CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: Ecstasy without the agony

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Szymanowski: Stabat Mater; Litany to the Virgin Mary; Symphony No 3 - CBSO / Simon Rattle (EMI CDC 5 55121-2)

WERE the Virgin's tears ever sweeter? Szymanowski's ravishing setting of the Stabat Mater is almost too pleasurable, too sensual, and yes, too erotic, to be mournful. Religious ecstasy, Byzantine-style. Forget the devil, the holy mother gets all the best tunes. Texture and harmony carry the scent of incense, shimmering mosaics and gold-leaf embellishments filter through the imagination. High church, high art. Where has this wonderful music been all our lives? And could Rattle at last be starting something? I would trade whole swathes of the standard choral repertoire for the sound of soprano Elzbieta Szmytka in the eight treasurable minutes of Litany to the Virgin Mary. What a find she is - a genuine Slav sound, but with a chastened, far-reaching top. Breath-taking. And if all this liturgical imploration hasn't sated you, there are always the secrets of the night to fathom. Symphony No 3, 'Song of the Night', rolls out the cosmic mysticism in high-flown poetry and an even higher-flown tenor soloist (the intrepid Jon Garrison). Violin solos soar into the 'starry dome', tumultuous climaxes - stunningly contained here - invoke the roar of the heavens with the deep hum of organ pedal-points felt more than heard. If a certain radio station starts plugging the beatific final section of the Stabat Mater, EMI could have a Gorecki Third on its hands. Only this time the musical rewards would be more durable.

Edward Seckerson


I'VE BEEN waiting for a Stabat Mater like this for a long time. Intoxication, Dionysian abandon, dark power - there have been Polish recordings that have brought out these essential qualities; but Szymanowski could also be fastidious, delicate in his epicureanism. The balance between the wild and the exquisite is what makes him so fascinating, and it's a balance that Rattle understands as few others. He seems to have communicated this understanding to his performers. The result is that this unmistakably pagan hymn to the Polish mother-goddess retains its poise even when the flame is at its most intense.

Rattle's soprano, Elzbieta Szmytka, is a find - Polish intensity plus elegance and a secure sense of pitch (some of her phrases I'd never actually heard in tune before). She is just as deliciously persuasive in the miniature masterpiece Litany to the Blessed Virgin. I'm not quite so sure about the performance of the Third Symphony. Both the old Rowicki and Dorati discs had an underlying urgency that gave the Tristan apotheosis a greater sense of inevitability - Rattle is perhaps a touch too expansive, too languorous. But it has never sounded more beautiful - lovely to hear the hushed tenor solo delivered with feeling, and in tune, by Jon Garrison. If this doesn't give Szymanowski's reputation the push it deserves, I don't know what will. Stephen Johnson

Vaughan Williams: Tallis Fantasia; The Lark Ascending; Norfolk Rhapsody; etc - New Queen's Hall Orchestra / Barry Wordsworth (Argo 440 116-2)

MUSIC to tired ears. The pastoral Vaughan Williams as he once sounded - very green indeed. Organically grown, no additives. I think even a blind tasting would confirm that instruments of the period do lend this music a more natural hue: woodier woodwinds are lovely in repose, gut strings ensure a warmer, mellower resonance and nice 'stringy' tuttis - no glassy sheen from the violins' upper positions. Fat, forthright fortes from the brass don't smother anything. In short, a much more homogeneous sound. Mostly this is a pleasing, unassuming disc. A hint of blandness? Perhaps. I should have welcomed more uplift at the climax of the Tallis Fantasia (and more sense of separation, distance, for the echoing solo quartet).

Portamento is generally very discreet, which might or might not be a virtue. But Hagai Shaham is blissfully secure and sweet-toned as the ascendant lark, and Percy Grainger would have declared In the Fen Country a jolly satisfying 'ramble': this green and pleasant land heated up with a little late German romanticism. ES

THE New Queen's Hall Orchestra in the flesh is'nt quite the polished, beautifully attuned creature it sounds here. That's not a criticism: according to their own credo, the timbres and intonation ought to be less homogenised when early 20th-century instruments are used together. I expected the Tallis Fantasia to be grittier, the tuning more precarious. In fact it's only the lack of the modern metallic sheen that suggests you're listening to gut strings - if you're listening hard, that is. There are more clues in the big orchestral pieces - the Norfolk Rhapsody and In the Fen Country - but even then the sound isn't anything like as raw and strikingly colour-differentiated as in some old recordings of British orchestras, and the playing style is remoter still. One basic thesis of the New Queen's Hall Orchestra is to some extent justified here - that the balance is improved when the instruments of the day are used (especially when the heavy brass are involved); but again the concert hall is the more obvious testing ground. There are some enjoyable performances here, especially the Tallis Fantasia, but don't expect Norrington- or Gardiner-style revelations. SJ