The compact collection

Rob Cowan on the best Christmas CDs

Friday 13 December 2002 01:00

Followers of early keyboard music with a liking for variation form will relish NM Classics' nine-disc Sweelinck: the Complete Keyboard Works (92119), not just on account of the invariable charm and purity of the music, but because of the wide variety of instruments used. Many emanate from Sweelinck's home and period (17th-century Holland) and the players chosen include the likes of Bob van Asperen and Glen Wilson. And there's the CD-size book, all 220 pages of it, handsome, hard-bound and comprehensively informative on all aspects of Sweelinck's life and work.

Handel's Complete Chamber Music is performed by the Academy Chamber Ensemble (Philips 470 893-2, nine discs), some of it standard fare for string players, especially the so-called Op 1 sonatas. Delightful stuff to play at home, either as foreground or background listening.

Yehudi Menuhin's Handel recordings for EMI (CZS5 75517 2, eight discs), most of them dating from the 1960s, also include half-a-dozen of the Op 1 sonatas, with Ambrose Gauntlett's viola da gamba adding furry texture to George Malcolm's flamboyant harpsichord. Menuhin (pictured) bows a consistently expressive line, more effortful than the Academy players perhaps, though tonally more distinctive. Solid, hearty, sweet-centred and mostly buoyant, all provide traditional modern-instrument options to the many period-instrument rivals. Again, there are some first-rate solo contributions.

In the case of that adventurous 18th-century Czech Jan Dismas Zelenka, two simultaneous releases allow us access to both modern and period-instrument performances, most famously with Deutsche Grammophon's epoch-making set with the Camerata Bern under Alexander van Wijnkoop (Archiv 469 842-2, five discs). Then there's the period-instrument Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre under Jürgen Sonnentheil (CPO 999 897-2, three discs), swifter, mellower and texturally grittier, programming only the orchestral works. The great draw on DG, aside from some superb woodwind playing (oboists Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue, bassoonist Klaus Thunemann, etc) is the inclusion of six striking Trio Sonatas; two-discs' worth and every minute as appealing as the orchestral music.

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