Double Play: Heavy brigade: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson review new orchestral releases

Mahler: Symphony No 7; Kindertotenlieder - Bryn Terfel (baritone), Philharmonia / Sinopoli (DG 437 851 2: two CDs)

THE SEVENTH is the symphony that separates mere Mahler admirers from the true Mahler worshipper. Even if you're not ultimately convinced, there are performances that can make you feel the quality of the ideas along the way. Sinopoli's isn't one of them. The slow, laboured, ponderously articulated opening is a fair portent of what is to come. Sinopoli seems unable to let anything play itself. Almost every phrase has to be tweaked and primped: the first movement's second theme wallows in rubato, climaxes are built and delivered with sledgehammer subtlety. But there seems little behind it.

Contrast with Bryn Terfel's singing of Kindertotenlieder could hardly be more extreme. The anguished intensity comes close to unbearable in the fourth song, 'Oft denk' ich' - nothing forced, just very musical, deeply felt singing. The man is a miracle, and fortunately Sinopoli seems content to let him be miraculous after his own fashion. SJ

IT'S not often that the coupling generates more excitement than the main event. But then it's not often that a Bryn Terfel comes along. Here's a singer with the facility and capacity to do anything: the full, rich legato, the effortless ascents into the head voice. Terfel's care for words and their potential for drama can veer a little eagerly towards the operatic, but you'll go far to hear a better sung Kindertotenlieder.

Better accounts of the symphony are only a step away: Rattle on EMI, for one. Sinopoli draws more attention to the mechanics than the music, pulling phrasing and focus in bizarre ways, or making foreground of background. Sound effects make their mark in the phantasmagorical inner movements - Mahler's nocturnal field trips. But where Rattle makes whoopee with the finale's desperate dancing, Sinopoli makes apologies. Loud, reverberant recording. ES

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben; Metamorphosen - San Francisco Symphony Orchestra / Blomstedt (Decca 436 596 2)

A WONDERFUL coupling: Strauss at the peak of his youthful brilliance, brazenly celebrating himself, and then as an old man, wartime devastation all around him. The brass are warm and powerful in Heldenleben, the strings sumptuous in Metamorphosen, and the recording serves it all beautifully. Herbert Blomstedt brings to both the feeling for an organic, living experience that has made his Sibelius and Nielsen recordings stand out.

Much as I love the sounds and admire the shaping spirit, the end result left me still wanting something: the sorrows and rough grandeur of heroism in Heldenleben, perhaps, or the beauty that hurts in Metamorphosen. It's a while since I've heard a new Strauss orchestral recording as impressive, yet it leaves me feeling that Strauss is one area of repertoire where the old masters - Mengelberg, Furtwangler, Reiner - remain unchallenged. SJ

STRAUSS, the hero, strides forth and it's not the self-importance but the excellent muscle tone that Blomstedt draws attention to. Lissom strings, keen rhythm. Enter, now, strident woodwinds, representing 'the critics' - uncommonly prickly, irascible. Not this one.

Blomstedt turns in a vital, heartfelt Heldenleben and the noise it makes is tremendous. All that's missing is that indefinable depth of resonance, spiritual rather than physical, that ennobles classic recordings out of Berlin or Vienna. The portamenti don't quite come off the bows as though inbred over countless generations, though Raymond Kobler gives the violin solos a nostalgic sense of style.

But perhaps all this string section actually needs is a real masterpiece to deepen its awareness. In Metamorphosen, the chosen few emerge like old voices from dark times and, in a moving stream of consciousness, beautifully sustained, rise to a great crest of outrage. You know you've been successfully transported when the key Eroica quotation near the close feels like the ground has suddenly shifted. ES

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