Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's New CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
HAVE YOU ever felt that a musical masterpiece is so utterly perfect that it could not possibly have been otherwise? I have, often, and one of my favourites is Mendelssohn's effervescent Italian Symphony. But what did the composer himself think of the piece? Not much, apparently. In fact, he completely refashioned the last three movements - and the only reason he didn't revise the first was because he felt prompted to rewrite it completely, but couldn't. Happily for us, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Vienna Philharmonic have prepared a spirited all-Mendelssohn CD that combines both the original and the revision. In between, there's a nicely sprung account of the Reformation Symphony - another work that the fastidious composer had his doubts about.

As to the "revised" Italian, first impressions are unfavourable. It all sounds too complex, too contrived - a lissom youngster trying to age prematurely. Mendelssohn had left his original score in London and was revising from memory, so perhaps he remembered wrongly. Or maybe I'm so wedded to the familiar that I am having trouble readjusting to a revision that posterity may well judge as superior. Time will tell.

Time will also sort out the men and women from the boys and girls in the world of Minimalism, but I'll stick my neck out and suggest that when it does, Steve Reich will still be tops. Reich's early maturity yielded a select line-up of masterpieces, with the epic, finely structured Music for 18 Musicians as the best of the bunch. Reich and his Musicians made a famous record of it back in the Seventies. Then there was the 1996 re- make for Nonesuch, and now RCA has released the first version by a band in which Reich himself is not playing (albeit only for contractual reasons). Ensemble Modern trace the work's hour-long course from the initial throbbing pulses, through 11 related sections that shimmer, shake and shift perspectives almost without your noticing. You can dance to it, enter a trance to it, or sit transfixed by the sheer ingenuity of Reich's creative imagination.

Reich performing Reich is still a popular presence in the record stores, but the unique opportunity of hearing Benjamin Britten conduct Mahler will, for most of us, prove too tempting to miss. BBC Legends has just put out an amazing performance (in mono) of the Fourth Symphony that Britten gave with the LSO in Suffolk in 1961. Britten attends to every strand of scoring with the care of a master draughtsman, delving among inner details that are frequently muddied in rival recordings. The first movement is swift and bracing, the second quietly unnerving, the third serenely beautiful, and the fourth touched with innocence. True, there are minor imperfections (the soprano Joan Carlyle anticipates a cue in the finale), but as musical re-creations go, none that I can think of is more profoundly affecting. There are perceptively voiced bonuses - both in stereo - in Lieder eines fahrenden Geselle, where Britten conducts for Anna Reynolds, and a charming pair of songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn with Elly Ameling as soloist.

Mendelssohn/Gardiner: Deutsche Grammophon 459 156-2

Reich/Ensemble Modern: RCA 09026 68672 2

Mahler/Britten: BBC Legends BBCB 8004-2