Double Play: In sure and certain hope

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FAURE: Requiem; plus part-songs by Faure, Saint-Saens, Ravel, Debussy

Bott, Cachemaille, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner (Philips 438 149-2)

HEAR THIS, and there's no going back. Faure's original scoring is so much more than a matter of instrumental colour and cast: it's integral to the whole emotional tone of his Requiem; it's that which makes it unique. No one need fear to walk through his valley of the shadow of death: divided violas and cellos cast a subdued but reassuring light (gut strings help, of course), a pair of horns and a single violin are the still, small voices of faith in this 'lullaby of death'. The whole texture seems to float on a cushion of organ and string basses. The entry of the solo horn in the 'Hostias' is a major event in a scoring free of woodwinds; so, too, the lone violin, descending like a 'heavenly body' upon the 'Sanctus'. How could Faure have succumbed to a revision? The clamour of narrow-bore brass at 'Hosanna in excelsis' is suddenly the most dramatic of gestures; the piping organ and fresh boys' voices are ethereal to the point of intangibility in the 'In paradisum'. But then, this whole performance (and recording) has an air of unreality about it - right down to the seraphic Catherine Bott, sounding for all the world like one of the Salisbury choristers in the 'Pie Jesu'. The choral singing, both here and in the accompanying part-songs (fascinating), is of such quality - balance, intonation, blend - as to be beyond criticism. Edward Seckerson

THE difference between the Faure Requiem we know and this earlier version is technically a simple matter of scoring: it just shows how much difference instrumental colour can make to the character and atmosphere of a work. Scaled down for small string ensemble (only one solo violin) and still less woodwind and brass, this is no longer a plush, expansive, faintly impersonal cathedral piece, but something much more intimate - a devotional for the side-chapel perhaps, darker in colour but with moments of surprising human contact.

Gardiner's version feels the inner richness of the sound right from the start. I found the Salisbury Cathedral boys' voices a tiny bit cold in the aspiring lines of the 'Sanctus' (especially after the ardently expressive men) but generally the choral sound has a warmth and radiance of its own. The baritone Gilles Cachemaille's sparing vibrato won't please musical Oldie-readers, but even they might warm to Catherine Bott's near-miraculous piano espressivo in the 'Pie Jesu'. Women's voices replace boys' in a selection of choral miniatures by Saint-Saens, Debussy, Ravel and Faure himself. Anyone who suspects padding should try them. The two sets of chansons by Debussy and Ravel are gorgeous, and gorgeously sung. I'd almost recommend the disc for them alone. Stephen Johnson

MAHLER: Symphony No 2

McNair, Van Nes, Ernst-Senff-Choir, Berlin Philharmonic / Haitink

(Philips 438 935-2; two CDs)

FEW succeed in reconciling the spirit and letter, the fire and ice, of the opening pages. Haitink, like Rattle (EMI), is still too circumspect. Better is to come. Haitink's 'Resurrection' has filled out, a broader, richer and more atmospheric canvas than before. It's very much the 'single tempo' approach, with many of Mahler's neurotic fluctuations somewhat compromised by the measured implacability of it all. I do miss that convulsive sense of music coming apart at the seams (no one conveys Mahlerian panic quite like Bernstein on DG). And isn't the third movement's 'treadmill of life' metaphor taken just a shade too literally? But Haitink does field a mightily impressive Judgement Day, replete with gaunt 'Dies Irae' and seismic percussion. The earth does move - though I'm not sure I'd want to be greeted at Heaven's gate by the dry, unyielding tone (and fallible intonation) of Jard van Nes. Only a qualified welcome, then. I suppose a combination of Rattle and Bernstein is out of the question? ES

IS MAHLER in danger of being played to death? As the number of performances and recordings has risen, the proportion of genuinely revealing experiences has plummeted. Bernard Haitink once suggested that conductors who wanted to take on a great musical monument such as the Second Symphony should have to pass some sort of test first. I think it has the makings of a great idea - as long as Haitink himself can be on the jury. As this new version shows, he can make this 85-minute epic tell its story compellingly without resorting to Spielberg-style sensationalism or the Bernstein brand of supercharged schmalz.

Not that this performance pulls its punches: the opening - shuddering violins and violas and explosive, raging gestures from the cellos and basses - registers immediate impact. But the real achievement is to sustain the intensity through the sinister march that follows. Haitink does that too. I've heard few performances of this huge, seemingly sprawling movement that have felt so cogent. Gripping as it is, it's the logic, rather than the rhetoric, that leaves the strongest impression. The pacing of the last three movements is superb, the fusion of song and symphony triumphant - though I'll admit that Jard van Nes's 'Urlicht' could be more personally involving, her final 'Leben]' more secure and affirmative. The choral and orchestral sound in the closing hymn has a wonderful glow: 'You will rise, yes, you will rise again]' - for a moment at least, it's possible to believe it. SJ