Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's New CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
TERROR IS not a word normally associated with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and yet anyone chancing upon the Sixth Symphony's disquieting second movement for the first time is unlikely to think in terms of The Greensleeves Fantasia or The Lark Ascending. Here, the mood is almost unbearably pensive. A finger sits poised above the button; dread is in the air - and terror. The opening measures are truly cataclysmic, the galumphing hubbub that follows is a sort of Sorcerer's Apprentice run riot and the madcap Scherzo is scarcely less nerve-racking. VW declared all programmatic interpretations of his Sixth Symphony nonsense, though he did describe the eerie last movement as "an agnostic's Paradiso". You are unlikely to find a work that more neatly contradicts the "cow-pat" cliches about English music. VW 6 is universal: American audiences love it, and on EMI's magnificent new recording the great Dutch maestro Bernard Haitink charts its troubled course with the secure intuition of a Boult or a Barbirolli. Haitink's is a clear-headed vision of the score, dramatic, atmospheric and meticulously balanced. The fill-ups are hardly less impressive. In the Fen Country evokes the skies and landscapes of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire and On Wenlock Edge - that most haunting of English song-cycles - finds Ian Bostridge in excellent voice. Another rising young star in the classical firmament is Hilary Hahn, a gifted American violinist whose latest

CD for Sony Classical couples - somewhat unconventionally - a sweet-toned account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Leonard Bernstein's multicoloured Serenade. Hahn proves highly adept in both works, weaving an expressive top line in Beethoven's expansive first movement and making the most of Bernstein's heartfelt dialogues. Bernstein's biographer Humphrey Burton suggests that the Serenade might be understood as a kind of musical self- portrait, though the composer himself quotes Plato as his prompting inspiration. Whatever your view, listening to the first and fourth movements (in particular) will confirm the score as prime-cut Lenny. David Zinman conducts crisp, on-the-ball accompaniments to both and the recordings could hardly be bettered.

Which is more than you can say for Sony's "Heritage" collection, "From Gershwin's Time" - but then you would hardly expect "the original sounds of George Gershwin" to approximate digital hi-fi technology. As it happens, the star performance of this two-CD set is Robert Russell Bennett's Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture as played by the Pittsburgh Symphony under Fritz Reiner, as stylish a piece of musical cross-over as you are ever likely to encounter. The best of the rest includes some swanky piano solos by Gershwin himself, though I am no so sure about Borah Minnevitch and His Harmonica Rasscals in a "novelty abridgement" of Rhapsody in Blue or a rather crude account of the Piano Concerto in F with Roy Bargy and Paul Whiteman. Still, the transfers from old 78s - are expert, and so is the presentation.

Vaughan Williams/ Haitink EMI CDC5 56762 2

Beethoven, Bernstein/ Hahn Sony SK 60584

`From Gershwin's Time' Sony `Heritage' MH2K 60648