DOUBLE PLAY / But it's all Greek to them

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The Independent Culture

Soloists, Ensemble / Bernas

(Argo 440 368-2)

'FANCY my Mum? I'd rather go down on Hitler.' Oedipus Rex meets EastEnders. It's six years since the Munich premiere of Greek, and the passage of time has only reaffirmed its audacity. I believe it's the first CD to carry a language warning sticker. Steven Berkoff's play had Mark-Anthony Turnage written all over it: the stylised, 'operatic' verbals, the provocative mix of high-flown lyricism and grubby street-talk. Turnage was always the incurable romantic and musical vandal rolled into one. Greek is the word - or rather, words: their music, their rhythm. Words caress here, words maim and kill. There's a verbal punch-up, there's the onomatopoeic violence of the riot police chants ('Smash, crash, splatter, kerack]'), savagely underlined by Turnage's heavy-metal percussion. Percussiveness almost rules, spiked by the E-flat clarinet and wailing soprano sax - but Turnage, the cartoonist, plays at Chas and Dave with his knees-up pub songs, and Turnage, the compassionate, reaches for harp and piano where love walks in.

This is where you most feel Britten's influence. There's even a Grimes-like mad scene. But it's Turnage that's right in your face with this spunky performance and recording. And that hopeful little twist at the end is still strangely moving. He should write another opera. Edward Seckerson


IS Greek an opera or a play with music? Turnage's adaptation of Berkoff's fruity modern reworking of Oedipus has impressed me in all its incarnations: stage, television and this recording. But here, with the experience stripped down to basics - words and music - I'm left wondering whose is the most important contribution, Turnage's or Berkoff's? A fair bit of the text is spoken or football-chanted; sometimes the music tries to match the intensity, violence or biting irony of the words - and in a few choice moments it succeeds - but there are passages of text which to me cry out for song, and what do they get? Eddy / Oedipus's final hymn to 'love . . . what matter what form it takes' is simply recited above pulsating percussion. It deserves more - and Turnage, creator of aching instrumental lines and gorgeous acid-sweet colours, could surely have given it more. The absence of the final musical flowering as an ironic commentary? Possibly, but to me it sounds more and more like a failure to deliver - titillation rather than full gratification. Stephen Johnson


Borodina, Gergieva

(Philips 442 013-2)

THEY just keep coming, these newly-minted Russian voices. Gone are the untamed vibratos of yesteryear. Olga Borodina has a well- honed and complete voice - full and even in quality throughout its range, the colour of a mezzo with the reach of a soprano. The top is fierce, which will not be to everyone's taste, and there's a coolness about it which serves well the tone of melancholy and regret that colours most of these songs, but fails to warm 'It Happened in the Early Spring' or 'The Stars Looked Tenderly Upon Us'. 'Night' was tailor-made for her, and the icy glaze she applies to 'Once Again, Alone' is bold - a numbing, near-inaudibility. She's a theatrical performer, projecting to the back of the gallery, so that even the inwardness of 'Not a Word, Beloved' is a stage-whisper writ large. Not, perhaps, performances to live with, but compelling - and beautifully accompanied by Larissa Gergieva. ES

THERE'S nothing quite like the sound of a good Russian mezzo, and Borodina is certainly that. The tone is dark, full and intense, and it's balanced by shapely phrasing and a firm sense of pitch. Equally impressive is her choice of repertory - not the usual operatic highlights, but a selection of Tchaikovsky's still woefully undervalued songs - and a good selection too. She seems to have her favourites: the mountingly urgent question of 'Why?' doesn't draw quite so much from her as the powerfully minimal 'Once again alone', which she delivers in a chilling mezza voce - how right she was to put that last. There are plenty more fine things, though: the pained 'Night', for instance, or the old drawing-room favourite 'None but the Lonely Heart'. Borodina's ability to stir without crude emoting is particularly welcome there. It's a shame the booklet doesn't give Russian texts - characterisation like this deserves to be savoured word by word - but that won't deter many. SJ