Classical: Battle of the centenarians

The classical record industry's two oldest giants are celebrating birthdays in lavish style.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE TRADITIONAL pre-Christmas CD avalanche will gain extra momentum this autumn when two centenarian record labels each launch a celebratory reissue initiative. EMI has 100 "Great Recordings of the Century", and Deutsche Grammophon has its "Centenary Collection". Both series are offered at mid-price; both employ state-of-the-art refurbishment techniques; both are available as single discs; and both will feature favourites, though the differences between them - musical, conceptual and historical - are fairly dramatic.

EMI is phasing its release over a two-year period, with 25 titles due next month, two further groups of 25 due next year, and the remainder to follow in 2000. DG, on the other hand, is giving us the whole package in October. As I write, 63 discs sit on my desk, arranged by year and starting at 1897, when Emil Berliner, the original pioneer of mass-produced 78s, recorded a spoken letter to his sister-in-law. The Municipal Military Band, London took to the studio a year later with Sousa's "Hail to the Spirit of Liberty", but beam up 43 years on, to Nazi Berlin, and we encounter a 1941 recording of Mozart's Requiem where all references to Jewish biblical names have been expunged (for example, "in Jerusalem" becomes "hic in terra").

DG's set ends with supercharged Beethoven recorded by the Emerson String Quartet in 1997, but chances are that at least a handful of your favoured artists will have cropped up somewhere in between. DG's "disc by year" principle properly starts from 1948 (the previous 50 years are condensed on to the first 10 CDs), which means that collectors who would rather avoid shellac surface noise can plunge straight in with crackle-free tape.

The Germans were already recording on tape during the last war, whereas the new technology took longer to reach these shores. Which is where EMI's roster starts. Perhaps "Great Recordings" should read "Great Sellers", unless you count Andre Previn's LSO Gershwin or clarinettist Sabine Meyer's Mozart as among the century's recorded miracles. I do not - though when it comes to Klemperer's Brahms German Requiem, Brain's Mozart horn concertos, Furtwangler's Beethoven Ninth and Richter's Schubert Wanderer Fantasy, lofty reputations are fully justified.

DG prefers the epithet "landmark to "great", though I would count Michelangeli's Debussy Images, Kubelik's Mahler Fourth and Jochum's Bruckner Seventh as equal to anything on EMI's short-list. Some will shake their heads over the inclusion of odd excerpts from longer works. Most of us would prefer the more reliable evidence of complete performances.

Still, the "Centenary Collection" steals a decided lead on its EMI rival by reinstating to the catalogue some fabulous performances that have never previously appeared on the domestic CD market. I would cite the set that takes us from 1948 to 1957 (459 067-2, 10 CDs) as being of particular value. There you have such rostrum firebrands as Ferenc Fricsay, who galvanizes his players for a white-hot Tchaikovsky's Fifth, and the young Lorin Maazel, a passionate guide through Romeo and Juliet as rendered by Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. A youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau balances sensual tone and phrasal intelligence in his first DG recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe and the Amadeus Quartet give their inimitable interpretation of Schubert's G major Quartet.

Later volumes feature extended (and very well chosen) excerpts from Herbert von Karajan's complete Ring cycle and such current "house" favourites as Claudio Abbado, Anne Sofie von Otter, Gil Shaham, Christian Thielemann, John Eliot Gardiner and Mikhail Pletnev. The idea, one presumes, is to establish a sort of "centennial continuum", give each period and each artist due acknowledgement, then leave the critical verdict to the one reliable judge: posterity.