ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Great Recordings of the Century
WORKS: Vier letzte Lieder; 12 Lieder
PERFORMER: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano); Berlin RSO, LSO/George Szell
CATALOGUE NO: CDM 5 66908 2 ADDReissue (1966, 1969)
I suspect we’ve all encountered recordings which define or focus our ideals, aspirations and values in one great moment of epiphany. When I first heard Sviatoslav Richter’s rendering of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy 27 years ago, for example, my world changed utterly. I now discover on revisiting this old friend that over the years I’ve become familiar with much of the terrain between myself and the horizons Richter expanded for me, but am again amazed at the power of his exciting and unflinchingly directed playing – as well as at his ability to make room in this context for such magically delicate murmurings in the Adagio and in the first section’s second contrasting theme.
A great recording, then, can cause an epiphany, but must also retain the capacity to awe the listener no matter how much perspective he or she gains on it. To be confronted with 25 ‘great recordings of the century’ at once is a dauntingly enjoyable experience: with the exception of Samson François’s rough account of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (CDM5 66905 2), all these performances have something vital or intriguing to say about the works performed, and accurately represent performers who have been admired and influential in the second half of our century.
That said, I’m not sure that many of these recordings occupy the same category as the Richter Wanderer Fantasy. Dennis Brain’s account of the Mozart horn concertos surely belongs in that exalted company: his sovereign ease in dispatching technical difficulties results in a restrained mode of expression that allows him to explore a strain of sublime melancholy that others have difficulty finding in such apparently robust music. The performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony given to mark the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, with Wilhelm Furtwängler as high priest, has some memorable flaws (that agonisingly out-of-tune horn solo in the slow movement!), but this is Furtwängler’s most rhapsodic and idealistic traversal of the choral finale on record, and the whole proves an incomparably vivid concoction of energy and breadth, tradition and vision. Dinu Lipatti’s urgently expressive yet meticulously chiselled Chopin waltzes, the aching wistfulness of Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (CDM 5 66911 2), and even perhaps Thomas Beecham’s infectiously evocative Grieg are all indispensable – it is impossible to imagine life without them.
Some other recordings contain breathtaking moments. The Alban Berg Quartet’s account of Schubert’s C major Quintet (with Heinrich Schiff), excellent though most of it is, attains nirvana at the reprise of the main theme in the slow movement, where for once the quiet rustlings of the cello and poignant countermelody in the first violin decorate stasis rather than derail it. Despite Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s occasional archness and apparent vocal precariousness, her gift of making words come alive turns the ending of ‘September’ from Strauss’s Four Last Songs into pure magic; in the same song, you will search in vain for another performance of the orchestral part (including that gorgeous horn solo in the postlude) which touches the depths of lyric feeling that George Szell and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra discover. And the performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore (CDM 5 66907 2) is an evergreen – such inventive music-making will enthrall listeners for as long as people listen to recordings.
But that disc (like those devoted to Klemperer, Menuhin, and du Pré) seems to me more important for representing a career extensively documented by EMI than for some special intrinsic merit. Certain all-star line-ups (the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Richter, Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Karajan, among others) turn out to be more intriguing on paper than in performance. Some other entries in this series, no matter how impressive, have yet to take on the aura of a ‘great recording.’ Despite the aptness of André Previn’s distinctive attention to articulation and rhythmic pointing in Orff’s Carmina burana (CDM 5 66899 2), or of Itzhak Perlman’s patient sculpting of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (CDM 5 66900 2) and the Brahms Sonatas (with Ashkenazy; CDM 5 66893 2), these recordings seem to me no more (but certainly no less) than strong contenders if you should be seeking a(nother) recording of the works in question.
EMI’s presentation is consistently attractive in format and design; digital transfers, most of them newly made, are generally excellent (the challenges of some of the earlier recordings defy easy solutions). Five discs offer brief playing times – the Cluytens Fauré Requiem (CDM5 66894 2) doesn’t quite reach 40 minutes, for example. But there are few flaws in this fine group of recordings. If you’ve been curious about any of them, EMI has offered an invitation to take the plunge.