Classical: The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture
I'D NEVER thought of Britten as being especially influenced by Rachmaninov, and yet listening again to the opening of Britten's 1938 Piano Concerto suggests an uncanny - albeit momentary - similarity with Rachmaninov's 1927 Fourth Concerto. The chattering woodwinds are familiar, and so is the declamatory piano writing, though the two styles fire off in totally different tracks thereafter, with Britten veering more in the direction of Prokofiev - occasionally even Bartok.

The Concerto's latest recording was set down live in Birmingham in 1997 and showcases the controlled but agile pianism of Leif Ove Andsnes. Paavo Jarvi conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony and, like Andsnes, makes great play with Britten's oscillating moods, ironic references, unexpected half-lights and corny tunes. The first-movement cadenza climaxes in a riot of colour, and the musical banter that bubbles between pianist, conductor and orchestra has an instant appeal.

By contrast, Shostakovich's jack-in-the-box First Concerto, the one he scored for piano, trumpet and strings and which trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger makes peculiarly his own, is lissom and concise. Like the First Symphony, it is almost totally lacking in the heavy-duty gloom that was soon to settle over Shostakovich's life and work. And yet there are plenty of depths to explore, most notably in the central Lento, which Andsnes surveys with characteristic perception. The hectic closing pages are pure slapstick - and there's a touching encore in Georges Enesco's rhapsodising Legende for trumpet and piano.

After the extroverts Britten and Shostakovich, Heinrich Biber conjures a more ethereal exuberance with a Missa Salisburgensis that circulates in the huge acoustic of Salzburg Cathedral, leaving lashings of "reverb" after every loud chord. Twenty-five years ago the authorship of this delightful score was in some doubt, but scholars have since established that it was originally two works and that Biber composed them for the 1,100th anniversary of Salzburg's religious foundation.

A brand new Erato release employs the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under Ton Koopman for the Missa's first-ever Salzburg Cathedral recording, and the effect is entrancing. If pushed for time to sample, try the Sanctus or at least some of the Credo.

An even more recent musical rediscovery focuses on a vintage live performance that marked the first-ever public appearances of the Philharmonia Chorus. Seasoned record buffs will have been long familiar with Otto Klemperer's EMI recording of Beethoven's Choral Symphony; but the Royal Festival Hall performance that preceded the sessions - and which Testament has just released for the first time - gives a rather different impression. Klemperer live was more vital, forceful and spontaneous, and - in a few minor respects - rather better recorded (certainly in terms of the timpani) than in the studio. As the performance progresses, the heat gradually intensifies, so that by the time we reach the latter half of the finale, Klemperer and his team are truly ablaze.

The soloists are Aase Nordmo-Lovberg, Christa Ludwig, Waldemar Kmennt and Hans Hotter, and the early stereo sound is unbelievably good for 1957. Like Knappertsbusch's Bayreuth Gotterdammerung - which I mentioned in last week's column (another first-ever release) - this CD release should walk away with prizes and plaudits for enterprise.

Shostakovich, Britten/Andsnes, Jarvi EMI CDC5 56760 2

Biber/Koopman Erato 3984-25506-2

Beethoven/Klemperer Testament SBT 1177

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