The Compact Colection

Rob Cowan on the best CD releases

Why, with virtually the whole repertoire on tap in digital sound, bother with old recordings? Deutsche Grammophon focuses a partial answer with its Original Masters series. Where old recordings are worth hearing their value isn't in history, but in performing styles that, because we no longer have access to them in concert, afford fresh perspectives on familiar music. Take Wilhelm Furtwängler: live recordings 1944-1953 (474 030-2, six discs), the devastating last climaxes of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony, or the veiled mystery that descends in Schubert's Unfinished symphony. Such moments are tantamount to spiritual confrontations: striding the peaks of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony or riding the delirious close of Beethoven's Seventh.

Eugen Jochum (pictured) was in many respects a Furtwängler disciple, but when Herbert von Karajan recorded his famous Berlin Beethoven symphony cycle in the mid-Sixties, Jochum's earlier set vanished from view. Yet comparisons reveal that while Karajan scores for consistency, energy and finesse, Jochum's performances are more colourful, personal, even visionary (474 018-2, five discs). Take the slow movement of the Seventh, or the relaxed poise of the Pastoral. Some of these recordings were taped in mono but such was the care lavished on every take that you often hear more detail than on some digital productions.

This concern over detail extends to Wilhelm Kempff's mono set of Beethoven piano concertos, recorded with the Berlin Phil under Paul van Kempen in the Fifties. DG have repackaged them alongside elegant Mozart (Kv271 and 450), powerful Liszt and Schumann concertos and a majestic Brahms First Concerto (474 024-2, five discs). Another virtue of the series is the way Universal is able to draw material from various labels under its corporate umbrella. For the Janacek Quartet, that means DG, Decca and Westminster (474 010-2, seven discs). Here we have the epitome of controlled quartet playing, predictably idiomatic in Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek, centred and thoughtful in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. And lastly in this first batch of Original Masters, that great German singer the bass Hans Hotter, a compassionate commentator inWinterreise (his third recording of Schubert's song cycle) with Erik Werba gravitating in sympathy to the darker aspects of Schubert's piano writing. DG also offers some of Hotter's last lieder recordings, Schubert, Wolf, Strauss, Loewe and Brahms, sensitively accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons. And there are wartime opera snippets (a chilling Flying Dutchman, a heart-rending Hans Sachs), the voice younger and more secure, whereas the later sessions conjure a loving father confiding profound truths to a favoured child. They're wonderful to listen to (474 006-2, three discs).

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