Classical: Farewell to that sinking feeling

The Titanic soundtrack is the year's best-selling `classical' CD. But don't jump for the lifeboat just yet: here are our critics' top discs of 1998
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The Independent Culture
AS IF the fact that this year's best-selling "classical" release was James Horner's soundtrack to Titanic weren't bad enough, along comes news that they've pulled the plug on Collins Classics. One of the few labels committed to recording new British music, including now truncated editions of Britten, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies, it also launched a few careers, including that of pianist Joanna MacGregor.

At least there's still NMC. The new-music label has just won a Gramophone Award for its marvellously analytical recording of Birtwistle's legendarily opaque opera, The Mask of Orpheus (see below), and would surely have won another for its history-making premiere recording of the Elgar/Payne Symphony No 3, were it not for the Machiavellian workings of the voting system.

As for MacGregor, next week she launches her own record label, SoundCircus, with three new releases including her own version of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano and a debut disc by the acclaimed young jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh. How's that for girl power?

Going one better, another group of label-less artists, led by pianist Peter Donohoe and conductor David Atherton, have decided to bypass the record industry altogether by making themselves available on the Net. Dial up and you can tune in to an ever-growing selection of specially recorded new live performances, or even compile your own custom-made CD from tracks of your choice.

So, as the multinationals endlessly pillage and repackage their archives and gear themselves up to trying to sell us the same old albums all over again on DVD, many artists are beginning to discover that they can well do without the middlemen and this year's centenary of the gramophone may well prove to have been the end of an era.

Harrison Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis, Martyn Brabbins and soloists

NMC D050 (3-CD set)

THOUGH IT was released at the end of 1997, the NMC premiere recording of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, has to be my choice for the year in which it had its full impact. No enthusiast of this composer's work will have wanted to be without this searing account of his magnum opus. Those persuaded by the Hecklers and other anti-modernists that such music lacks the human dimensions of passion and poetry should also check it out. Though its challenges should not be underestimated, this opera incorporates music of utterly compelling beauty and sheer elemental force into its radical retellings of the myth of Orpheus.

Keith Potter

JS Bach: Goldberg Variations Rosalyn Tureck (piano)

DG 459 599-2 (2 discs)

ROSALYN TURECK has devoted her 50-year career to JS Bach, and an anti- Romantic style of playing his music, whether on harpsichord or piano. Paradoxically, she remains a pianist in the grand Romantic tradition, and it is her special gift to project Bach's music LARGE that has made her unique. She was an inspiration to the young Glenn Gould. For several years there had been no studio recordings by her, but last March, at 83, she recorded one of Bach's greatest sets of variations and showed all her old technical command, and a rich variety of imaginative response. Magnificent.

Adrian Jack

Wagner: Wesendonk-Lieder, Tristan und Isolde etc

Deutsches Symphony Orchestra/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Julia Varady

Orfeo C 467 981 A

A POWERFUL antidote to the unpalatable squalling that so often passes for Wagnerian singing these days. Julia Varady invests Isolde's "Liebestod" with great tenderness: it is little wonder that Lorin Maazel thought her an ideal candidate for a 1999 revival of Tristan und Isolde. The five "Tristanian" Wesendonk songs are at once intimate, intense and individual: heart and head are in total accord, with discreet support from the German Symphony Orchestra under Varady's husband, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I doubt that you will have encountered a more inwardly compelling "Immolation Scene", certainly not from the last 30 years.

Rob Cowan

Monteverdi Madrigals

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda

Opus 111 OPS1961

WELSH NATIONAL Opera's staging of Monteverdi's Poppea, seen in London in March (BBC2 broadcasts it over Christmas), showed how modern Monteverdi, opera's first great composer, remains. The modernity lay not only in David Aiden's production, but also in Rinaldo Alessandrini's musical direction. Alessandrini's acute sense of drama underpins his Monteverdi recordings, the latest of which superbly captures the work's bluesy lyricism and its extraordinary onomatopoeia: you can all but smell the horses, feel the characters' bruising punch-up. Composers looking to renew opera would do well to put aside Wagnerian hubris, and turn instead to the subtle reticence of Monteverdi.

