Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases
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THE YOUNG man whom Tchaikovsky once considered to be his successor, and who went on to pen this century's most famous piano concerto, suffered a devastating blow when, in 1897, his First Symphony was given the critical thumbs down. And yet "Rachmaninov One" positively seethes with Tchaikovskian passion. The outer movements suggest an imperious grandeur that spells Old Russia in every bar: the opening is black as night; the lyrical second subject is serenely beautiful; and the finale's rousing introduction (once used as the theme tune to Panorama) is both fierce and festive.

It was almost 50 years before the symphony enjoyed a second performance, and 20 more before a respectable commercial recording hit the shelves. Since then it has enjoyed the attentions of numerous accomplished maestros, not least Mariss Jansons, whose new EMI recording with the St Petersburg Philharmonic has colossal impact - especially from the lower strings and bass drum. Jansons is especially effective in the finale's dramatic opening, where distant muted horn-calls stop the thrilling first idea dead in its tracks.

The fill-up is Rachmaninov's surging evocation of Arnold Bocklin's painting The Isle of the Dead, with its swaying pulse and obsessively swelling lines. The performance is, if anything, even finer, and the sound quality is just as impressive.

Moving south, and with the heat full on, the harpsichordist Andreas Staier lights the touch-paper for some explosive pre-Classical "Variations on the Spanish Fandango". I doubt that many readers will have encountered a more viscerally exciting disc of (relatively) early music - certainly not in terms of performance standards. The opening selection is the best known, Antonio Soler's 10-minute Fandango, with its sexy melody line, propulsive rhythms and scorching harmonies. Staier rounds off his programme in the company of his fellow-harpsichordist Christine Schornheim and Adela Gonzales Campa on castanets, for a powerhouse arrangement of the Fandango from Boccherini's Fourth Quintet. Both pieces are wild as the wind - though there are colourful, and occasionally more restful, diversions midway from the composers Sebastian de Albero, Josep Galles, Felix Mximo Lopez and Jose Ferrer. Once sampled, Staier's sizzling Fandango extravaganza will be a favourite visitor to your CD tray. If you love Domenico Scarlatti, then you'll surely adore this superbly recorded programme.

Sound quality takes something of a backward slide for a bewitching though sonically compromised 77 minutes in the company of the great Polish piano virtuoso Ignaz Friedman. Connoisseurs have been waxing lyrical over Friedman's playing for years, and for good reason. Who else launches Chopin's "Revolutionary" Study with such incredible finger velocity, raising an aural storm in the process but with every note intact? Mendelssohn's elfin E minor Scherzo is a rocket trailed by stardust; Chopin's A flat Polonaise is all thunder and pride, and Hummel's elegant Rondo becomes a tonal hurricane.

But rather than play the disc straight through, I would start at the very end (track 22) with the most poetic and subtly voiced performance of Chopin's 16th Nocturne ever recorded. Then, you might move back to tracks 1 (Hummel), 8 (Mendelssohn) and 9 (Friedman's own adorable "Elle Danse"). Four previously unissued tracks add further confirmation of Friedman's pianistic genius, and APR's annotation is exemplary.

Rachmaninov/Jansons: EMI CDC5 56754 2 Fandangos/Staier: Teldec 3984-21468-2

Ignaz Friedman: APR 5508