Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's New CD Releases
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WHEN A record company asks one of its top-ranking artists to tackle key repertory for the third or fourth time, cynics invariably suspect money to be the real cause. But in the case of Alfred Brendel - whose fourth complete recording of Beethoven's piano concertos has just been issued on the Philips label - "latest" almost certainly means "best".

Brendel is widely celebrated for his thoughtfulness, sensitivity and integrity, though not always for his spontaneity - at least, not in the recording studio. Here there's spontaneity in abundance. Specific points of reference are too numerous to list, but I should mention at least a few. Take the Emperor Concerto, and listen, say, 12 minutes 48 seconds into the first movement where the strings engage in a tense build-up before Sir Simon Rattle pushes on the brakes and Brendel races in with controlled flamboyance.

At the beginning of the Fourth Concerto, Brendel makes a matchlessly poised statement of the opening idea and Rattle pauses for a brief moment before cueing his strings to recall the same theme in a "brighter" key. And I shouldn't forget the first movement of the First Concerto (eight minutes in), where Brendel conjures the rarest musical magic out of the simplest descending scale passage.

The frisson created between Brendel's articulate pianism, Rattle's dynamic conducting and the Vienna Philharmonic's team-spirited playing, makes for one of the finest - and best-recorded - Beethoven concerto cycles to appear this side of the digital divide.

Similar claims could be made on behalf of Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra for the most impressive available digital recording of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet. Pletnev, like Brendel, is a thinking musician first and foremost and his supple, tidy-minded and essentially introvert reading makes one realise afresh why Stravinsky was so besotted with this wonderful piece. The many shorter numbers have a pungent, occasionally even sinister, quality that recalls the great symphonies, though the epic sweep of Tchaikovsky's expansive melodies is never underplayed.

Furthermore, there are countless instances where Pletnev's "stereophonic" placing of first and second violins (to the left and right of the sound- stage) adds immeasurably to the musical effect. The strings recall the heyday of Mravinsky's Leningrad Philharmonic and if Antal Dorati (on Philips, analogue) is perhaps a tad more theatre-conscious, Pletnev remains faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the score. Generous disc timings, too, at 79'01" and 80'00".

Connecting with the musical "spirit" is a prominent feature on EMI's latest low-price "Debut" CDs (where promising young artists are showcased), though choosing between individual releases has proved extremely difficult. For me, the final contest was between mezzo-soprano Katarina Karneus in selected lieder (such a radiant voice) and cellist Alban Gerhardt in a programme of original or transcribed pieces by Piazzolla, Falla, Granados, Albeniz and Cassad.

My vote goes to Gerhardt, partially because his playing is so imaginative and assured, though the choice of repertoire also helps. I had never previously heard of a cello-and-piano transcription of Ravel's playful Alborada del gracioso by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and even if had, I could never have imagined it working. And yet it does, wonderfully well, and the performance is brilliant in the extreme. Gerhardt's excellent pianist is Rina Dokshinsky.

Beethoven/Brendel, Rattle: Philips 462 781-2 (three discs) Tchaikovsky/Pletnev: Deutsche Grammophon 457 634-2 (two discs)

Ravel, etc/ Gerhardt:

EMI CDZ5 73164 2