20 MAY 1995, Page 49


Original nostalgia

Richard Osborne listens to some electrifying golden oldies

According to Germany's leading post- war design guru Hans Domizlaff, there were only two great logos: the Cross and the symbol for Mercedes Benz. Though he was a Protestant by upbringing, Domizlaff was professionally in thrall to the Catholic Church. He considered it the greatest PR organisation of all time and openly com- mandeered the Vatican's distinctive use of yellow and white for a whole range of prod- ucts from cigarette packets to the famously elegant LP cover he designed for Deutsche Grammophon in the early 1950s. (The cel- ebrated yellow cartouche wasn't dreamed up by Domizlaff until 1959.) Most record collectors are chronic nos- talgics. 'Great' recordings, as often as not, are the ones we grew up with; the perform- ers rendered charismatic by the music to which they introduced us. LP sleeves and their attendant envelopes can also exert a terrible fascination. I used to work for a BBC producer — a Third Programme man — who would chide any studio manager caught slipping a red label dog-and-trum- pet HMV LP into a Decca inner.

So, I wonder what Machiavelli of the marketing world thought up DG's latest ruse for making money out of its distin- guished back catalogue? The series is called The Originals. It sports CDs that look like miniature LPs; covers that repro- duce the original Domizlaff-inspired LP designs. Mere window-dressing, you might say; until, that is, you begin to examine the astonishing riches on offer.

I hesitate to use the word 'definitive' about any recording, but on disc after reis- sued disc in the new series (29 CDs to date) there are performances that have yet to be bettered: the three Bartok Piano Concertos recorded by Geza Anda with Fricsay's RIAS orchestra in Berlin in 1960; the third and finest of Fischer-Dieskau's five recordings of Schubert's Winterreise dating from 1965; Rostropovich's recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, coupled with Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations as urbane as a page of a Turgenev novel; Karajan's own 1964 Berlin recording of Debussy's La mer (sadly bereft of the Prelude a Papres- midi d'un faune that originally went with it), and a remarkable Strauss disc from him that includes Gundula Janowitz's timelessly beautiful recording of the Four Last Songs.

Carlos Kleiber's electrifying accounts of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies appear together on CD for the first time. And if this sounds too mainstream — there is more classic Beethoven from Schneider- han and Kempff — you might care to try Pollini playing Boulez's Second Piano Sonata. 'Like watching a lion being flayed alive' someone once said of this fearsome piece; yet Pollini renders it as lucidly as if he was playing Bach's Art of Fugue. Webern, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev — the long and moving war-time Seventh Sonata — also feature on this astonishing disc.

Just as astonishing in its way is Martha Argerich's famously heady debut recital from 1960, coupled with a scorching account of the Liszt Sonata recorded a decade or so later. (When Horowitz lis- tened to the debut disc his eyebrows are said to have risen perceptibly.) The late 1950s and early 1960s were also a time of performances that for reasons of history are unrepeatable. There is Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique recorded by the long-defunct Lamoureux Orchestra of Paris under the direction of Diaghilev's protege Igor Markevitch. This is a record- ing from 1961, the year once identified by Digby Anderson as the last year of the Old France — a place of odours, sights, and sounds (orchestral and otherwise) that declared it to be, unmistakably, a foreign country. Then there is the exiled Rafael Kubelik — exiled like Dvorak himself, though for different reasons — conducting the Eighth Symphony and New World with terrific fire and élan. And the Leningrad Philharmonic recording Tchaikovsky sym- phonies in Vienna on a truant tour of the West in June 1956. This is combustible stuff: the Fourth Symphony under Sander- ling, the Fifth and Sixth symphonies under Mravinsky. In this country, Mravinsky tends to be revered without reservation. On a bad day, he could be as good an appa- ratchik as the next man (Shostakovich's reservations are well known) but he was a great musician and a fabulous orchestral tactician. This 1956 Pathetique has never been bettered.

DG's policy of Ostpolitik also secured a famous Warsaw recording of Rachmani- nov's Second Piano Concerto with Svi- atoslav Richter, long before he was widely known in the West. (Coupled here with a controversial account of the Tchaikovsky Concerto made with Karajan in Vienna in 1962.) David Oistrakh had been on DG's books for rather longer. He gets a 2-CD pack in the new series coupling famous 1950s Dresden performances of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos with violin concertos by Bach: songful, intensely musical Bach performances that have little to do with the kind of musical vegetarian- ism the period instrument people would have us live on nowadays.

There isn't much choral music in the first batch of CDs. Karajan's 1962 Beethoven Ninth doesn't wear well, though there is a fine disc of the three Bruckner masses, ripely realised in the Bavarian Catholic style under Eugen Jochum's direction Chamber music is also hard to come by. There is just one disc, coupling Gilel's famous account of Brahms's Op. 10 Bal- lades with the G minor Piano Quartet, recorded by Gilels and members of the Amadeus Quartet at a late-night session in Munich in 1970. The idea was to avoid traf- fic and aircraft noise. Unfortunately, the producer had reckoned without the night- watchman. About half way through the ter- rifyingly quick Rondo alla Zingarese, the door opened to reveal a burly Bavarian in full rig: Lederhosen, hat, lantern. Apparent- ly oblivious of the microphones, the piano, and four men caught up in a strange Dionysiac revel, he marched slowly across the studio floor and exited stage left, never to be seen again. According to Gilels's, the players were so convulsed with laughter it was a whole hour before they composed themselves sufficiently for a retake.