The Compact Collection

Ravel: Complete Orchestral Works; Bach: Brandenburg Concertos; Mozart: Complete String Quintets

Rob Cowan
Friday 21 June 2002 00:00
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Classy collections usually come at a price, but the best of Universal's three-disc "Trio" packages offer both quality and quantity without breaking the bank. Take Ravel's orchestral works. Anyone wanting a well-prepared, perceptively played digital collection (not including the concertos) could hardly do better than DG's 1980s DG set with the LSO and Claudio Abbado (pictured) . The delicacy of Abbado's Mother Goose ballet (rapt but never sugary); the immaculate balancing of his Le Tombeau de Couperin; and the seamless first scene of Daphnis et Chloë all bear the mark of judicious artistry. Abbado's Ravel never sacrifices clarity to atmosphere. His is a lissom, refined, warm-hearted approach, with the odd surprise thrown in – like the celebratory shouts at the end of the Boléro. It's a set that seems to have grown in stature, and the inclusion of some relative rarities – the Shéhérazade Overture and L'Eventail de Jeanne fanfare – adds extra value.

Another is Sir Neville Marriner's collection of Bach's Brandenburg concertos, violin concertos and Orchestral Suites. Marriner's voluminous discography has lead many commentators to confuse industry with routine. The truth is the best of these performances are as quietly individual as any, and better played than most. Take the slow movement of the Sixth Brandenburg, where the balance between top line and accompaniment is beautifully judged; or the pastoral elegance of the Fourth concerto, with its immaculately matched recorders. There's the gentle oboe in the First Suite's "forlane", the unexpected breadth of the Third's celebrated "air", and the galloping timpani that underpin its "Ouverture". I doubt Henryk Szeryng ever made a finer record than this crisply phrased A minor Violin Concerto, included alongside the E major and D minor "Double" concertos (with Maurice Hasson). Marriner's Bach is no mere "blanket overview" but a pondered rethink of each work, expertly executed.

The analogue recordings are easily the equals of most of their digital successors. And if you couldn't say quite the same of the Mozart quintets an augmented Arthur Grumiaux Trio recorded for Philips in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they still sound pretty good. Performance-wise, you simply won't find better. Grumiaux's "less-is-more" style of playing pays highest dividends in the C minor and G minor Quintets. This is basic library stuff, a must-have even if you don't normally dabble in chamber music. And as if a best-ever set of these classical perennials isn't enough, Universal/Philips adds the E flat Divertimento, which, in spite of its seemingly frivolous title, is the greatest string trio ever composed. Anyone needing confirmation need only sample the second or sixth movements, breathtaking music exquisitely played. And like its companion Trio sets, this Mozart collection is very well annotated.

Ravel: Complete Orchestral Works – LSO/Abbado (Universal 'Trio' 469 354-2, three discs)

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, Suites, Violin Concertos – Szeryng, Hasson, Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Marriner (Universal 'Trio' 479 934-2, three discs)

Mozart: Complete String Quintets, Divertimento in E flat for string trio (K563) – Arthur Grumiaux Trio, etc (Universal 'Trio' 470 950-2, three discs)

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