My music collection, while vast and diverse, is noticeably lacking in 20th century classical music. I have a bit of Debussy and Ravel, lots of Charles Ives, minimalists, Takemitsu, and Morton Feldman, some John Cage, but the pillars of the 20th century – Schönberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Berg, Webern, Ligeti, Varèse, and many others – have never been on my radar. To fill that gap, I bought a box set of Pierre Boulez’ recordings on Sony (Columbia) back around Christmas, when it was marked down in a one-day sale on Amazon UK. This 67-CD set (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) features music from a couple dozen composers of the 20th century, as well as some recordings of Berlioz, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler and others.
It’s been very interesting dipping into this set. It’s full of music that I don’t know well, or at all, making much of it a discovery. I don’t like all of this music, far from it, but at the price I paid, it’s a great way to get a good taste of these works. I don’t have any special opinions about Boulez as a conductor, other than the fact that I find his Mahler to be excellent, and that he seems to have a very good feeling for this music.
Deutsche Gramophone has released a similar set with their later recordings by Boulez. On 44 CDs (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), this set has less variety, but sticks clearly to the 20th century. I’m looking forward to getting this one too, to fill in some more gaps in my collection.
There’s also a smaller set on Erato, with 14 CDs (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), featuring composers who, for the most part, aren’t in the Sony and DG sets, such as Xenakis, Donatoni, Grisey, Dufourt, Ferneyhough, Harvey and Holler. I’m not sure this is essential, but if it comes down in price a bit, I’ll pick it up.
I also recently bought a CD player for my office stereo, so I no longer have to rip all the CDs I buy that I want to listen to. (My external drives are all a bit too noisy.) So I’ll be listening to “CDs” from these sets in the future. That, too, is very 20th century.
If you’re looking to discover some music from this period, these sets offer a unique opportunity to get music from a wide range of composers, performed by a conductor who is certainly worth hearing. And if you want a vade mecum of 20th century music to accompany you, Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) will give you some background on these composers. Richard Taruskin’s Music in the Early Twentieth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Music in the Late Twentieth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) are more encyclopedic, but cover much more than Ross’s survey. And this series of articles from The Guardian looks at the music of 50 composers from the 20th century to the present, giving useful background information and suggestions for works to listen to.