MENTION "ENGLISH music" and most people think of meadows, rolling hills or the jingoism of Empire. And yet, back in the 1670s, Matthew Locke scored an operatic production of The Tempest with swirling tonal storms and an astonishing degree of harmonic ingenuity. The rapt opening chords of the "Curtain Tune" anticipate Berlioz, while the accelerating torrent that follows could have blown in from virtually any point during the last hundred years. Add a peppery sequence of dances and you have music that is light years ahead of its time, played with excited application by Il Giardino Armonico. Locke's shock tactics are well matched by the contemporaneous, rabble-rousing Battalia of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, with its "drunken" discords and slapping strings suggestive of gunfire. Nikolaus Harnoncourt made a famous Teldec recording of Battalia years ago, but this one is even better. Biber's imitated drums and fifes march across the spectrum in full stereophonic splendour, and the playing has real panache. Meanwhile, back among the meadows, Sir Thomas Beecham guides us through the verdant musical dream-world of Frederick Delius. No conductor since 1946 has held the quiet centre of Brigg Fair with such ecstatic control, and the sepia- tinted Dance Rhapsodies can rarely have sounded more engaging. Delius was essentially a miniaturist, at his best in such aromatic evocations as A Song before Sunrise, Summer Night on the River, the Irmelin Prelude, and On hearing the first cuckoo in spring. Beecham recorded these, and others like them, on more than one occasion, but his 1946-52 sessions, with the then newly formed Royal Philharmonic, relate the widest range of expressive nuances. Incidentally, if you have any worries about the sound quality, try A Song before Sunrise, which, although recorded as long ago as 1949, is positively three-dimensional.
And so to Beethoven symphonies - but with some unexpected textual twists. David Zinman puts the Zurich Tonhalle orchestra through its paces in fiery, slimline readings of the "Eroica" and Fourth Symphonies, both employing the latest Beethoven scholarship. Which means, at one point in the "Eroica"'s finale, that the strings are pared down to a string quartet; and, in the Fourth Symphony, the oboe line is decoratively embellished. It is a vital, period-instrument approach applied to modern instruments, and works well. It is also a fine digital recording and, at pounds 5, or so, a truly amazing bargain.
Locke, Biber/Il Giardino Armonico: Teldec 3984-21464-2 digital (full price)
Delius/Beecham: Dutton CDLX 7028 (mid price)
Beethoven/Zinman: Arte Nova 74321 59214 2 digital (budget price)