DISCS / Double Play:: Sounding old before their years: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on new releases of Mendelssohn, Bruch and Goldschmidt


Maxim Vengerov, Leipzig Gewandhaus / Kurt Masur

(Teldec 4509-90875-2)

MAXIM Vengerov's potency is in the sound he makes. His tone is so intense, so true, so rich in good vibrations that almost anything else is a bonus. The instrument may smoulder, but the music never overheats. Young virtuosi like this have little in common with the old breed of Russian carnivore. Just listen to the way he places the opening recitatives of the Bruch: the poise, the restraint, the sound taken so poetically away. Likewise his wonderfully imagined withdrawal in the closing moments of the slow movement. And it's the modesty of his Mendelssohn one remembers, the easy flow of the Andante with nothing to prove and everything to enjoy, the fragrant melody airborne, the scent not too heavy. Kurt Masur and his venerable Leipzig orchestra create a warm and welcoming environment for their soloist. A hackneyed coupling, but it doesn't come much fresher. ES

THE picture on the cover suggests a combination of the young Ruggiero Ricci and Rasputin, and musically the impression is not that dissimilar. Vengerov is a powerful, at times almost mesmerising, presence - and the Teldec recording makes sure we don't miss a note; but he's also intensely musical. He may be a big player with a tremendous technical and tonal range, but he never goes for cheap thrills. You can make the finale of the Mendelssohn into a dazzling, headlong perpetuum mobile if you like, but Vengerov achieves energy and brilliance without whipping up the speed - it's the clarity of articulation and strength of character that make the impact.

As for lyricism - well, this is perhaps Vengerov's strongest side. His deep-toned, singing legato made Bruch's Adagio a new experience for me - pre-echoes of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'I don't know how to love him' purged at last. It's remarkable to find a young violinist who can balance strength of line with an ear for tiny expressive details - and do it with such conviction.

But it isn't entirely Vengerov's show. Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus are near-ideal partners. The orchestral outburst that leads into Bruch's Adagio is hair-raising, all the more so after Vengerov's impassioned cadenza. It doesn't matter how often you've heard these works; just try arguing that familiarity breeds contempt in the face of playing like this.

GOLDSCHMIDT: Der gewaltige Hahnrei; Mediterranean Songs

Soloists, Deutsches Symphonie- Orchester Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus / Lothar Zagrosek

(Decca 440 850-2; two CDs)

THE Nazis may have driven Berthold Goldschmidt's first opera to ground, but they couldn't bury it. Too good. It was bound to come back fighting sooner or later. Much later, as it turns out. There's no mistaking the period. It's very much a product of the 1920s, music on the knife-edge of burlesque, terse, sardonic, but shot through with a crimson streak of romanticism. The language is tonal, but with an edge, a serrated edge. You'll almost certainly hear stylistic kinships: Weill, Hindemith, Shostakovich in the obsessiveness of the percussion writing (bony xylophone predominant) and the strident, carousing woodwinds. But it's a distinctive young voice (not yet 30), one that knows its own mind and worth.

A confident dramatist, too, a skilled manipulator of narrative tension and release: the climactic chorus of Act 2, the ugly, collective voice of derision, is like the lid coming off a pressure-cooker. And Goldschmidt really nails the terrible irony of this grotesque fable - a tale of obsessive jealousy to make even Othello seem well-adjusted. Madness is always but a whisper away from normality. Music of heartbreak and compassion is repeatedly violated, tender moments destabilised. Roberta Alexander's Stella is the impassioned voice of hope springing eternal, and I've never heard her better. But then this entire cast have found their way right inside Goldschmidt's sinuous vocal lines - a credit to their fit. He doesn't toy with words - he fills them. And if you're still in any doubt, the accompanying Mediterranean Songs - operatic in scale and gesture (handsomely served by John Mark Ainsley) - should put you right. ES

THERE's nothing 'magnificent' about the cuckold in Berthold Goldschmidt's first opera - in fact it's hard to find redeeming features in any of these characters. As Bruno and Stella sing their first love duet, text and music make it plain that the slide into psychosis is already under way. Beside this claustrophobic tale of paranoia and infantile jealousy, Lulu is sane, invigorating - salutary even.

And yet Goldschmidt's score holds the attention - makes you care what happens next. Echoes of others are audible - Weill, Mahler, the early Hindemith, and one or two foretastes of the Shostakovich of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - but there's a distinctive musical personality here, with a sure feel for drama and the ability to pack an emotional punch.

The performance does it justice. Perhaps the strings get a little frayed in some of Goldschmidt's most testingly high writing, and perhaps Robert Worle's Bruno sounds a little careful at times, but on the whole the dramatic and musical focus is very impressive, and there's Roberta Alexander's Stella, bringing warmth to an otherwise nightmare-inclined experience. The Mediterranean Songs are quite a relief after this - the sun holds sway this time, and John Mark Ainsley sings very persuasively. Decca's Entartete Musik series has promised well for some time, but this is the real thing at last.

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