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The list of performers who populate the BBC Legends series reads like a Who's Who of the twentieth century's most celebrated artists, the majority of whom are, sadly, no longer with us. Among them are the pianists Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Walter Gieseking, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff, Annie Fischer, Clifford Curzon, Benno Moiseivitsch, Arthur Rubinstein, Shura Cherkassky, and Dame Myra Hess; the conductors Jascha Horenstein, Sir John Barbirolli, Igor Markevitch, Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Rudolph Kempe, Carlo Maria Giulini, Pierre Monteux, Evgeny Mravinsky, Sir Thomas Beecham, Karl Bohm, and Benjamin Britten; singers Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lucia Popp, Galina Vishnevskaya, Victoria de Los Angeles, Irmgard Seefried, Peter Pears, Janet Baker, and others, including violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the Amadeus and Borodin String Quartets. And the roster doesn't stop there.

Mahler recordings by Horenstein, Barbirolli and Britten - BBC Legends CD covers
Mahler recordings by Horenstein, Barbirolli and Britten - BBC Legends CD covers

Among the most notable recordings are several Mahler Symphonies, especially those conducted by Horenstein and Barbirolli -- widely acknowledged as the greatest interpreters of the composer -- though there is a superb and surprisingly luminous reading of the fourth symphony with Benjamin Britten at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra. Each of these two CD sets is an occasion for celebration all by itself. Indeed, Barbirolli's account of the Third Symphony (BBCL 4044) with the Hallé Orchestra is as thoroughly idiomatic as it is moving, while Horenstein's magnificent readings of the massive Eighth and the heartbreaking Ninth (coupled with the Kindertotenlieder sung by Dame Janet Baker) make for a powerful, even overwhelming listening experience (BBCL 4001 and 4075). Of particular interest is Horenstein's penetrating performance of Das Lied von der Erde with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. Elsewhere Rudolph Kempe turns in an unually suave Brahms Fourth and a spirited Schubert Fifth (BBCL 4003).

Evgeny Mravinsky, a friend of Shostakovich and his most vigorous protagonist, was for years the leader of the Leningrad Philharmonic, and viewed by his countrymen, and indeed by much of the rest of the world's musical establishment as Russia's greatest conductor. Here we can hear him very much in his element, leading his own orchestra while on a tour of the United Kingdom in 1960, in the British première of Shostakovich's Symphony No 8 (BBCL 4002). The effect of this immeasurably sad, often grim, stoically searing, highly symbolic and ultimately humane work is such that one can hear something of the emotional toll it took on its western audience; the stunned silence that precedes its volcanic applause is palpable. Certainly, the historical significance of this release cannot be underestimated.

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Copyright © 8 December 2002 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA


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