Choosing CDs for seasoned collectors is always a bit of a lottery, especially where knowledgeable enthusiasts are the potential recipients. Where on earth do you start? Those with a taste for modern music could happily start with Changing Platforms, a handsome, book-style 2-CD celebration of the 30-year-old Contemporary Music Network. For your money, you get 150 minutes of music, 100 tightly packed pages of essays/ information, and a music programme that ranges from the perennial newness of Peter Maxwell-Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King to the cool-breathed "Nessun dorma" of Uri Caine. The story of CMN's touring activities is, in effect, the story of new music since the early 1970s, and in that respect, no page is left unturned. But the sound content is the thing, and although there's far too much to list in detail, I must at least mention Cornelius Cardew's two-piano Boolavogue and Mike Westbrook's The Cortège. Both are unmissable highlights. Changing Platforms is an entertainment, an education, and a key to 24 musical doors that for many might otherwise remain securely locked.
For years, Bartok's six string quartets seemed like formidable territory to all but the most cerebrally gifted. And yet, the softening passage of time has proved them to be as many durable adventures in texture, harmony and rhythm. No surviving ensemble has promoted their cause over a longer time-span than the Juilliard Quartet. Of the Juilliards' three commercial recordings, the first – which dates from 1949/50 – combines lyrical intensity (the last Quartet is an elegy for a world poised on the brink of war) with laser-like concentration and ferocious rhythmic attack. Pearl have reissued the set from what sounds like immaculate source material, and I would wager that anyone seriously interested in today's music and its key influences would welcome this excellent slim-line set.
Unless, of course, they already own a copy, in which case there's a further chamber-music option in Chandos's five-disc set of Schoenberg's complete music for strings, which calls on the talents of the 25-year-old Schoenberg Quartet. First, we have the four "standard" quartets, more fearsome than Bartok's, it's true, but musically nourishing in the long term, especially when played with such obvious dedication – and, what's more unusual, with such apparent ease. Add the Dvorakian early quartet of 1897, an amusingly overwrought Quartet Concerto after Handel (conducted by Roberto Benzi), a new string quintet version of the mind-bending Wind Quintet, and the spiced Wagnerianisms of Verklärte Nacht, and you have a Schoenberg-fest, beautifully recorded.
Then again, if even Schoenberg is too familiar, you might care to risk the appealing if relatively uncharted territory of eight Concertos for Orchestra by Goffredo Petrassi. This largely memorable music toys with a number of styles (Bartok, Hindemith and Henze), tracing a curve of artistic development that stretches from 1934 to 1972, and always achieving a fine balance between innovation and communication. Zoltan Pesko conducts with evident conviction.
Musical conviction was never a problem with the late Giuseppe Sinopoli, though not everyone was sold on his recorded interpretations. Still, any sensitive listener who trawls through Sinopoli's Mahler recordings for DG – most of them with the Philharmonia – will encounter an intelligent mind grappling with ambitious structures. Sinopoli often settles for unorthodox tempos, or takes an unexpected shine to particular instrumental lines, or generally reinvents the music. Fifteen discs follow Mahler's creative journey from the seminal cantata Das klagende Lied to the unfinished Tenth Symphony's first movement, taking in major song cycles en route.
'Changing Platforms' – available from selected record stores or from email@example.com; tel: 020-8968 5655
Bartok: String Quartets Nos 1-6 – Juilliard Quartet (Pearl GEMS 0147, two discs, mid price)
Schoenberg: Complete Music for Strings – Schoenberg Quartet etc (Chandos CHAN9939, five discs, mid price)
Petrassi: Concertos for Orchestra Nos 1-8 – BBC SO, Philharmonia Hungarica, RAI SO, Milan, Zoltan Pesko Warner Fonit 8573 83274-2 (three discs, mid price)
Mahler – Philharmonia, etc Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG 471 451-2, 15 discs, budget price)Reuse content