Nick Kimberley

Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1; Fantaisie Op 49 etc

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Emmanuel Krivine/Maria Joao Pires Deutsche Grammophon 457 585-2

SOME CRITICS find this Portuguese pianist too mannered. That's what I love about her playing: her style is always perfectly matched to the matter in hand.

Her Chopin is silkily feline rather than feminine, as against Krivine's tender backdrop she paints the stage with beauty. Her slow-movement tempo in the concerto seems almost static, and the descending chords hang in the air like ice crystals; the ornamentation is exquisitely applied.

Maria Joao Pires subjects the Fantaisie to a radical reinterpretation, taking us through a chiaroscuro landscape; in the Berceuse every note in the filigree passage-work is given its due weight.

Michael Church

Czeslaw Marek: The Orchestral Works, Vols 2 and 3

The Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Gary Brain/Elzbieta Szmytka

Koch Schwann 3-6440-2 and 3-6441-2

MAREK WAS born in Poland in 1891, moved to Switzerland in 1915, and died in 1985, just two weeks before I arrived to visit him. When I got hold of the scores of his rich, late-Romantic music a few years later, I lugged them to the conductor Gary Brain, then a neighbour in Paris. The results have exceeded my most extravagant hopes. Vol 1, with the overwhelming 35-minute "Sinfonia", won a prize last year; Vol 2, out at the beginning of this year, has the heartwarming "Serenade" for violin and orchestra; and Vol 3, recently released, contains two cycles of Polish folk-music settings that sparkle; they are beautifully sung by Elzbieta Szmytka, to buoyant accompaniment from Brain and the Philharmonia. A great discovery.

Martin Anderson

Edgard Varese: The Complete Works

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, ASKO Ensemble/Riccardo Chailly

Decca 460 208-2; two CDs

CATACLYSMIC UPHEAVALS, kaleidoscopic cascades of colour, great continental shifts of raw rhythm. That's Ameriques, like Stravinsky's Rite reset against an apocalyptic New York skyline rent by siren calls. The French composer was always an American at heart, dreaming of a land of free sounds long before he sailed for the New World in 1915. Coruscatingly delivered under Chailly's committed direction, here is his entire, output (all 150 minutes' worth), including a recording of the most unlikely piece he ever wrote: a Broadway dance number for Burgess (The Penguin) Meredith. Happy as Larry the show was called: it closed after one performance.

Mark Pappenheim

Entartete Musik: A Documentation in Sound

Eine POOL Musikproduction GmbH, Berlin 65023AV (4CDs)

THIS FOUR-CD set is utterly astounding, a chilling encapsulation of the horrors of Nazi times. In 1939, an exhibition, notoriously entitled "Entartete Musik" was mounted in Dusseldorf to expose examples of "un-German" music. Visitors could press buttons to hear examples of this "degenerate" art. In 1988, a reconstruction of the exhibition was produced, augmented to include other material. These four discs are the sound-track. The range is huge: from the sublime (Bruckner, Schnabel) to the ridiculous (hymns glorifying Nazi ideology) via the horrifying (Karl Bohm's speech in support of the Anschluss). Hitler, Goebbels, Thomas Mann, Klemperer are all translated in the accompanying booklets.

Annette Morreau

Dvorak: Rusalka

Czech Philharmonic/Mackerras/Fleming/Heppner

Decca 460 568-2 (3 CDs)

WAGNER CASTS his long, tall shadow, but Dvorak's benevolence shines through. It took him a lifetime to find Rusalka, but find her he did. By the light of the silvery moon. Most of us know the aria, but this handsome recording - too long awaited - honours its promise of enchantment. At the heart of it is the Czech Philharmonic, purveyor of exquisite forest murmurings and chivalric splendour, its distinctive colourations suggestive of a Bohemian wonderland. As Sir Charles Mackerras unerringly wends our way to the final duet and the sweetest solo horn counterpoint ever, to ferry star-crossed lovers to eternity - the phrase "late flowering" takes on a whole new meaning. Glorious.

Edward Seckerson