Music: Records

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The Independent Culture

Britten: Curlew River. Philip Langridge, Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside, Academy of St Martins/Neville Marriner (Philips 1CD). It's perverse and, I suppose, ungrateful to complain that a recording has been too well cast. But that's how it is with this new Curlew River, which comes with such a classy roster of names that the core idea (well, conceit really) of the piece as a liturgical drama performed by a community of monks is overwhelmed by cultivated operatic strength. I don't ask for a rougher-edged performance - Britten's score has a meticulously-wrought sophistication that demands musicianship - but simply a more modest level of address than you find here, with the drama inwardly rather than outwardly directed. Otherwise, it's an impressive reading, all the principals on good form - and in fact recorded some two years ago, just before Philip Langridge succumbed to the vocal problems that silenced him for a while. Sensitively paced, with an exacting feel for text, it's certainly the best of all the latterday recordings of the score, and better sung in many ways than Britten's own. But still, for me, that old Sixties peformance is a classic. Unsurplantable. Unchallengeable. MICHAEL WHITE

Walton: Belshazzar's Feast & Symphony No 1. CBSO/ Cleveland Chorus/Hampson/Rattle (EMI, CD). The 1st Symphony here is a known quantity, recorded back in 1990 and issued with a coupling of the Cello Concerto that remains one of the most attractive Walton packages on disc. Dynamic, driven and incisive. The Belshazzar is brand new, and at its best a similarly breathtaking experience: pure drama, brilliantly sustained through fierce and urgent tempi (almost everything moves faster than you'd expect or, maybe, ask for). The orchestral sound is stuning; and if that was where analysis ended, it would be tempting to call it the best Belshazzar around. But I'm not so happy with the Cleveland Chorus, whose attack is sometimes weak, without the "animal joy" (as Herbert Howells called it) that the score demands, and the engineering doesn't capture them very clearly. The text gets lost. As for Thomas Hampson, he sings handsomely, but I'd prefer a darker and more threatening voice, like Bryn Terfel on the Decca/Andrew Litton version. So, modified rapture. And for all-round quality I still go to the old, Seventies recording by Andre Previn for EMI. That was a classic, and unbeatable. MICHAEL WHITE


Supernaturals: A Tune a Day (Parlophone, CD/LP/tape). "You Take Yourself To Seriously" is a provocative title for an opening track, considering that the most common criticism of the Supernaturals is that they don't take themselves seriously enough. For all the originality and honesty of James McColl's lyrics, he does like to temper his pleas for tenderness with bathetic domestic details: "I bought a goldfish to keep me company / In these dark days when you're not here." And for all his crackingly exuberant pop songs, there is an air of pastiche about the chirpy, vaudeville tunes, and the way the other Supernaturals pitch in with Beach Boys harmonies and music-hall piano. Still, since recording last year's top-10 debut, It Doesn't Matter Anymore, the Glaswegian five-piece have discovered fuzzed guitars, drum loops and samples, so A Tune a Day shouldn't be quite so out of tune with fashion. The band may at last get the recognition they deserve as the missing link between Madness, Queen and Arab Strap. NICHOLAS BARBER


Charles Earland: Living Black/Live at the Lighthouse (Ace, CD). Two- for-one re-release of cult Hammond organist's Seventies Prestige recordings, in which Earland gets so funky that his instrument sounds perpetually on the brink of exploding. Grover Washington Jr plays tenor sax on the second date. PHIL JOHNSON

Gerard Presencer: Platypus (Linn, CD). Long-awaited debut from the young trumpeter whose career has been as close to a meteoric rise as British jazz permits. The two poles of acoustic and electric jazz are circumnavigated in a very impressive, pleasingly retro-ish, fusion. The airy flights of Jason Rebello's Fender Rhodes and John Paricelli's guitar are contrasted with the earthy rhythms of Andrew Cleyndert's double bass and Jeremy Stacey's drums, while Presencer - who plays flugelhorn throughout - sounds exactly like the master we have long known him to be. PJ

Mark Springer: Eye (Exit, CD). Solo piano recording by ex-Rip Rig and Panic man mixes Satie-like ambient modes with elements of listener-friendly atonalism, to considerable meditative effect. PJ

Rita Marcotulli: The Woman Next Door (Label Bleu, CD). Once in a blue moon a CD drops from the heavens and sounds like the music of your dreams. This is it. The Italian pianist Marcotulli's album is an hommage to the films of Francois Truffaut, but apart from the theme to Les 400 Coups and two Charles Trenet songs, the music is all her own. While the 13 tracks sometimes relate to specific films, or to a character (as in the composition "Antoine Doinel"), Marcotulli's approach is far from literal, evoking rather than illustrating. Accordions, Celtic harp and hurdy-gurdy conjure up an appropriately Gallic sound-world, and the large cast of musicians - including Euro-stars Enrico Rava on trumpet and Aldo Romano on drums and vocals - is deployed brilliantly in a series of small groups. The music ranges from intelligent fusion to spiky free jazz to Keith Jarrett- like lyricism, but it's usually somewhere in between. The results are as rich, as strong - and sometimes as dewy-eyed and unapologetically sentimental - as the films themselves. PJ

Dave Douglas: Charms of the Night Sky (Winter and Winter, CD). Ravishing, important-sounding, drummer-less quartet set by the American trumpeter. The music is in a cabaret-ish European vein, with accordion from Guy Klucevsek and Paganini-like flourishes from Mark Feldman on violin. The label also produces the best-dressed CD packages extant, with design and art by Stephen Byram. PJ