MUSIC / Saint's misbehaving: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on Debussy and Bach

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DEBUSSY: Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien

Leslie Caron, Sylvia McNair,Ann Murray, Nathalie Stutzmann, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Michael Tilson Thomas

(Sony SK 48240)

THE AGONY and the ecstasy - was it ever more exquisite? And you thought Parsifal was decadent. Michael Tilson Thomas has pulled off a minor miracle here, reuniting Debussy's shot-silk score (all of it) with Gabriele D'Annunzio's fragrant poetry. And it's nothing if not intoxicating, this heady mix of the sacred and the sensual: take heed, there are moments where you will know just how it feels to overdose on aromatherapy.

But Debussy's extraordinary music - elusive, abstract, lush, erotic - cries out for a dramatic context of sorts, and blanch as you may at D'Annunzio's sanctimonious ecstasy, his high-flown text provides just that. Leslie Caron gives voice to the Saint, her febrile intensity at once fragile and commanding: her orgasmic cries of 'Encore] Encore]', could make even Derek Jarman blush. But it is an inhibited soul that will not succumb to the ravishment of Debussy's vocal and instrumental colours.

Sylvia McNair lends an airy purity to the 'Magic Chamber', poised as she is between shadow and celestial light; Ann Murray breaks from her distinctive partnership with the striking French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann to show her class as the Vox Sola. In a superbly atmospheric recording the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus achieve transfixing levels of nuance and refinement. Perhaps I should now add this beautiful disc to my list of choices of the year. Then a cold shower, I think. ES

THIS ought to be toe-curling. The Sebastian cult shows Catholic hagiography at its funniest and nastiest. Set to lilting French verse by Gabriele D'Annunzio it becomes a camp monstrosity: the saint assuring the archers that 'whoever wounds me most deeply / loves me the most', and moaning 'Encore] Encore]' as the arrows pierce him. If Le Martyre had ended up in the hands of one of the minor French composers the poet put at the top of his list it would probably have been forgotten long ago.

Instead, the text went to Debussy, and the 'incidental' music he provided is of such beauty and originality that it redeems everything - well, almost everything. Some of it is unusually spare and restrained - from time to time I thought of Satie - but the solo soprano writing is ravishing, especially as sung by Sylvia McNair: her Vox coelestis is just that - celestial. It may not be the most dramatic of scores in its entirety, but Tilson Thomas, the LSO and soloists make it tell its story very beguilingly. I didn't laugh once. SJ

BACH: Advent Cantatas

Argenta, Lang, Rolfe Johnson, Bar, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner

(DG Archiv 437 327-2)

THE PERFECT corrective after Debussy. Not that there is anything untowardly chaste about a Bach cantata: the earliest of these three for Advent, Nun komm, der heiden Heiland I (BWV 61), had the audacity to superimpose the Lutheran hymn on to an ebullient French 'Ouverture' with all its attendant flourishes - quite an entrance for the Saviour.

Ten years later in Nun komm, der heiden Heiland II, a virtuosic aria for baritone extolling the fighting spirit of 'the hero from Judah' in threatening chromatic side-steps is dramatically juxtaposed with the anticipation of Christmas in a brief cradle song for soprano and mezzo closely harmonised over irradiating strings. These are bold ideas, simply expressed. And that is the real joy of this music: it's spare without being austere, reverent without being precious.

More pristine work from John Eliot Gardiner and his performers: as ever, the ink might not yet be dry on the page. ES

CRITICAL reaction to John Eliot Gardiner's discs has begun to sound like a litany - can he do no wrong? Yes, he can, but the fact remains that in recording after recording he has shown how in music - as in painting - restoration can be an art.

Gardiner's Bach style is sprightly, with lightened textures and strong but unobtrusive emphasis on dancing rhythms. But there's plenty of expressive singing and playing too. In these days of triumphant American fundamentalism, a sentiment like 'Open your hearts to Jesus' can be jarringly familiar, but as set by Bach and sung by Anthony Rolfe Johnson it's very persuasive. And hearing the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the ecstatic opening chorus of Nun komm, der heiden Heiland II brings a salutary reminder that there can be more to Christmas than the leaden midwinter ritual modern man has made of it. SJ