Classical: The Compact Collection ROB COWAN ON THE WEEK'S CD RELEASES

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The Independent Culture
FRANK BRIDGE's evocative symphonic suite The Sea could hardly have been composed during more exciting times. Three weeks earlier, Arnold Schoenberg's epoch-making Five Orchestral Pieces had been premiered, and three weeks later it was the turn of Schoenberg's even more radical Pierrot Lunaire.

Those same two months during the autumn of 1912 also saw Strauss and Reger enjoy major first performances, and Leopold Stokowski make his debut as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

And yet Bridge's underrated masterpiece was doubly significant. When the 10-year-old Benjamin Britten heard it for the first time he was, we're told, "knocked sideways". Listen hard enough, and Peter Grimes is waiting somewhere in the wings, though not as obviously - or as strikingly - as Britten's Spring Symphony rings out from the closing pages of Bridge's masterly tone poem Enter Spring.

The Sea is craftsman-like and swathed in atmosphere, but Enter Spring releases a veritable flood of invention, opening with birdsong and climaxing to string lines that level with the best in Vaughan Williams, Elgar or Mahler.

Britten conducts his teacher's music with more conviction and intelligence than anyone since, and the BBC's "first release" of his live performances - recorded in fairly sumptuous stereo - joins Holst's A Fugal Concerto (under Imogen Holst) and Egdon Heath (under Britten) and Britten's own choral overture, The Building of the House.

Deciding whether this CD or a vintage Britten/Peter Pears recital of Schumann, Faure, Purcell and Britten (BBCB 8006-2) best represents the BBC's latest "Legends" was near to impossible. I plump for Bridge not because he is better performed, but because his music should be far better known.

Hans Otte's work for solo piano, Das Buch der Klange, or The Book of Sounds, yields its secrets rather more slowly. Superficially Minimalist, though without Minimalism's jazzy aura, Otte's 20-year-old, 78-minute journey encompasses 12 "chapters" in 25 pages, whittled down from 433. The motives form an entrancing sequence, whether wandering among solitary notes or warming with ravishing harmonies.

The pianist Herbert Henck says of Das Buch that it is "in its way, one of the most remarkable creations in contemporary music", and listening straight through - travelling patiently and gratefully arriving - I sense that conviction in his playing.

Whether Arturo Toscanini was quite as convinced by Dvorak is open to debate, though his all-Dvorak concert of 28 January 1945 includes a typically well-structured account of the Second Cello Concerto, where soloist Edmund Kurtz is at his best in the first movement. More impressive still is the vivacious Scherzo Capriccioso - but not as heard in the concert performance. Naxos offers a 19-minute rehearsal sequence, and if you need confirmation of how the "best laid plans" can fall flat, play the opening as heard in concert, then beam up to 9'32" on track 8, where the same music is performed with more tension, flexibility and swagger in rehearsal. The ideal would be to "pick 'n' mix" between the two, except that the rehearsal is infinitely better recorded. It's a revelation that comes extremely cheap at a fiver.

Bridge, Holst, Britten/Britten etc BBC BBCB 8007-2

Otte/Henck ECM 462 655-2

Dvorak/Toscanini Naxos 8.110819

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