Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's New CD Releases

MOST MUSIC-LOVERS know Prokofiev's witty "Classical" Symphony, and almost as many will have heard the heroic Fifth; but his Sixth - and greatest by far - is more of a rarity. Decca prepared one of the symphony's earliest recordings (under the legendary Swiss maestro Ernest Ansermet) and now it has given us its latest - a muscular, elegantly shaped and cogently argued account under Charles Dutoit.

I have to say that this performance surprised me. Not that I doubt the conductor's skills, or indeed the proficiency of Japan's excellent NHK Symphony Orchestra. I had not previously thought of Dutoit as a profound symphonic interpreter, yet he brings uncharacteristic urgency to the opening allegro moderato, jabbing at the downtrodden brass chords that set things in motion and keeping a firm hand on the glowering processional that sits at the movement's centre. Here, performers and engineers collaborate to impressive effect and the Romeo and Juliet selections (eight pieces in all) that precede the symphony include one of the most imposing portrayals of Prokofiev's "Montagues and Capulets" that I have ever heard.

Another surprise arrives courtesy of Maurizio Pollini, Claudio Abbado, the Berlin Philharmonic and Deutsche Grammophon in a "live" recording of Brahms's First Piano Concerto. Not that the repertoire is surprising, or indeed the marmoreal properties of Pollini's playing. But the coltish spontaneity of the reading, its rhapsodic - albeit controlled - rubato and driving passion all suggest inspiration caught on the wing. It's all too easy to forget that this is young man's music, and Pollini plays it with more youthfulness than his younger self managed 20-odd years ago under Karl Bohm (also for DG). Abbado's strong-arm conducting undoubtedly helps and the recording is suitably resplendent - though attentive headphone listening reveals one or two conspicuous tape snips. "Live" it may be, but it certainly isn't a single, unedited performance.

Years ago, when 78s were the audio carriers of the day, editing wasn't even an option. You sang or played your heart out, and if something went wrong, you simply did it again. Which is why so many people nowadays go back to old records - because they deliver real performances. Among recent vocal reissues, I was particularly attracted to a three-CD set of "The Essential Pierre Bernac", transferred from EMI 78s for the Testament label.

Bernac was the pre-eminent French baritone of his generation, and a superb teacher. His voice may not have been the most beautiful of the day, but his use of it, his diction, his sense poetry and the emotional candour of his interpretations were breathtaking. A previously unissued account of Schumann's Dichterliebe song-cycle is only partially successful (Bernac was a little past his prime in 1950), but earlier recordings of songs by Liszt and the masters of French chanson, most notably those by Francis Poulenc (Bernac's friend and regular pianist), will henceforth enrich your musical memory bank. Try Chabrier's l'le heureuse (disc 1, track 4), and I challenge you to resist.

Prokofiev/Dutoit: Decca 458 190-2

Brahms/Pollini: DG 447 041-2

The Essential Bernac: Testament SBT3161

(three discs)

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