You may have seen the recently Internet-circulated "eighth-grade test from 1895" that required students to "mark diacritically," name all the republics of Europe (and their capitals) and "relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War." Whether or not Kansas pupils really needed to know such things to move on to ninth grade, the fact of the matter is that our general standards of cultural knowledge have diminished exponentially in this, the so-called Information Age.

A recent set of odd reissues from the German classical label Deutsche Grammophon makes that contrast even sharper. In 1954 – 50 years before now, 50 years after that eighth-grade test was given – the label sent out a promotional record that amounted to little more than the sort of label sampler that's so commonplace these days. Musik ... Sprache der Welt (Music ... the Universal Language) contained a few pieces from the DG catalog (already one of the most well-respected classical labels in the world), so buyers could actually hear the music, rather than just read about it.

This was at a time, according to the liner notes, when "pop" music was sold in toy stores and classical music was both fetishized and revered. DG records were expensive, recorded under optimum conditions and pressed on heavy vinyl. This was music for people who really knew about music. And those people, believe it or not, were in the majority at the time. Music – real music – was generally treated with respect; you couldn't be said to be a music fan without a working knowledge of the conducting technique of Wilhelm Furtwängler or the eloquent piano style of Vladimir Horowitz.

It is from that era that the recordings in the Musik reissue series come. Released as both a 10-disc boxed set and 10 individual discs, most of the recordings are finding their first international release on CD here (some are on CD for the first time ever). Recorded between 1952 and 1962 – the last great era of classical music as the lingua franca of "real music" – some of the best conductors of the modern era (Furtwängler, Karl Böhm, Fritz Lehmann) turn in startlingly excellent performances of cornerstone pieces like Beethoven's 5th and Brahms' 2nd.

Many labels have "budget" lines and cheap classical recordings are plentiful for people looking for background music, but it's hard to recommend anything better than this $10-a-disc series for neophytes, or nostalgists who pine for a time when the world was better-schooled in music. DG has always represented quality classical music; these CDs represent the label at its prime.

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