Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
THE CONCEPT of "ambient music" has taken a bit of a critical thrashing of late, what with various cheesy New Age-style compilations and the pervasive presence of Muzak. All the more reason to celebrate a high-quality, budget- price Hyperion Helios CD of American music for brass that opens to quietly tolling bells and then ushers in Charles Ives's stimulating From the Steeples and the Mountains. Samuel Barber offers some "mutations" on a plainsong melody, initially as harmonised by Joachim Decker, then by Bach. Roy Harris crops up with a characteristically austere Chorale for organ and brass, and there are varied contributions from Thomson, Cowell, Glass and Ruggles.

But perhaps the most pleasing item of all is by Elliott Carter, his concise A Fantasy about Purcell's Fantasia upon One Note, euphonious music, as bell-like as Ives's steeples but with a more instant musical appeal. The playing of the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble under Christopher Larkin is exemplary and the recordings are rich in atmosphere.

Speaking of fine sound, Decca's new Royal Concertgebouw disc of Bruckner's Sixth Symphony rings truest where the textures are in full bloom. The triumphant first theme (a sort of "Bruckner meets Lawrence of Arabia") and the Adagio's yearning string lines sound especially impressive, though Riccardo Chailly attends more to passing felicities than to grand architecture. Moments to cherish include the little clarinet/oboe interlude at the heart of the second movement and the finale's courtly second theme. It's a quietly personal slant to compare with the more heavily stated views of, say, Gunter Wand and Herbert von Karajan.

Prior to the Symphony, the baritone Matthias Goerne grants Hugo Wolf's Harper's Songs and Anacreon's Grave a ravishing tone and great inward intensity. Chailly conducts Wolf's own orchestrations, and I couldn't imagine a more seductive access point to the world of German art song.

Paganini also needs his advocates, and recent release sheets have included at least two notable all-Paganini collections - one from the brilliant 17-year-old violinist Ilya Gringolts (on BIS at full price), the other from Alexander Markov (on Erato). Gringolts is likely to earn himself more than enough column inches, so I'll opt for the more demonstrative Markov, whose reissued digital recordings of the first two concertos and complete unaccompanied Caprices have reappeared on a budget-price Ultima double-pack. Markov is a maverick player, impulsive and hard-hitting, and while his technique is occasionally fallible and his vibrant tone less than silky-smooth, he brings such vitality to this music that you soon forget minor shortcomings.

The Caprices were recorded live and come off best, especially where grainy multiple stops are involved. A sense of devilment keeps you poised at the edge of your seat, and if you want to sample Paganini at his most lyrical, try either No 11 or the haunting No 6, with its weeping harmonies and motorised trills. There's nothing else quite like it in the whole of the violinist's repertory.

Ives, Carter etc/London Gabrieli Brass,

Hyperion Helios CDH55018

Bruckner, Wolf/Goerne,

Concertgebouw, Chailly,

Decca 458 189-2


Erato 3984-27001-2 (two discs)