on 10 January 2014
Nineteen artists are listed on the box for twenty CDs - Sviatoslav Richter gets two CDs, one in concertante works, and the Rubinstein includes the F minor Chopin Concerto (in 1961 at the RFH, in what sounds like mono, with a gigantic piano image, apparently the balance he preferred, according to Culshaw, keeping the orchestra -under Giulini, no less - well back, and Rubinstein occasionally genuinely poetic but mainly in his default swaggering concert-hall mode, as though he was playing the Thchaikovsky B flat minor - the solos, from a 1959 BBC concert, are, however, spontaneous, meditative where they need to be, and poetic throughout),which means six and a bit of the twenty, around a third, are solo piano discs. The only solo vocal disc (Schubert) is from Janet Baker. Dennis Brain, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich are the other soloists. Of the seven conductors the only ones who held a BBC appointment are Sir Malcolm Sargent and Rozhdestvensky. BBC orchestral musicians, and one major composer, do get heard. The only British conductor, apart from Sir Malcolm, in the list is that bosom friend and supporter of the BBC through thick and thin, the late Sir Thomas Beecham. Surely they aren't still pursuing the entirely personal bad blood which led to Boult's peremptory retirement and his later career? Still, the corporation does manage to get its property in its 'word mark and logo' acknowledged. The BBC once used to put on operas in the studio - there are notable survivals on other labels, including Beecham's Elektra, and Fair Maid of Perth, the original versions of Boccanegra, Forza del destino, Macbeth... I could go on. The only sniff of opera we get here is a suite from 'Katerina Ismailova', even though the original version, the Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, had returned to circulation by then. The 'Britten The Performer' BBC discs are not represented, presumably for Byzantine contractual reasons. Bizarrely, in his centenary year. Students of very small print will, however, find Britten the performer conducting marvellously, at Aldeburgh, for Rostropovich in an outstanding performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto. (A problem here, though - the set includes a performance by the Dennis Brain Ensemble of Beethoven's Piano and Wind Quintet which, when originally issued, (a copy of the original issue is still up on Amazon) named Britten as the pianist. It doesn't now. No pianist is named at all. I have seem the part attributed to George Malcolm in other references to this performance. It's nice to know what you are getting). The same disc also admits Leonid Kogan, who reported Rostropovich to the Soviet authorities for too much stargazing at Western material culture, and Gilels, together in a Haydn Trio, apart from the Dennis Brain disc, the only chamber music in the box. Attention isn't drawn to this, or for that matter any other individual item, other than Delphically on the back of the box, and not much less opaquely on the backs of sleeves, rather in the Amazon house style. Let the punter do the donkey work. Very much a post-Birtist, outsourced, unvocal, box in which ICA rakes over IMG issues. Who needs all that junk in the archives? (Even though it 'walked off the shelves' when first issued?)
Retrospectively the repertoire (horrible word) on these discs looks as though it's been compiled by a search engine. As it happens the Michelangeli disc I'm listening to just now contains the first Beethoven Op 111 I've heard since rehearing Schnabel's 1932 risky. edge of the seat, 78s. If you actually wanted to undermine Michelangeli's reputation as a pianist you could not do better than place this performance in the brilliant, precise, and passionate context of the Scarlatti, Clementi, and Chopin, with which it is issued here. Its variations, played with all Michelangeli's tonal and digital resource and refinement and the longest track on the disc, are totally meaningless - a rare feat of interpretation, perhaps, but not one to be treasured. The Curzon disc, of which the heart is his Leith Town Hall recital in 1961, is hotly debated. The Haydn variations are unmissable, and the Schubert pendant is well chosen in theory, though the repeated notes of the G flat impromptu evoke the previously heard ('flawed' would be the polite word for a sometimes-marvellous-and-sometimes-the-opposite performance) Liszt sonata in a completely different acoustic which throws the unwary listener a little. I don't know whether with perfect foreknowledge, I would have bought it as a single issue, but.....The Gilels disc is one I would buy as a single issue, but I already have. I'm glad to have the Kempff, Monteux - a remarkable and very free Schumann Fourth especially, in a disc compiled from two separate earlier issues - Richter (both discs) and Oistrakh, and folk who missed it will be glad of the Mahler 8, though simply to get it would not be the best of reasons for buying the box.
On the whole the collection sums up the cons, rather than the pros, of this - I suppose - obsolete series, though admittedly it could have been worse. And if you can get it at the much lower price some suppliers, including ICA themselves, were originally offering, a genuine bargain. Better, though, to have chosen the originals from the series you really wanted as they came out. Not least because the box doesn't always simply reissue. Besides the Monteux, the Toscanini Missa Solemnis comes without the second disc of the original issue.