Top classical records of 1996

BOXED SETS; Open the box: Robert Cowan picks the best of the bulk buys
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With space-saving presentation, informative annotation, high performing standards and a total playing time of over 19 hours, Wolfgang Rubsam's exultant 1970s survey of Bach's organ works must be counted an especially desirable bargain (Philips 456 080-3, 16 CDs). Rubsam is currently revisiting the same territory for Naxos, albeit molto rubato and at far slower tempi, but these invigorating earlier sessions report remarkable concentration, perception and technical facility.

Michael Gielen's new SWF Symphony Orchestra Beethoven symphony cycle (EMI CMS5 60089 2, five CDs) boasts similar qualities, though readers averse to fast speeds and a certain interpretative severity might prefer a contemporaneous budget-price set on the Arts label (47370-2, five CDs - distributed by the Complete Record Co), where Peter Maag conducts the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto. Here there's affectionate interpretative incident virtually by the bar, and if the playing isn't quite on a par with the Berlin Philharmonic (or the SWF SO, for that matter), Maag makes ample amends with some notably sensitive phrasing.

Emil Gilels is another thoughtful Beethovenian, one whose near-complete piano sonata cycle for DG re-appears on nine CDs (Sonatas 2-8, 10, 11-21, 23, 25, 26-29, 30, 31, the "Electoral" Sonatas and Eroica Variations - 453 221-2). Some performances are grandly emphatic, others are airily fanciful, and the "late" Sonatas inhabit an elevated spiritual plane. Indeed, it's fascinating to compare Gilels's sculpted 1982 studio "Hammerklavier" with a rather more daring 1984 Moscow concert performance that Melodiya / BMG includes as part of their five-CD Emil Gilels Edition (74321 40116 2). Selections also include other significant solo repertory (Shostakovich's Second Sonata, Mozart's K281, etc) plus concertos by Chopin (No 1) and Poulenc (the delightful Concert champetre).

Schubert's symphonies assume poise and textural transparency in the hands of Staatskapelle Dresden under Sir Colin Davis (RCA 09026 62673 2, four CDs). Karajan and the BPO (EMI CMS5 66114 2, four CDs) court wider dynamic extremes, but Davis's characteristically urbane renditions have the benefit of superior digital sound. Furtwangler's Bruckner is neither urbane nor particularly well recorded, but an evening spent with a devastating 1949 Berlin Philharmonic broadcast of the Eighth Symphony could well prove a life-changing experience. EMI have programmed this towering re-enactment as part of an important historical Bruckner retrospective (Volume 2 - CHS5 66210 2, three CDs). The same set also includes compelling pre-war accounts of the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies (under Oswald Kabasta and Siegmund von Hausegger, respectively) plus Furtwangler's intensely voiced (though sadly incomplete) wartime recording of the Sixth Symphony.

Karl Richter's sturdy set of Handel's Concerti grossi Op 3 and 6 (Archiv 453 249-2, four CDs) parades some glorious music, cleanly recorded and sumptuously played - on modern instruments - by the Munich Bach Orchestra.

An even more anachronistic Baroque has Rosa Ponselle (the greatest soprano of them all) intone Lully's Bois epais in the comfort of her own home, recorded in 1954 - that's no less than 17 years after her retirement from the operatic stage. Still, the artistry was very much intact, and the voice miraculously well preserved (Rosa Ponselle: the 1939 Victor and 1954 Villa Pace Recordings - Romophone 81022-2, three CDs).

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