Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Relaeases
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I HAVE often wondered how our critical faculties would react if all the radio archives across the world were to pool their resources and flood the CD market with exciting live historic recordings. Would people suddenly get wise to the bland predictability of so many studio productions?

Well, it could certainly happen - and BBC Music's long-awaited Legends CDs follow a trend that has already gained considerable momentum throughout the rest of the Europe. Production values on the new series are high; the presentation is up-beat, the annotation is informative and well written, and the technical restoration mostly excellent. Initial choices have been judicious, repertoire-wise, centring for the most part on exceptional performances in better-than-average sound.

Top of the list for many will be Sir John Barbirolli's affectionate saunter through Mahler's epic Third Symphony, taped at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1969 and featuring contralto Kertsin Meyer, the Halle Ladies Choir, the Boys of Manchester Grammar School and the Halle Orchestra. Although far from pristine (the brass in particular have their dicey moments), the "feel" of the performance is precisely right, especially at the centre of the long first movement where Mahler prepares for "summer marching in". The minuetto is limpid and pastel-shaded, the scherzo full of fantasy, and the slow finale, predictably loving. The peroration is overwhelming and when the triumphant closing bars have finally sounded, you enjoy the uncanny (and appropriate) sense of returning home from some idealised dream-world.

Great music-making has the potential to elevate or transport us, a situation more likely to occur in concert than in the stultifying atmosphere of a recording studio. I wouldn't even attempt to count how many commercial records the Amadeus Quartet have made over the years, but one thing is for sure: few if any display the fervour generated in a performance of the Brahms' Piano Quintet with Sir Clifford Curzon, taped live at the Royal Festival Hall back in 1974. High on adrenalin and strong on emotion, all five players lunge at this expansive score with absolute commitment, reaching unprecedented inspirational heights in the slow movement and finale. The same package also includes a genial account of Schubert's Trout Quintet, recorded three years earlier.

Choosing a third disc from this batch of BBC Legends might have proved difficult had not been for a bout of flu. Miserable, listless and tucked up in bed, I had the bizarre notion of sampling - via headphones - Respighi's Pines of Rome in a 1967 Bournemouth Symphony recording under Constantin Silvestri. By the time I had journeyed past "The Pines of the Appian Way", I felt fit enough to run a marathon. It is quite simply the most stunning account of the Pines to have come my way since Toscanini's in the 1950s, and the same CD includes a fine though idiosyncratic performance of Tchaikovsky's troubled Manfred Symphony. Perhaps it should be made available on prescription.

All on the BBC Legends label in the upper mid price range:

Mahler/Barbirolli: BBCL 4004-2 (2 discs).

Brahms, Schubert/Curzon, Amadeus Quartet: BBCL 4009-2 (1 disc plus bonus CD).

Tchaikovsky, Respighi/ Silvestri: BBCL 4007-2