The complete Mozart -- Philips plans to release every single piece of music the composer wrote

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his first music at 5, and his last music just 30 years later. Performers, scholars, and poets have struggled for 200 years to take the measure of his legacy, and now Philips Classics has come up with an exact computation: Mozart equals 179 compact discs, weighing in at close to 40 pounds, and extending the length of an eight-foot shelf.

Two impulses meet head-on in Philips’ gigantic project (which is more than halfway completed, with a final release date set for early next year) to issue every note Mozart wrote: participation in the worldwide celebration of the bicentennial of Mozart’s death on Dec. 5, and the current passion for boxed sets, formerly the province of tonier book clubs but now entrenched in the record industry. ”The smaller the discs have gotten,” says Jim McKee, assistant manager of Tower Records’ classical-only West Hollywood store, ”the bigger the merchandise.”

Philips has grouped its humongous Mozart release into 45 packages, sold separately, ranging in size from a single disc to 12, with all discs mid- priced, including some fans may already have bought at full price. ”That doesn’t seem to bother most customers,” McKee reports, ”they want the boxes. We already have a wad of orders.” Philips’ Japanese affiliate, in fact, has released the complete series in one sturdy wooden chest, priced at nearly $4,000, more than twice the price of the American issue.

And what do you get in all that shelf space for all that money? Merely a tour through one of the most angelically endowed creative minds civilization has yet produced. It’s foolish to pretend that every note from Mozart’s pen is precious, but it’s amazing how many are.

Work your way through the 12 discs of symphonies, for example, and hear how the orchestra blossoms, from one work to the next, into a singing musical force. Try (preferably not on the same day) the 12 discs of piano concertos, and hear how the ongoing dialogue between soloist and orchestra grows from the crystalline tinkle of the early works into a wordless discourse poignant beyond measure. Survey the mature genius in haunting elegy of the slow movement in the G-minor String Quintet.

With a roster that includes Sir Neville Marriner’s crack little orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; the eminently wise Sir Colin Davis conducting the operas; the eloquent Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida among its pianists; and the violin legacy of the late Henryk Szeryng, Philips is well-qualified to erect a Mozartian monument. It offers the full measure of music’s greatest creative spirit: high fidelity in every sense of the term.