CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson review recordings of exiled Europeans, before and after

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Varese: Ameriques. Offrandes. Hyperprism. Octandre. Arcana - Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Orchestre National de France / Nagano (Erato 4509 92137-2)

IT is easy to understand, when just about every corner of the world seems to going through decay or violent change, how the surging, violent brave-new-worldism of Edgard Varese should have lost a lot of the appeal it had in the forward-looking Sixties and Seventies. But the challenge of this music remains, three-quarters of a century after it was written, and it's rather encouraging to find a young conductor like Kent Nagano responding to it with such obvious feeling and dedication.

Even in the most densely-grained textures, when 21 brass compete with sirens and ranks of hyperactive percussionists, there's a Boulez-like clarity and precision. But Nagano manages to achieve this focus without - on the whole - reducing the energy level. Only in the colossal Ameriques does the tension ebb just a little in places - the end is still apocalyptic. The surprise for me was the vocal piece Offrandes - a hint of what some of those earlier, rejected Varese pieces might have been like (Debussy a very strong presence). Phyllis Bryn-Julson sings it elegantly and moodily - what a shame there's only seven and half minutes of it. SJ

AN alto flute hatches - just like that infamous solo bassoon at the start of Stravinsky's you-know-what. Pizzicato ostinati further reinforce the parallels. But Ameriques is soon hurtling towards 'new worlds' of Varese's own imagining. The rattle and hum of itchy percussion is a constant, the clash of the primitive and futuristic parades tribal marches through some cosmic metropolis where there is no let-up to the wail of demented sirens.

Like most of Varese's music, Ameriques maintains a constant state of pulsation; it's music on the move. And it's mega. Part of my disappointment with this immaculate Nagano performance is that the sheer weight of its mighty sound blocking is never fully felt. Nagano pulls too many punches, he's bigger on clarity than impact, not enough of a carnivore.

This is Varese's Star Wars, where sound constellations rotate and resound - and collide. But Nagano, the mystic, rules. He's far happier amongst the Webernesque distillations of a work like Hyperprism or Octandre, where a poetic exchange between bassoon and double-bass is more attention- grabbing than all the heavy artillery of Ameriques and Arcana put together. So Varese, the miniaturist, fares best here. Even then, there's something rather too 'laboratory tested' about it all. ES

Korngold: Symphony. Abschiedslieder - Linda Finnie, BBC Philharmonic / Downes (Chandos CHAN 9171)

ON one point there's no room for dispute: Erich Wolfgang Korngold was an astonishingly gifted youngster - a full-length ballet at 11, a hugely successful opera at 18, and awestruck tributes from the likes of Strauss, Puccini and Artur Schnabel. Korngold was 17 when he began the song cycle Abschiedslieder, but there isn't a hint of adolescent gaucherie, magpie-like though it may be. The craft is superb, and if the flavour resembles Turkish Delight with extra sugar, it's certainly distinctive. Does contralto Linda Finnie plumb the depths? I'm not sure there are any, but in an assured, lovingly attentive performance like this it's possible to admire the achievement - at a distance.

The trouble is whether Korngold ever got much beyond the astonishingly gifted youngster stage. The symphony begins impressively; motifs combine and mutate compellingly, orchestral colour is drawn into the argument, even the sugar and whipped cream seem to be added at just the right points. But the concentration doesn't last. By the time we get to the Scherzo, free thought has degenerated into faded formulae. I like the big horn tune, though - enter Errol Flynn, swashbuckled to the hilt. Is that the pointer to the symphony Korngold should have written - a huge, garish Hollywood Heldenleben?

I doubt Downes and the BBC Philharmonic could have played it with more verve and conviction, though - performance and recording are definately Oscar material. SJ

MORE promise than symphonic fulfilment - that's the Korngold symphony, notwithstanding this terrific rendition. The stage is well set, the characters promising, but the drama palls. Its shortcomings might be reflected in the mixed fortunes of the haunting second subject - luminous in its early guise of flute and celesta, but enjoying only belittling transformations to looming march and trite up- tempo country dance.

Even Korngold's heart of darkness, his confessional, his slow movement, suffers emotional exhaustion, the three well-chosen notes of its highly emotive theme searching for truth but finding only gesture. But when heroic horns (very ET) outshine all in the second subject of the Scherzo, or as the nocturnal Trio wafts by, you can rejoice in a composer who transformed Hollywood and made great art of film scoring.

The Songs of Farewell are insidiously memorable as melody, less so as word-setting. Linda Finnie sings with her customary zeal, though spreading tone and wavery support are now giving cause for concern. ES