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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Colin Davis: The RCA Legacy

SONY CLASSICAL HAS DONE A MAGNIFICENT JOB at times of repackaging older recordings into performer-specific boxed sets, often with original artwork, sometimes duplicating the original LP programming when the recordings go back that far. A Toscanini box was a misfire, perpetuating an easily corrected engineering mistake, but the Heifetz and Rubinstein and Horowitz boxes issued of late were terrific.

But the new Colin Davis box set is a disappointment. It’s unattractive and its repertory is oddly limited. It’s not even as complete as it claims to be.

Almost all of Davis’s RCA recordings were made between 1988 and 2000, placing them squarely in the CD era. With the increased playing time (and price) of digital discs back then, programming shifted to a more encyclopedic approach, with more emphasis on packing all of a chosen category into the space – thus the many five-CD complete Beethoven symphonies sets.

No Beethoven symphonies here, however; he’s represented by a “Missa Solemnis,” the playing time of which is rounded out by a “Choral Fantasy.” and a very nice “Fidelio,” from 1995, with Deborah Voigt, Ben Heppner, and Thomas Quasthoff – and an extra “Leonore” overture for good measure.

That “Fidelio”’s original artwork wasn’t very attractive, with a ghostlike Voigt dwarfing a puzzled-looking Heppner, but the new box replaces it with something far worse. The cover art for all of the jackets in this 51-CD set resemble the supermarket “generic” look – minimal text surrounded by an ocean of white space. I’m going to make the generous guess that re-using the original CD art would have required too much of a payout; even so, some form typographical art would have been preferable to what was issued.

We’ve come to expect a lack of program notes, but there’s plenty of info on the internet these days, along with the libretti that no longer are issued. Still, Richard Osborne’s essay in the slim booklet is almost apologetic in its effort to justify collecting this particular chunk of the recorded legacy of a conductor who spent his career flirting with the top flight. Taking as a whole the repertory Davis recorded across all of the many labels he spanned, you have a formidable and varied array. His RCA years were comparatively limited.

Among the stars of the set are the five CDs of Mozart piano concertos that Davis recorded in the early 1990s, featuring commendable work by Alicia de Larrocha; a Sibelius symphonies cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra, the second and least-acclaimed cycle of Davis’s three, but exceptional nevertheless; a Verdi “Requiem” that’ll curl your toes (and compares more than favorably with his 2009 re-recording).

There aren’t any major misfires among the performances. A Schubert symphonies cycle is fleet and engaging in the early ones but gets a little too ponderous when we reach 8 and 9; how nice it would have been to have some Mozart symphonies.

His 1991 recording of Verdi’s “Falstaff” is one of the best orchestrally realized recordings I know, with details coming from the depths of the brass I’d never before heard so clearly – but it features the unengaging Rolando Panerei in the title role. Davis re-recorded the opera in 2004 with bass-baritone Michele Petrusi, who made up for that lack, but it’s on a different label.

Similarly, the two included recordings of the violin concerto by Edward Elgar provide very satisfying accompaniments to two less-than-satisfying soloists. The 2009 version with Nikolaj Znaider gives us a more dynamic interpreter than 1993's recording with Kyoko Takezawa – but Davis knocked it out of the park with Hilary Hahn at the fiddle in 2004 for DG.

He had a brilliant soloist in Julian Bream when the two made the first of Bream’s three recordings of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” in 1963, and it’s the best of them, bursting with a unique sunniness. Unfortunately, its companion piece at that session, a guitar concerto by Vivaldi, was left out of this set. So much for completeness!

On the satisfying side: a 1994 “Lohengrin” with Ben Heppner superb in the title role, ably abetted by Sharon Sweet as Elsa, and an appropriately massive Mahler Eighth, with Heppner and Sweet among the cast.

A frustration: the five-disc squish of Brahms’s four symphonies, two piano concertos, violin concerto, and a few shorter works. This replicates the stand-alone box issued a decade ago, but it breaks some of the works across discs – would an extra CD have been all that expensive? – although the violin concerto, which suffers that fate, is again in the dull hands of Takezawa.

When RCA producer Jack Pfeiffer began putting out Heifetz recordings on CD, he tried to create some interesting program sequences where possible with an eye to collecting them all in the set that eventually appeared, two decades before the Heifetz original jackets set was issued.

Would it be possible to mix up the component works of the Colin Davis set? Perhaps Brahms and Mozart could share a disc, or Schubert and Sibelius. It would give more creative purpose to the idea of collecting all of a conductor’s recordings – and more justification for original artwork, however stripped-down. At this point, the major justification for acquiring this set would be to free up the shelf space taken up by your collection of the earlier issues of these recordings.

Sir Colin Davis: The Complete RCA Legacy (51 CDs)
Sony Classical

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