This set was scheduled for release before the sudden rapid deterioration in health of Maestro Maazel, and was not intended as a tribute, but as the first posthumous release it will be seen as such by many.
It's origin is strange-the various divisions of Universal in different countries seem to be operating unilaterally-Germany has re-mastered the Bohm Ring and Sinopoli Mahler not originally intended for UK release, Australia has released recordings on the Eloquence Label not actually available in Europe, and as for Japan, there is a whole plethora of remastered discs from the Decca and DG catalogue which they advertise as being at 24Bits/100kHZ and which are only available from Japan at great expense -as I can testify!
This set emanates from Universal Italy, with the perfunctory notes a translation from Italian, for example. The set does not state that it is re-mastered at 24Bits, but Decca's promotional material does, and the sonic results confirm this!
The Italian source is perhaps not so strange, as Maazel was revered in Italy perhaps as nowhere else-he could do no wrong in La Scala Milan for example.
This brings me to my next point.
The rush of obituaries even in the UK have emphasised his direction of 3 great American Orchestras-but to my mind his greatest achievements were in Europe with orchestras with which he worked here, none more so than the VPO featured on this set and the BRSO which he led for nigh on 10 years.
This set is not even a smattering of the recordings he made in Vienna, and Decca have even omitted some glorious recordings contemporary to the featured performances, but the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius sets-the only complete sets ever made by the VPO of these composers-have always enjoyed legendary status, and it is easy to hear why.
Recorded between 1963 and 1972 by Decca's crack recording team in "studio conditions" in the famed Sofiensaal acoustic, these performances show the young Maazel at his most dynamic.
It is worth noting that during this period, he had already recorded Zarathustra with the Philharmonia of which he was Principal Guest Conductor, Schubert, Schumann and Prokofiev with the BPO, various sets including a sensational Firebird Suite with the Berlin Radio Symphony of which he was Director as well as of the German State Opera Berlin, French Music with French National Orchestra of which he was also Director-and had conducted Mozart in Salzburg and Lohengrin and The Ring in Bayreuth, all before Age 40- and this is but a few of his accomplishments.
This meant that he came to the works in this set as a fully rounded artist-they may be a younger man's performances but they have an assuredness about them which is palpable-and thrilling.
There is not time and space to analyse each performance, but all are at least worthy, many are just fabulous. I will single out the full version Manfred for particular praise, and the first two Sibelius Symphonies are "reference "performances-they have never been bettered.
The Fifth of Sibelius splits opinions-some find it too fast and thrusting, lacking the sense of suspended animation that they believe the work such embody, but others find it revelatory in the glorious and joyful sonorities that Maazel and the players-unfamiliar with the work in this period-conjure up. I love it.
The Strauss pieces were held as sensational on their release, particularly the " Tod und Verklarung"-and remain so today, though why they were included over the Karelia Suite and Tapiola is a mystery.
You don't have to find every work on this set totally convincing, and you probably won't-but it is never less than fascinating, certainly not dull and overall brilliant.
There is another appealing factor-the sound quality. These were all recorded under the "Culshaw Doctrine"-indeed one of the discs was produced by John Culshaw himself, and all were engineered by Gordon Parry, the High Priest of Culshaw Doctrine! The conviction was that full frequency stereo was a medium in itself, not a means of replicating concert conditions, and balances were manipulated to provide what they deemed as ideal sonics only otherwise possible in the composer's mind!
When Decca still existed and had its own technical team under the late James Locke, in re-mastering recordings of the Culshaw period they carefully reversed much of this process as the taste and expectations of the listening pubic have changed, not least as a result of the move to live performance recording. Perspectives and balances were altered to a more natural state, not always to the delight of those who treasured the original LP releases, but in this release the original intentions of Erik Smith, Culshaw and Parry have been left unaltered.
This really is the legendary Decca sound of the 60's and 70's with all that this entails-a massive organ sound in the Manfred finale, cellos at least 3 metres tall surely, etc.
It is glorious, not as extreme as Phase 4, but not the rather homogenised results of the modern era.
The set is worth it to experience this alone!
If you are looking for a complete set of either works by the same artists, there are few if any better overall. Together in this bargain box they make a compelling choice and will thus appeal not just to admirers of Maazel, the VPO or Decca recording techniques.
The Tchaikovsky and Sibelius are superior in every respect to later versions by the Maestro, the Strauss the equal at least.
Hopefully more of Maazel's enormous recorded legacy will reappear sonically revitalised, and at time of writing we still await the release of his final Mahler recordings, including Das Lied Von Der Erde which I had to the privilege to hear live at the concert in London.
Strongly recommended-5 Stars. Stewart Crowe.