The so-called gift of music has been slipping deeper into technological ambiguity with every holiday season.
The maddening part: You never know when your friends will switch formats. Classical music people tend to be a bit retro, and, in any case, often prize the packaging that comes with old-fashioned physical compact discs. Then, increasingly, there's the back-to-vinyl trend. For gift-giving, digital files have always been problematic: Flash drives haven't gotten any sexier and make no impression in wrapping paper.
Whatever the format, here's music that either adds something new to the zeitgeist or refurbishes something old by an artist who may no longer be performing (or even living). Or is something that hasn't happened yet, like tickets to a forthcoming performance. (That way, you need not take responsibility for the outcome.) Also, the quoted prices are fluid: You never know when you'll find a bargain somewhere. Or maybe I've quoted a bargain without knowing it.
Philadelphia's last live-performance memories of Maria Callas are from her vocally compromised 1974 concert tour. But the 20th century's greatest singing actress is mostly in her prime in this Warner Classics 45-disc set of remastered live recordings that often show her in more brilliant form than in her more polished studio recordings. Past releases of these performances have had challenging sound quality. This set has some dramatic improvements, partly because of remastering, partly because new sound sources have been discovered. Also, Callas never commercially recorded with Leonard Bernstein, but they're together live in Bellini's La Sonnambula at La Scala in 1955. Individual volumes are also available. Warner Classics: maria-callas.com
This is the latest masterwork by the Dutch minimalist who has so deeply influenced composers such as David Lang and Julia Wolfe (both often heard in Philadelphia). Theatre of the World, on this two-CD set on the Nonesuch label, centers on a 17th-century Jesuit philosopher but turns into the musical/theatrical equivalent of a complex modern novel, with appearances by Pope Innocent XI, Voltaire, and Goethe. The music embraces pretty much everything — including jazz — and doesn't aim to be pleasant but certainly takes your ears to new ground. Nonesuch: nonesuch.com
In 1960, the greatest Russian pianist of the 20th century gave an astounding series of recitals at Carnegie Hall that signaled the arrival of a huge talent. Recorded by Columbia and RCA, they've been in and out of circulation over the decades. This 13-disc Sony label box brings together the recordings by both labels for a staggering account of this great Russian talent — before his later, more eccentric years. Here, he played like the god of all gods, in repertoire from Haydn to Prokofiev. The recordings made on the Columbia label always had compromised sound and haven't been improved all that much. But one doesn't notice that after a while, not just because of the technical force of Richter's playing, but for the individuality of his interpretations. Sony Classical: available at Amazon and other music retailers.
The orchestra's current season is unusually interesting, and one of the more intriguing forthcoming programs features the old-and-new meeting of 20-something conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (the latest wonder to emerge from the Baltic republics) and 90-something pianist Menahem Pressler, best known for his decades with the Beaux Arts Trio. That's Feb. 8-10 at the Kimmel Center. Together, they'll perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. Grazinyte-Tyla will reveal her conducting personality via Mahler's Symphony No. 4. On another special occasion, Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon presents her new Concerto for Low Brass (specifically trombone, bass trombone, and tuba) Feb. 22-24. What could that possibly sound like? Philadelphia Orchestra: philorch.org
Of the remaining productions this season, Written on Skin (Feb. 9-18 at the Academy of Music) isn't the safest choice for a gift: That modern opera by George Benjamin leaves listeners either ecstatic or puzzled. Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place (March 7-11 at the Perelman Theater) isn't so safe, either: It catches up with the American middle-class family of Trouble in Tahiti at the mom's funeral. But Carmen (April 27-May 6 at the Academy of Music) starring Daniela Mack has all-but-guaranteed visceral excitement. I'd go with that one. Opera Philadelphia: operaphila.org
Some Philadelphia history here: Pianistic personalities don't come any larger than the handsome, super-virtuosic William Kapell, who graduated from the Curtis Institute and made some of his best recordings with the summertime version of the Philadelphia Orchestra before his early death in a 1953 plane crash. These newly published live recordings on the JSP label capture what a giant he was in two performances of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 made six years apart in Philadelphia and Boston. Also here: Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini with the New York Philharmonic. The booklet is almost worth the price: It quotes Kapell's affectionate get-well note to his idol Vladimir Horowitz. JSP Records: Available on musicweb-international.com
Audiophiles tend to be as opinionated as theologians. Warning: This is not that kind of recommendation. But having owned three different turntables over the last 10 years, I'm happiest with the Audio Technica AT-LP 120 USB. You can find less expensive ones out there, but I had a bit of a Wizard of Oz moment with this one, in which an old French LP that previously didn't sound that good jumped out of the speakers with something resembling 3D sound. Not every LP fares so well. But my neighbors — who come over for vinyl parties — are pretty happy with it, too. Audio Technica: audio-technica.com
Composer Gregory Spears' work has often been heard in Philadelphia — including Wolf-in-Skins next week at the Kimmel Center. His Fellow Travelers is a taut, compelling, and wonderfully lyrical opera about gay romance in Washington during the McCarthy era. The Cincinnati Opera has put out a live recording of the world premiere. The opera is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, adapted by librettist Greg Pierce. The label is Fanfare Cincinnati: cincinnatiopera.org
Harvey Sachs' book is the hottest conductor biography in years, giving a 923-page account of Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), who led the New York Philharmonic and NBC Symphony and became one of the most legendary conductors of the 20th century. He also had a terrible temper and a wandering eye for women that's discussed in so much detail that some reviewers have been saying there's too much information. Yet you can't look away. Of course, you'll want to hear his recordings along the way, but his best aren't necessarily with the NBC Symphony that he conducted until his mid-1950s retirement. Earlier ones from the 1930s with the New York Philharmonic are better than the later NBC Symphony canon, and their sometimes-compromised sound has been remastered to maximum effect by the Immortal Performances label.
Liveright Publishing: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=4294993577