albums of the week
Friday 25 July 1997
I don't believe Grainger wrote a predictable bar of music in his entire life. Even that old chestnut Country Gardens is "dished-up" (Grainger's phrase) in an arrangement for Leopold Stokowski that starts out as twee as you like but is soon rudely subverted by bullish trombones and heaven knows how many wind-breaking "wrong" notes. Then again, is there anything quite so strange, so beautiful, so other-worldly as the ripple of four grand pianos in concert with "tuneful percussion" and whining harmonium (an old voice in new-age surroundings) re-fashioning, re-inventing Debussy's "Pagodas" (from Estampes). And wouldn't Ravel have inhabited - in spirit, if nothing else - the floating island that is Grainger's Balinese take on "La Vallee des Cloches" (from Miroirs)?
This is a rich and bewilderingly brilliant compendium of Grainger's work, Grainger's world. Rattle points up the anomalies, compounds the madness, luxuriates in the sheer sonic splendour of it all. Was the "military band" ever nobler, ever more robust, poetic, darkly expressive than it is in the masterly Lincolnshire Posy? Dedicated "to the folksingers who sang so sweetly to me", their collective voices would seem to dwell in the spirit of the lone trumpeter of "Horkstow Grange". And as for the star turn, The Warriors - that most cosmic of dancerless ballets - if rhythm be the food of love, then Grainger invented the notion. This great and gaudy tribal love-in has at least one moment as sumptuous as anything written this century. You'll know it when you hear it. And you must. In a nutshell, a stunner. Edward Seckerson
This third complete recording of Lulu has its disadvantages, mostly connected with the live operatic recording (or recordings, since eight dates are given in the booklet). The sound is dry and colourless, there's a lot of stage noise, and the spontaneous audience applause at the end of Lulu's escape narrative in Act 2, scene 2 makes you realise what you're missing by not being there. (What was she doing - juggling?)
But, as a performance, this is more than adequate. While there may be no voices that make you sit up and take notice from the first entrance, there are good characterisations: Monte Jaffe's dark, ambiguous Dr Schon, Peter Straka's ardent Alwa and a dignified, moving Countess Geschwitz from Julia Juon. Constance Hauman isn't the most vocally alluring Lulu, nor does she soar effortlessly at the extreme heights of Berg's coloratura writing (memories of Christine Schaffer at Glyndebourne and last year's Proms aren't eclipsed) but, dramatically, she's convincing enough. Ulf Schirmer's direction is first-rate: expressive, urgent, tautly controlled, with the dreadful final climax always in view. A good, rather than a great complete Lulu, but it beats the current competition. Stephen Johnson
The 87-year old Pierre Monteux charges boldly among the Montagues and Capulets, driving hard with clearly divided string bands and savage brass.
The recording dates itself with ping-pong stereo and some rigged instrumental balancing; furthermore, the Walthamstow Town Hall acoustic sounds uncharacteristically dry, but the overall sound-picture remains extraordinarily thrilling. Regina Resnik offers matronly reportage of "unforgettable first raptures" and the orchestral sequence "Romeo alone - Sadness - Distant sounds of music and dancing - Great festival of the Capulets" finds Monteux gauging every transition, every tempo change with a rare and precious musical intuition.
His greatest achievement, however, is the love music, with its rapturous string writing, glowing melodies and rhetorical hesitations: nothing prior to Tristan compares with it, and Tristan's world would have been a very different place without its influence. Monteux's performance is sublimely beautiful and the LSO play like angels (at least for most of the time). When Berlioz invokes Romeo at the Capulets' tomb, "the frenzied joy, despair, final agony and death of the two lovers", he burns a laser-like course towards the most audacious gestures in 20th-century opera. It's a terrifying episode, perennially moving and realised here with a clear head and a warm heart. Millennium provide useful annotation but no texts.
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