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Classical Music: The Compact Collection

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  • Classical Music: The Compact Collection

    Classical Music: The Compact Collection

    The Independent - United Kingdom
    Jul 26, 2004

    Rob Cowan

    POISED SOMEWHERE along the misty outskirts of 20th-century music is
    Karol Szymanowski, gentle lone wolf, dreamer and aesthete, someone who
    could conjure chords of transcendent beauty and suspend radiant
    melodies above them. A brand new four-disc set of Szymanowski's
    Complete Songs for Voice and Piano (Channel Classics CCS 19398 *****o)
    takes us from sombre early pieces inspired by German Romanticism to
    various songs from texts by the Persian poet Hafiz and Szymanowski's
    Polish compatriots.

    Spending just a minute or two in the hypnotic company of, say, "The
    Song of the Wave" from the six Songs of the Fairy Princess (CD 4,
    track 5), with its darkly luminous harmonies, its echoes of Debussy
    and aromatic hints of the East, should be enough to convert anyone. Or
    the three sombre lullabies, where listening is more like eavesdropping
    on a profoundly private brand of reverie. Soprano Iwona Sobotka holds
    us enthralled, just as tenor Piotr Beczala, soprano Juliana Gondek and
    mezzo Urszula Kryger had done on the first three discs. And yet so
    often the multi-shaded pianistic backdrops hold the most treasurable
    surprises, which is why pianist Reinild Mees is surely the real star
    of the show.

    In the case of a programme of English Folk Songs arranged by Benjamin
    Britten (476 1973 *****o), newly reissued as part of Decca's "The
    British Music Collection", the singer-pianist partnership is
    symbiotic, Peter Pears' every phrase either mirrored or anticipated by
    the composer-arranger. These are miracles of subtle recreation,
    whether among the dark spectres that accompany "The Last Rose of
    Summer" or the lofty nostalgia of "Tom Bowling". The recordings date
    from 1959 and 1961, which surprised me, given that a number of the
    tracks sound suspiciously like mono, but the overall quality is very
    good and the performances are truly unforgettable.

    Less familiar than Pears and Britten, but equally absorbing, is a
    brand new budget-price four-disc collection of lieder, songs, arias
    and duets featuring the legendary Armenian mezzo-soprano Zara
    Dolukhanova (Guild GHCD 2281/4 *****o), who premiered (alongside
    soprano Nina Dorliac) Shostakovich's "From Jewish Folk Poetry". The
    voice has a full-bodied, sensuous quality, especially suited to
    Schumann and Strauss (sung in Russian) and some notably dramatic
    renditions of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

    There's agile Mozart with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Barshai,
    a whole host of rarities and, perhaps most memorable of all, a
    recording of Ravel's "Kaddish", performed in biblical Aramaic and sung
    with such burning intensity that it sounds like spontaneous
    prayer. Purchase should be mandatory for that one track alone, but
    there are plenty of others to savour alongside it, not least a moving
    sequence of "arie antiche". Good transfers, and the sort of
    comprehensive annotation that helps bring these great singers to life.

    Though I'd hazard a guess that the biggest seller among new vocal
    issues and reissues will be Volume 4 of Naxos's Jussi Bjorling
    Collection (8.110788 *****9), and not just because of Bjorling's
    trumpeting tenor. Alongside arias by Gounod, Massenet, Donizetti,
    Puccini, Mascagni and others is a series of duets with baritone Robert
    Merrill which includes one of the most popular operatic recordings of
    all time, justly so given the perfect matching of timbres in "Au fond
    du temple saint" from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. The transfer is
    slightly hard, but at a fiver only the most fastidious sound buffs are
    likely to complain.