Five years ago, when they first appeared, compact discs were the most exotic of goods--and priced accordingly.
Few music lovers (as opposed to sound buffs) were then aware of the importance of the new technology as a musical medium. CD players were in short supply and costly. And, anyway, could recorded sound get any better than it had become by the early '80s with the perfection, through digital techniques, of LP recording?
The CD repertory--strictly Classical Top 40 and/or show-off-your-system stuff in the beginning--has in the ensuing five years broadened immeasurably, while discs that cost $25 in the early days are down to an average of $15 today. And now, inevitably, comes the introduction by the major producers of subsidiary lines priced even lower than that.
What differentiates these medium-priced CDs--$10 is the retail norm--from their higher-priced brethren is the age of the original tapes from which they were made. The "budget" CDs are drawn from recordings dating for the most part from the pre-digital '60s and '70s, when recorded sound was, to more than a few cultivated ears, richer, more "natural" than most of what one hears in today's product.
The first release of Angel's mid-priced Studio series boasts an impressive collection of big-name artists and excellent value, most of the entries running to an hour or more of playing time.
Heading the Studio list is Chopin's E-minor Piano Concerto (69004), recorded in 1960 by the 18-year-old Maurizio Pollini, fresh from his stunning victory at the Warsaw Chopin Competition. Fresh applies as well to the performance, a combination of voluptuousness and steel--still, to many, the finest thing this artist has ever done.
Other Studio gems are the pairing of Schubert's Fifth and "Unfinished" Symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (69016); an attractive, 70-minute-long Rachmaninoff program comprising the "Symphonic Dances," "Isle of the Dead" and shorter pieces, with Andre Previn and the London Symphony (69025); Ravel played with thunder and soul by pianist Andrei Gavrilov (69026); a delectable Grieg program--a big hunk of "Peer Gynt," the Second Symphonic Dance and "In Autumn"--with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic, and sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti stylishly played on harpsichord and clavichord by Igor Kipnis (69118).
RCA's "Papillon" series dips back as far as the 1950s for some of its raw material and is as generous as Angel in the matter of playing time. Among their first batch of releases is an invaluable coupling of Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" and "Petrushka" (6529), magnificently done by the Boston Symphony under Pierre Monteux, who conducted the world premieres of both for the Diaghilev Ballet before World War I.
The United States debut in 1960 of Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter is commemorated by Papillon with a re-release of his first American recording: a poetic, hugely dramatic account of Brahms' B-flat Concerto with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Chicago Symphony (618). Richter's tense, thoughtful reading of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata is the bonus.
Another item of considerable interest from Papillon is a fleet, athletic Orff "Carmina Burana" from a young, uninhibited Seiji Ozawa, who directs the Boston Symphony and New England Conservatory Chorus with the youthful Sherrill Milnes among the soloists (6533).
Then, too, RCA-Papillon has as good a recording as any currently available of Dvorak's Cello Concerto, dynamically played and conducted by Lynn Harrell and James Levine, with the London Symphony. The coupling is Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata, in which Harrell is joined by Levine at the piano (65310).
The CBS Great Performances budget series is devoted to important recordings from, mainly, the '60s. The product is classy, to be sure, but because the CDs duplicate the contents of the Great Performances LPs, there's usually less playing time than Angel and RCA offer at the same price. Which should, however, deter no one from acquiring such short-playing treasures as Schubert's "Trout" Quintet with pianist Rudolf Serkin (37234) and pianist Glenn Gould's first commercial recording, Bach's "Goldberg" Variations (38479).
Other recommended (and more fully packed) items on budget CBS are the Leonard Bernstein-New York Philharmonic Shostakovich Fifth Symphony (37218) and Schumann's First and Fourth Symphonies (38468), a collection of Wagner overtures (38486) and (on 37761) the pairing of Haydn's Symphonies Nos. 93 and 94 ("Surprise"), all played by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. And don't miss the best-sounding edition yet of the celebrated Pierre Boulez-led Debussy program comprising "La Mer," "Jeux" and "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune" (37261).