Classical: The Compact Collection - Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases

SEARCHING OUT new music to recommend with any degree of genuine enthusiasm is a perennial problem, which is why the latest Thomas Ades CD is such a notable event. EMI's hour-long programme features some of the most challenging, stimulating and entertaining recent repertory to have come my way in years, the earliest being a Chamber Symphony from 1990; the most recent, a sparkling Concerto Conciso that Ades (who is only in his late twenties) completed just last year.

The performances - all of them crowded with fine-tipped detail - were taped in Birmingham (by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) and Sir Simon Rattle conducts the "cover" title, an orchestral piece called Asyla (the plural of "asylum"). Within seconds, you're gripped. Ades ushers you in among cowbells and assorted percussion, then a solo horn unveils a world inhabited by woodwinds, strings and snarling brass. The pulse is gentle but more or less constant, the climate consistently humid. It's a sickly half-light, the sort you often dream of escaping from but somehow cannot abandon.

The second movement is a huge vessel foundering (try from 1'51"), the bass oboe having led us in. A little later, lustrous strings fill out the texture, darkening and accelerating by the second. The scherzo (marked "Ecstasio") tumbles into action then gains momentum, initially like some cumbersome machine creaking into action after years of neglect, then switching to a sort of madcap jam session. The Concerto Conciso opens among oddball ideas and the Chamber Symphony sounds as if it wants to dance but keeps stopping to think, trapped in a mind-set full of strange things.

These Premises are Alarmed is taxing but witty, and ...but all shall be well (the quote is from T.S. Eliot) hypnotic in its typically fastidious scoring. It's a journey that just has to be made.

Snapping my fingers in an effort to "come to", I was happy to revisit the more modest pleasures of piano music by the distinguished Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Laura Mikkola's recommendable Naxos CD includes the spiritually potent Icons and the Studies of 1969, which are especially ingenious in that each tackles a different interval (thirds, sevenths, tritones, etc), the third recalling Messiaen, the fifth Bartk. Some of the music is unexpectedly aggressive (such as the last movement of the Second Sonata), but most pieces are instantly appealing.

Hearing the First Sonata again reminded me that Ian Fountain will be playing the piece at Lauderdale House, Highgate Hill this Sunday at 10.45am as part of the Hampstead and Highgate Festival.

Lastly, the warming familiarity of Elgar. Giuseppe Sinopoli has been known to indulge some strange flights of fancy in Elgar's two symphonies, but his 1987 Philharmonia recording of the Enigma Variations is full of unusual insights, the sort that suggest an acute awareness of the score's universality. The finale, in particular, is beautifully shaped and the coupling, Elgar's Cello Concerto, finds a warm-toned Mischa Maisky giving his all. Penguin Classics adds interesting notes by Rosamunde Pilcher, but if you spot the Deutsche Grammophon "Classikon" edition of the same disc first - both were issued at the same time - then, needless to say, the recommendation still stands.

Ades/Rattle, Ades

EMI CDC5 56818 2

Rautavaara /Laura Mikkola

Naxos 8.554292

Elgar/Maisky, Sinopoli

Penguin Classics 460 624-2

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