In all, there are 330 compact discs, twenty-four DVDs, two Blu-Ray audio discs, a handsome pictorial biography that would be worth having even without the music, and several booklets. There are 405 hours of music here: the first performance dates from 1938 (the overture to Die Zauberflöte with the Berlin Staatskapelle) and the last from April 1989 (Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, a few months before Karajan’s death). According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which tracks such things, this is the “largest box set ever issued,” eclipsing a 2011 award presented to the late Arthur Rubinstein for the “largest boxed set of recordings by a single instrumentalist” (a total of 142 CDs).
Critic Tim Page reviews the new, big box set of recordings by Herbert von Karajan. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) While the above mentions the largest box set by a single instrumentalist, this new Karajan set also eclipses the 200-disc set of Mozart recordings released in late 2016.
The sheer bulk of the set is overwhelming, and one can’t help wondering who will listen to it all. After all, we live in a world that offers the near-complete recorded output of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi and most of the albums released by Vladimir Horowitz over the course of sixty-one years (as well as a fifty-CD set of live performances that chronicle seismic ups and downs in the last part of his career), and virtually everything Arturo Toscanini, Pierre Monteux, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Charles Munch ever conducted near a microphone. Moreover, if you are growing weary of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn, and Itzhak Perlman, you can find the complete records of worthy but not exactly household-name violinists such as Johanna Martzy, Gioconda de Vito, and Eduard Melkus issued in Asia, where there has long been a huge hunger for rare recordings.
We have reached peak classical music. These complete sets are everywhere, but I still await one: the complete (more or less) recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, at least those he did for the major labels, DG, Philips, EMI, etc.
There is a simple reason for this proliferation: reissues are nothing but profit for record companies. There are no studio costs to pay, only a small fee to the musician’s union, and some residuals to the artist or the artist’s estate. It has long been considerably less expensive to spiff up and repackage an existing recording than to make a new one. The first stereo albums of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, for example, sound as though they were recorded yesterday, although some of them are nearly sixty-five years old and every person associated with them is either dead or long retired. Brilliant young performers now have to compete not only with their contemporaries but also with a host of legendary ghosts. Through technology we have established a permanent pantheon of great performances, one that can be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for newcomers to crack.
This is an interesting point. These sets aren’t just about cheap (per disc) recordings of all the major classical works, and many minor works, but they have flooded the market with recordings that will make it much more difficult in the decades to come for other performers to stake out a place.