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Label : EMI
Format : Ape
Cover : No

This is one of three big boxes from EMI – the others feature Mozart and Schubert – which represent something of a departure for a major company. EMI have probably issued comparable size boxes before but most probably in anniversary or complete edition mode, and undoubtedly costing more than this one which comes in at hardly more than £1 a disc. That territory belongs to the likes of Brilliant Classics who issued some 40 disc boxes of major composers about three years ago at under £1 per disc. I am not sure quite who these very cheap mega-boxes are aimed at but we’ll come back to that later.

The arbitrary number of 50 CDs probably fits Beethoven quite well – better than Mozart or Schubert – because this does allow coverage of just about all his major works. Reviewing the list of those played here against a catalogue of the composer’s published opuses, there is not much missing – a couple of overtures, the two string quintets, woodwind trio and horn sonata seem to be the most important items not included. And these could probably have been squeezed in – I presume that suitable recordings were not to hand. There are not many “WoOs” but there again few, if any, of Beethoven’s unpublished works are masterpieces. So, in terms of coverage, this set would give you a recording of almost everything significant that Beethoven wrote.

Next I will give you an overview of the box and then we’ll come back to the different elements in more detail; this section is really about testing out whether you might just be interested. In physical terms, it is only about the size of a CD case cubed – a very positive feature – and some of the artists are listed on the side. Karajan and Giulini are at the top of the list although they conduct but one and two works respectively, albeit major ones. Once one has mastered how to open the box, essentially by dismantling it, the contents look crammed but there is quite a lot of extraneous cardboard inside to hold the paper-thin disc envelopes in place. For one moment I mistook the cardboard for two chunky booklets but, in terms of documentation, there is simply a track listing. Dates of recordings are given in years and on a “wholesale” basis – for example the piano sonatas are noted as 1968-1974. The earliest date seems to be 1957 so it seems likely that all are in stereo and the two violin romances from 1996 appear to be the only digital recordings. They seem to be there merely to allow “ADD/DDD” to be claimed. Shame on you EMI, particularly as Menuhin’s performances of these works would have done nicely and legitimately allowed another big name to be placed on the side on the box. Most of the material is from the late 1950s and 1960s and some of it may be having a last outing before EMI lose the exclusivity of the copyright. Nevertheless, apart from the odd exception, the sound quality should not be a deterrent. As we will see, most of these recordings are worth having and few of them are otherwise available at the moment.

Complete tracklist : Beethoven – The Collector’s Edition