Versatile, Fearless Charles Rosen at the Piano

Charles Rosen: The Complete Columbia and Epic Album Collection

Sony Classical, 21 CDs, $60.00
Charles Rosen, New York City, 1991
Dominique Nabokov
Charles Rosen, New York City, 1991

Record companies are rarely confused with charitable organizations. How then to explain the recent release in a boxed set of twenty-one CDs corresponding to the twenty-one LPs that the pianist and writer Charles Rosen recorded for the Columbia and Epic labels between 1959 and 1972 (around eighteen and a half hours of music), at a price unthinkable even a decade ago? Tokyo-based Sony—now the keeper of grand old labels that include former behemoths CBS and RCA—has released this collection from an artist whose sales at the time of his death in 2012 were modest at best.

What changed? Transitions from one technology to another are inevitably laced with ironies, and the shift in musical circles from analog to digital is no exception. Sales of classical music recordings surged for a decade with the introduction of commercial CDs in 1982 (first irony); CD sales have declined steadily for at least fifteen years as more and more recordings moved to digital formats. The very technology that produced the surge eventually laid waste to it (second irony). Whether you subscribe to the notion that interest in Beethoven and other famous composers has also waned depends on where you sit and whether you have a stake in the answer.

To put the matter bluntly, declining CD sales have forced struggling labels to invent new strategies for moving inventory. The new calculus looks like this: the purchase rate of a boxed set of Rosen’s recordings by those who admire his considerable achievements will approach 100 percent. CDs today cost pennies to manufacture; stiff paper packaging is cheap. If single CDs no longer sell, then even modest sales of boxed sets no longer encumbered by plastic jewel cases (or, in many cases, royalties) are winners.

Berlin-based Deutsche Grammophon (since 1999 a subsidiary of Universal Music Group) lays claim to launching the boxed set craze in 1995. However, those sets were largely based on repertoire: Bach cantatas, Beethoven quartets, Mahler symphonies. In 1999, when a major American label (RCA) released a ninety-four-CD box of Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings, it demanded $1,300 and got few takers.

Sony learned its lesson. Acquiescing to the shift in interest from repertoire to performers and the downward pressure on prices, the super-label embarked on an orgy of inexpensive performer-based boxed sets. In 2012 it repackaged Rubinstein’s ninety-four CDs into 142 (paralleling their original LP albums) for 30 percent of the 1999 price. Between 2012 and 2014 Sony released boxes averaging two dozen CDs each from pianists William Kapell, Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman, Van Cliburn, and Murray Perahia, as well as the Rosen set. The Perahia box took the discount prize: sixty-seven CDs plus five DVDs for under $150—just over $2 a disk.

Sony shows no signs of slowing down. In 2015 it released the Russian pianist Sviatislav Richter’s complete American recordings (CBS and RCA formerly fought bitterly…

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