DOUBLE PLAY / French translations: Stephen Johnson and Robert Cowan on new releases

Debussy, Ravel, Dutilleux - String Quartets: Juilliard String Quartet (Sony Classical SK 52 554)

THE SCHERZO of the Ravel shrugged off associations with The Camomile Lawn fairly smartly in this performance - which is all to the good. Does anyone who likes Ravel really want to hear this music chopped up and pounded out by massed strings as though it were just another piece of background minimalism? The highly sophisticated playing delights in ambiguities, subtle irregularities, minute colour contrasts. If you needed a version to demonstrate that the Ravel was a quartet and could only be a quartet this would be the ideal.

But I imagine most listeners want more than that. There is a world of feeling in both the Ravel and the Debussy, however obliquely expressed, and a lot of the time I don't think the players quite find it - certainly not in that startling, passionate outburst at the heart of the finale of the Debussy. They sound more at home in the Dutilleux, a delicate, fastidious, expressively allusive tissue of sounds. It's all beautifully recorded. SJ

THE JUILLIARDS launch Debussy's first movement with a lusty flourish, and there's plenty of the required bien rythme for the second. This is a truly miraculous work, never more so than for the last three minutes of the Andantino, where the heart-rending main theme soars high among the staves, rapturously harmonised. Here too there's spontaneity aplenty: the tone is warm, the recording superbly differentiated, and the players employ a generous but effective quota of expressive vibrato.

Ravel's quartet is an obvious outgrowth of its predecessor; Lalo was quite right to observe that '. . . the elements it contains and the emotions that it evokes have an unbelievable similarity to the music of Debussy'. And yet its creative rigour, smoky coolness and rhythmic ingenuity are quintessentially Ravelian; its overall mood is very much that of a master on the brink of even greater things. When it comes to Dutilleux's haunting quartet, titled Ainsi la nuit, we're somehow brought full circle: Debussy is there again, but as siphoned through the Stravinsky of Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Ravel is also in evidence, as is Bartok and hints of Messiaen.

The CD booklet notes the Juilliards' 'grateful thanks' to Dutilleux, both for his 'beautiful creation' and for his 'generous help' in preparing the recorded performance. They needn't have bothered: their recording and performance say it all. RC

Dvorak - Symphony No 8. The Noon Witch: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Seiji Ozawa (Philips 434 990-2)

DOUBTS set in fairly quickly. Were those singing cello phrases that launch the symphony really as warm and open-hearted as they pretended, or was it all a bit cultivated? And then there was the recording, clear all right, but with a tendency to anatomise fuller textures. But this Dvorak Eight turned out to have one quality many recent, more tasteful versions lack - vitality.

Like many a live performance it gets better as it goes along. The woodwind warm to their bird-like fanfares and roulades, string expression deepens and broadens in the Adagio, and by the finale the brass really seem to be enjoying themselves - well, that fast variation does feature the dirtiest horn trills in the symphonic repertoire. Congratulations too on a scherzo / waltz that manages to be stylish and not a bit precious - plenty of Viennese lilt with just a dash of Slavic swagger.

The creepy fairy-tale behind The Noon Witch seems to have set the older Dvorak's imagination running at a high level. You don't have to know the story to feel the chill in Dvorak's chromaticism, or to sense what becomes of the cheery, homely innocence at the start. There is no effect-cultivation at all here, but the performance is still vivid and atmospheric. I'll be coming back to this disc. SJ

THERE can't be many Dvorak Eights that match this one for sheer ebullience and muscularity. The main body of the first movement bounds and ricochets with unstoppable energy, its urgent development held tight and greatly enhanced by the lunging force of the Viennese basses, brass and timpani - all of whom are granted impressive tonal presence by the Philips engineers.

Ozawa's handling of the Adagio has a certain Brahmsian glow, with appropriate (but never excessive) rubato and an impulsive onrush of intensity for the final climax. The graceful Allegretto con grazia is nicely paced, with discreet string portamentos lending the trio section a certain mild, rustic charm, while the finale - one of Dvorak's most extrovert creations - is brightly lit and suggests, for the main part, an impressively high octane level. Only here did I sense a short-lived dip in energy (shortly prior to the coda), but the long lyrical retreat that leads to the symphony's riotous closing pages is handled with admirable delicacy.

If the symphony is all high spirits and sunny affirmation, The Noon Witch summons a more sinister muse, part Lisztian (certainly in terms of its unexpected forays among weirdly twisting harmonies), and part a reflection of Tchaikovsky-style pathos. The story concerns an irritable child threatened - and ultimately murdered - by the Witch herself. Here Ozawa revels in the elderly Dvorak's new-found morbidity, sketching the music's ice and fury with obvious relish. It's a terrific performance, powerfully recorded, and all the better for having been captured live. An additional bonus comes in the guise of some excellent annotation. RC

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