Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
"CRITICS WHO hold any reservations at all about the artistry of Yevgeny Kissin face a delicate challenge in stating their case," shouts a major American broadsheet from the far side of Kissin's new all-Chopin CD for RCA.

I'd call that throwing a red rag to a critical bull, though the bulls- in-china-shops among us might be less cautious, especially where Kissin's self-conscious way with most of Chopin's First Ballade strikes an inauthentic chord. Even the opening melody seems over-cooked, the first dramatic acceleration (from 2'31") more a heated sketch than the sculpted summation of an inspired musical idea.

The Second Ballade is better, with Kissin making the very most of the fantastical contrast between the gentle first theme and the raging tempest of the second. The Third is magnificent in the ebb and flow of its phrasing, its harnessed power at key climaxes in the piece and the seductive curves of Kissin's phrasing.

The contrapuntal complexities of the Fourth Ballade remain fluid, the cradling rhythm of the Berceuse aptly hypnotic. Kissin's view of the epic Fourth Scherzo is relaxed yet capricious, but perhaps the most memorable moment on the whole disc occurs towards the end of the billowing Barcarolle, the poetic little envoi (at 8'20") that waylays us just prior to the tumbling final bars.

Great Chopin on disc is nothing new, but the chance to relish a fresh recording of music by the 18th-century Bohemian master Jan Dismas Zelenka cannot be taken for granted. Some years ago, Deutsche Grammophon made an unexpected killing with a two-disc set of Zelenka's six perennially astonishing trio sonatas. Others followed, but ECM's new set, with the oboists Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue, the violinist Thomas Zehetmair, Klaus Stoll on double bass, Jonathan Rubin on lute and Christine Jaccottet on harpsichord, showcases such aristocratic playing, and such a ravishing blend of sonorities, that it should henceforth earn top billing for anyone interested in this repertoire.

The music itself is full of unexpected harmonic twists. Some commentators cite a "number symbolism", and secret passions conveyed via code. I can well believe it, and so might you, given the G minor Sonata's ecstatically dancing finale as evidence.

If dancing makes heart and body grow young, it's little wonder that so many conductors keep going for so long. Leopold Stokowski was a prime example of a nonagenarian who kept his foot on the gas, racing youthfully through Brahms's First Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra held firmly in check. Stoky gave two performances of the work in 1972, one at the Royal Albert Hall, the other (the one reissued by Cala Records) at the Royal Festival Hall. Both were fleshy and impetuous, whereas Cala's remarkable coupling chronicles a contemporaneous live reading of Elgar's Enigma Variations that feeds off the distinctive timbres of the Czech Philharmonic. Granted, you do occasionally think of tourists sporting Union Jack bowlers (the famous bird-like Czech clarinets are unmistakably not of this land), but then what's wrong with a spot of Euro-Elgar? The playing isn't immaculate, but you would be hard pushed to find a more touching account of "Nimrod" - even from our own esteemed knights and lords of yore.

Chopin/Kissin RCA 09026 63259 2

Zelenka/Holliger etc ECM 462 542-2 Brahms, Elgar/Stokowski Cala CACD 0524