This two-disc set that EMI released in 2004 represents the quality one can find throughout EMI's "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" series, a series I'd like to see Warner Classics continue.
The set covers Hungarian-born conductor Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), who came to America in 1922 and established himself as one of the leading conductors of his day, culminating his career as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1953 until his death ten years later. Those were ten glorious years, especially as they represented his work in the forefront of the stereophonic recording era.
The Reiner recordings in the present two-disc set include over two-and-a-half hours of music by the conductor, covering most of the man's later career, about half in stereo and half in mono, and containing complete tracks from some of his best EMI, RCA, and Sony (Columbia) recordings from 1946 to 1959. Given that Amazon.com and other retailers are selling the set new and used for anything from $4 to $35, I'd say it's still a bargain.
Among the other pieces in the set are an adrenaline-rushing Beethoven Coriolan Overture in stereo with the CSO from 1959; a terrific Mozart "Linz" Symphony with the CSO in some of the best monaural you'll find; a sparkling Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, actually the Philadelphia Orchestra, from 1951; Brahms's Tragic Overture, with the CSO in stereo from 1957; some of Wagner's Gotterdammerung and Siegfried's Rhine Journey, also with the CSO in stereo from 1959; Bartok's Hungarian Sketches, CSO, 1958; and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Falla's El amor brujo, complete, the latter three items in mono.
Reiner continues to be one of my favorite conductors because like others of his era--Klemperer, Walter, Szell, Stokowski, and many more--he wasn't afraid to be himself, to let his own vision of a composer's work permeate the music, all the while maintaining a strict adherence to the printed score. It's a fine balancing act, to make old standards sound fresh and alive but not to violate their intent. Reiner could do it. Many of today's top conductor's seldom manage the feat, and compared to the vintage maestros they can appear almost commonplace, dull, or boring. And when the older conductors come to us in such good sound and at such reasonable prices, the proposition seems to me irresistible. But, then, maybe it's just me.
To hear a brief excerpt from this set, click on the forward arrow: