Double Play: Discs - Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on civilised concertos and an exploding symphony

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LISZT: Piano Concertos 1 and 2.

SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto

Emanuel Ax, Philharmonia /

Esa-Pekka Salonen

(Sony SK 53289)

NOT so crazy. If anyone is about to convince you of the kinship between the Liszt and Schoenberg Piano Concertos, it's Emanuel Ax. It's partly the way he plays them. In his hands, the Liszt A major (No 2) is a dead ringer for the Schoenberg: one melody, one source, one movement, one thought-process. And Ax slips as effortlessly, as genially into the Schoenberg as he does the Liszt.

He goes with the flow, the Romantic impulse; knotty textures open to his relaxation, he and Salonen come up for plenty of air. By comparison, Pollini and Abbado (DG) are heads down in pursuit of an almost stifling intensity. If the Schoenberg still presents problems, then Ax is for you.

About the Liszt, I am less sure. One can overdose on civility. This playing has such natural authority and poise - never a dishonest phrase, an ugly sound. But come the martial hectoring of the finales, I am in the market for something splashier. All right, vulgar. ES

WHY isn't Emanuel Ax better known in this country? His versions of the two Liszt concertos may not be the most roundly recommendable on the current scene - the allegros surely demand a brasher, less cultivated kind of brilliance than he brings - but having heard him in the slow, dreamy soliloquies I'm not sure I care. Ax's beautiful, thoughtful playing plumbs unsuspected depths (unsuspected by me, at least), and Liszt's long melodic tendrils blossom under his sensitive touch.

The Schoenberg benefits just as much. Where other pianists have concentrated on distortion, caustic humour and pained intensity, Ax again brings out inwardness and the elegance in the lines. As with the Liszt, I think it isn't quite the whole story, but what a disarmingly beautiful story it can be. If Ax doesn't love this concerto, he puts up a good show, as do Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia - this time in an equal rather than a supporting role. It's certainly a thought-provoking coupling, as is the accompanying essay. SJ

RUDERS: Symphony. Gong. Thus

Saw St John. Tundra

Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra /

Leif Segerstam

(Chandos CHAN 9179)

THIS one should come with its own heat shield. The energy is thermonuclear. Poul Ruders is an extremist - all, or nothing at all; a minimalist and maximalist in one.

He can be a kind of musical William Blake: the sound and fury of his vision is Biblical. In Saledes saae Johannes (Thus Saw St John), the end is nigh according to the Book of Revelation, and his orchestra spews its special effects like a latter-day Berlioz. Ruders has ways of making you hallucinate. With Gong - a phenomenal, if overlong, study in sustained resonance - you'll know just how Icarus felt.

Tundra, by contrast, might be subtitled 'Fear no more the heat of the sun'. But it's with the Symphony that we arrive at the apotheosis of his work to date. And it's a timely arrival, being a kind of Christmas message with menaces. Torrential rejoicing (a snatch of Bach's Christmas Oratorio rings out from the opening deluge) is soured by the loss of innocence, and gradually, by way of an extraordinary slow movement built around just two chords, this static music hurries slowly across great distances carrying us further and further into dissolution. Remnants of an ancient carol drift in the void - so much for seasonal cheer.

But don't be faint-hearted. This is a major piece from a major voice - one you dare not ignore. Spectacular recording, too. ES

THIS is big. Poul Ruders has been known as a sharply distinctive, many-faceted composer for some time, but the fusion of wildly diverse elements in these works - particularly in the Symphony - into powerful statements is, in my experience of music today, unique.

We're not talking about 'polystylism'; Ruders doesn't simply juxtapose. The two alternating chords that dominate, or rather are, the Symphony's slow movement grow from ominous oscillations in the first. The quiet, agonised deconstruction of a Christmas chorale by piano and a hopelessly lost-sounding piccolo might, momentarily, recall Schnittke, but the strength of the long-term thinking makes this for me (cards on the table) subtler and more powerful than any of Schnittke's tear-jerking grotesqueries.

Alongside the violence, the Symphony offers moments of surprising tenderness: dissonant string lines that sing from the heart, or the final flicker of hope on solo violin. That really ought to be corny; instead it manages to be touching and unsettling at the same time.

Performances and recording play their part in the total effect. The sound has clarity and atmosphere (both essential), and Segerstam has obviously galvanised the Danish players - the sustained pulsating fortissimo that opens Gong is awe-inspiring, as is the range of expressive character in the Symphony - from Mahlerian outpouring to Bach dressed as airport-lounge muzak, all beautifully realised. An outstanding contemporary music release. SJ