Beethoven: Complete Works

What a deal: the complete works of Beethoven on 85 CDs, for a list price of $140. That’s $1.65 per disc, or about a quarter an opus, all contained in a sturdy cardboard carton the size of a shoebox. Lift the lid and scan the list of contents, like a Whitman’s sampler. Reach in and dig out your favorites (the “Eroica,” the “Appassionata,” the “Archduke”) and save the nutty ones (“Wellington’s Victory,” the “Choral Fantasy”) for later. The Dutch label Brilliant Classics has made a specialty of such bargain-priced compendia in recent years, turning out similar packages devoted to Mozart and Bach, with Haydn to come.

It would be easy enough to lose any critical perspective before the magnitude of the bargain this set represents, but how do the performances measure up? Happily, there’s plenty to please the savvy listener here. The symphonies under Kurt Masur are equal parts elegance and muscle, just as they ought to be, and you’d be hard pressed to find a finer string quartet cycle than the Guarneri’s. If Clara Haskil’s and Arthur Grumiaux’s violin sonatas suffer from 50-year-old sound, the playing is first class, and overall the collection strikes a good balance between quality, fidelity, and economy.

The bottom line: When a day’s pay buys a lifetime of listening, something’s right with the world. –