DOUBLEPLAY / Faith, hope and clarity: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on Brahms, Sibelius and Prokofiev

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Brahms, Sibelius: Violin Concertos - Tasmin Little, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic / Vernon Handley (EMI Eminence 7 64659-2)

A YOUNG violinist leads out two of the most widely ridden warhorses in the concerto repertoire - is this going to be another case of fresh-faced hope triumphing over experience? Not at all. I don't know which to be more impressed by: Tasmin Little's eloquent, beautiful playing, or the fact that her partnership with Vernon Handley is so obviously a marriage of true minds.

There are moments in the Brahms where the shared intimacy of the music-making draws one in like inspired chamber playing. And while I wouldn't say that I'm convinced by absolutely everything she does, anyone who can make all 22 minutes of the Brahms first movement feel like one sustained outpouring of song obviously makes her decisions on the basis of deep, intuitive understanding - and, granted technical accomplishment, you can't ask for much more than that.

The trouble with the Sibelius as a coupling is that, after the Brahms, the sense of let-down after that ethereal opening tune is enhanced. There is a rich vein of personal drama, though, and Little explores it with all her persuasive power. Again Handley and the RLPO are near-perfect partners - and as in the Brahms, the recording seems to have caught it all faithfully. SJ

TASMIN LITTLE has just about everything going for her: technique, taste, instinct. The soloist's exposition in the Brahms finds her tracing dreamy arpeggios with a poise that speaks at once of a complete player.

Together, she and Vernon Handley (whose accompaniments adhere like a second skin) find the pulse of this music and stay with it. The slow movement is generously but simply expressed. You'll not catch Little overreaching, overprojecting, overwrought. Which is maybe where the Sibelius falls short. She responds most poetically to its lyricism: dynamics are subtly deployed, the whiter shades of pale colour her opening solo and beyond. It's the call of the wild she fails to answer.

For me, the volatility of this music is ultimately its most intriguing characteristic. Little's outer movements convey only stability, solid and sure: she effectively tames the untameable - it's brilliant but never dangerous. She has it in her technique to go further with these notes. She will. ES

Prokofiev: Classical Symphony. Symphony No 3 - Philadelphia Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (Philips 432 992-2)

I STILL think there is more to Prokofiev's Third Symphony than a bizarre concerto for orchestra - that the juxtaposition of the brutal, the fantastic and the lyrical really means something. But there were times during this new version when faith and a strong memory were needed. Muti engineers abrupt contrasts and gear-changes impressively enough, and the Philadelphia playing can be stunning - provided you aren't looking for much more than sumptuousness and vivid pyrotechnics. But terror, passion, menace, that strange fairy-tale sadness so typicial of Prokofiev - in short, anything that might make this expressively three-dimensional: if it's there, I missed it.

As for Muti's 'Classical', this is agile, suave, but not strong on charm. Again, too much of this sounds to me like an orchestra on the catwalk - plenty of hair gel and frills, but no very keen sense of involvement. Here's proof that while the Classical Symphony can run effectively like clockwork, it's better when there's a hint of a human heartbeat too. SJ

PROKOFIEV fashioned quite a symphony from the prime cuts of his opera The Fiery Angel. Muti directs quite a performance. The Philadelphia sheen was somehow never more appropriate, the shot- silk strings never more decadent. Beauty and bestiality co-exist here as luxuriant violins (spectacularly good) swoop and soar over the barbaric surface of the first movement.

Muti ladles on the rhetoric. Defiant rubatos threaten to pull us back from the first movement's orgiastic climax. But he has caught well Prokofiev's audacious mix of the savage and the sensuous: the slow movement is distastefully sweet, cloying violin glissandi over throbbing, unstable bass lines; in the scherzo, a beguiling trio sits incongruously amid hallucinatory writhings and retchings (a bad trip worthy of Hieronymus Bosch). The engineering is impressive; climaxes sound saturated but distinct.

In a sense, the more sumptuous the performance, the more shocking this piece sounds. By that reckoning, Muti scores high in the indecency stakes. In tandem is an account of the Classical Symphony which moves elegantly and, where needs be, athletically. Not much charm, but in the light of the Third, I wonder if that's altogether surprising. ES

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