Chopin, which disappeared before most of us knew of its existence, in the late-70s.

There was, and again is, an attractive set of the Nocturnes (Sony 53249, 2 CDs), complete down to the three rarely heard, posthumously published numbers.


Fou’s playing may at first sound hard-boiled, notably to those accustomed to Artur Rubinstein’s richly colored readings. But Fou’s work quickly takes on an appeal of its own, based on a combination of rhythmic drive and poetry. It’s just that this pianist’s poetry is more hard-edged, less dreamy than that of older, more celebrated Chopinists.

Some of the most interesting super-budgets are not sent out for review: a mistake on the part of the manufacturers, since there can’t be many impulse buyers for the music of, say, Olivier Messiaen, which is included in an improbably priced set. For under $10, two CDs (Vox Box 5083)--including that composer’s shattering “Quartet for the End of Time,” Poulenc’s sassy Piano Sextet, Barber’s “Summer Music” and the Wind Partita by Irving Fine (1914-1962), are among others in this collection of 20th Century works prominently involving woodwinds.

The performances, originally recorded--and surpassingly well--between 1972 and 1977, are at least as accomplished as any much-higher-priced ones. They enlist such classy, mostly New York- based artists as the Dorian Wind Quintet, pianists Robert Levin and the late Jean Casadesus, clarinetist Joseph Rabbai, violinist Isidore Cohen and cellist Timothy Eddy.

Naxos is the one label able to turn out new, quality CDs--most notably of music for solo piano and small ensembles--while charging the consumer the price of a fast-food lunch for its gourmet product.


For nearly every artistic miss, Naxos seems to come up with a hit or two, the latest being Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet (550391) and the Schubert Octet (550389).

Both have as core ensemble the Budapest-based Danubius Quartet (whose membership is in a state of flux these days), with Jozsef Balogh the inspired clarinetist in the Quintet, and other first-rate wind players in the Octet.

This Brahms Quintet projects all the virtuosity and Weltschmerz one could want, buttressed by the strong rhythmic pulse too often sacrificed by performers susceptible to the Brahmsian temptation to dream and amble.

Its discmate is a polished, propulsive interpretation of Brahms’ Trio, Opus 114, which finds Balogh teamed with cellist Csaba Onczay and pianist Jeno Jando.


Schubert’s Octet is hardly a recorded rarity, but seldom is it dispatched with such a winning combination of joviality, delicate melancholy, technical finesse and rhythmic dash--the score can seem interminable when the playing is too relaxed--as it is by these Hungarians.

And as if the low price weren’t sufficient inducement to acquire this gem, Naxos has included an encore to the hourlong Octet, which in every other recorded instance fills an entire CD: a fetching fragment for wind octet by the 16-year-old Schubert.