© Chris Green, November 2009
Sales of classical CD have been falling. Reports seem to get gloomier by the month and yet there are some curious features of that market. Sales of vinyl-based recordings have marginally increased as more and more collectors recognise the value of the sound that can be obtained through that medium. Strange world, is it not? One thing about which I am fairly certain, we have seen the end of cassette tapes, other than in charity shops.
The other feature of the classical music market is that those who are not hi-fi addicts seem attracted to re-mastered reissues and sales at some companies are doing very well. Pre-eminent in that market is Naxos. They have become a brand that can be trusted for good value and quality although I can remember a time (many years ago) when there was suspicion amongst buyers that these releases were not be trusted: too cheap, so there must be something "wrong with them". That was at a time when there were many silly stories circulating about CDs degrading, or the print on the label penetrating the surface and causing reproduction problems. That can happen as I know to my own cost, but then I wielded the market pen and it was a cheap blank CD.
So, the Naxos catalogue expands with dozens of releases each month - some new recordings, others licensed recent recordings and a growing and burgeoning historical market, which is what I want to feature this month. First, three releases from Naxos and then two from Regis, a company which markets CDs at super budget price and has some choice offerings.
Forget the occasional recording blemish, the infrequent surface noise and one has to marvel at the presence of Gustav Holst in one's personal space. He conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a 1926 recordings of The Planets and his Marching Song. The speeds chosen by Holst, assuming they are faithful in the re-mastering, suggest that some present -day conductors should take note. Mark Obert-Thorn is recognised as one of the finest recording engineers in the restoration process and he provides a note detailing the steps taken to provide accurate accounts of both works including removing faults in previously issued material, and for a substantial and impressive companion ton the above two works, Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 4 is include with the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a 1937 Abbey Road recording where, from the opening bars, one is riveted by the passion and force of this challenging work far removed from the pastoral image the composer had acquired (quite unjustifiably) (Naxos 8.111048).
From Naxos comes a fifth volume in the complete concerto recordings featuring Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) in which Beethoven and Mendelssohn's Violin Concertos are paired with Kreisler accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli in the former and Landon Ronald in the latter with recordings from 1935 and 1936, both made at Abbey Road (Naxos 8.110959). The most obvious aspect to the performances is the approach to matters of phrasing with portamenti used sparingly but strategically. The loving approach is beyond question and the warmth of Kreisler's tone matches the lyrical passages and, on the subject of "warmth", that same quality is evidenced in a selection of recordings of pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli made between 1939 and 1948. Released in Naxos's Great Pianists series, the recordings were made in Milan and London. Between 1940 and the end of the war, Michelangeli had served in the Italian air force, and his London return in 1946 was followed by a debut in the USA. The programme is mixed with Scarlatti, Bach, Galuppi, Brahms and a selection of Spanish composers included. This is mesmerising playing - suggesting less directed at the audience but rather for his own pleasure - not a bad thing in a great artist like this (Naxos 8.111351).
From Regis comes a pair of CDs featuring the music of Sibelius. The Philharmonia and LSO were recorded by Brian Culverhouse in 1982 and 194 respectively playing incidental music from Pelleas and Melisande, Karelia, and King Christian. Brian Culverhouses's recording was recognised at the time for the sonic faithfulness,. And they are issued un-remastered at super-bargain price (Regis RRC 1272). Paul Arden-Taylor has remastered a selection of other Sibelius works with Symphony No 5 as the principal offering (Regis RRC 1216). Ole Schmidt conducts the majority of the works with Sir Charles Mackerras directing Finlandia. The approach taken by Schmidt is appropriate to the granite-like Symphony which won much praise when the CD was first released in 1996.