The Compact Collection

This week's best CD releases
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It is tragically ironic that New York's current skyline more resembles the one that Aaron Copland celebrated in music during the mid-Sixties than the twin-towered Manhattan of a few weeks ago. Add the fact that the latest CD of Copland's Music for a Great City comes from Boston, and inevitable associations strike home with added force. But it's a happy marriage, Copland's cinematic tone-picture and America's most refined orchestra, one that's commemorated towards the end of a wider musical celebration in a remarkable Sixties performance under the composer's own baton.

The 12 CDs of the orchestra's well-planned Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration come handsomely housed in a tough red-wine and gold casing. And, like its various predecessors from neighbouring states, Boston's collection is rich in radio rarities. Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra was broadcast merely weeks after its premiere, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky (who also commissioned the work), and this latest transfer is notably superior to a rival CD on Naxos. Leonard Bernstein takes to the keyboard for his Auden-inspired symphony, The Age of Anxiety, another Koussevitzky broadcast-premiere and the only version on disc where Bernstein himself is soloist. Rough and ready in part, its brawny profile and tireless intensity are consistently compelling. Pierre Monteux cues a chivalrous account of Strauss's Don Quixote, vividly personified by his section leaders, though, for me, it's less of a revelation than Monteux's passionate Tallis Fantasia. Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony burns just as fiercely under Sir Colin Davis, with Sibelian parallels brought clearly to the fore.

Alsatian-born Charles Munch takes us on an absorbing if occasionally exhausting sprint through Franck, Fauré, Roussel (the invigorating Suite in F), Debussy (La Mer) and Ravel (La Valse). Munch's hot head marks a maximum contrast with the cooler manner of his Austrian-born successor, Erich Leinsdorf, who is at his best in a magical orchestral Suite from Janacek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen.

Then there's William Steinberg's Bruckner Eighth, with its bold, Nordic-sounding Scherzo, Bernard Haitink breezing through Schubert's affable Third Symphony, and Michael Tilson Thomas provoking Prokofiev's Scythian Suite to frequent humour and fitful violence.

The orchestra's current maestro, Seiji Ozawa, hogs two full discs, with Messiaen's prayerful and chirruping Trois Petites Liturgies de la présence divine as its highlight. And while Bruno Walter shows limited sympathy for Haydn's Oxford Symphony – a bit too hard-driven for my liking – Leinsdorf returns for a rib-tickling romp through key Mozartean motives in the waltz sequence Die Mozartisten by Joseph Lanner. There, the disc context is a sequence of "encores", which also includes, among many goodies, Munch conducting Auber; Haitink frisking Holst's "Jupiter"; and a couple of revealing rehearsal snippets. Far too much to absorb in a mere few days, but enough to give a lifetime's worth of musical stimulation. Other conductors, all of them with memorable performances, include Stokowski, Cantelli, Giulini and Kubelik.

The set's sound quality is often remarkable (and mostly stereo), with searing string lines, realistic brass and percussion, and a minimum of unwanted audience participation – although even the odd fidget does little to spoil the effect. The documentation tells you all you need to know, eloquently, intelligently and comprehensively. So, with the prospect of Christmas already looming, I have a keen suspicion that this is going to be a priority gift among collectors.

'The Boston Symphony Orchestra's Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration', featuring various principal and guest conductors in recordings from 1943-2000

Boston Symphony Orchestra/IMG Artists Boston BSO CB 100, available direct from the orchestra at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA 02115, USA; or online from www.bso.org

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