The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the week's CDs
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The Independent Culture

Franz Schreker was a musical dramatist torn between naturalism and mysticism whose lavish orchestral canvases (mostly based on, or drawn from, his operas) build up from exquisite delicacy to the most ear-shattering climaxes. Schreker's invention crosses the hothouse opulence of Korngold with a more rarefied brand of invention, less calculated than Strauss, more inward - almost like an Austrian distant relation of Szymanowski or Bax. Banished as a decadent while others around him (Strauss included) thrived, Schreker closed his short life's operatic work with the neo-classical Der Schmied von Gent. He died of a heart attack in 1934.

Good sound is an essential prerequisite for any successful Schreker orchestral CD and on that count alone, Chandos's new programme must be considered a significant success. Vassily Sinaisky cues memorably sensitive performances from the BBC Philharmonic, the biggest pieces being from the operas Der ferne Klang, Der Schatzgräber, and Die Gezeichneten (the "Prelude to a Drama"), and the most modest, a rather charming Valse lente.

While Schreker is commonly said to be "of his time", as a composer Wilhelm Furtwängler is unfairly daubed as a Wagnerian throwback. Listening to Furtwängler's C sharp minor Symphony is like scanning the 19th and 20th musical centuries in a single sweep, from Brahms and Bruckner through to Hindemith (beginning of the last movement, followed by what sounds like a reference to Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence). It's a rambling annex to the principal palaces of German late-Romanticism - wholesome, sincere, expansive and full of explosive musical gestures. Wolfgang Sawallisch has already given us a worthy (though incomplete) version of Furtwängler Three (on Orfeo), but now the Arte Nova label has come up with a £5 recording of the complete four-movement score by the Staatskapelle Weimar under George Alexander Albrecht. It's rougher by far than Sawallisch's version, and a lot less well played; but it's still a gripping "Furtwänglerian" performance, with excitable crescendos and rapt pianissimos. You could follow up with Furtwängler's own recording of his Second Symphony (DG, mono).

Anton Webern's musical beginnings were as thoroughly steeped in German musical Romanticism as Schreker's or Furtwängler's, though his later work compresses to gnomic, jewel-like essays - perfectly formed though still even after some 70 years, mysteriously elusive. Works like the Symphony, the Orchestral Variations, cantatas and the Orchestral Pieces Op 6 and 10, helped redefine new music for the post-war generation.

Back in the late Seventies, Pierre Boulez gave us Webern Op 1-31, dryly recorded by Sony but showcasing the likes of the LSO, the Juilliard Quartet, Gregor Piatigorsky and Isaac Stern. Boulez's DG digital re-makes, many of them involving the Berlin Philharmonic or Ensemble InterContemporain, report greater breadth and confidence in vastly superior sound (Sony's tape hiss is no friend of Webern's fragile textures). They also include the posthumously published late-Romantic works that Sony's set omitted.

All the performances will be already familiar from single-LP incarnations, except for three piano pieces (including the important Variations Op 27), which are played by Krystian Zimerman. It is an essential acquisition and has the added attraction of informed annotation by Paul Griffiths.

Schreker, Sinaisky Chandos CHAN9797

Furtwängler, Albrecht Arte Nova 74321 72103 2

Webern, Boulez Deutsche Grammophon 457 637-2 (six discs)