Doubleplay / Sinister repercussions: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson adopt even-handed attitudes to left-handed pianism and period opera

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RAVEL: Piano Concerto for the left hand. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No 4. BRITTEN: Diversions Leon Fleisher, Boston Symphony / Seiji Ozawa (Sony SK 47188)

WHERE has Leon Fleisher been in the years since those memorable recordings with George Szell? Plainly he can still take on all comers single-handed - at least he does so here in these three classics of the genre. They make interesting bedfellows. Ravel is the illusionist, his sleight of hand suggesting 10, not five digits. From a crepuscular opening, sinister contra-bassoon vocalise grimly realised, Fleisher and Ozawa turn in a texturally well integrated reading. I like Fleisher's easy, discreet manner in the lyric solo passages: the big final cadenza is impressively wrought, its torrential climax emerging almost imperceptibly out of a gentle rain of arpeggios.

In the Prokofiev, spryly articulated outer movements suggest the playful young Juliet with a spiteful streak (how cunningly the opening returns as finale, like a built-in encore). But the orchestra has the best of the tunes here, the piano often content with mere embroidery. Not so the Britten. I had quite forgotten how devilishly clever these Diversions were - a triumph of the imagination over technical ingenuity. Each miniature inhabits a life way beyond its source. Allusions to many different idioms, styles, even composers - Prokofiev's caricature is sharply drawn in the 'March' - are magically absorbed into Britten's own very particular poetry.

One good reason, then, for acquiring this disc, the other of course being Fleisher's left hand. ES

SONY's recent reissue of Leon Fleisher playing the Beethoven Piano Concertos was a revelation to me: a pianist of unusual refinement, sensuous beauty and intellectual power, not perhaps over- given to heroics, and yet quite able to stand up in the face of the unremitting high-tension conducting of George Szell. What might he have gone on to if he hadn't lost the use of his right hand in 1965?

Better than this, I feel fairly sure. Certainly there are reminders of the old Fleisher in some of Britten's quirky or delicate soliloquies, and in the moving determination of the final crescendo of the Ravel - can there really be only one hand building those massive textures? In too much of it, though, the flame doesn't quite burn brightly enough, especially not in the Prokofiev - hardly a suggestion of diablerie there. Ozawa and the Boston Symphony contribute effectively enough in the Britten: an infusion of Hollywood brashness does this music no harm at all - but it's out of place in the Ravel. After this I need cheering up - now where did I put Fleisher's Beethoven? SJ

MONTEVERDI: L'Orfeo Ainsley, Bott, King, Gooding, Robson, New London Consort / Philip Pickett (L'Oiseau-Lyre 433 545-2: two CDs)

OPERA effectively began here with the brilliant, trumpet-festooned Toccata so familiar from Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. The immediacy, the originality of the sonority (vividly captured here) still confounds expectations. And so it continues - from scenes of Olympian and pastoral gaiety with bucolic recorders and the sweet, wafting birdsong of piccolo violins, to the strident cornetts and sackbuts of the Underworld, where sombre 'regal organ' replaces the bright, uplifting clatter of harpsichord.

Some of the sounds emanating from Philip Pickett's marvellous consort are just not of this world: the echoing cornetts and fantastic harp cadenza of Orfeo's seminal third-act aria, the grimacing organ drone that accompanies Caronte (Charon) at the threshold of the dead zone. The word-painting is equally extraordinary and this flawless cast leaves not a colour, not a dramatic inflection, not a silence unplumbed.

Catherine Bott projects each of her three characters with rare concentration and feeling, the aching beauty of Christopher Robson's counter-tenor could instil 'Hope' into any breast, while, in the title role, John Mark Ainsley's true, flexible lyric tenor performs astonishing leaps of faith from the numbing depths of despair wherein resides the 'King of Shadows' to the dizzying coloratura which will lead his Euridice 'back to see the stars again'. As I say, this is where it all began: the wonder of Philip Pickett's and L'Oiseau Lyre's achievement is that we are right there at the moment of inception. ES

EVEN as pure sound, this is magic. Supporting the assorted voices are harpsichord, lutes, harp, organs, viola - the basic orchestral timbre is seductive enough before you start adding recorders, flutes, trumpets, cornetts, crumhorns, bagpipes, bells. This brimming cornucopia of Renaissance tone-colour is preserved in what must be one of the late Peter Wadland's most beautiful recordings.

It doesn't need much imaginative effort to turn Walthamstow Assembly Hall (where this recording was made) into Mantua's Palazzo Ducale (where the opera was first seen) and cram it with lavish period scenery and stage effects. As Apollo descends on his cloud (neatly embroidered with curlicues, surely), the microphone assists, but gently - we're a long way from 'Sonicstage' verismo here. But there has to be more to Orfeo than outward beauty; luckily the cast are worthy of their sonic setting.

Orpheus's ecstasies and agonies are stylish and affecting in John Mark Ainsley's performance; exchanges with Simon Grant's Charon, Julia Gooding's Euridice and finally Andrew King's Apollo are deeply touching even at those points where the libretto's baffling Neoplatonist symbolism ought to get in the way. Ainsley shows up King a little in the virtuoso final duet, otherwise they're well paired.

The only shame is that Catherine Bott and Christopher Robson's talents could only be so thinly used. At least the listener can go back and enjoy again. I will certainly be doing just that - not least for the New London Consort's seductive playing, in noble ritornellos or in the refreshing rude dance that rounds it all off. And Pickett is right: the jingle- bells were an inspiration. SJ

BRAGG / GOODALL: The Hired Man - 1992 concert version from the Palace Theatre, London (TER CDTER2 1189: two CDs)

Howard Goodall's English Les Mis: the trials and tribulations of the Cumbrian working classes set against the bloody backdrop of World War One. A big-hearted, insidiously memorable score whose work songs, war songs, love songs lustily demand attention. With the right collaborator Goodall will yet write a great British musical. The Hired Man comes close. ES

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