Replay; Robert Cowan makes his pick of the latest reissues

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The Independent Culture
The Art of Conducting:

Great Conductors of the Past

Various orchestras

(EMI Classics 5 65915 2; seven discs)

First there was the BBC/ IMG Artists TV programme, then the video (Teldec Classics) and now the CDs, seven of them, each chronicling a different slant on "The Art of Conducting". The celebrities are the same, but not the recordings. Nor the repertoire, bar a fascinating fourfold presentation of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the seventh "bonus" CD. Here you can sample Artur Nikisch battle with reduced forces for what is, in effect, an extremely characterful performance; Furtwangler bring on the big guns without firing them (he rarely did in the studio); Karajan step on the gas but miss the spirit; while Klemperer alone makes the earth move. So much for the Fifth, although the first of four rehearsal sequences (also on the "bonus" disc) has Beecham shout his way through the scherzo and finale (to no obvious effect), while Furtwangler sets maximum voltage for Leonore No 3 (now this really is the genuine article), Barbirolli summons dynamic extremes in Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Beecham returns with witty asides for Mozart and Haydn.

The main collection gathers a crowd of old friends, some of them decidedly greater than average - Serge Koussevitzky's Sibelius No 7, for example, recorded live in 1937 and devastatingly powerful. It's certainly more elemental than Beecham's attentive but temperate Tapiola, though "Tommy" makes exquisite poetry of Delius, and "Glorious John" Barbirolli dives straight to the heart of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro.

Some selections confound expectations. George Szell offers a particularly affectionate Dvorak Eight and Bruno Walter a refreshingly un-indulgent Mahler Fifth "Adagietto" (7'58" as opposed to the usual 12 or so minutes). Bernstein, however, is lovably excitable in Berlioz's Harold in Italy (a French stereo recording), Stokowski moulds a magisterial Bach Toccata and Fugue (his own orchestration) and an atmospheric, if technically crude, Pines of Rome; Weingartner offers a fairly formal Brahms Four; Nikisch a lively Der Freischutz overture (misnamed Oberon in the booklet); Richard Strauss a curious Rosenkavalier hodgepodge; Reiner a searing live Tristan prelude; and Fritz Busch a sparkling Cosi overture.

As to the "biggies", Klemperer sports a caustic wit and heavy limbs in Beethoven's Seventh, Karajan lean limbs and no wit at all in the Eighth, and Toscanini makes lightning drama of Brahms's Tragic Overture. Even greater is Toscanini's Parsifal prelude and "Good Friday Music", as recorded live at the Queen's Hall in 1935: an incandescent performance, slow, shimmering and with every climax meticulously gauged. Furtwangler's Vienna Phil Unfinished is another "must" - tensed, mysterious and, like so much else in this dizzying retrospective, a real performance. Do try and see the video, but the records are much more important.

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