CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: Monkey business

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Koechlin: The Jungle Book - Berlin RSO / David Zinman (BMG / RCA 09026 61955-2)

DISNEY it is not. Charles Koechlin's bare necessities amount to five elaborate symphonic poems expansively laid out for voices and outsize orchestra. It's the story of a lifelong obsession with Kipling. Musical trends came and went, Koechlin's own development entered new phases, but Kipling's Jungle Book never left his side. In the beginning were Three Poems - word-setting worthy of Duparc with the astringency of Debussy, at its headiest in the 'Song of Kala': a captive elephant's dreams of freedom with ecstatic tenor voice spurring on to wild, whooping nights in the jungle clearing. From then on the words become moving pictures in the orchestra, Koechlin scoring like Disney animates. The Spring Running is almost too close to movie underscoring in its depiction of Mowgli's jungle adventures. The Meditation of Purun Bhagat is a subtler but somewhat trying pilgrimage of slow-moving chorale, while Baloo's Law of the Jungle is given out in monodic pronouncements of Messiaenic directness - all archaic chants and many gongs. The last is still best: The Bandar-log is Koechlin's ingenious monkey-business with musical trend-setters - a virtuosic dance-satire replete with rancid back-to-Bach fugue. I'm tempted to say that he was a better mimic than he was composer.

'WORLD Premiere Recording' says the cover. Not quite. A surprising amount of this ultra-recherche repertoire appeared in the bygone days of black vinyl; in fact the old BBCSO / Decca Headline version of The Bandar-log set a standard I haven't heard bettered. But this runs it close. It's atmospheric, securely played and convincingly shaped. Perhaps Koechlin's jokes at the expense of the avant-garde of his day (symbolised by Kipling's monkey-tribe) could be more sharply, more bitterly pointed, but it tells its story compellingly enough, and the opening and closing pages - luminous harmonies, gorgeously scored - are as magical as Kipling's finest prose.

That same harmonic / sonorous magic is at work in the big piece on this disc, The Spring Running, another involving piece of musical story-telling, joyously evoking lush jungle scenery without choking on its own richness. In the sustained unaccompanied chant of The Law of the Jungle, or the similarly austere Meditation of Purun Bhagat, the charms aren't quite so obvious. But there's no one else quite like Koechlin - passing hints of Debussy, Bartok in 'night-music' vein, or perhaps even Berg, remain only hints. He founded no school, inspired no new developments, but our age is kinder to those whose individuality didn't express itself in mould- breaking. Well worth exploring. SJ

Purcell: O Solitude (Songs and Airs) - Nancy Argenta, Nigel North, Richard Boothby, Paul Nicholson (Virgin VC 7 59324-2)

'Songs and Airs' doesn't even begin to convey the richness and variety of Purcell's word-setting - the theatre of his invention. Alongside the simple songs, the fanciful ditties, the tuneful airs, are the self-contained monodramas like 'From rosy bow'rs' - cantatas in all but name. In the four lines of text that are 'Not all my torments' the emotion is in the embellishments. A single word may spill many sorrowful notes, slipping semitones can convey untold pain. Then again, what could be simpler (or fairer) than the unadorned beauty of 'Fairest Isle'. Argenta sings it with an exquisite, knowing purity. She has a way of freeing the vocal line for our pleasure and enticement. It's a stylishness and technical security you can take for granted. ES

ONLY recently Catherine Bott showed what dramatic riches there were in a miniature scena like 'From Silent Shades'. The Argenta approach is very different - gentler, subtler, with more concentration on tiny turns of phrase; operatic it isn't. But I found it, if anything, even more convincing. In place of spectacular madness, Argenta projects a sense of heart-rending loss. And yet the big, noisy emotions are beautifully done too. To call a performance 'elegant' might suggest stuffiness, uptightness. If so, the opening phrases of the title number - 'O solitude, my sweetest choice' - are a valuable corrective. There you find control, refinement and expressive depth in perfect fusion, beautifully accompanied too. The music certainly deserves such five-star treatment. The variety of mood and colour, the astonishing inventiveness and harmonic daring, make this a very repeatable recital. But then, what else should we expect from our greatest composer? SJ

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