Double Play: Last of the bone-shakers

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MOZART: Piano Music for Four Hands. George Malcolm, Andras Schiff (Decca 440 474-2)

IF YOU'D failed to read the small print - 'Mozart's Fortepiano' - you'd soon be in shock. Four vigorous hands pounding, outplaying this venerable relic - a thin, shallow, honky- tonk bone-shaker. Not a pretty sound. But that's part of the excitement. Andras Schiff and his sometime mentor George Malcolm lend terrific fizz and immediacy to Mozart's bravura writing. It's out of the closet, out of the salon, stripped - almost literally - of all potential preciousness. True legato is, of course, wholly illusory on an instrument such as this (no resonance, no sustaining power). But when the mute stop is deployed (as in the delicate Fantasia, K608), Schiff and Malcolm - of one mind, beautifully co-ordinated - have you hearing (as Mozart must) beyond the sound.

A FEW Spectator and Oldie readers apart, the classical record-buying public seems to accept gut strings, wooden flutes, natural horns and the rest of the period paraphernalia in the orchestral music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But the evidence is that it's still holding out against the 18th-century piano. Mozart's own 1780 Walter fortepiano sounds unusually rich and resonant in this recording - far less clattery than expected - and the gains in textural clarity and precision of phrasing are plain to hear. But I have to admit that it's not an easy instrument to love. Listening to the D major Sonata, K448, played by Lupu and Perahia on Sony, you can get the feeling that the music is drawing you in, so seductive is the sound of their thoroughly modern grands. True, only one work on this disc, the F minor Fantasia, is quite as inspired as the delightful K448. But, despite strong, characterful playing from Schiff and Malcolm, I kept being reminded that, even at its best, this music was meant first of all to be played - anyone else hearing it was, in effect, an eavesdropper. If the modern piano has turned a form of private recreation into something we can all enjoy, so much the better.

MAHLER: Das Klagende Lied. Soloists, Chorus, Bournemouth SO / Hickox (Chandos CHAN 9247)

WAGNER looks on, overshadowing the opening bars of 'Waldmarchen' in tremolando pedal points and distant horn calls. But then in come the woodwind, and suddenly the composer's identity cannot be in doubt: the oboe pairings, the tiny tattoos, so redolent of the barracks' square. This 'child of sorrow' from Mahler's teenage years is filled with a quite astonishing sense of deja vu. And as the colours darken with 'Der Spielmann' and the nightmare intensifies with the disembodied ravings of the offstage band in 'Hochzeitsstuck' (Gotterdammerung Act 2 revisited), the first two Symphonies are only a step away. Das Klagende Lied may be full of near- misses and might-have- beens - the vocal writing so often intrigues because of its awkwardness - but even the overlong 'Waldmarchen' repeatedly crosses that elusive boundary between accomplishment and enchantment. Chailly's Decca performance is technically far superior, but Hickox's quick- reflex temperament is more in sympathy with the volatility and quirkiness of the writing. He fields an intrepid chorus and characterful soloists. I can live with Linda Finnie's tonal discolourations for the penetration of her words, Hans Peter Blochwitz can transport with the purity of his head voice, and Joan Rodgers progresses from nightingale to imperious queen with flair. At the finish, her chilling octave slide is beautifully set up through the stunned palor of Hickox's strings as 'the lights are darkened in the Royal Hall'.

MAHLER'S 'Song of Lamentation', effectively his Op 1, is usually heard without its original first movement, 'Waldmarchen', which Mahler suppressed. Why reverse his decision? Some performances have certainly left me wondering if he wasn't right. It's the longest, loosest-limbed of the three movements, and it does mean that you get the story of the murder twice - though audiences attuned to Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus shouldn't have too much difficulty with that.

But when it's performed with as much feeling and understanding as it is here, the doubts beging to recede. There are plenty of beautiful ideas, not all of which Mahler re-used later, and it's fascinating to see him stepping gradually out of the shadow of Bruckner. It's no surprise to find choirs singing confidently and passionately for Richard Hickox, and there are solo performances to match - especially from the soprano Joan Rodgers and the alto Linda Finnie (taking their turns in the part of the singing bone). There is, too, a high-calibre contribution from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra: Chandos's fondness for 'atmospheric' recorded sound is very welcome here. As far as current complete versions go, I don't think this can be bettered.

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