For connoisseurs, the newest name in classical recording is also one of the most familiar. Koch International Classics, which has launched itself with a small but choice line of new compact discs, is the same as Koch Import Service, which promotes, distributes, imports and exports more than 70 small American and European labels ranging alphabetically from Acanta (Germany) to XLNT (United States).
In both capacities, as a producer of its own records and as a distributor of other labels, Koch demonstrates superbly the special value of small vs. large record companies. These competing values can be summed up in terms of imagination and care (small labels) vs. economic muscle and the right connections (large labels).
To illustrate: If you want to hear Itzhak Perlman, the Vienna Philharmonic or Sir Georg Solti performing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, the chances are that you will have to go to one of the big international conglomerates: London, Philips, EMI, CBS/Sony, RCA etc., which have most of the superstars under contract and relatively seldom venture far off the beaten path in repertoire. But if you are interested in music outside of the classical top 40, performed by excellent, usually young musicians who are seldom seen on television, the smaller labels are more likely to have what you are looking for. A few of them struggle valiantly to survive on their own in the jungle of record marketing and promotion, but most have been taken under the wing of Koch or its primary competitor in this field, Harmonia Mundi (of which more on another occasion).
The attractions of these small, select labels cover a wide spectrum -- much wider than the big guys -- including hundreds of excellent performers such as pianist Santiago Rodriguez and violinist Leonidas Kavakos. And if you want to look in any depth at all at the work of such outstanding modern composers as Alberto Ginastera and Ned Rorem or such historically interesting composers as Karol Szymanowski and Anton Rubinstein -- all of whom are eminently worth knowing -- you will want to be acquainted with such small labels as Elan, Phoenix, Muza and Marco Polo -- or with Koch and Harmonia Mundi.
To a practiced eye, the first four titles issued on the Koch International Classics label spell out a clear picture: intelligence and musical knowledge working creatively within a limited budget, seeking out niches in the recorded repertoire where a small investment can achieve a maximum result. Two of the new discs involve only two to five performers, but the performers are first-class -- for example, soprano Judy Kaye and baritone William Sharp, who sing in precisely the right style with exquisite piano accompaniment in a collection of songs and duets by Leonard Bernstein (3-7000-2) that includes the first recording of his "Arias and Barcarolles" cycle and is likely to be the company's best-selling disc for a while. Like so much of Bernstein's work, some of this is flashy and self-indulgent, while some will tear your heart out. In sum, it is worth owning and it is not likely to have a better recording.
Rarely heard and greatly enjoyable modern music for flute and strings by William Bergsma, Donald Francis Tovey, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Amy Beach is heard on a disc featuring flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer and the Manhattan String Quartet (3-7001-2). Unusual thoughtfulness is shown in the choice and interpretation of this music.
Some of the music is familiar in a collection of works by American composers (mostly Aaron Copland) featuring duo-pianists Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Amos (3-7002-2). This recording is undoubtedly the most lavish investment in the first Koch release. The interpretations are skilled and idiomatic, and I suspect that a lot of people who buy the disc for Copland's "Hoedown" and "El Salon Mexico" will grow to love it for Walter Piston's wonderful Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.
One of the four discs (3-7004-2) is the first in Koch's Legacy series and a historic reissue of considerable importance. It features (live from the 1953 Prades Festival) the outstanding brother-and-sister team of Joseph and Lillian Fuchs playing violin and viola, respectively, in two of Mozart's finest works: his extraordinary Divertimento for String Trio, K. 563 (with cellist Paul Tortelier), and his Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, with Pablo Casals conducting the festival orchestra. The Fuchses play with highly refined technique and the special, almost telepathic rapport of siblings. The weak link in this disc is the person with highest name recognition: Casals, who was a great cellist and an outstanding human being but a rather stodgy and old-fashioned conductor. Nonetheless, these are performances that any Mozart lover should hear. And Koch should track down the Fuchs recording of his duos for violin and viola, K. 423-24, and issue those too.
Upcoming Koch releases include several discs of Barber (with a bit of Menotti) with Andrew Schenck conducting the New Zealand Symphony, a "Threepenny Opera," some legendary performances of Dvorak and a violin recital by Kavakos. Meanwhile, listed below are a few items of unusual interest from labels distributed by Koch:
Leopold Godowsky: 53 Studies After Chopin, played by pianist Geoffrey Douglas Madge (Dante PSG 8903/4 and 8905/6; four CDs available in two volumes). Godowsky, one of the greatest pianists of all time, used Chopin's music as a point of departure for his own fascinating excursions into some highly advanced areas of piano expertise. He is interesting particularly because his concept of virtuosity involves heightened subtlety and complexity rather than the "louder and faster" style that is more commonly heard. This is some of the most challenging piano music ever written, and Madge's performance makes this set a landmark in piano recording. The same small label has launched a complete set of Scriabin's piano music, played by Joseph Villa, that is less of a revelation but well worth hearing.
Alberto Ginastera: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Sonata for Piano, played by pianist Hilde Somer with Ernst Maerzendorfer conducting (Phoenix PHCD 110). On the other hand, these two works by Ginastera make as eloquent a case for the loud and fast style as anything that has been composed since the death of Bartok. These are vintage performances, lovingly remastered by Phoenix -- a label that brings recordings back from the dead, like the legendary bird that is its namesake. Somer's formidable pianism is also featured in an excellent collection of music by Janacek (Phoenix PHCD 109). Ned Rorem, the leading composer of songs in America since Charles Ives, is well represented in a Phoenix collection of his vocal music (PHCD 108).
Gottschalk: Music for Piano, played by Klaus Kaufmann (Musica Mundi 310 035). A German pianist gives totally idiomatic performances of this quintessentially American music, which draws heavily on folk and popular melodies of the 19th century.
Rebecca Clarke: Music for Viola (Northeastern CD 212). Clarke's music is doubly neglected, because she was a woman and because she played and composed for one of the less spotlighted members of the string family. This disc, featuring violist Patricia McCarty with expert colleagues, makes handsome restitution in music that ranges in date from 1921 to 1943 but achieves timelessness. This disc should be heard by people who are interested in American music, women's music, viola music or just plain music.