February 26, 2009


Milestones: 30 Years of Chandos. Chandos. $99.99.

     It is equally possible to be generous or curmudgeonly about this fascinating 30-CD set – and both reactions are equally valid. Chandos Records, the outstanding, independent classical-music label, has repackaged and re-released 30 of its CDs in celebration of its 30 years in business – a time that classical-music lovers worldwide should celebrate, since Chandos offers a great deal of unusual repertoire in mostly excellent performances that are very well recorded and generally presented with highly interesting background information.

     But the deserved high praise for Chandos the company does not necessarily translate into equally high praise for this handsomely packaged celebratory issue. One reason is that the 30 CDs appear to have been chosen more for the way they reflect on Chandos’ self-image than in any attempt to provide a comprehensive or carefully organized view of music in general – or even of the music that Chandos offers. Inside the substantial-feeling flip-top box are 30 CDs in individual sleeves, a short booklet listing the basic contents of all 30 and containing some comments by Chandos executives, and a 324-page book that a purchaser would likely expect to contain notes on the performances but that in fact is a Chandos catalogue, complete with price-code key – in British pounds. Notes on the performances are available as PDFs from the Chandos Web site, but given the fact that the notes are one of the things that have made Chandos special for the past 30 years, it seems odd to make Chandos enthusiasts – or newcomers to the label – do so much downloading if they want to read about the music and the recording artists.

     Actually, a little information does appear on each CD’s sleeve, but it is of the promotional sort: “This disc is a showcase for Collegium Musicum 90 and Simon Standage.” “This important disc of neglected French repertoire exemplifies Yon Pascal Tortelier’s remarkable tenure with the BBC Philharmonic.” “This disc is a testament to Richard Hickox’s memorable years at Bournemouth…” And so on.

     However – and it is a very big “however” indeed – once you get past the promos and the presentation disappointments, this box is filled to the brim with musical delights. Every single one of the 30 CDs has something to recommend it: sometimes unusual repertoire, sometimes an exceptional performance, sometimes a welcome insight into familiar music, sometimes an opportunity to explore pieces that only Chandos would have thought to issue. In this last category are the orchestral suite from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba; three tone poems of war and the sea by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford; and music related to the novels of Louis de Bernières, best known for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (although to understand the professed relationships, listeners will need those PDFs from www.chandos.net).

     Among the more familiar music here are Chopin’s Études, sensitively played by Louis Lortie; Holst’s The Planets in a bang-up rendition by the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson; and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, played with knowing intensity by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under Mariss Jansons – not a truly great performance, but a very interesting and convincing one. And then there are the vocal CDs, from Lili Boulanger’s Faust et Hélène and other works to Alexander Grechaninov’s Passion Week to highlights of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier to a disc of – what else? – Handel’s Chandos Anthems. The unusual nature of Chandos’ commitment to classical music comes through in these individual CDs, and also in some ways in the overall structure of the 30-CD box: the three composers to whom two CDs are devoted are Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and Hummel, and there is no Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Brahms to be found anywhere in the set.

     Milestones: 30 Years of Chandos turns out to be as quirky as the Chandos label itself. At just over $3 per CD, the set is a tremendous bargain compared to the cost of buying the same CDs one at a time. Even if a listener dislikes half the discs, the box is a bargain. But at whom is it aimed? It seems like an introduction to the Chandos label, but does not really succeed on that basis. People who already know Chandos and want to celebrate it will enjoy this set more than anyone else will. The lack of notes and the self-promotional aspects may be off-putting to others. And that is a shame, since Chandos, both in this set and elsewhere in its ever-growing catalogue, has so much truly excellent music to offer.

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