Classical: The Compact Christmas

Rob Cowen on some orchestral gift ideas: Bach - Menuhin; Mendelssohn - Abbado; Wilhlem Furtwängler Recordings 1942-1944, Vol One; Stravinsky - Ansermet; Scriabin - Muti
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The Independent Culture

You would need to be either stone-hearted or hell-bent on avoiding modern-instrument Bach at all costs not to be tempted by EMI's super-budget, seven-CD set of Bach Orchestral Works directed by Yehudi Menuhin. The sheer love that emanates from it all, most famously from the violin concertos (especially the Double, where Menuhin is partnered by an equally eloquent Christian Ferras), yields joy beyond measure, and the six Brandenburg Concertos still rank among the best versions available. Add the four orchestral Suites, the Musical Offering and sundry keyboard concertos (with George Malcolm, Simon Preston, Eileen Joyce etc), and you have the basis of a definitive "central" collection of key Bachian orchestral repertoire.

Mendelssohn's efforts on Bach's behalf are well known, though the storm-tossed Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture sound like near relations to Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, something that must surely have occurred to Claudio Abbado, whose superb digital Mendelssohn symphony cycle for DG has just reappeared at budget price. The LSO's playing is warmly incisive, and in addition to the five symphonies, Abbado throws in seven overtures, including the rarely-heard Trumpet Overture and Overture for Winds. Mendelssohn's own colourful reworking of the Scherzo from his Octet is another bonus.

No prizes for guessing why Mendelssohn's music doesn't turn up on DG's newly reissued Wilhelm Furtwängler: Recordings 1942-1944, though the Nazis must have been looking the other way when Eric Röhn smuggled Fritz Kreisler's decidedly non-Aryan cadenza into the first movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. It was from the very last concert in the old Philharmonic Hall (bombs destroyed the venue soon afterwards), and shares volume one with inspirational Beethoven (Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies), a heated Schubert Ninth and highly original Handel (Op 6/10). The second volume is dominated by a volatile Bruckner Fifth, Strauss and Sibelius tone poems and concertos by Schumann and Brahms. The closing Daphnis et Chloé Second Suite proves Furtwängler's musical sympathies beyond German repertoire, though I can't pretend that this impulsive take on Ravel has the textural transparency that, say, Ernest Ansermet brought to the same repertoire. And yet both conductors (they were friends) prized interpretative integrity above mere virtuosity. Ansermet's Stravinsky could, on occasion, be ponderous and a little unkempt, but his consistently perceptive Decca recordings are for many still the last word after Stravinsky's own.

Those in the know will rejoice that Decca have squeezed virtually all of Ernest Ansermet's stereo Stravinsky on to eight discs, reinstating one or two real rarities, such as the Concerto for Piano and Wind with Nikita Magaloff – a fabulous performance. The symphonies are likewise grainy and aurally three-dimensional, the great ballets (Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, Apollon Musagète, Fairy's Kiss, Soldier's Tale) stronger on a sense of theatre than on precision. Other works – the Scherzo, La Russe, Capriccio, Mavra, Les Noces, Etudes, Suites – exude the same uncanny feeling of interpretative "rightness" that draws you back even to the unflattering sonorities of the hard working L'Orchèstre de la Suisse Romande.

Scriabin was among Stravinsky's most significant early influences (The Firebird is full of obvious Scriabinisms) and Riccardo Muti's set of Scriabin's five symphonies is about as far removed in style from Ansermet's Stravinsky as Fortnum's food hall is from your local fruit market. Which doesn't necessarily mean a drop in musical quality, just an upgrade in terms of presentation, with the plush Philadelphians bringing their familiar tonal lustre to bear on what are extremely lavish scores. EMI's early digital recordings deliver the goods in sumptuous packaging.

Bach – Menuhin (EMI CZS5 74439 2, seven discs)
Mendelssohn – Abbado (DG 471 467-2, four discs)
Wilhlem Furtwängler Recordings 1942-1944, Vol One (DG 471 289-2, four discs); Vol Two (DG 471 294-2, four discs)
Stravinsky – Ansermet (Decca 467 818-2, eight discs)
Scriabin – Muti (EMI CMS5 67720 2, three discs)