Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the happiest, but least publicised, of the year's musical birthdays is that of Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles, who turned 75 this month. Her vocal prowess delighted thousands during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and Testament are marking the event by reissuing key early mono recordings of Puccini's Madame Butterfly and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, but EMI's Songs of Spain focuses on a nourishing and often- forgotten corner of Spanish repertory.

The earliest material - a sequence of traditional songs arranged by Graciano Tarrago - dates from 1950 and relates a resplendent tone, while the newest is an effortless rendition of Song of the Birds, recorded in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympic Games closing ceremony.

De los Angeles worked with numerous talented instrumentalists, Miguel Zanetti joins her for a dozen Spanish folk songs and Gerald Moore partners her in various 20th-century songs. Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs were taped at a 1971 New York recital with pianist Alicia de Larrocha, including Renaissance and Medieval songs accompanied by modern and period instruments.

Her voice improved in time, reaching its prime in the 1960s - the period which is most generously represented by EMI. Sound-quality presentation and documentation are all truly exemplary.

Many music-lovers will know de los Angeles from her recordings of Carmen and La Boheme under Sir Thomas Beecham.

With Christmas being the traditional season for the Messiah, Biddulph Recordings have reissued Beecham's long-deleted 1947 Royal Philharmonic recording of the work - an imaginative epic, closer in style to Elgar's oratorios than Handel's. Beecham habitually lavishes affection where others prefer sparkly tempos; his singers, too, are warm-hearted and expressive, with Heddle Nash tackling the tenor solos, Elsie Suddaby's light soprano and distinctive contributions from contralto Marjorie Thomas and bass Trevor Antony. An augmented Luton Chorus falls short of Victorian overkill and the recording (from old 78s) is more comfortable than clear.

Less comfortable, though hardly less involving, is Valery Afanasiev's vision of Schubert's last piano sonata. Why do Russians so love to linger over Schubert's late piano music? Richter habitually suspended time in this sonata, but Afanasiev draws a virtual halt before the first-movement repeat so that the grumbling bass sounds like auguries of the Last Judgement. Even the most desolate stretches of Schubert's Winter Journey sound jaunty by comparison, though the effect is gripping. You will search far and wide for a more recreative rendition of this score. ECM's sound frame is excellent.

Victoria de los Angeles: EMI CMS5 66937 2 4 discs (mid price)

Handel/Beecham: Biddulph WHL 059-61 3 discs (mid price)

Schubert/Afanassiev: ECM New Series ECM 1682 (full price)