Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases
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THERE MAY be more to music than "cracking good tunes", but what's wrong with a hummable symphony? Dvorak wrote a fairly famous one in 1893 and 30 years later, the Afro-American composer William Grant Still visited similar territory as part of his "composite musical portrait of the African American". Still's catchy, half-hour Afro-American Symphony ushers us in among the blues (complete with unmistakable echoes of Gershwin), then has a solo oboe recall Dvorak's "New World" cor anglais, before piping up for a racy scherzo (with a strummed banjo for added flavouring).

Still's symphony was a key component of the "Harlem Revival" in the 1920s and 1930s, and is solidly scored and thematically distinctive. Someone here ought to give it an airing (how about at next year's Proms?), either in tandem with Dvorak, or with Ellington, or even Amy Beach's 1894 Gaelic Symphony that Bridge Records offer as its CD coupling. More conventional than the Still, with a storm-tossed opening Allegro con fuoco (Wagner's Flying Dutchman looms on the horizon) and a slow movement that occasionally sounds like an off-cut from a Hollywood film score (try from 7'29" into track 7), Beach's symphony bows out to a bucolic - and distinctly Brahmsian - finale.

The veteran conductor Karl Krueger conducts a vintage Royal Philharmonic (1965-8) in performances that, while hardly the last word in orchestral (or sonic) refinement, more than adequately serve their worthy cause.

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Nikos Christodoulou do at least as much on behalf of Nikos Skalkottas, whose attractive 1938 ballet score The Maiden and Death combines romantically atmospheric orchestration with elements of Greek folk music. Skalkottas was one of the first Greek composers to flirt with atonality. He studied in Berlin with Arnold Schoenberg and was held in high esteem by his teacher. Indeed, his atonal First Piano Concerto (brilliantly performed on this new BIS CD by Geoffrey Douglas Madge) pre-dates Schoenberg's by five years, though its rhythmically aggressive style more approximates Bartk, who completed his own Second Piano Concerto during the same year.

The final item on this CD, the 1944 Ouverture Concertante, is challenging music that takes no prisoners, playing-wise, but that more than repays repeated listening. Skalkottas died at the tragically young age of 45, a fate that also befell the French-born film-star/balladeer Carlos Gardel, or "The King of the Tango", who died in a plane crash in 1935. Gardel was lionised both by his public and by his peers. Bing Crosby claimed never to have heard a more beautiful voice, and while a repertoire of tangos, waltzes and rumbas conjures a mood of sultry sensuality, the charismatic quality of Gardel's singing, his husky baritone and supple phrasing are constant sources of fascination.

Nimbus's programme includes nostalgic ballads, songs of regret, songs where macho posing takes the lead ("A truly macho man must never cry"), or where past misdemeanours come home to roost ("Sad and lonely/ You're no longer the `High Wind' you were in the good old days"). Guitars usually provide the backings, but some tracks have orchestral support and the recorded sound (transferred from vintage 78s) suggests a vivid sense of period. Nimbus's latest Gardel CD is a tasty Volume 2, but Volume 1 (NI7896) is just as good.

Still, BeachRPO/Krueger Bridge 9086

Skalkottas/Iceland SO/Christodoulou BIS BIS-CD 1014

Gardel Volume 2 Nimbus NI 7902