Although Philips is no longer a fully functioning separate entity (having been merged with Decca), Universal Classics is celebrating the label's highly regarded half-century by remastering and reissui

BERLIOZ:Symphonie Fantastique Concertgebouw Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
Producer:not listed
Philips 289-464-692

BRUCKNER:Symphony No. 5
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
Producer:not listed
Philips 289-464-693

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3/Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos
Martha Argerich and Nelson Freirem piano; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
PRODUCER: not listed
Philips 289-464-732

Although Philips is no longer a fully functioning separate entity (having been merged with Decca), Universal Classics is celebrating the label's highly regarded half-century by remastering and reissuing 50 vintage titles over the course of this year. The first few batches are in the stores, with the best revolving around classic recordings by Amsterdam's vaunted Concertgebouw Orchestra and such peerless soloists as pianist Martha Argerich. Sir Colin Davis has long been the world's greatest proponent of Berlioz, winning wider respect for the composer's once-neglected oeuvre. His 1974 Amsterdam recording of the Symphonie Fantastique was a benchmark, and it still excites today, particularly in the fine 24-bit/96 kHz remastering. Eugen Jochum's live 1964 reading of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony with the Concertgebouw is another stellar interpretation, with the orchestra thrilling to the conductor's expansive view of this deeply spiritual work. Argerich's live 1982 recording of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with Riccardo Chailly has always been considered a pinnacle of modern classical recording. It has lost none of its luster here, newly coupled with the composer's Second Suite for Two Pianos (with Nelson Freire as Argerich's duet partner). The initial "Philips 50" range includes other welcome reissues, including Sviatoslav Richter's legendary 1958 Sofia recital, a new compilation of Fauré's Requiem, Pavane, and Pelléas et Mélisande with Jean Fournet and David Zinman, and Valery Gergiev's relatively recent Kirov reading of the rarely heard full ballet version of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Titles to look forward to next month in the U.S. include Beethoven sonatas from Alfred Brendel. Despite such high points, the "Philips 50" is a flawed enterprise. Aside from such risible inclusions as Colin Davis' embarrassing misreading of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, there are mediocrities like Josef Krips' dated run-through of Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41 (which is particularly disappointing when Philips has such a wonderful recording of the same works led by John Eliot Gardiner). By far the worst element of "Philips 50," though, are the idiotically paltry liner notes; in most cases, they're just the same old potted composer bios, the ones that are excusable for repertoire-oriented introductory titles, which these discs obviously aren't. If these are such historic recordings, and many of them certainly are, then why weren't fresh notes written to give some historical context on the recordings themselves—as with the exemplary "Decca Legends" series or EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century"? (One exception is Argerich's Rachmaninoff Third, as it's blessed by Bryce Morrison's characteristically astute consideration of the item at hand.) Also, all the original producer credits have been left out. Why bother to celebrate a label's great catalog and not recognize the technical masters who helped make it so great? And what about the engineers who accomplished the remastering that Universal trumpets on behalf of this series—why aren't they credited? If Universal Classics cares so little for the content of its products (or the efforts of its producers), it's a wonder that the company bothers to put them out at all.—BB