Monday 26 January 2009

The idiots in the EMI reissue department

One sometimes has to wonder at the tests companies conduct when hiring people. For example, when hiring for its call centres, does BT have a rigourous process for eliminating helpfulness and honesty? Similar questions exist concerning the staff who have responsibility for the back catalogue of EMI.

In these days of broadband internet connections and other such technology it really shouldn't be possible for any issue to go out of the catalogue. And yet, and yet.....

In recent times one of the most egregious examples has been Carlo Maria Giulini's recordings of the Brahms symphonies. Now, I am a self confessed Giuilin fan and was first turned on to the notion that his Brahms might be something special by a blinding live performance of the first symphony that he gave with the Philharmonia in the early 60s, now available on BBC Legends (with an equally fine rendition of Mozart's Linz symphony).

Then EMI had the sense to issue something, a largely excellent box of Brahms concerti, which includes Arrau for the piano works, accompanied by Giulini and the Philharmonia. These are very special, and more convincing in the second than any recording I've heard. Though, to listen to Jonathan Swain's review on Radio 3's CD Review, you'd think Walter Legge was more important to the musical qualities than Giulini (when I challenged him about this on the Radio 3 message boards he replied that the young Giulini had clearly taken guidance from the legendary producer; he did not reply to my request for evidence to substantiate this and to say how it squared with reports that Giulini drove Legge mad by NOT doing what he wanted).

However, as this website indicates, the Giulini discography contains far more Brahms, including a complete EMI cycle of the symphonies with the Philharmonia from the same period. They cannot be had for love or money. I managed to obtain the 3rd in a Japanese pressing via the Amazon marketplace. EMI's response from when I contacted them last April should be filed under 'don't hold your breath':

Thanks for your suggestion - I'll pass it on to those who are concerned with catalohue reissues.

Some might argue there is insufficient demand, however, I would only note that at the time I wrote to them, the Vienna 3rd (on DG) was going for around £60 on the Amazon marketplace. This has now roughly halved, doubtless because you can download all the discs from DG's online store at 320kbps. This is better, though still not ideal. It's also worth noting that these late performances do not appear to be the equal of Giulini's 60s fire.

Arkivmusic perhaps offer the way forward. In consort with various record labels, they will press discs to order. Again, there is no reason for EMI to NOT make the Brahms available in this manner. You can buy the Giulni DG Brahms this way (though, given it is an import from the States, it costs, hopefully a UK equivalent will spring up soon).

It isn't just Giulini. Should you want Jochum's third and final Beethoven cycle, with the LSO, again recorded for EMI, you have to turn to Silveroak (they do offer very good value for money). To my mind, they represent his best performances of the third and the ninth.

EMI France seems to be much better run. Should you want Helmut Walcha's harpsichord recordings of Bach (and you ought to - they're inspired), it is to them that you must go. EMI UK have no apparent interest. This is in stark contrast to the verve with which DG trawl their back catalogue for the Original Masters series (though even they haven't issued Walcha's second Well Tempered). Even then, you can only get the Well Tempered and the Golbergs in one very good value five disc box. For such works as the French and English suites you must venture further afield to EMI Japan.

So what brings on this rant? Well, a while ago I was prompted to see if Christian Zacharias, whom I have admired before both in concerti and chamber music, had recorded the Mozart concert. I'd read that he'd performed the complete concerti with the SCO at the Edinburgh festival a few years back, so this gave me hope. After much trawling of Amazon this box showed up. However, £65 from the Marketplace still felt a little dear. More searching got it for around €25 from the German Amazon. (You'll note it says 21 concertos and may be thinking there are 27; but, sadly, most sets miss the first four as they are now thought to be only arrangements by Mozart, concertos 7 and 10 are those for three and two pianos respectively and, again, missed from most sets.)

From the picture it is clear that the box was French in origin, and there isn't even an English translation of the notes, not that you need them (though even EMI France now seems to have deleted it too, and only issues a box of the sonatas and 13 concerti). Having listened, I cannot understand why. I also wish I'd bought it sooner.

Unlike many sets, the orchestra varies a lot, and the conductor changes too (but it is mainly Zinman), though, having said that, the sound on the three discs I've worked through so far is remarkably consistent. Playing is wonderful and never intrusive on the soloist.

Until now I have felt nothing could beat Mitsuko Uchida for sheer beauty. However, criticism has been levelled against her set (with the English Chamber Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate) for being too pretty and rich. I've never agreed, though now I can see where those comments come from.

Zacharias has no shortage of beauty, but this is mixed with clarity (of the order Paul Lewis showed recently) and poetry. And what poetry. It is a combination that has had me listening almost non-stop in my free moments this weekend and no more so than to the 26th concerto, the coronation. Now, I have never, not with any of my many recordings, quite got on with this before. Listing to Zacharias, I really am at a loss to understand why that might be.

This appears to be a set well worth tracking down, and one which I'll review more fully when I've worked my way through the rest. It is worth noting that Zacharias is currently midway through a second cycle with his own Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, and those discs have also just arrived. In some ways I'm very glad BT have been messing me about so completely over the last few weeks, as it prompted this wonderfully fulfilling shopping spree.

Fortunately, for the consumer, if you have a UK Amazon account, ordering from the French and German sites is fairly painless. It should not, however, be necessary. Please, EMI (and others) buck up your acts.

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