ALTHOUGH BERLIOZ's Symphonie fantastique was the first major symphony composed by a Frenchman, others were writing worthwhile symphonies in Paris before 1830. The best-known example is probably the Symphony in D major produced by the transplanted Italian Luigi Cherubini in 1815, but a more intriguing work in the same key was composed less than a decade later by a young Spaniard enrolled at the Conservatoire on whose executive committee Cherubini served: the amazingly gifted Juan Crisostomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola.
Arriaga, whose precocity earned him the sobriquet "the Spanish Mozart," happened to be born on Mozart's 50th birthday in 1806; he died ten days short of his own 20th. His birth and death occurred within the already short lifespan of Franz Schubert, with whose music his own has more in common than with Mozart's. This is particularly evident in Arriaga's four works for string quartet, at least two of which have enjoyed a fair amount of circulation since the Guilet Quartet first recorded them for Concert Hall more than 25 years ago, while the brilliant Overture to Los esclavos felices ("The Happy Slaves," an opera completed at age 13) is a piece that might easily be mistaken for first-rate Rossini.
The Symphony in D major surely owes its impetus to the model provided by Cherubini, but it is by no means a mere copy. Indeed, it is Arriaga who impresses more with his originality in shaping the respective movements, as well as with his. stronger themes and more imaginative orchestral coloring. The richness of his inventiveness and craftsmanship can be enjoyed more fully than ever in the new recording by the English Chamber Orchestra under another obviously gifted Spanish musician, Jesus Lopez Cobos, with the aforementioned Overture on the same disc (HNH 4001).
The second of Jesus Arambarri's two recordings of these two works has been circulating for a dozen years or so on MHS 578. His lackluster presentation of the Symphony, with a particularly lifeless finale, didn't keep the work from giving some pleasure as a novelty of passing interest; but Lopez Cobos's stunning realization shows it to be a good deal more than that. It is in fact no less a gem than the early symphonies of Schubert, and should be taken into the general repertory by now.
HNH is the new label on which Antal Dorati's Mahler Fifth was released recently; the physical product shows an extraordinary concern with quality. Robert Ludwig, one of this country's most respected practitioners of the art of tape-to-disc transfer, does HNH's mastering, and the surfaces so far are about the quietest yet pressed here. Since the original Ensayo recording of the Arriaga works was gorgeous to begin with, HNH 4001 is as impressive technically as it is musically.
The one possible disappointment in this near-perfect release is the splitting of the 27-minute Symphony for turnover between movements. Hans Bauer's performance with the New Philharmonia fits comfortably on a single side of a recent EMI import disc (CSD-3769, paired with Franz Schmidt's Husarenlied Variations), but it is not in the same class as the HNH production in any respect -- and HNH does show the good judgment of placing the Overture first on the disc. This is one nobody should miss.