Decca: Double Deccas

COMPOSERS: Bartok,Mahler,Prokofeiev,Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Decca
CATALOGUE NO: See text for individual catalogue numbers

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In the cut-price, cut-throat world of classical reissues, every major label needs a ‘twofer’, one of those two-for-the-price-of-one lines where in a single-width jewel box you find two CDs winking up at you, congratulating you on your nose for a bargain.

Twofers tend to be where you find some of the most satisfying second-generation releases – recordings that haven’t dropped below full-price before, or imaginative combinations of things that used to be on separate CDs. And because you’re not rummaging around in the label’s super-budget bargain bin-ends, the artwork for twofers is usually elegant, the notes adequate, and (whisper it) you normally get texts and translations.

At first glance the four latest Double Deccas seem to be textbook examples of the twofer-compiler’s art. BARTÓK’s concertos are conducted by Solti, and with Ashkenazy and the LPO in the three piano concertos, they make a formidable team (473 271-2, £14.99).

There’s that famous Solti drive and adrenalin, which means there isn’t quite the finesse you find in a classic from 1959 – Géza Anda and Fricsay, now remastered as a DG Original, cheaper on a single disc – although the excellent Decca sound quality might sway you, or at least it would have done until András Schiff’s recordings with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer appeared on Warner’s Elatus label.

What Solti’s Bartók was to the Seventies, Fischer’s has been to the Nineties and beyond, and at mid-price this has to be the best bargain. Yet with the Double Decca, and a little extra in outlay, you also get the violin concertos with Kyung-Wha Chung. These are sensational: feral wildness and fragile beauty in the same box. If you want all these Bartók concertos, this is probably the right package at the price.

Orchestral PROKOFIEV next, an attractive orchestral mixed-bag (473 277-2, £14.99). At least the first CD belongs to Charles Dutoit, even if his Montreal Prokofiev isn’t as brilliantly realised as his classic Ravel recordings; if the ‘Battle on the Ice’ in Alexander Nevsky sounds matter-of-fact, something has gone badly wrong.

Lieutenant Kijé and The Love for Three Oranges suites are better, and the sound quality is superb. But the second disc is a strange hotchpotch of recordings, including an hour’s worth of excerpts from Prokofiev’s last ballet score The Stone Flower with the Suisse Romande Orchestra and Silvio Varviso.

Decca would have been better off bringing out the Dutoit disc on its own at mid-price, and then you could put the change towards Rozhdestvensky’s complete Stone Flower on Melodiya – also a twofer, and a good one.

TCHAIKOVSKY’s Swan Lake (473 283-2, £14.99) with Richard Bonynge and the National Philharmonic Orchestra is frustrating, because this could have been an opportunity to bring Dutoit and Montreal below full price for the first time – their Swan Lake is sensational. Bonynge’s is fine, but he misses the gorgeous Romantic glow of the later Decca recording.

Finally Georg Solti’s MAHLER Nine, which is a mismatch (473 274-2, £14.99); why would you prefer his impatient pushing of the Chicago Symphony to the eternal introspection offered by Karajan or Haitink, now that their Mahler Ninths are also twofers?

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Actually there’s a very good reason to buy this Double Decca, but it’s not the Symphony; it’s Yvonne Minton’s recordings of Mahler songs, gathered together from elsewhere in the Solti cycle. If Minton made lovelier recordings than these I’ve yet to hear them.