Universal: Eloquence

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Universal: Eloquence

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Virgin does include brief booklet notes, but people who buy Universal’s Eloquence reissues will find nothing but the title of the music and the performers, and I do feel that a collection of OPERATIC ARIAS AND DUETS (467 448-2) or OPERA CHORUSES (468 119-2) – albeit ‘famous’ ones – needs to have at least pointers to the plot, even if the principal attractions are singers like Sutherland and Pavarotti.

Similarly, the highlights discs from BIZET’s Carmen (469 630-2) and PUCCINI’s La bohème (468 137-2) will presumably sell on the names of Berganza and Domingo, though it would be nice to know why Mimì’s hand is frozen.

But there are some gems in this remarkably cheap and prolific series: Colin Davis’s version of MOZART’s C minor Mass (468 141-2), with Helen Donath and Heather Harper leading the soloists, comes up with a freshness and vitality which belie its 30 years.

And there’s more than historic interest in a HINDEMITH compilation (467 442-2), including David Oistrakh’s gorgeous account of the Violin Concerto with the composer conducting, as well as Abbado’s barnstorming version of the Symphonic Metamorphoses.

Music-making of a mellower sort comes from Claudio Arrau in BEETHOVEN’s First Piano Concerto (468 158-2) but mellowness slips into somnolence in an incredibly laid-back Triple Concerto with Szeryng and Starker.

The leisurely pace of a previous age also informs Karl Böhm’s SCHUBERT CD with the Berlin PO (469 627-2) where the Unfinished never really gets started, and the length of the Great C major is far from heavenly.

Karajan inspires more dynamism from this orchestra in a LISZT selection (469 625-2), which includes three of the Hungarian Rhapsodies and Les préludes. But the hero of this CD is Shura Cherkassky, who, as usual, displays uninhibited virtuosity in the Hungarian Fantasia.

I wish there were a bit more virtuosity and risk-taking in Haitink’s account of SHOSTAKOVICH’s Eighth Symphony (467 465-2), with a cautious opening to the first movement, and a moto perpetuo which lacks real bite.

Maybe that’s why it ended up on Eloquence rather than Decca’s own Legends label, where facsimiles of the original sleeves accompany newly written notes trumpeting the legendary status of the recordings.

Solti’s 1964 LSO recording of MAHLER’s First Symphony (458 622-2) was the best-played and best-recorded version available at the time. It still stands up, though as always with Solti, I wish he could be a bit yielding in the more tender string passages, and not drive the climaxes so hard.

He’s much better suited to BARTÓK (467 686-2), with a Concerto for Orchestra that has all the Hungarian temperament you could want: even more up his street is the brutalism of The Miraculous Mandarin and the motoric rhythms of the Dance Suite.

Sharing nationality with the composer also works to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s advantage in the complete RACHMANINOFF Preludes (467 685-2), where he is entirely inside the music, in turn brilliant and affectionate, but never relapsing into sentimentality. And the piano sound is full and natural, something not always granted to him in later years.

It’s equally refreshing to hear him in the TCHAIKOVSKY B flat minor Concerto (458 628-2), a piece which he is alleged not to like, but which he treats with delicacy rather than riding it to death as an old war-horse.

On the other hand, Josef Suk and Julius Katchen plainly love the music of BRAHMS, and their classic recording of the violin sonatas has rarely been out of the catalogue (466 393-2).

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Full-toned, impassioned, with impeccable timing and rubato, it’s everything these works need, and every home should have one.