The Compact Collection  

Rob Cowan on the week's best CD releases
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The Independent Culture

The challenge of writing music that evokes feelings and atmosphere without compromising artistic integrity is one Gavin Bryars faced years ago. You listen to his string quartets, fascinated by their originality while being held captive by their haunting sound world. Hearing Bryars's quartets is like eavesdropping on after-hours conversation; contemplative music that makes imaginative use of the players' resources.

Black Box's package of all three quartets features dedicated performances by the Lyric Quartet. The First Quartet toys with the idea of scordatura, or "mistuning", which has the effect of making four players sound like six or more; whereas the Third dates from 1998, a period when Bryars was steeped in early music. All three works feature mellow modulations wedded to slow, gently pulsing accompaniments, always subtle but memorable. Winged arpeggios are a favourite device, though very different in effect to the simpler minimalist doodling of Philip Glass.

Like the Black Box Turnage programme I recommended in this column last year (Music to Hear on BBM1065), Bryars's quartets embrace the ear as much through creative ingenuity as emotional depth, qualities they share with the repertory's finest chamber music. Indeed, you might say there are parallels between Bryars quartets and the music of Gabriel Fauré, where an all-pervading pastoral mood tends to mask the composer's creative sophistication.

In the case of Fauré's piano music, complex harmonic progressions can, in the wrong hands, dizzy the mind with an overabundance of flavouring. But in the charge of someone like the Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik, whose touch and pedalling achieve a rare transparency, all – or nearly all – is made clear. Put on Paik's new Decca recording of the First Nocturne, and you'll note his subtle dynamic gradations. Paik's heartfelt clarifications of the later pieces (ie, Nocturnes 11 and 13), not to mention his charming handling of various earlier ones, confirm his stature as a persuasive musician whose fine thinking informs every bar of these remarkable performances.

It's wonderful to hear a new piano recording where mind and heart combine with such conviction. One of Sony's budget-price "Original Jacket" Collections is a supreme example from the past. Ten CDs for about £40 is a fairly good deal by any standards, but when the contents include benchmark recordings of Schumann's Kreisleriana, Rachmaninov's Second Sonata, Scriabin's 10th, scintillating Scarlatti and an abundance of Chopin, plus Scriabin, Bach/Busoni, Liszt etc, there really is no contest.

That Horowitz's piano could become an orchestra is well known, but that each of his performances is the potential subject of inexhaustible study is less often stated than it should be. By the time these recordings were made, the spellbinding virtuoso had tempered to a mercurial and soul-searching musician. This is his greatest recorded legacy.

Bryars: Three String Quartets – The Lyric Quartet (Black Box BBM1079)

Fauré: Ballade Op 19 (version for piano solo)/Nocturnes/ Préludes, etc – Kun Woo Paik (Decca 470 246-2)

The Original Jacket Collection – Vladimir Horowitz (Sony Classical S10K 89765, 10 discs, limited edition)

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