DOUBLE PLAY / Napoleon and Perrier, please: Robert Cowan and Stephen Johnson compare notes on new recordings of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

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BEETHOVEN: Symphony No 3, 'Eroica'. Overture, Egmont.

Staatskapelle Dresden / Sir Colin Davis

(Philips 434 120-2)

ONE hundred and ninety this year, and still going strong, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony continues to inspire love and originality in its interpreters. Take, for example, this new offering from Sir Colin Davis, a performance that really breathes. It's a strong and above all noble vision of the score, broadly paced and rich in telling observation. Beam up to mid-first movement (with repeat, by the way) and listen to Davis's sensitive shaping of the little melody for clarinets and bassoon, to the way those gently supportive strings are kept expressively mobile; listen, too, for the moment when the tune modulates, how the strings momentarily rise to greet the harmonic change and how, a few moments later, Davis moulds intertwining woodwinds, as violas, cellos and basses gradually intensify their presence, anticipating the next significant climax.

The whole reading is full of similar touches, and the recording is enormously helpful: the strings are close, but cleanly defined, the sweet-toned woodwinds nearly always crystal-clear and the fabulous Dresden horns boldly present, especially in the Scherzo's trio section. Any Eroica stands or falls by its Marcia funebre and here, too, Davis has plenty to tell us: throughout the movement basses underpin the texture with their sombre presence, and the central sequence of climaxes retains a discernible structure, without the slightest hint of rigidity.

But it is perhaps the theme-and-variations finale that I liked best, its mellow textures and rhythmic incisiveness especially, and the grandeur of an expansive but ultimately exciting coda. What a magnificent work this is] If I can rise spontaneously to my feet at the end of it (which I did) - even in the face of countless great Eroicas remembered - then the performance has done its job. And a gruffly emphatic Egmont makes for a powerful and appropriate encore. RC

COLIN DAVIS's Beethoven is unashamedly in the Grand Manner: a measured three-in-a-bar in the opening movement of the Eroica, a monumental, deliberate Funeral March, and a traditional big, hymn-like broadening towards the end of the finale. One could argue metronome workings or phrasing styles this way and that, but in the face of such conviction and control it's hard not to be impressed.

Grand it may be, but there's energy and impassioned directness. That Eroica first movement carried, if not quite swept, me along with it - even through the massive Furtwangler-ish allargando at the central climax. And the intensity behind the slow movement's gestures allow no incursions of bombast. Egmont too is imposing and deeply felt, with those four simple woodwind chords before the explosion of the final 'Victory Symphony' revealed again for the master-stroke they are. The Dresden Staatskapelle seem to have taken to Davis's ideas as though they were their own. This time, 'splendid' hits the mark exactly. SJ

MOZART: Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

Solo singers and English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner

(DG Archiv 435 857-2: two CDs)

IF Pasha Selim, the Christian turned Muslim who rescues various Die Entfuhrung protagonists from pirates, is a 'moral ruler whose clemency is tinged with austerity' (to quote annotator Thomas Bauman), then John Eliot Gardiner swings the scales back in favour of austerity. Gardiner's Entfuhrung is squeaky-clean, immaculately executed and - to this pair of ears at least - unsmiling.

The playing of the English Baroque Soloists has a tapered precision that, in itself, falls gratefully on the ear; aria introductions and instrumental interludes (such as a March newly reinstated before the janissary chorus in Act One) are fiercely alive and translucent in texture, and there's the appealing contrast of aural mahogany in Alastair Ross's fortepiano continuo. Tempos are on the brisk side and Mozart's 'Turkish Music' - with its cymbals, triangle, tambourine, bass drum and flageolet - is marshalled with formidable resolve.

The direction, then, cannot be said to lack anything in terms of intelligence, rigour or vitality. And the singing is mostly chock-full of effectively calculated characterisation, Hans-Peter Minetti's Selim and Cornelius Hauptmann's Osmin especially. Constanze's famous aria 'Marten aller Arten' - where she displays the full extent of her courage in the face of Selim's threats - finds Luba Orgonasova in fine voice, if in a less warmly communicative mood than Yvonne Kenny for Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec), while Stanford Olsen is a pleasing but rather bland Belmont and Cyndia Sieden a creditable Blonde.

But where is the music's joy, its humour? I put on Harnoncourt and, even as early as the overture, sensed a far greater feeling of fun and theatrical anticipation. His Turkish Music is more unbuttoned, his aria accompaniments more yielding (an effect due partly, no doubt, to the use of modern rather than period instruments), his singers more obviously involved. True, Gardiner's performance has plenty of sparkle but it's the sparkle of Perrier, not champagne. The recording is faultless. RC

WHY did I find this so disheartening? Perhaps after Gardiner's terrific Idomeneo I was simply expecting too much - after all, Seraglio is supposed to be the Mozartian problem piece. Objectively, it isn't hard to draw up a fair-sized list of laudable attributes. In Luba Orgonasova, Gardiner has found a Konstanze who can mount the heights and soar through the most florid passage-work. Cyndia Seiden's Blonde is likewise agile with a pure, clear tone. Stanford Olsen's Belmonte and Uwe Peper's Pedrillo cope very well with the demands of their writing, and while I often wished Cornelius Hauptmann's Osmin would growl as menacingly in the depths of his arias as he does in the spoken passages, he certainly acts - especially when gleefully cataloguing the horrible things he's going to do to the two male leads.

But for a comic opera it's a strangely chilly experience. The playing of the English Baroque Soloists is as brilliant as any of the singing, and Gardiner's period 'Turkish' percussion add a delightful antique automaton flavour. On the whole, though, it glitters like frost in winter sunlight - one longs for the touch of a Beecham to thaw it out, And it doesn't seem to be simply a case of Gardiner being more suited to the Italian tragic than the German comic Mozart: if he'd brought more of the zest and colour of that Idomeneo to this, I might have found it more involving - and possibly even funny too. SJ

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