Double Play / A nose for voices: Discs: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on mysterious piano sonatas and women on the verge

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SCHUBERT: Sonatas, Vol 1 - in C (D840), A minor (D845), F sharp minor (D571)

Andras Schiff (piano)

(Decca 440 305-2)

SOMETIMES I really feel I could brain Schubert. How could he leave a little gem like the F sharp minor Allegro moderato unfinished - surely not loss of interest? Andras Schiff may be right not to try a completion, but that only makes the sudden tailing-off just before the reprise hurt all the more.

At least the first two movements of the C major Sonata are complete in themselves but, whatever Schiff says, his elegant, absorbing performance still leaves me wondering what might have been if Schubert had persevered with the other two.

There is, though, one complete masterpiece here, the A minor Sonata, and again it finds Schiff on fine form. There are times when the pianist seems almost to understate - just a touch of an accent here or a slight holding back there to point a phrase or a rhythmic pattern - and yet the playing is so involving. Essence, not superficial display, is the issue here.

I would have liked a brighter treble sound, though I like the perspective - not too close to the wires and the hammers. That said, this has the makings of an exceptional Schubert cycle. SJ

ANDRAS SCHIFF is the ideal Schubertian, a man, a player of deafening understatement. So much of the enchantment and power of this music derives from that which is left unsaid. A single overprojected gesture can break the spell. Judging by this new recording, no one infuses modulation with so potent a sense of mystery or wonder or disquiet.

Schiff happens upon these moments with the subtlest of inflexions: a minute shift of emphasis or dynamic. You catch your breath. The ghostly modulation into the coda of the C major Sonata's first movement (and this is where the more covered tone of Schiff's chosen Bosendorfer comes into its own) takes you further and deeper than you ever expected to go. It's a complete surprise, a revelation, like each successive transformation in the wondrous set of variations from the A minor Sonata.

Why did Schubert never finish the C major Sonata? By the close, Schiff had convinced me that there was nothing more to say. Not so, of course, the heavenly F sharp minor fragment which grinds abruptly to a halt precisely where Schubert left it - at the threshold of . . .

ES

MOZART: Cosi fan tutte

Roocroft, Mannion, Trost, Gilfry, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Gardiner

(Archiv 437 829-2: two CDs)

THE ORCHESTRA's name is a gift to the dissenters. What kind of 'period' Mozart can we expect from a group calling itself English Baroque Soloists? Granted, it's hard to imagine a Cos fan tutte less like the sumptuous Karl Bohm or Herbert von Karajan recordings, but I found I got used to John Eliot Gardiner's low-fat sound so quickly that I stopped thinking of it as an 'alternative'.

The bright and breezy strings, woody flutes and pungent oboes soon claim familiar lines and textures as their own, and I like Gardiner's pacing - lively but never startlingly so, and by no means inflexible.

Only once, in Ferrando's Act 2 aria 'Ah, lo veggio', did I get a hint that singer and conductor might have different ideas about tempo. Otherwise Rainer Trost's ardent, poetic Ferrando is a big plus - it's easy to see why Amanda Roocroft's Fiordiligi finally gives in to him, and at that exquisite moment Gardiner show what a sensitive accompanist / director he can be.

The singing is without exception musical and wonderfully unegocentric - in fact the ensemble work is perhaps the best feature of this Cos. Eirian James's Despina may not be a great comic creation, but there's perfect compensation in Carlos Feller's grappa- sodden old misogynist Don Alfonso.

Is it his cynical philosophising that wins out in the end? This version makes me think not. Whatever the putative outcome, it's the outpourings of the two young women, especially Roocroft's Fiordiligi, and the gorgeous orchestral sounds that surround them, that haunt the memory after the discs are back in the box.

So this period-conscious Cos turns out to have a plausible modern slant as well. A nice paradox. SJ

CASTING Cos is a delicate business. It's a question of vocal symmetry. But John Eliot Gardiner has a nose for voices - the right voices at the right time. The right mix. This cast was ripe for picking.

The women ultimately rule, of course. Amanda Roocroft, the budding Fiordiligi of the moment, was an obvious choice for that role, but the casting of Rosa Mannion, another gifted British soprano, as her sister Dorabella shows real imagination. Note, two sopranos.

There's no good reason for a mezzo-soprano Dorabella - that's a modern practice. Here the two voices emerge as one colour - same music, same emotions, sisters before they are individuals. Both sport limpid tops and the crucial low notes. Roocroft defiantly exploits hers in the fiery leaps and embellishments of 'Come scoglio' - in truth, the lady doth protest too much, which is precisely the effect.

'Per pieta' is wonderful, too, the purest head tone giving way to shadowy self- doubts. And as these ladies take centre stage, Gardiner duly succumbs to the sensuous feminine tinta of the score, all flowing silks, perfumed airs, wafting Mediterranean breezes.

But this Cos fan tutte is also live and kicking, and the occasional distraction of stage noise is as nothing to the urgency of the recitatives and physical uplift of the ensembles. The Act 1 finale is a dazzling counterpoint of voices spinning towards confusion and - in two ominous crescendos - heartache.

ES

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