The Compact Collection  

This week's best CD releases
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The Independent Culture

By now everyone knows that the birth of CD back in 1983 signalled the universal primacy of digital sound. Those of us who were unworldly enough to lobby for scratchy old "historicals" were regularly laughed at, especially by the so-called "major companies" – except in Japan, where the past was, and still is, respected in a time-honoured fashion. And except for a growing band of enterprising independents, such as Arbiter, Biddulph, Dutton, Music & Arts, Orfeo, Pearl, Romophone, Symposium, Tahra, Testament and others like them. Now Naxos has started doing what everyone else should have been doing years ago, except it is doing it more efficiently, at lower prices, and with an almost ferocious energy. Caruso, Heifetz, Rubinstein, Schnabel, even the pioneering American violinist Maud Powell, have been the subject of thoroughgoing Naxos retrospectives, and at only a fiver a shot. Thanks to Naxos, thousands of unsuspecting collectors have discovered how early 78s can – and often do – promote levels of musical excitement and perception that put many modern recordings to shame.

But now there's a new contender, a CD "Club Class" to compare with Naxos's EasyJet. They are upper-mid-price, fastidiously planned, handsome in the extreme and as yet only available online from Andante.com (though selected retail outlets should follow). Log on to Andante's website, trail to "Boutique" and you can select your choice of Great Interpreters (an introductory price of $64 per four-disc set). There are six sets so far, each of them cased in black-and-red hard covers, lavishly annotated and stylishly illustrated.

My biggest fear, initially, was that this well-aimed project – where venerated recordings are treated like leather-bound classics – would try to "update" elderly sonics by intervening with excessive noise reduction or bogus stereo. Not so. Even Leopold Stokowski, that Old World doyen of sound experimentation, is represented much as he sounded on 78s, which in the case of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, Dvorak's New World Symphony, Strauss's Death & Transfiguration, Stokowski's orchestration of Bach, and other perennials is pretty impressive. OK, so there is some surface noise, and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy suffers a strange and untypical editing glitch, but in other respects the punchy originals sound much as they did years ago.

Andante has trawled through comparative recordings to select the best representatives for those collectors (non-specialists, hopefully) who would like to invest in, say, Stokowski but are content to let the experts make choices for them. The other new Andantes feature the pianist Wilhelm Backhaus (concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, and Grieg, plus Schubert's Trout Quintet and Schumann's great piano Fantasia, among others); the violinist Joseph Szigeti (concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Bloch, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and Tartini, as well as various sonatas and short pieces); and a pair of classy compilations. One treats us to Beethoven's piano concertos (with two versions each of Nos 3, 4 and 5 by Marguerite Long and Rubinstein, Gieseking and Haskil, and Serkin and Schnabel), while the other gathers together famous Schubert chamber music recordings. They include Adolf Busch and Serkin in the Fantasie; Adolf and Hermann Busch with Serkin in the Second Piano Trio; Thibaud, Cortot and Casals in the First Trio, and, rather rarer Jacques Thibaud and Tasso Janopoulo in the G minor Sonatina. On purely musical grounds, any of these recordings would be good enough to spawn a fresh generation of converts.

The rarity perspective will focus principally on previously unissued broadcast material, initially from the Vienna Philharmonic, with a poor-sounding and only partially successful Mahler Ninth under Dimitri Mitropoulos, coupled with Von Karajan in Bruckner's Eighth Symphony and Karl Böhm in Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Death & Transfiguration. Upcoming projects are more enterprising, and the long-term strategy competes with Naxos for industry and impact.

If price isn't a problem and you're not a completest, then you can confidently leave the historical wing of your orchestral/instrumental collection to Andante.com. And if you find yourself getting hooked, you can always reach out further – and heaven knows, there are enough rival suppliers to choose from.

Andante.com 'Great Interpreters' (all four discs): Leopold Stokowski, 2986-2989; Wilhelm Backhaus, 2996-2999; Joseph Szigeti, 2991-2994; Beethoven piano concertos, 41022; Schubert chamber works 1991-1994; Vienna Philharmonic: Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, 4997-5000

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