Reissues: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Roslavets and Japanese String Quartets

A round-up of the latest reissues from Warner's super-budget Apex label

20 January 2009

BachThe latest batch of re-releases on Warner's budget Apex label covers a bewildering variety of recordings from the Teldec and Erato labels. Turn-around times for reissues seem to be getting shorter and shorter, since of the five surveyed here, three were recorded less than ten years ago. Let's start with the earliest music: Olivier Baumont's Erato recording of six of Bach's transcriptions of concertos by Vivaldi (BWV 972, 973, 975, 976, 978 & 980) in a programme designed to demonstrate how Bach's Italian Concerto (BWV 971) – which concludes the disc – was informed by his reworkings of the Italian composer's music. It's unfortunate, then, that Bach's own concerto is in a different league; the Vivaldi transcriptions all rattle along nicely but contain little that's truly memorable. Baumont plays a 1995 Paris-built copy of a 1735 German harpsichord 'from the school of Gottfried Silbermann' that has a lovely, robust sound, captured withadmirable clarity. Worth exploring, especially at budget price, but don't expect too much from the Vivaldi transcriptions. (Apex 2564 69325-4)

HuangAlso re-released is the impressive debut album by Helen Huang, a recording with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 and Mozart's A major Concerto K.488. Huang is now in her mid-twenties and still very much active in concert and on record; she featured in a recent recording of works by Georg Tintner on Naxos. If we note these performances were recorded in 1995, it gives us a clear idea as to quite how prodigious she was. And they're recommendable for sensitive, tasteful pianism allied to a crystalline technique. I particularly enjoyed the freedom she brings to the longer of Beethoven's own cadenzas in the C Major's first movement and there are moments in the Mozart where, not surprisingly, she has a youthful exuberance older pianists often fail to capture. There's no shortage of recordings of these works but at budget price, these lively readings aren't likely to disappoint. (Apex 2564 69327-4).

PathetiqueNext is Masur's 1987 recording of Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' Symphony recorded, before his appointment in New York, with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. It's a pretty low-voltage affair which despite some high quality playing from the Leipzig band – the sound of the brass, in particular, is seductively warm and luxurious – simply projects too little emotion. The first movement comes off worst and, despite being despatched with undeniable virtuosity, no-one really seems to break a sweat in the third movement's Allegro molto vivace. Similarly, Masur sounds as though he's aware of the emotional abyss at the heart of the Finale, but seems content to observe from afar, rather than dive in. The 'Gopak' from Mazeppa and the Festival Coronation March form rather ungenerous couplings. Despite clear sound and evidence of a great orchestra sounding at its most seductive, this disc can hardly be recommended. (Apex 2564 69324-1)

RoslavetsLess than thirty years after Tchaikovsky's final symphonic masterpiece, the Russia inhabited by Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944) was all but unrecognisable. Three of the composer's Piano Trios – Nos. 2 (1920) & 3 (1921) in single movements; No. 4 (1921) cast in a traditional four movement mould – were recorded by Trio Fontanay in 2000 for Teldec. Formally complex works, they show a composer fusing Schoenberg's techniques with a heady late-romantic sensibility and the results, especially in the second trio, can come across as a little austere. There's inevitably more variety in the four movements of the fourth trio, including a violent and spiky Scherzo-like second movement which looks forward to Prokofiev and Shostakovich and a haunting Lento. Trio Fontanay's performances are excellent and their pianist Wolf Harden provides his own notes. Well worth seeking out for anyone interested in this composer who was all but wiped out of history by Stalin's regime. (Apex 2564 69324-4)

LandscapesWe're taken even further off the beaten tracks with the Lotus String Quartet's disc of Japanese string quartets, entitled Landscapes. The works vary from a distinctly French-sounding Quatuour à cordes by Akio Yashiro (1929-1976) to more experimental fare from Akira Nishimura, Toshio Hosokawa, Toru Takemitsu and Akira Miyoshi. Finished in 1955 while the composer was in Paris, Yashiro's quartet employs a language that is resolutely European and it is cast in the traditional four movements. As played here, though, it's an enjoyable piece, despite its derivative nature. The other works are far more what one would expect. With titles such as 'Pulse of the Lights' and 'Constellation in Black' they push the boundaries of sonority and texture bringing out performances of wonderful commitment from the Lotus Quartet. The release includes a detailed liner note and the engineering is excellent. (Apex 2564 69327-7)

By Hugo Shirley