They're Bargains at Any Price

One of the great pleasures of reviewing these days, and it should be one of the great pleasures of buying (about which a reviewer usually knows next to nothing), is the encounter with a treasure, either from the past or just-minted, that costs gloriously little: a super-budget item, in the neighborhood of $6, that offers music and performance of such high quality that price is really no object. You know, cheap at any price.

Help yourself and your best friends (you can afford it) to an improbably wonderful sack of unalloyed gold from the Soviet Union's (remember?) Melodiya label, 1960s recordings by violinist David Oistrakh: the Sibelius Concerto, a searing, soaring, benchmark performance in which Oistrakh is partnered to perfection by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Moscow Radio Symphony, and the Khachaturian Concerto, conducted by the composer for its dedicatee.

Sibelius' Concerto needs no special pleading; Khachaturian's--like the celebrated comedian, it gets no respect--does. The mere fact that Oistrakh kept it in his repertory from its creation in 1940 until his death in 1976--he obviously liked it--forces one to listen.

The result is not only renewed awe at Oistrakh's technical facility, his singing tone and rhythmic acuity, but intense pleasure in Khachaturian's cleverly manipulative, gorgeously schlocky-splashy score, with its roundhouse melodies and catchy rhythms: the tastiest sort of junk food and, in this instance, served on Spode.

And, whether you consider them bonuses or the main event, the set (Vox Box 5120, two CDs)--which goes for about $10 (not a misprint)--also includes the performances of reference of the Franck Sonata and Shostakovich's Sonata, in both of which Oistrakh is partnered by the incomparable pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

From Naxos, the one important super-budget label that does not deal in reissues, there's a just-released version of the Dvorak Piano Concerto that should win this gem many new friends (8.550896). The pianist is Jeno Jando, but you knew that already. And, predictably, he makes a joyous feast of its super-virtuoso demands.

Dvorak's 40-plus-minute lyric thriller has always been something of a white elephant, despite the fervent advocacy of the likes of Sviatoslav Richter and the late Rudolf Firkusny.

Its problems, having mainly to do with piano-orchestra balance and the frequent density of the piano writing (the page is black with notes), need concern only the soloist and conductor. Here, the problems are overcome with heroic dedication and spiritedness by Jando and conductor Antoni Wit, who leads a surprisingly alert and polished Polish Radio Symphony (Katowice).

The wonders of this work are not its construction--an esoteric matter under any circumstances--but its tunes, which are top-drawer Dvorak, whether the folk-dancey marvels of the grandiose outer movements or the exquisite, Chopinesque traceries of the dreamy andante.

Naxos offers a handsome fillip: Dvorak's relatively little-known and wonderfully Slavonic-vigorous, colorful tone-poem "The Water Goblin," more idiomatically atmospheric and coherent in the hands of Wit and his responsive Poles than in the famous 1960 edition on Deutsche Grammophon by Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra.

Going for even fewer pennies is a new-to-this-listener pairing of two of Mozart's greatest piano concertos--date of recording unspecified, but probably from the 1970s--the works in E-flat, K. 271, and C minor, K. 491. The soloist is Rudolf Firkusny, one of nature's aristocrats, who intuited Mozartean style long before the period-performance people began to hold sway.

He proves it at every ear-opening turn here, with playing at once sensitive and powerful, as well as stylishly ornamented. Firkusny's sterling efforts are sympathetically seconded by conductor Ernest Bour (better known for his work with the knottiest 20th-Century scores) and the Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio, Baden-Baden. It appears under the Classical Creations imprimatur (820.547), the bargain offshoot of the (German) Intercord label.

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