Classical music: The Compact Collection


THE DATE is May 1998. The venue, Tokyo's Sumida Triphony Hall, and the event, two explosive trio performances shared between pianist Martha Argerich, violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Mischa Maisky. The Shostakovich Second Trio opens like a distant prayer in mid-winter, icy- cold and angular, though heated arguments soon fire the breath. Argerich is her usual coltish self, Kremer sinewy and unpredictable and Maisky, the Trio's warm tonal centre.

Shostakovich's Largo sets in with eight stark piano chords that Argerich spaces with daring breadth, and the finale uses a wily Jewish-style theme that turns up again - pushed to unendurable limits of tension - in the Eighth String Quartet.

Shostakovich's F minor Trio was composed as a memorial to a professor at the Leningrad Conservatoire and demands maximum concentration, whereas Tchaikovsky's soul-baring Trio commemorates Nikolay Rubinstein (one-time director of the Moscow Conservatoire) and calls for extraordinary physical stamina.

Argerich thunders the keys with as much energy and passion as Vladimir Horowitz did 22 years earlier at Carnegie Hall for a legendary live Concert of the Century (Sony Classical). But where Horowitz (in league with his colleagues Isaac Stern and Mstislav Rostropovich) performed only the first movement, Argerich and her team go the whole way - which means a 30-minute "second half" that incorporates a waltz, a mazurka, a fugue, a sonata- form "finale and coda" and a highly melodramatic funeral march.

To call this playing free-spirited would be an understatement. "Way over the top" might be more accurate, though musical integrity and sense of spontaneous re-creation suggest to me that we'll still be returning to it in 50 years' time. There's also a hilarious encore - a musically related send-up that will have you in stitches - but I won't spoil your fun by spilling the beans.

More OTT music-making arrives courtesy of Cala Records, which has just reissued a sumptuous recording of Messiaen's 1947 masterpiece L'Ascension, taped in 1970 by the LSO under the baton of an 88-year-old Leopold Stokowski. A contemporaneous Hilversum Radio Symphony account of Cesar Franck's Symphony is sonorous, wilful and strong, and there are two lavish orchestral makeovers that Stokowski recorded two years later - Chopin's A minor Mazurka Op 17 No 4 (heated and cajoled almost beyond recognition) and Duparc's song Extase.

Forty years prior to Stokowski's Chopin sessions, Yehudi Menuhin was tackling Elgar's Violin Concerto under the composer's baton. "A force of nature," was how Iain Burnside described the young Menuhin on a recent edition of Radio 3's CD Review, and with good reason. I would personally rate Menuhin and Elgar higher than the legendary (and even older) Albert Sammons/Henry Wood recording that it has become rather fashionable to prefer. It's not just a case of pitting Sammons's stiff upper lip against Menuhin's heart on sleeve, but of being able to witness, in Menuhin's case, the perennial magic of an infatuated musical encounter.

Menuhin's heart-aching candour is matched by a grand, gruff and unstintingly passionate account of the orchestral score, magnificently realised from the original 78s on a new Naxos transfer. The same CD includes 15-year- old Yehudi's first recording of Bruch's First Concerto, a real tear-jerker, and an ideal coupling for the equally emotive Elgar.

Shostakovich/Tchaikovsky Argerich, Kremer, Maisky DG 459 326-2

Franck/Messiaen/Chopin/ Duparc Stokowski Cala CACD 0525

Elgar/Bruch Menuhin Naxos 8.110902

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