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CLASSICAL: The Compact Collection

NOT BEING a fan of music torn from celluloid, I approached the sound-track for Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema with caution. The agenda is formidable: a listening-session the length of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, poetic-philosophical commentary and a vast gallery of recorded film snippets - most of which I didn't recognise. What are we to make of it?

Paul Hindemith raises the curtain with a viola solo. There's the ritual to-ing and fro-ing of a film sound-track past an editing head, Mickey- Mouse-fast at first, then gradually growling to a standstill. An electric typewriter fires off short, minimalist paragraphs. Thereafter, images and ideas cascade in what seems like spontaneous abundance, with cinema and all that it has come to stand for being the central thesis. You hear period speeches, recitations, popular songs and multilingual snatches of cinematic dialogue.

Mono fragments of old film are overlaid with powerful abstract music digitally recorded. The two often combine in dazzling perspective and the resulting juxtapositions between disparate musics are humbling. But then the concept of "juxtaposition" is at the very core of Manfred Eicher's art. It was Eicher (ECM's founding boss) who worked with Godard on the sound-track, and although each of the four hardbound books that make up this handsome production includes numerous stills from Histoire(s), you don't in fact need to look at them. There are painful aural allusions where images of war or cruelty hold sway, and when the words turn inwards, as they often do, so does the music - at 39' 51" on the second disc, for example, where Bach underpins the proposition that "poets find the trace of the departed gods". Some of the musical superimpositions are truly inspired. At around 7'33" into the first track of disc four, Bartok's Fourth Quartet settles on top of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony as if the two works were made for each other. Historical sound documents include an extract from Paul Celan reading his "Death Fugue". As a gallery of important mid-to-late-century voices and ideas, Histoire(s) du Cinema works wonderfully well. I've sat through great operas and got less out of them.

Maybe that's because so many operatic recordings lack a sense of dramatic involvement. Happily, Testament has come up with a 10-CD antidote to heavily edited digital sessions with a heady sequence in which some of the century's leading opera stars sing their hearts out for four or five minutes at a time. These unedited tracks exhibit a degree of emotional engagement that is becoming increasingly rare in the studio. The Record of Singing Volume Three is divided into German, Italian, French, Anglo-American and East European-Slavic Schools. Some tracks sound extraordinarily vivid (Gerhard Husch in Hansel und Gretel might have been recorded yesterday, almost) and all the voices project their own individual characters. The roll-call of stars is both dazzling and generous: Gigli, Bjoerling, Ponselle, Chaliapin - they're all there, plus about 200 more. If, however, you're put off by the idea of a "Volume Three", thinking perhaps that "Volumes One and Two" will be just as good and you couldn't possibly afford all three - then don't be. The first two volumes aren't available on CD, and even if they were, they're made up of horn-recorded morsels that will really appeal only to vocal connoisseurs (or "canary-fanciers", as they're sometimes known). This collection can be enjoyed by anyone with an ear for great singing, and will hopefully be savoured by many. It could be the ideal Christmas gift for discerning opera buffs.

`Histoire(s) du Cinema'/ ECM New Series 465 151-2 (five discs, plus four hard-bound books); `The Record of Singing Volume Three'/ Testament SBT 0132 (10 discs)