Music: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases

FORTY-SIX YEARS on, Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town is still more read about than listened to - at least here in Britain. The scene is Greenwich Village, the main protagonists are two sisters from Ohio, and the lively story-line allows for some bizarre encounters.

Of the score's 20-odd numbers, three, possibly four, could spark off renewed interest: "A Little Bit of Love", "A Quiet Girl" (precursor of West Side Story's "There's a Place for Us"), "It's Love" and "Conga!" (a sort of trial run for WSS's "America"). There are ballet sequences, a conversation piece, a comic Irish number and a rather vapid street scene called "Swing". It's tuneful and it's fun - but is it prime-cut Bernstein?

Some of it is, though there are moments where other voices also take a cue - in "What a Waste", for example, which calls heavily on Copland's "Buckaroo Holiday" (Rodeo). Bernstein's own Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (a combo piece composed before Wonderful Town and revised after it) crops up more than once, and there are hints of the earlier ballet Fancy Free (in "Conquering New York").

EMI's new recording has Sir Simon Rattle, the London Voices and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group consistently on their toes, with distinctive vocals from Kim Criswell, Audra McDonald (the star of the show, at least in my book) and Thomas Hampson.

Rattle's upbeat Bernstein proves beyond doubt that nowadays even the jazziest Americana can sound idiomatic from either side of the Atlantic (compare Copland's stiff-jointed London recordings) but Ivan Fischer's new all-Kodaly CD could only have sprung from Hungarian soil. The programme itself is fascinating: three wonderful children's choruses (involving two very different chorus groups), the Galanta and Marosszek orchestral dances, the Hary Janos suite and five little-known character sketches from the Hary Janos singspiel (or song-play).

Fischer reminisces in the booklet notes about his personal contact with the composer, about how Kodaly underlined the importance of singing over playing. The idiomatic slant of Fischer's conducting style is best sampled at the first of the Marosszek Dances, which sounds like a shared folksong improvisation. As for the rest, it's pure delight. While countless orchestras worldwide are settling for plush sonorities and depersonalised brilliance, Fischer's band protests a vibrant and distinctive personality. Long may they thrive.

Another musician who quietly goes his own way is the Russian cellist Mischa Maisky who, for some years now, has defied fashion by arranging - and recording - cello transcriptions of Romantic lieder. Selections of Brahms and Schubert "songs without words" have already made their mark (some are more successful than others), but Maisky's latest Brahms CD is surely his best so far.

The "song" element (there are seven titles in all) serves as a tasty sandwich-filling between the two great cello sonatas, with "Feldeinsamkeit", "Minnelied" and "Der Tod, das ist die kuhle Nacht" adding the most in terms of flavour. Maisky's pianist is Pavel Gililov and both players invest Brahms with a wealth of expressive nuance.

The sonatas include their first movement repeats (the First is too often performed without it) and the Deutsche Grammophon recordings are appropriately intimate.

Bernstein/ Rattle: EMI CDC5 56753 2

Kodaly/ Fischer: Philips 462 824-2

Brahms/ Maisky: Deutsche Grammophon 459 677-2

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