DISCS / Body without the soul: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on sacred and profane voices

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SHOSTAKOVICH: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Ewing, Haugland, Larin, Langridge, Orchestra and Chorus of the Bastille Opera / Chung

(DG 437 511-2: two CDs)

MARIA EWING'S stage performances are generally best seen as well as heard - or in this case, seen and not heard. The opening solo is quite shocking, and I'm not talking dramatic insight. What is this - Sprechstimme? Something like. The musical line is putty in her hands. She paws it, squeezes it, distorts it with grotesque glissandi.

You can feel her physical magnetism, and the potency of her response to text is undeniable. But really, it's time the singing was taken in hand. To hear Galina Vishnevskaya on the rival Rostropovich recording (EMI) is to appreciate how the real drama - the despair, the longing, the defiance - is centred on the aching lyricism of Katerina's laments. Ewing's vocal approximations simply won't do.

In other respects, too, the Rostropovich set is a hard act to follow. Myung-Whun Chung directs a vigorous account of this livid score, but in colours far less lurid than his Russian counterpart.

Rostropovich is leaner, meaner, truly rampant in the sexual olympics, the 'Keystone Cop' gallops, brassily intimidating where Chung is merely imposing. I like Chung's quiet, creepy way with the irony - cadaverous solo violin and bass clarinet stalking the score like grim reapers. But his Lady's ripe for turning, and once is quite enough, thank you. ES

FROM one point of view the choice of Maria Ewing as Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth makes perfect sense. She can be an electrifying vocal actress, especially when there's smouldering to be done - Salome, Carmen, that sort of thing. Shostakovich's super-charged verismo suits her very well. But as the opera develops, and Katerina rounds out from semi-caricature to passionate, tragically thwarted woman, the Ewing portrait seems increasingly two-dimensional.

The familiar vocal mannerisms - the big expressive 'bulges', the swoops that miss the notes - don't help. But what bothers me most, musically, is the lack of anything like a sustained legato in the big melodic moments. That wonderful Act 4 confession, 'Seryozha, I can't exist a minute without you', sounds awfully limp here - a kind of shapeless keening.

It's all the more disappointing because Chung and the rest of the cast achieve fine things elsewhere. Sergei Larin is an ardent Sergei, Philip Langridge squeezes genuine pathos from the weakling Zinovi's dying moments and Aage Haugland blusters effectively as dreadful old Boris. Orchestrally this may not be the raunchiest performance ever, but the atmosphere, the tenderness, the deepening sense of hopelessness make it a more human version than the EMI Rostropovich recording.

At best, though, we are still only allowed glimpses of what a good recorded Lady Macbeth might be like. For a door-opening experience, on a par with the ENO production, we will have to wait. SJ

PALESTRINA: Hodie Christus natus est. Plus Josquin, Victoria, Fresco-baldi, Mazzocchi, Carissimi Gabrieli Consort and Players / McCreesh

(Archiv 437 833-2)

MORE time travel with Paul McCreesh and company. This time it's Christmas in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, around 1620. The doors swing open on the solemn processional of Josqin Desprez's motet Praeter rerum seriem: history and mystery transport you. As with their award-winning 'Venetian Vespers', the richness and variety of the fare, the range of styles and sonorities, are surprising. So few voices, a mere handful of continuo instruments - but textures and perspectives are forever shifting.

The Palestrina Mass is woven like a golden thread through the proceedings, essentially a celebratory piece, even in its darker moments, with male falsettists ringing out like chimes on the top line. But it's the juxtapositions that are so engrossing: extraordinary Frescobaldi miniatures, the organ solos quite other- worldly in form and harmony; two marvellous Victoria items - Quem vidistis, pastores and his masterpiece O magnum mysterium - both with the effect of illuminated scriptures. Then take a pair of sparkling sopranos for the entirely delightful Exulta, gaude of Carissimi. Another magical mystery liturgy. Never mind that half of it was recorded in Tooting. ES

THIS is one Christmas record that will still be playable after the tinsel and the lights have come down. In the wake of their award-winning 'Venetian Vespers' compilation, Paul McCreesh and his team reconstruct a notional Christmas service as it might have been performed at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, in the 17th century. The recording itself is only half-authentic - some parts being recorded in situ, others in All Saints', Tooting - though I'd never have guessed it. Those who think that scholarly input should mean at least a few gentle surprises shouldn't be disappointed: it is still very rare to hear Palestrina masses accompanied, and the organ tuning in the Frescobaldi and Pasquini solo pieces is fairly fruity.

On the whole, it is the beauty of the Gabrieli choral singing that impresses most, whether in Palestrina's Hodie Christus natus est Mass or in wonderful subtle short polyphonic pieces like Victoria's O magnum mysterium and Josquin Desprez's Prater rerum seriem. As a bonus, McCreesh includes three Christmas motets, by Mazzocchi and Carissimi, as examples of what he calls 'spiritual recreation'. In these performances they sound fairly worldly to me, and none the worse for that.