DISCS / In pursuit of the creative moment

DVORAK: Symphony No 8. Symphonic Variations London Philharmonic / Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI Eminence 5 65026 2)

THE REAL thing, a Dvorak disc which has it all: geniality, grandeur, frolic, fire, the russety earth-tones, the spirit of song and dance. And atmosphere. No other recording of the symphony is so rich in it.

Mackerras instinctively gives Dvorak his space. Together they lend real enchantment to the arrival of solo flute on the threshold of the first movement. And in a moment of breathtaking stillness towards the close of the second, anxiety stirs deep in the lower strings like the ghostly echo of a troubled past in the stones of some ancient castle or church.

Perhaps the trumpets might have rejoiced more in the return of the opening cello theme at the climax of the first movement; the horns more than compensate with their rollicking trills in the finale. If you know the symphony well you will surely double-take at a subtly different version of the finale's main theme just after the central climax. No doubt Mackerras has unearthed some intriguing authentication for that. But then everything here sounds like it's recapturing that precious moment of creative urge - not least the Symphonic Variations, which seem to evolve in the playing of them.

At mid-price this isn't just a bargain, it's a steal. ES

PERHAPS I shouldn't have read the notes first. In most respects this is an outstanding Dvorak Eight. As you'd expect, Mackerras takes nothing for granted. Everything from the minutest details to the grand design feels as though it has been heard afresh. But Mackerras doesn't go for sensational new perspectives either - unless you count one tiny textual re-reading in the finale.

This is mature music-making, with plenty of affection. The light-shade contrasts in the Adagio, the lilt of the Scherzo (truly grazioso), the growth of the first movement towards the introductory theme's climactic return, brass glowing through driving string figures - it's all beautifully done, and beautifully recorded too.

Compare it with the Ozawa recording reviewed in Double Play earlier this year and there's no question that Mackerras wins in matters of taste, and yet there's an edge and excitement in the Ozawa that I do slightly miss. Intelligent insight or the reek of slivovits? I wish I didn't have to make the choice. Still, I can't remember a more convincing Symphonic Variations, the tiny movements fused expertly like links in a living chain. SJ

LIGETI: Cello Concerto.

Piano Concerto. Chamber


Ensemble Modern

(Sony SK 58945)

GYORGY LIGETI is a puzzle that you can't put down. His music is full of secrets and surprises and conundrums, a sound world of illusion, of indeterminate spaces and shifting perspectives. He is both mystic and cartoonist, often at one and the same time. He tweaks the imagination in amazing ways.

A single tone changing colour and shape almost imperceptibly draws you into the twilight zone that is his Cello Concerto. In this musical no- man's-land, a single consonant chord can have a cathartic effect, transforming the soundscape, turning the listener's ear in new directions. Then there are the 'spook house' effects, parodies of musical tics from an erstwhile avant-garde: like the scarifying exclamation marks in the fourth movement of the Piano Concerto, which could be terrifying if they weren't so comical.

This is a terrific piece, changing personality and physiognomy as swiftly and mystifyingly as does the composer. And the virtuosity of the performers is startling. Everybody gets to be a star in the Chamber Concerto: Paul Klee's amazing 'twittering machine' has nothing on this. Dump the computer games: Ligeti has soul as well as intrigue. ES

MODERNIST or post-modernist, tonal or atonal, traditional Western or 'World'- embracing - none of these tags quite sticks to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. Of all the great musical arrivals of the Sixties and Seventies he now seems the one most likely to survive, but not as the emblem of his times, more as one of this century's great originals, answerable only to his own laws and inner demands.

Echoes of modernist fashion flit through the Cello Concerto (1966), and yet its whispered, seductive, impressionistic sound world is essentially like nothing else. The Chamber Concerto explores this dream territory further, sometimes alarming, sometimes wickedly funny, often quietly voluptuous. Then comes the wonderful mid-Eighties Piano Concerto, with its wild African-Hungarian dance rhythms, anguished slow lyricism and desperate clowning - Shostakovich would have loved the police whistle and toy siren at the slow movement's climax.

Ensemble Modern play all three works with real understanding - the language doesn't sound new to them, but it isn't over-familiar either. Miklos Perenyi is a suitably subtle soloist in the Cello Concerto. Ueli Wiget's playing in the Piano Concerto doesn't quite have the relentless Mephistophelian energy I'd hoped for, but it is a strong, well thought-out performance that leaps the hurdles of the last three last movements with impressive agility. Good, atmospheric recordings. SJ

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