RCA: Artistes Répertoires

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: RCA

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In complete contrast to the purposefully planned ‘Edition Herreweghe’ is the Artistes Répertoires series from RCA France (a first batch of which Martin Cotton reviewed last month).

Famous artists, yes; interesting repertoire, certainly: but the programmes are built sometimes on one, sometimes on the other, sometimes on a mixture.

Wildly disparate recordings are thrown together with minimal pauses, and no attempt to match up the levels. And although the design of these slim double packs is striking, the notes are seriously inadequate, while the documentation is poor and full of mistakes, not even admitting to mono recordings.

Two vocal sets suffer especially from the lack of texts and translations. BAROCCO ESPAÑOL contains infectiously lively performances by Al Ayre Español of Spanish Baroque cantatas, villancicos and zarzuela arias, but offers no clue to what anyone’s singing about (74321 84586 2).

A CHRISTA LUDWIG set yokes together an admirable 1993 Lieder recital with an operatic programme made nearly 30 years earlier, which shows this great mezzo straying into dramatic soprano territory – even Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – with thrilling results (74321 84597 2).

Lovers of piano music are well served – as long as they avoid Claudio Arrau’s 1942 account of BACH’s Goldberg Variations, in truly wretched sound, and paired with some clangorous 1957 harpsichord performances by Wanda Landowska (74321 84593 2).

There is a POULENC selection played by Eric Le Sage with luminous textures and sensitive phrasing, a worthy rival to the celebrated Pascal Rogé set (74321 84603 2). And there is some superbly authoritative GRANADOS (as well as some irrelevant Montsalvatge) from Alicia de Larrocha (74321 84610 2).

There is also Rudolf Firkusny´’s wonderfully poetic 1989 recording of piano music by JANÁCEK, oddly paired with MARTINUÞ’s three cello sonatas played by Firkusny´ and Janos Starker (if Martinu, then why not Firkusny´’s solo recital of similar vintage?) (74321 84592 2).

Starker’s warm, singing tone and flawless technique reappear in RACHMANINOFF, SCHUMANN and (arranged) BRAHMS on a set of Romantic music for cello and piano; this also includes the earlier of Yo-Yo Ma’s two recordings of the two Brahms Sonatas with Emanuel Ax, marred by strangely nasal cello sound (74321 84598 2).

Otherwise, RCA’s stunning early stereo recordings of American orchestras are much in evidence, but with many duplications of previous reissues collectors must tread carefully.

Many, for example, will have Fritz Reiner’s justly famous 1954 Chicago readings of STRAUSS’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben, and may not want to duplicate them for the sake of Reiner’s 1950 mono Death and Transfiguration and Eugen Jochum’s 1984 Bamberg Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan (74321 84608 2).

A STRAVINSKY package offers more Reiner, a vivid Song of the Nightingale and a genial Fairy’s Kiss Divertimento, alongside Pierre Monteux’s Boston performances of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring: readings of special authority, since Monteux conducted the premieres of both, but the Rite is in mono, and the Petrushka, made when he was over 80, a little untidy (74321 84609 2).

Also with the Boston Symphony, Charles Münch conducts the three well-known symphonies by MENDELSSOHN in ardent, warm-hearted readings of great appeal; and the Fifties recordings actually sound more immediate than Claus Peter Flor’s Bamberg accounts of a group of overtures from 30 years later (74321 84600 2).

Münch also conducts a whole set of RAVEL (plus Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice), including a pioneering complete Daphnis et Chloé, in astonishing sound for 1955, and a 1958 La valse in which he pushes the players to their limits on the way to a genuinely terrifying ending (74321 84604 2).

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Once again, a historic reissue displays a spontaneity and excitement which you would be lucky to catch even in a concert hall in our more cautious times.