Classical: The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture
When composers perform the classics, they tend to give you the inside story. Listen to Rachmaninov play Chopin, or Britten conduct Tchaikovsky, and you encounter strands of musical meaning that many virtuosos fail to notice.

For example, who would have thought Britten could pierce the heart of Tchaikovsky's storm-tossed tone poem Francesca da Rimini? He does so not through visceral excitement, but by displacing the swirling torrents of hell from foreground drama to background scenery. The lyrical centre is affectionate and the brass writing that leads into the storm episodes wears a deathly pallor that haunts the memory long after the closing catharsis has died.

And in Britten's hands it really does die away, though not in the way Tchaikovsky intended. A dramatic diminuendo on the last orchestral chord poses an unexpected question. It's almost as if Britten knows that Francesca is at its finest where the music turns inwards. The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is less secure in execution, but no less fascinating. The love music is tender, the feuds blatant.

And then there's Manuel de Falla, his ballet El Amor Brujo, where bar after bar reveals a different illumination, be it an unnoticed pizzicato or a rarely-heard woodwind line. Anna Reynolds is a feisty gypsy girl, the English Chamber Orchestra respond to a man and the 1972 recording is unexpectedly superb.

Rather more familiar than Britten's Falla is Leonard Bernstein's Mahler, and yet every time I return to Bernstein's 1961 recording of Mahler's vast Third Symphony, I experience the same uncanny sense of re-discovery. Again, it's a case of one composer relating to another, with no holds barred. Everything works - the pacing, the control of line, the sense of aural perspective. Mahler's epic sound-world becomes both accessible and desirable, and his burgeoning imagination - primeval vistas, flora and fauna, philosophies and confessions - seems urgently relevant. Sony's latest reissue, its third, gives us well-known bonuses of Mahler song cycles with Jeannie Tourel, and the sound is still fairly impressive. With performances like these, it was little wonder Mahler's star ascended so far, and so quickly, back in the 1960s.

Then again, Mahler needed a helping hand, unlike Bach who, even after a period of almost 250 years, can re-emerge in a thousand disparate guises and always sound wonderful. The pianist Artur Schnabel, in his 1937 recording of Bach's C minor keyboard Toccata, tells a lofty tale that even Glenn Gould seemed to side-step. The trick is in the timing, the minuscule pauses, the lilting rhythmsand, in this case, a closing flourish that scurries off like a frightened fox vanishing into the night. Great artistry, no question, though that much is already obvious on the opening tracks where Schnabel makes an unusually thoughtful statement of The Well-tempered Clavier's fifth Prelude and Fugue. The remainder of this treasurable EMI References CD - one of numerous Bach titles in the same historic series that will be in the shops from the end of January - includes the D major Toccata, the Italian Concerto, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue and the C major two-piano Concerto with Schnabel's son Karl Ulrich. The sound is fairly old, but the ear soon adjusts.

Tchaikovsky, Falla/Britten BBC Legends BBCB 8012-2;

Mahler/Bernstein Sony Classical SM2K 61831 (two discs); Bach/Schnabel EMI CDH5 67210 2