BBC vaults yield rare treasures

Historic broadcasts and recordings of great conductors are simply extraordinary.

Classical Music

August 01, 1999|By STEPHEN WIGLER | STEPHEN WIGLER,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The current dip in classical CD sales scarcely makes it seem a propitious time to launch a new record label. Rather than expend resources on recording new artists, all the major labels are cannibalizing their vaults to reissue old material in refurbished form -- whether Sony's "Classical Masterworks Heritage" series, EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" or Philips' "Great Pianists of the 20th Century." Old wine in new bottles, if you like.

But one new label, BBC Legends, is offering a distinctive spinoff of this formula: old wine of the finest vintage -- but rarely, if ever, bottled before.

The recordings on BBC Legends, a joint venture of the British Broadcasting Corp. and the international artists management giant, IMG Artists, are culled from one of the most inexhaustible of historical archives: the vaults of the BBC. Since the end of World War II, every important instrumentalist, singer and musical ensemble that has performed in Great Britain has broadcast for the BBC. And unlike other government-subsidized European radio operations -- such as those in Russia, which let its broadcast tapes deteriorate, or in Switzerland, in which tapes had to be destroyed within a year of their broadcast -- the Brits kept theirs in mint condition. In the last few months, BBC Legends has released more than two dozen discs. And that's barely scratching the surface. Having access to the BBC's vaults makes any collector react the way Count Dracula would if he were let loose in a blood bank.

Britten as performer

One of the projects of BBC Legends has been a series with the concept of Benjamin Britten as a performer. Britten was, of course, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century -- and he was almost equally distinguished as a pianist (mostly in collaboration with singers and other musicians) and as a conductor. His record company, Decca, recorded him frequently -- but mostly in his own music. Fortunately, however, the BBC recorded all the performances given between 1959 and 1972 at the festival in Aldeburgh, which was founded by the composer and his lifetime partner, tenor Peter Pears. BBC Legends thus gives us the opportunity to hear Britten -- collaborating not only with Pears, but also with the London Symphony and the English Chamber Orchestra and with such friends as pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Claudio Arrau, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and singers Elly Ameling, Janet Baker and Heather Harper -- in repertory close to his heart, but which he never got the chance to record commercially.

Britten felt particularly close to the music of Gustav Mahler, and one of the most remarkable of the discs is devoted entirely to his music -- performances of the Symphony No. 4, the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" ("Songs of a Wayfarer") and two songs from the "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Child's Magic Horn"). The performance of the symphony is superb -- with tempos for the first two movements that are fleet by contemporary standards, but close to those used by Mahler himself, and a deeply moving slow movement and finale. But the best thing on the disc is the performance of the "Songs of a Wayfarer," which features subtle and imaginative conducting by Britten and extraordinarily impassioned singing by the little-known mezzo-soprano (to me, at least) Anna Reynolds. If you buy one Mahler recording this year, make it this one.

Gilels and others

There is much more than Britten, however, to BBC Legends. There are great conductors in works they never got the opportunity to record commercially, such as Jascha Horenstein (in Mahler's Symphony No. 8), Sir John Barbirolli (Mahler's Symphony No. 3) and Pierre Monteux (in a tremendously vital interpretation by the then 87-year-old Frenchman of Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust").

There are also some performances by great musicians of repertory that are superior to those that represent their efforts in previously issued discs. One of these is Evgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in a 1960 broadcast of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8, the first performance of the piece outside the USSR. The interpretation is remarkably similar to the conductor's 1948 recording (on BMG-Melodiya) and one from 1982 (Philips). But the recorded sound on this newly issued performance is far superior to the Pleistocene sonics of the 1948 version and to the more recent one from Philips, which was recorded almost a half-tone sharp.

It's hard to know where to turn next -- whether to George Enescu's remarkable 1951 broadcast of Bach's B minor Mass -- with an incredible lineup of singers, all in their prime, that includes the legendary Kathleen Ferrier -- or Sviatoslav Richter's characteristically searching all-Schubert recital in 1979 of the sonatas in B major (D. 575), F minor (D. 625) and A major (D. 664).

But my personal favorite is a disc recorded in 1957 and 1959 by Richter's greatest colleague and rival, Emil Gilels. You will never hear more exquisite Scarlatti than the five sonatas on this disc, in which the pianist is, by turns, playful, dramatic and expressively lyrical. Schumann's big Sonata No. 1 (in F sharp minor) receives its best performance ever on disc. Gilels approaches this music with lucidity comparable to that of Pollini (on a Deutsche Grammophon disc) and with a sense of individuality that never descends to the idiosyncratic as Arrau does (Philips). The sound on the BBC disc is superior to Gilels' other versions, studio-made (1957) and live (1961), from Moscow.

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