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Sony Unleashes Its Essential Classics

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Without so much as a press release to warn the unwary reviewer that yet another new bargain-CD inundation was at hand, Sony has opened the floodgates and started release of its Essential Classics collection, retailing around $6 a disc.

The series takes us on yet another tour of the basic orchestral repertory--Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky conducted by George Szell and Eugene Ormandy, the usual concertos, played by Isaac Stern, Philippe Entremont, Rudolf Serkin, Emil Gilels--most from time- and consumer-tested recordings made by Columbia/CBS during the 1960s and ‘70s.

But the reissue series also extends its reach to chamber and sacred music, neither of which similarly intended collections from other labels consider appropriate fodder for the beginning listener.

Among the rock-ribbed standards, neither the neophyte nor the hardened comparison-listener is likely to resist the charms of David Oistrakh’s sweet-toned, superbly controlled Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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And strapped-for-cash beginners are unlikely to complain about the coupling, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, given its due by Gilels and the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta (46339).

Consider too the famous 1965 recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (46535)--how heartening that someone considers Mahler as essential as Tchaikovsky--with Szell leading (by the nose, ingrates might claim) the Cleveland Orchestra and soprano Judith Raskin. It comes with a handsome bonus, Frederica von Stade’s affectingly understated singing of the “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen,” with Andrew Davis conducting.

Particularly attractive among the concertos is Dvorak’s for violin, whose abundant charms are encountered with surprising lack of frequency in the concert hall. The Sony entry is a characteristically gutsy, all-barrels-blazing example of the art of Stern, its disc mate the familiar mid-'60s recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, played with solemn virtuosity by Leonard Rose. In both, Ormandy and his Philadelphians make the kinds of brave noises for which they were celebrated (46337).

The biggest “essential” surprise is a coupling of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, delivered with stunning theatricality and polish by the Juilliard Quartet, and “Trout” Quintet. The latter revives one of the last studio sessions by members of the beloved Budapest Quartet, with pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski and bassist Julius Levine featured. But it is veteran Budapest cellist Mischa Schneider who steals the show, melting hearts with the incomparable warmth of his playing (46343).

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The collection is sufficiently hip to acknowledge period performance with a strong Mozart Requiem under Jean-Claude Malgoire, enticingly coupled with the grandiose, trumpets-and-drums Te Deum of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a real Baroque barn burner and still somewhat of a hidden treasure (46344). The latter features a spectacular solo turn by basso David Thomas.

Among the odder choices for inclusion are three Beethoven sonatas--"Spring,” “Kreutzer” and Opus 96--in which the agonizingly quavery violin playing of Zino Francescatti is joined to Robert Casadesus’ dry pianism (46342).

Casadesus’ underpowered, poorly recorded Beethoven “Moonlight,” “Appassionata” and “Les Adieux” Sonatas (46345) are likewise expendable. And do skip the swooning-by-the-numbers playing of Chopin’s Waltzes and B-minor Sonata by Alexander Brailowsky (1896-1976), a pianist who gained a sizable following because he perspired profusely, had a romantic name and charged less for his services than Rubinstein or Horowitz.

But I wouldn’t want to be without the Mozart symphonies--"Haffner,” the big G-minor and “Jupiter"--led by Szell with a ferocious propulsiveness that might cause raised eyebrows even among the most unsentimental of today’s antiquarians (46333). Recommended, but only to those who see a connection between the “Jupiter” finale and that of “Le Sacre du Printemps.”

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There are mostly ordinary performances of the two Chopin Piano Concertos by Gilels and Andre Watts (46336). But the disc is worth the puny admission price for Watts’ exquisitely phrased slow movement in the F-minor Concerto.

Finally, admirers of the Leon Fleisher-Szell-Cleveland team should snap up their crisp, crackling Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, c oupled with a beefy Beethoven Triple Concerto from the Istomin/Stern/Rose Trio, Ormandy and the Philadelphians (46549).

It should be noted that most of these discs contain at least 70 minutes of music and come equipped with helpful program notes, a rarity among the super-bargain lines, and even texts and translations of the vocal works, which is unprecedented at this price.


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