Rediscovering forgotten variations

New UK label Alto is showing impeccable taste with its reissue of older recordings

Today, a miscellany of audio and video discs and downloads that have come my way recently and that may interest listeners who have not already found them.

MALCOLM ARNOLD: Guitar Concerto , Opus 67; MAURO GIULIANI: Concerto In A For Guitar And Strings ; LENNOX BERKELEY: Sonatina , Opus 51; RAVEL: Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte ; ROUSSEL: Segovia ; CIMAROSA: Sonatine In C-Sharp Minor , Sonata In A . Julian Bream (guitar), Melos Ensemble (in the Arnold and Giuliani concertos). Alto CD ALC 1174 or download.

First, a relatively new, UK-based CD label called Alto that selects and reissues older recordings with impeccable taste. I learned of it while trying to find a CD version of Julian Bream's recording of Malcolm Arnold's Guitar Concerto. This is one of the great works for the instrument, riveting right from the first hearing, and it seems strange that new recordings of it do not appear as regularly as they do of the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez.

Arnold's hypnotic, deep-blue second movement, a memorial to Django Reinhardt, is, like Rodrigo's central adagio, music that is with you to stay even after a single hearing.

There have been a few recordings of the Arnold concerto, including a later one by Bream, but his late-1960s account with the Melos Ensemble, conducted by the composer, remains in a class by itself. Until recently the CD remaster of this performance was hard to obtain. It was only available as part of a complete Bream CD edition, now out of print and selling for more than US$3,000 (90,000 baht), or as the individual 15th disc of that collection, which is also out of print and very pricey. Now Alto has brought it out in improved sound, sharing a programme with Giuliani's popular A-major Guitar Concerto and solo works by Lennox Berkeley, Ravel, Roussel, and Cimarosa, all recorded by Bream when he was in his prime.

Unlike the Arnold Guitar Concerto, Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto has been recorded more times than anyone can count, but if a vote were taken to select a general favourite, this 1959 account by Sviatoslav Richter would quite likely come out on top. A similar poll to determine a preferred recording of the Fourth Concerto would also probably favour the one included on this disc, Michelangeli's, recorded the same year. Both are still in print on their original labels _ the Second on DG and the Fourth on EMI _ but Alto has managed to acquire them and offer them together.

Richter begins the Second Concerto at an unusually slow tempo, but you can sense the emotional heat seething beneath it, an intensity that comes to the surface soon enough and remains at high intensity throughout all three movements. (Compare his approach with some of the more recent ones, Hough's for example, or even the composer's own, where the music seems ready to run right from the outset). It is a high-powered muscular performance that registers all the feeling in its luscious, high-calorie melodies (especially in the finale) without mooning over them or allowing the music to become saccharine.

The Fourth Concerto is smaller in scale and less richly melodic than the Second and has never enjoyed the huge popularity of its two predecessors.

But it is full of filigree-like piano writing that is played in this recording with a goosebump-raising, seemingly superhuman perfection that has had commentators marvelling for more than half-a-century.

By putting both of these performances on a single programme, Alto has produced a CD or download that no lover of Rachmaninov's music can pass by.

In addition to these two Alto gems, the packaging lists many more great recordings, many formerly out of print, that should be in every collection: Klemperer's stereo recording of the Brahms German Requiem; many recitals of Richter performing Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Schubert; Brendel playing Mozart concertos, Schubert and Beethoven (including the late sonatas and the Diabelli Variations), and much more, largely derived from the DG, Philips and EMI catalogues. A windfall.

One additional recommendation: DG has recently released a Blu-ray disc of Mahler's Eighth Symphony conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. It is not the most subtle or probing of performances (don't throw away Tennstedt, Solti or Wit), but it is a uniquely thrilling one. Dudamel conducts the combined Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela together with eight fine vocal soloists (all at home in the music, which is not always the case in recordings of this symphony), and a vast chorus of more than a thousand adult and child singers for a total of 1,400 musicians. It was not Mahler who nicknamed this work the "Symphony of a Thousand", and very few performances assemble anywhere near that number of performers, but here Dudamel surpasses it, and the result is not the bloated, blurry mess that might be expected but a disciplined and idiomatic interpretation. The chorus has been drilled to near perfection, even the small children, so that most of the words can be heard clearly, even in the densely polyphonic parts of the first movement.

The Caracas audience goes wild, and, together with the choristers, begin chanting "Ven-e-zue-la!" in unison during the applause at the end. A terrific evening for them, and for us.

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No.2 ; Piano Concerto No.4 . Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Wislocki (in the Second Concerto); Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Ettore Gracis (in the Fourth Concerto). Alto CD ALC 1175 or download.

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Writer: Ung-Aang Talay
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