With several of the giant record companies crying over poor sales, reducing their release schedules, raising prices and, in at least one case, simply selling out, it must strike various observers as either fool-hardy or devilishly clever for so many "independents" to manage to stay afloat.
The smaller companies seem to be doing more than merely surviving, though, and in fact they continue to proliferate, challenging the giants on almost every level, from historical releases to imaginative repertory to the latest audio advances.
One dramatic example is the Los Angeles-based Varese Sarabande, started up about two years ago by a group of young men who can only be described as fanatics in their determination to keep certain material in circulation, and even more fanatical about technical quality. Using a highly successful film music series to finance its other activities (in much the same way the giants use pop sales to pay for "classical" recordings), this company has gone to various archives (the old American Decca, Remington and Urania catalogues, for example) and refurbished "only versions" of works by such composers as Weber, Respighi and Villa-Lobos. The company has also introduced new music from Japan, and has become one of the leading activists in the digital field.
A newer addition to the roster of record labels -- perhaps the very newest -- is Spectrum, identified as a "Division of Uni-Pro Recording, Inc.," in Harrison, N.Y. Spectrum is operated by Daniel Nimetz, who was formerly associated with the Musical Heritage Society and appears to be concentrating on lesser-known material for solo performer or small ensemble. The price -- $4.50 per disc or simultaneously released cassette -- puts the label in the "budget" category, but nothing else does: The engineering is first-rate and the pressings themselves strike me as the equal, at least, of any being produced in this country.
One intriguing Spectrum release, which I have not heard, presents what may be all of Telemann's concertante works for horn -- a solo concerto in D major; a concerto (or suite) for horn, violin and orchestra; and the Suite in F for four hours and orchestra -- in performances by the Heidelberg Chamber Orchestra. The disc number is SR-111; the cassette, SC-211.
A similarly intriguing one, which I have heard, and to which I have returned happily several times, is a collection of "Romantic Music for Piano Four-Hands," performed with great style and evident affection by Richard Boldrey and Elizabeth Buccheri (SR-213, SC-213). The program, totally unfamiliar to most of us, comprises a Grande Valse di bravura by Liszt, a Polonaise in D major by Wagner, a three-movement by Mike Balakirev, and a very substantial Sonata in E minor by George Onslow, a French-born Englishman who lived from 1784 to 1853.
Janice Marciano's annotation gives us a comprehensive background on the piano-duet tradition, but very little information on the music recorded here. She refers to Schubert as the source of "the largest output of four-hand literature," and Schubert's imprint appears to be very strong on the Onslow Sonata. Appears to be, however, because it may well have been Onslow who made the imprint on Schubert. We know that it was Onslow's cello quintets, and not Boccherini's, that served as the models for Schubert's great Quintet in C major, so perhaps it ought not to surprise us to find Schubertian characteristics in this expansive, well-balanced, meaty work -- which by itself justifies investment in this package.
The Balakirev Suite, one of that composer's valedictory works, was completed in 1908 but may have been years in the making. (Balakirev worked on-and-off on his First Symphony about 30 years.) This too is a very worthwhile discovery; and if the Liszt and Wagner pieces are trifles, they are certainly agreeable ones. Wagner was all of 18 when he composed his three-minute Polonaise: there is no point looking for seeds of "Tristan" or "Gotterdammerung" in the piece, but there are some charming echoes of Weber. All in all, charm is one of this handsome release's long suits, and it is not the sort that wears thin very easily.