The World of Compact Discs

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Our last look at notable recent CDs ended with a tribute to the Franco-American conductor, William Christie, for the work he had done in recording French music of the eighteenth century, We begin this review by saluting his new recording for ERATO of a great Anglo-German composer, Handel, namely a two CD set of Acis and Galatea (Erato 3984-25505-2). This opera - though there is a venerable dispute over whether 'opera' is the right description - has always been one of Handel's most frequently performed works since its somewhat complicated appearance in the early eighteenth century. Handel himself made many changes to the work during performances in his lifetime and one wishes the notes to this edition, otherwise excellent, would make clear which version Mr Christie has chosen.

Anyone familiar with his recordings will hardly be surprised to discover that his rendition of Acis and Galatea is superb, although some may find his tempi somewhat slow. He has chosen a mainly Anglo-French cast with Sophie Daneman as Galatea and Paul Agnew as her tragic lover, Acis. The chorus - so important in this work as in so much of Handel's music - is excellent as can be heard in their opening, 'Oh, the pleasure of the plains.' Since this is one of the comparatively few English operas where the words can be easily followed (Pope, among others, was responsible for the libretto) it is particularly welcome to have so many performers who can enunciate properly. Unlike so many early operas based on Greek gods and mythology, one can feel genuine human passion in this work especially in such a sensitive rendition as this Erato recording. All in all this emerges as one of the best versions available of this sensuous and intimate opera. It provides a splendid introduction for those who know little of the riches of pre-Mozartian opera.

Handel's most famous work, of course, remains The Messiah and there are unending versions of it available to suit all tastes and budgets. PENGUIN CLASSICS - a name so familiar in the world of paperbacks and audio tapes - has made it one of the highlights of a series of CDs issued throughout this and last year. They have chosen recordings recommended in their own highly regarded Penguin Guide to CDs. There are classic versions from the Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips' labels. Each reissue carries a short essay about the personal impact of the work by a well-known writer. (Occasionally they have chosen different writers for the English and American editions.)

The first selections include an impressive array of recordings featuring some of the most prominent conductors and performers in the recent past: Herbert von Karajan, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sir George Solti. Indeed it is Solti with the Chicago Symphony - both at the height of their powers and fame - who provide this 1984 digital version of the Messiah. (Penguin Classics 466-215-2). The modern trend in Messiah recordings is a return to smaller and more 'authentic' orchestras and choirs, but here we have one of the best of the large-scale recordings. Kiri Te Kanawa's soprano solos are especially moving and one's only regret is that more of them were not included in this selection. The tenor, Keith Lewis, is superb, especially in 'Every valley shall be exalted' (One can see why George III's family used to stand for this as well as for the 'Hallelujah Chorus.') Yet the real 'star' of this performance is undoubtedly the bass, Gwynne Howell. Why, one wonders, does Wales produce so many marvellous bass voices? His rendition of 'Behold I tell you a mystery - The trumpet shall sound' is a superb piece of vocal mastery.

Two other releases in this welcome series are particularly noteworthy. The first is a thrilling and vibrant rendering of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade coupled with Borodin's Polovtsian Dances (Penguin Classic 480-618-2). This is Von Karajan at his best, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and the sound, although an analogue recording, is excellent. …