Philips: 50 Great Recordings

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Philips

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Philips’s ‘50 Great Recordings’ draw on a half-century of notable achievements in the studio, but the first batch of 20 CDs raises some perplexing questions.

It’s good to see Eugen Jochum’s workmanlike 1964 Concertgebouw performance of BRUCKNER’s Symphony No. 5 back in circulation (464 693-2). The new digital transfer of this sonically overwhelming recording is a vast improvement, but Eduard van Beinum’s legendary accounts of Nos 8 and 9 (recorded 1955/56) would have been more stimulating options.

Bernard Haitink’s MAHLER cycle with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra appeals for its common-sense musicianship rather than its excitement, as the 1969 recording of the Ninth affirms (464 714-2, 2 discs).

But its unwavering stoicism and complete lack of histrionics – especially in the terrifying ‘Rondo-Burleske’ – mean it should outlive many a lesser rival.

Quartetto Italiano’s fine pairing of the DEBUSSY and RAVEL quartets sounds more mellifluously seductive than before (464 699-2). The 1965 recording has gained substantially in atmosphere and transparency, and it would be good to see this group’s landmark Webern so treated.

Mitsuko Uchida’s miraculously fresh DEBUSSY Études were digitally engineered in 1989, though now they’re sounding even more pliant and subtle than I remember first time around (464 698-2).

Clara Haskil’s 1960 Paris performances of MOZART’s two minor-key piano concertos have patrician nobility but no hint of scene-stealing heroics (464 718-2). Both appeared recently (with her readings of Nos 13, 23 and 27) in the ‘Great Pianists of the 20th Century’ series, which still leaves Nos 9, 19 and some shrewdly judged Scarlatti sonatas out in the cold.

John Eliot Gardiner’s millennial Bach Cantata Pilgrimage had mixed fortunes, but his recordings of BACH’s choral works continue to stimulate. Philips have reissued his 1983 Magnificat (BWV 243) with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (Nancy Argenta, Patrizia Kwella, Charles Brett, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and David Thomas are the soloists), coupled with the Cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (464 672-2).

Both captured the prodigality and jubilance which often makes Gardiner’s Bach unusually fulfilling. Another notable Gardiner project was the world-premiere recording of the Messe solennelle by BERLIOZ.

Philips showcases this performance, taped live in October 1993 at Westminster Cathedral (464 688-2), among its 50 ‘Greats’, but perhaps a sensibly priced reissue of JEG’s Berlioz Symphonie fantastique (recorded in the tiny Paris auditorium which saw the 1830 premiere) might have had wider collector appeal.

A newly remastered set of BEETHOVEN’s cello sonatas from Rostropovich and Richter gives a much needed new lease of life to their unanimously acclaimed survey from the early Sixties (464 677-2, 2 discs).

A warm welcome, too, for impressive Boston Symphony performances under Colin Davis of the Fifth and Seventh SIBELIUS symphonies; they’re vigorous, agile readings and recorded sound is excellent (464 740-2).

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No collector with an eye for a bargain will want to miss PROKOFIEV’s Romeo and Juliet in Valery Gergiev’s epic Kirov performance of 1990 (464 726-2, 2 discs). From St Petersburg’s historic Mariinsky Theatre, Gergiev’s viscerally incisive, alluringly Romantic account is captured in a recording of shattering sonic impact.