Warner: Artist Portrait

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Warner
PERFORMER: William Christie, Il Giardino Armonico, Andreas Staier, Alban Berg Quartet, Hélène Grimaud, Maxim Vengerov

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What’s this? Another new reissues label from Warner, the third in as many months. ‘Artist Portrait’ it’s called, £10 a go, but is it any more than a ‘cheap ’n’ cheerful’ recycling exercise? Well, it’s not that cheap for a start, and scratch beneath the surface as you’re listening and other issues emerge.

WILLIAM CHRISTIE, for instance (0927-47985-2): his ‘Artist Portrait’ takes us from the Monteverdi Vespers to a Mozart Mass, via Purcell, Handel and the French repertoire for which he’s famous – Charpentier, Desmarest and Rameau. But no excerpt is more than seven minutes, there’s nothing to remind us of Christie’s skill as a harpsichordist and instead it’s more of a showcase for the singers he has recruited for Les Arts Florissants over the years, including Susan Graham – dropped by Warner when it reorganised Erato.

The current head of Warner has said since that losing Graham was ‘completely crazy’, but he went on to confirm that the company would be focusing less on early music, and in October Christie announced a three-CD deal with Virgin, whose profile in early music has never been higher.

IL GIARDINO ARMONICO has stayed with Warner, but for how much longer? There hasn’t been a new CD from it for a year, and the last one was a kind of ‘Best of Baroque’: Bach, Albinoni, Vivaldi – nothing too scary, and merely marking time for a band as brilliant as this one. IGA’s ‘Artist Portrait’ (0927-48174-2) is one of the best in its own right, and it also has the advantage of including mainly complete concertos.

That is not the case with the portrait of fortepianist ANDREAS STAIER (0927-47984-2), another Teldec artist who has stayed loyal to Warner. Of course there’s lovely playing here, but it feels strange going from 15 minutes of a Field concerto to three minutes of Schubert’s D959 Sonata – and just a minute-and-a-half from Winterreise? Warner promised more Staier in 2002, but following a busy release schedule in the previous two years, this compilation seems to be it.

The ALBAN BERG QUARTET’S ‘Portrait’ (0927-47982-2) works better: immaculately performed highlights from some of the great Classical quartets. But the awards the notes mention were given mainly to the group’s EMI recordings, and interestingly the ABQ’s agent lists only its EMI discs – there has been nothing for Warner since 1998.

HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD? Over 70 minutes of classy piano-playing on her ‘Portrait’ (0927-48173-2), but she left Warner for DG back in April, so it’s a bit cheeky for the notes to talk about her ‘exclusive contract with Warner from which numerous extremely successful CDs have emerged’. I’ve only been able to count six.

MAXIM VENGEROV? Very strong back catalogue on Warner, and his ‘Artist Portrait’ (0927-48176-2) reflects it, rather frustratingly in single movements from major concertos – but he has jumped ship as well, now making his music for EMI.

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Another key name’s missing: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a Teldec stalwart, but bogged down in contractual difficulties which prevent Warner releasing his CDs as I write this. It all looks rather grim, doesn’t it? And it rather gives the lie to the advertising for this new series: ‘celebrating the finest achievements of our greatest artists’. Wake up! They’re disappearing fast….