BIS: 30th Anniversary Edition

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: BIS
CATALOGUE NO: See text for individual catalogue numbers

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It’s 30 years since Robert von Bahr founded the Swedish BIS company with the intention of ‘filling a number of musical niches’ – a policy amply justified by its subsequent international success.

Oddly for a label named after the French alternative for ‘encore’, BIS has never had a reduced-price reissue series, preferring to keep its original recordings in the catalogue. But to celebrate the anniversary, von Bahr has selected 30 discs for repackaging at mid-price, available until 31 December.

They represent some of his many enthusiasms, as well as demonstrating BIS’s high technical standards. Be warned, though: the company’s fondness for a very wide dynamic range can be awkward on the average home hi-fi.

Prominent in the list is the disc which in 1991 first unveiled the original version of the SIBELIUS Violin Concerto, alongside the familiar, simplified and instructively reworked, revision – and which also revealed the phenomenal virtuosity of the young Leonidas Kavakos (CD-300500).

BIS’s exhaustive Sibelius series is also represented by a collection of songs, from early works to the fine Op. 90 set of 1917-18, with Anne Sofie von Otter in glorious voice and Bengt Forsberg a sympathetic partner (CD-300757).

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, the backbone of the Sibelius series in recent years, also provide glowing accounts of works by the contemporary Finn EINOJUHANI RAUTAVAARA, including the Seventh Symphony, Angel of Light and Cantus arcticus, with its simple but magical use of taped bird-calls (CD-301038).

Sibelius’s Swedish contemporary HUGO ALFVÉN is heard in generally relaxed mode in an anthology including the famous Midsummer Vigil rhapsody and an imaginatively scored suite from the ballet The Mountain King, conducted with flair by Neeme Järvi (CD-300725).

Less genial, but equally rewarding, is a collection of music by the Icelander JÓN LEIFS, from his first work, the already personal Little Trilogy, to his last, the moving Consolation for strings, and including the powerful Geysir: Vänskä here conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, in a slightly muffled church acoustic (CD-300830).

Like Leifs, the Estonian-born EDUARD TUBIN was virtually put on the musical map by BIS: the reissue of his heroic Third Symphony and profound Eighth, authoritatively conducted by Neeme Järvi, should win him many new admirers (CD-300342).

Tubin’s compatriot ARVO PÄRT hardly needs similar advocacy these days, but a vividly played and recorded disc of his Tabula rasa and other music for strings, with the Tapiola Sinfonietta directed by Jean-Jacques Kantorow, would make a handy introduction to his austerely beautiful sound-world (CD-300834).

A SHOSTAKOVICH disc by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra under Juha Kangas contains – alongside Rudolf Barshai’s weighty string-orchestra versions of the Eighth and Tenth Quartets – a real curiosity, the recently rediscovered 1939 Suite on Finnish Themes for two voices and ensemble: mostly lightweight stuff, but with one deeply serious interlude (CD-301256).

From BIS’s invaluable series devoted to ALFRED SCHNITTKE comes Torleif Thedéen’s ardent account of the ambitious First Cello Concerto, coupled with the Four Hymns for chamber ensembles, rooted in ancient Russian chant (CD-300507).

And there is a remarkable disc of Schnittke’s contemporary SOFIA GUBAIDULINA, including an intermittently prophetic student Piano Quintet, and an Introitus for piano and chamber orchestra with an extraordinary whirling climax (CD-300898).

Further afield, the reputation of the Greek composer NIKOS SKALKOTTAS for a somewhat dogged greyness is not completely dispelled by his huge 1944 Largo sinfonico, but Georgios Demertzis proves a devoted advocate of the earlier and rather more welcoming Violin Concerto (CD-300904).

In complete contrast is a TAKEMITSU programme recorded in Japan under Tadaaki Otaka: apart from his breakthrough Requiem for strings, it consists mostly of late works, including Fantasma/Cantos II with trombonist Christian Lindberg an eloquent soloist (CD-301078).

Lindberg is one of a number of artists who can happily count themselves members of the BIS ‘family’. Among others, the violist NOBUKO IMAI is partnered by Roland Pöntinen in a fascinating and beautifully played programme which includes early Sibelius and Britten and late Liszt and Takemitsu (CD-300829).

The pianist Noriko Ogawa is represented by Vol. 1 of her DEBUSSY series, including refined, idiomatic performances of the two books of Images and the early Images oubliées (CD-301105).

SHARON BEZALY is similarly represented by Vol. 1 of her planned traversal of the unaccompanied flute repertoire in alphabetical order: a programme-planner’s nightmare, but it neatly juxtaposes the Bachs, JS and CPE, with Aho, Arnold and Berio, all in exemplary performances (CD-301159).

Among specialist early-music discs, one that stands out is BIS’s 2001 rush-release of HANDEL’s recently identified Gloria for solo soprano, with Emma Kirkby a brilliant soloist; this retains its original, ungenerous coupling, a Swedish performance of the Dixit Dominus from the same early period of Handel’s career (CD-301235).

However, a characterful performance of VIVALDI’s Four Seasons by Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble, originally issued on its own, is now augmented by two more Vivaldi works, including the D minor Concerto for viola d’amore and lute, superbly played by Monica Huggett and Jakob Lindberg (CD-300275).

Jakob Lindberg also features on a highly recommendable single-disc selection of solo pieces by DOWLAND, played on the lute and the gently buzzy orpharion (CD-300824). Robert von Bahr’s talent for casting is demonstrated by discs selected from three ongoing series.

Ronald Brautigam shows high energy and great thoughtfulness in his fortepiano performances of five HAYDN sonatas from the early 1780s (CD-300993). Miklós Spányi uses the gentler tangent piano to telling effect in two concertos and a more forward-looking Sonatina by CPE BACH (CD-300914).

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And a disc of JS BACH’s Cantatas Nos 105, 179 and 186, from his astonishing first year in Leipzig, demonstrates the remarkably high standards of the Bach cantata series by Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan (CD-300951) – one of many reasons for congratulating BIS on its first 30 years, and wishing it continuing success..