Callas, Bernstein - the past in a box

'Maria Callas Complete Studio Recordings,' a 69-disc set from EMI Classics.

Somewhere on the path to immortality, Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein transcended boxed-set recording anthologies. Now they have shrines.

For the price of more votive candles than you can count, La Divina (Callas' canonized name) rises again in the 69-disc Maria Callas Complete Studio Recordings, arriving in September with her own artist page on iTunes (a rare tribute in classical circles). And that doesn't include her prized live recordings.

Vying with it for shelf space is The Leonard Bernstein Collection, with 60 discs of his later-in-life recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, some overlooked amid the CD frenzy of the 1980s. And that's only Volume I (Beethoven to Liszt; M-W next year).

Prices hover between $225 and $275, and even averaging as little as $3 to $4 per disc, the boxes defy the common sense of five years ago, when digital files were thought to be the future of everything.

"The physical format is far from dead," said Barry Holden, vice president, classical catalog, at the London office of Universal Music Group. The split between physical and digital is 50-50 in the United States, rising in Far East markets as high as 90-10 in favor of physical in Hong Kong. "This is the paradigm that's going to shape everything over the next five years," says Holden. "Do I want to own it or just listen to it?"

The boxed-set gold standard is last year's Vladimir Horowitz Live at Carnegie Hall on Sony Classical: Much of the music on its 42 discs was live performances never previously issued, with the pianist at his peak. Everything on the Callas and Bernstein sets has been out before. But retail impetus, especially in China, comes from extravagant packaging and bonuses, such as a super-hi-fi Blu-ray disc (as in the new Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic set of Schumann symphonies) or special LP pressings (an October postscript to the Callas set).

"We have to create reasons to own the music, and packaging is it," Holden said. "But having said that . . . it needs to be clear that the package needed to exist . . . and isn't a waste of time and money."

Another draw is sonic authenticity - a Chinese priority that's seconded by iTunes, whose higher standards favor recordings encoded in 24 bits and sampled at 96 kilohertz. One big talking point of the Callas box is that almost all the recordings were remastered from the master tapes - not just her famous EMI recordings, but also earlier efforts for the Cetra label that were made in the late 1940s, at the end of the 78-r.p.m. era.

"It's a clearer, purer sound, and what the engineer and producer might've heard," said Allan Ramsay, who headed the team of engineers at EMI's Abbey Road studios. "When you have the original tapes, you have so much more to work with."

Now owned by Warner Classics, EMI was known in previous decades for good but assembly-line remasterings, not necessarily from the original tape. All previous CD versions of the Callas Carmen were from copies of the original. Now, thanks to the original tape hunted down in France, the hum underneath the offstage trumpets is gone. With new technology, train rumbles outside the recording venue can be excised without also removing the double basses.  (Accidental studio noises were left in out of respect for the original.)

Ramsay's work had urgency: The Callas tapes have held up well over the decades, but for how much longer? Luckily, her career stopped short of EMI's now-problematic change in tape quality in the 1970s: "Those tapes suffer from sticky-shed syndrome," says Ramsay, citing a form of deterioration. "Black gunk comes off . . . and stops the tape machine from playing. The only thing you can do is bake the tapes to dry out the moisture."

So Callas is safely future-proofed. The question is whether her unobstructed voice is always desirable. Never a traditionally beautiful singer, she was almost confrontational in her sense of dramatic truth. In a spot check of the new set, her 1953 Norma reveals great subtleties of expression, reminders of what a standard she set - strict fidelity to the notes but powered by a Dionysian theatrical imagination - making these recordings among the most important in all of opera.

But in later efforts, the tics she accumulated as she declined vocally emerge in higher relief. Was this intended? Chances are, even the original studio playback equipment didn't reflect all that was on the tape. Was Callas meant to leap so deeply into our ears?

Recordings that have gone into the public domain have been remastered by smaller boutique labels, chief among them Pristine Classical, whose restorationist approach involves adjustments that original producers might have made had they known what we now know. The results place her voice amid more room ambience, smoothing some vocal rough edges.

"I can't put sounds in that weren't there," said Pristine founder Andrew Rose in an e-mail. "But I can re-equalize such that the harshness and tonal inconsistencies caused by the equipment available at the time are either cured or ameliorated."

Ramsay's rebuttal is simple: "This is the sound we have," he says. And having consulted some of the original engineers, he's convinced his sound is the truth. In other words, those who have heard Callas only on recordings perhaps got to know her voice inaccurately. And comprehensive boxed sets can't help but reveal what we'd rather not know: Even genius has steep ups and downs.

In his boxed set, Bernstein seems greater - but stranger - than ever. While Sony recordings from his New York Philharmonic years nod to his disciplinarian mentor Serge Koussevitzky, later recordings are more personal, with slow tempos that don't so much reflect profundity as they attempt electrically charged stasis. His slow Dvorak Symphony No. 9 first left the world respectfully puzzled; now it seems to touch core truths. But one is more baffled than ever by his crazily inflected Carmen with Marilyn Horne.

Often, he fares best with music that has the least performance tradition, such as Hindemith, or Liszt's Faust Symphony. Bernstein the Promethean rabbi fares worst in music that's about glossy surfaces, like Debussy. He also took the sparkle out of his own works, such as the Serenade for Violin, Harp, and Strings. Yet his deathbed Candide, made months before his 1990 passing (and with most of the cast overdubbing due to a flu epidemic) has an odd majesty. As much as its deliberation feels contrary to the piece's nature, the disc is still the work of a major artist on so many levels.

I wouldn't be without it.