Today some of the best newly-released classical CDs are also some of the cheapest. While Naxos has mopped up out-of-copyright "historicals" (Caruso, Flagstad, Kreisler, Heifetz etc), the majors are retaliating with top-quality digital budget lines. The latest are Warners' thoroughly annotated and attractively presented super-budget Apex CDs, many of which would be first choices even at full price. Take Dvorak's New World Symphony. Few modern versions have the muscle and warmth of Kurt Masur's 1991 live recording with the New York Philharmonic. Masur's Largo is a ranch-side rocking-chair at late evening, his scherzo a frisky stallion and his finale always on the move, even towards the end, where lesser maestros opt for excessive breadth. The beefcake recording keeps the brass well and truly in the picture, while the Slavonic Dance fill-ups are just as compelling. If you need a digital New World and don't want to break the bank, look no further.
Unusual repertoire also features among the first Apex releases, with choice Carter and Dallapiccola, and the rarer end of Max Bruch's output. While it's difficult to believe Bruch's Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra is also 20th-century – the idiom is comfortably romantic – those with attentive ears will appreciate the skill of its design and the beauty of its themes. Kent Negano and the Lyon Opera orchestra give a sensitive performance with superb contributions from violist Gérard Caussé and clarinettist Paul Meyer, while the rest of the disc features Bruch's equally enticing (and stylistically varied) Romance for Viola and Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano.
Armin Jordan's 1990 Mahler Fourth is another little-known digital gem, less candidly emotive than, say, Bernstein's or Tennstedt's, but full of fantasy and nicely observed orchestral detail. The Geneva-based L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande plays like a chamber ensemble and the soprano soloist is Edith Wiens makes a creditable job of the closing movement. This is an object lesson in how to coax the best out of Mahler while retaining composure.
Jean Martinon's excitable1960s Erato recording of Saint-Saëns's Third Symphony is one of the few Apex releases that calls on analogue sources. Yet the performance – one of the most compelling available – more than justifies its resuscitation. Aside from the visceral thrill of Marie-Clair Alain's organ in the finale, there's Martinon's conducting – forceful yet elegant, and no less effective in Francis Poulenc's Gothic-style Organ Concerto. There are also winning Saint-Saëns extras in Danse Macabre and the ethereal Le Rouet d'Omphale. The transfers extract the most from these vivid if occasionally over-modulated tapes.
Dvorak: 'New World Symphony' – NYPO/Kurt Masur (Warners Apex 8573 89085 2)
Bruch: Concerto for Viola, Clarinet and Orchestra, etc – Paul Meyer, Gérard Caussé, etc Lyon Opera Orchestra/Kent Nagano (Warners Apex 8573 89229 2)
Mahler: Symphony No 4 – L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Armin Jordan (Warners Apex 8573 89238 2)
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No 3, etc/Poulenc: Organ Concerto – Marie-Claire Alain, Orchestre National de l'ORTF/Jean Martinon (Warners Apex 8573 89244 2)Reuse content