DISCS / Chords of foreboding: Half-Russian opera and all-English symphonies, from Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson

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The Independent Culture
TCHAIKOVSKY:

Eugene Onegin

Hvorostovsky, Focile, Shicoff,

St Petersburg Chamber Choir,

Orchestre de Paris / Bychkov

(Philips 438 235-2: two CDs)

SOMETHING about the atmosphere in Scene 1 tells you that this will be an absorbing Onegin. As each new voice takes the stage, it's clear that Philips has got it right. Tchaikovsky's 'lyrical scenes' have not been especially lucky on disc. There's little room for error, so finely balanced is this masterful score. Not a wasted note: a brief exchange, a single aria can make these characters whole.

Two Russians, an Italian, and an American make up the central quartet of misguided young lovers. In the title role Dmitri Hvorostovsky's voice is fresh, focused, virile, with more than just a hint of arrogance in the manner. Nuccia Focile, the affecting Tatyana, has been well coached in the music of her words, an intense, vibrant delivery, a little pushed but brave at the very top and with access to those darker, weightier, more secretive tones to be effectively deployed in her advancing womanhood. Neil Shicoff is an exceptional, highly individual Lensky, full of tender persuasion and heartache in an imaginative range of nuance.

And in Olga Borodina's Olga and Irina Arkhipova's Filipyevna we have two generations of choice Russian mezzos. Semyon Bychkov, conducting, is no ham, but nor does he short-change on passion. The chords of foreboding which open the duel scene demonstrate how instinctively he knows where to place the burden of emotion. ES

THIS half-Russian Onegin is a long way from the old-style Soviet offerings. The recording is refined and decently balanced. There's hardly a trace of what used to be called 'Slavic wobble', singers and brass vibrating wildly around the note without actually touching it. Neil Shicoff as Lensky has a couple of unsteady moments, but there's feeling and poetry in his singing. Nuccia Focile's intimate intensity and graceful control in the Letter Scene has the force of something new - a rapt, introverted Tatyana. The Orchestre de Paris under Bychkov accompanies very sensitively - you can hear Focile's quietest confidence.

But is this the girl who could cut through social conventions and proposition a man she has only just met? Overall, the performance has its moments of beauty and penetration, but the Tchaikovskian sweeping intensity isn't there. As for Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Onegin, the part is a problem, but here he's more like a well-sung cypher.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS:

Symphonies Nos 4 and 5

BBC SO / Davis

(Teldec 4509-90844-2)

ANDREW DAVIS's account of the vehement Fourth Symphony arrives just as Leonard Slatkin's (recorded with the Philharmonia on RCA) has hacked its way into the catalogue. Bad timing: Davis simply isn't in the same class on this one. It's the difference between deep-seated rage and the angry rhetoric of a statesman. Rhythm could be keener, one or two uncharacteristic lapses in ensemble destabilise key hot-spots in the finale with its spiteful 'Dad's Army' marche macabre.

But following one terrific pay-off chord and a few seconds' silence, the door opens on what has been called 'the Symphony of the celestial city', and Davis sinks gratefully into repose. The Romanza - Vaughan Williams' very own paradise garden - is especially fine, cor anglais and muted strings in quiet rapture as the lights go out all over Europe. ES

A FOURTH Symphony on a par with the Davis / BBC SO Vaughan Williams No 6 (also Teldec) would have been volcanic. There are sparks and rumblings here, but they're fitful. Davis's point of view is personal: where the composer's own version hurtles forward, racing at obstacles and bludgeoning its way through, Davis often deliberates. The first movement takes its time, allowing phrases to expand and giving special dramatic weight to the moments of sudden quietness that punctuate the fury. But a lot of it is just heavy.

Not surprisingly, it's the slow movement that comes off best. Davis may be right to make this the emotional centre of the work, but it needs a more convincing frame. He takes his time over the Fifth as well, with much more positive results. The string sound could be more refined (violas especially un-homogeneous) but there's a higher expressive charge, and however expansive Davis may be, he doesn't lose the flow. At its best, this unglamorised approach has its strong points - a portrait with real features rather than a lush, Turnerish haze - but there is a deeper, more inward radiance which seems to have eluded Davis. A thought-provoking Fifth but not, in the end, a soul-stirring one.

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