DG Archiv: Blue

PERFORMER: Various artists
CATALOGUE NO: See text for individual catalogue numbers


For Proust it was a cake, for me the silver doughnut of Archiv’s classic LP label wafts back that dizzying perfume of new sounds from other times. Launched just after the Second World War, Archiv drew on one area of German expertise still free of moral taint: early music.

Cutting-edge, complete recordings of seminal repertoire from Machaut to Mendelssohn were presented in distinctive yellow and, later, blue-grey gatefold albums, with scholarly notes and unprecedented discographical detail. As LP gave way to CD, the label’s designers kept their grip on my punter’s psychology by harking back to the luxurious linen livery of Archiv’s LP sets.

As Stephan Bultmann has pointed out in his nifty history of the label (International Classical Record Collector, autumn 1998), Archiv’s excellence in this new, neutral terrain more or less saved DG’s bacon. But it has been poorly repaid in the reissue stakes, with Archiv orphans turning up on all manner of strange DG doorsteps, from Privilege to Resonance to Galleria to Classikon to 3D to Masters to Originals – no way to treat a label.

After two highly selective and short-lived special editions, cleverly playing on that evocative yellow (Codex) and silver-and-linen (Collectio Argentea), now here’s ‘Blue’. The minimalist cover designs are fittingly post-modern in their updating of a beloved icon, while new booklet essays assess each issue’s background and impact, a welcome alternative to the generic shoddiness of most reissues.

But the repertoire? I can’t work out who this mixture of solid classics (already reissued umpteen times), rarities we’d all but given up hope of seeing again and the odd mediocrity is supposed to attract: collectors, ‘ordinary’ music lovers or beginners?

Take Trevor Pinnock’s 1982 set of BACH’s Brandenburg Concertos (471 720-2, £10.99), still my recommendation for a stylish, centrist period-instrument version. Why is it on two separate CDs (Concertos Nos 4-6 will be in the next batch)? Fans already have all six, newcomers can buy them for a smidgin more with Pinnock’s equally fine Overtures (DG Archiv 423 492-2).

HANDEL’s Water Music (471 723-2, £10.99) is another Pinnock winner – but the coupling, the Overture from Il pastor fido, is an unimaginative filler, and presumably consigns all the other Handel overtures from its original 1986 release to eternal limbo. At least both discs have even-handed essays charting the pre-history to Pinnock’s ascendancy.

In painful contrast, the tendentious advertorial that puffs a 1995 coupling of PURCELL’s 1692 St Cecilia Ode with two verse anthems appears to believe that no worthwhile Purcell was recorded until Paul McCreesh came along (471 728-2, £10.99).

These middling performances soon undermine that claim and, what’s more, they don’t even show McCreesh with his bona fide Archiv hat on, restoring music to its original context – I’d love to hear a whole St Cecilia shindig or a whole service in the 17th-century Chapel Royal. Twenty years earlier, it was still too early for context: we needed basic maps of medieval, Renaissance and early Baroque music.

David Munrow’s fabulous MUSIC OF THE GOTHIC ERA was one of the last, great old-style Archiv Produktions (471 731-2, 2 discs, £14.99). Though now dated in some ways, as Daniel Leech-Wilkinson explains in his balanced booklet essay, it’s still a revelation and a must for any music lover with curiosity – unlike the Orlando Consort’s unlovely OCKEGHEM Mass and chansons (471 727-2, £10.99), low on euphony and intensity compared to Pro Cantione Antiqua’s Ockeghem, now unfairly banished from the Archiv catalogue.

There is a Requiem conducted by Philippe Herreweghe here, by JEAN GILLES of Provence, deservedly popular in 18th-century France (471 722-2, £10.99). But Herreweghe’s Archiv LP of it has already been reissued; and his Harmonia Mundi remake is better, just. Since then, Archiv has more than made up for rather ignoring French music by signing Marc Minkowski, whose disc of cantatas by BLAMONT, CLÉRAMBAULT and STUCK brings a rare excitement to this rarefied repertoire (471 730-2, £10.99).

Let’s hope this presages a mid-price reissue of Minkowski’s fine set of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, one of the greatest operas of all time. Only the jaded, who have everything else already, will need all six of LEBRUN’s oboe concertos, charming and inventive though they are – and superbly played by Heinz Holliger and Camerata Bern – along with MOZART’s Concerto (471 724-2, 2 discs, £14.99).

Camerata Bern’s deleted Mannheim School box is a better way in to this period. What will make you jaded if, like me, you admire Reinhard Goebel’s early work with Musica Antiqua Köln, is the fill-ups to their wonderful VIVALDI chamber concertos from 1980 (471 729-2, £10.99).

These works first resurfaced on CD with half of a 1977 LP of recorder sonatas from Naples. Now – a slap in the face for those of us who bought that CD – here they are again, coupled with the other half of that missing LP.

Meanwhile, bushels more early Goebel performances languish unaired, including the priceless German Chamber Music before Bach (only reissued in Germany). Last and most unexpected of all is one of only two Archiv LPs by the late Thomas Binkley and his Munich-based Studio der Frühen Musik, of songs and viol consorts by DOWLAND (471 721-2, £10.99).

As a Binkley fan I’m delighted: Nigel Rogers and the unique Andrea von Ramm are in fine voice. But as a Dowland fan I have to admit that this 1964 recording is now outclassed, vocally by the Consort of Musicke (Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre) and instrumentally by Fretwork (Virgin).


So where does this leave ‘Blue’? I’ve seen a list of the next ten titles, and they’re as heterogeneous as these. The series can work if it’s given a chance to grow, before the deletions computer kicks in, to become a catholic conspectus that does real justice to the unparalleled riches in the Archiv vaults, from Walcha and Wenzinger through Binkley and Baumgartner to Goebel, Gardiner and beyond.