Classical The Compact Collection: Three into one does go

Rob Cowan on the Week's New CD Releases
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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE KNOWS Puccini's aria "Oh my beloved father", but what about its parent opera? Gianni Schicchi concerns a Florentine peasant who cunningly contrives to unite his daughter and her young lover. It comes third in a sequence of three operatic "single-acters" making up Il Trittico. The other two are Suor Angelica - in which a young nun takes poison when she learns that her illegitimate son is dead - and Il Tabarro, the tale of a barge-owner who strangles his wife's trespassing lover.

All three works are shot through with astonishingly original ideas (Suor Angelica owes most to Wagner), but it is Il Tabarro that lands the surest musical punches. Take one part Tosca, two of Turandot, add a twist of Richard Strauss and a pinch of Berg, and you will end up with some idea of what to expect.

Il Tabarro, in particular, is brilliantly orchestrated and EMI's new Trittico catches the LSO at white heat. It also serves as evidence that Antonio Pappano is unrivalled among modern maestros as a master of Puccini's unique tonal palette, and that conductor and orchestra enjoy a powerful relationship. Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorgiu take the roles of Rinuccio and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi and the due amanti in Il Tabarro, while Maria Guleghina surpasses herself as Il Tabarro's Giorgetta. The digital sound quality is spectacularly good.

Of course, modern sound doesn't always guarantee maximum musical drama. Another new release - or should I say re-release - achieves virtually as much impact through a tightly packed mono recording. Antal Dorati recorded his only complete recording of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake back in 1954. The orchestra was the Minneapolis Symphony, and Mercury's engineers made a hi-fi feature of the brass and percussion. No other version of the final scene is quite as exciting, though some may balk at the wiry-toned violins (excepting the concertmaster Rafael Druian's gorgeous solo playing), the reedy woodwinds and the odd slip in ensemble. The performance itself is little short of magnificent, a theatrical tour de force, fast, energetic and profoundly balletic.

Mikhail Pletnev's Rachmaninov is scarcely less brilliant, though rather more subtle. Pletnev's benchmark June 1998 recording of the epic Corelli Variations uses Rachmaninov's own piano, newly restored with hammers of the period, and places it in the context of music that Rachmaninov performed but never recorded. Beethoven's "Les Adieux" sonata is played with remarkable finesse, and so is selected Chopin, Mendelssohn and more Rachmaninov. To hear Pletnev tackle Mendelssohn's Andante cantabile e Presto agitato is to recall, in speculative detail, what the great man himself may have sounded like in the same repertoire. The recording venue was the composer's summer home near Lucerne, and the sound quality has a small-room realism that brings the listener into close proximity with some superb pianism. Pletnev is among the most remarkable musicians on the current concert circuit, and this CD provides the perfect sampling of his art.

Puccini/Pappano: EMI CDS5 56587 2 (three discs)

Tchaikovsky/Dorati: Mercury 462 950-2 (two discs)

Rachmaninov etc/Pletnev: Deutsche Grammophon

459 634-2