Double Play / In and out of steppe: BORODIN: Symphonies 1 & 2; In the Steppes of Central Asia. RPO / Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 436 651-2)

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S a bright golden haze over the Steppes of Central Asia, and the sound of the camel-driver's song, something in the phrasing of the cor anglais soloist, immediately rings true. Ashkenazy knows how this music goes - it's that simple. His presence is felt but not imposed. Symphony No 2, in particular, is all of a piece, an inescapable sense of imperative charting its progress from the dramatic assertions of the first movement's indomitable motto theme (Ashkenazy gives its repetition shape and purpose - how often it just sits portentously) to the unbuttoned festivities of the finale. And it makes a change hearing Borodin's exotic tunes respected for their natural grace and elegance. How discreetly Ashkenazy coaxes his cellos into the slow movement of Symphony No 1, the melody inwardly sung at first, the ornamentations lovingly turned, 'discovered' in the moment of performance. Likewise the andante of No 2 (No 1 in my Borodin hit parade). There's a genuine sense of contact with the music here. And that's what makes the difference. Edward Seckerson


A PLEASANT but hardly sensational In Central Asia opens this disc; other Russian interpreters - and one or two westerners - have found more to sparkle about in this atmospheric vignette. But with the First Symphony the needle suddenly surges upwards. Rhythmic energy and sweeping phrasing bring the 'Russian Eroica' (Mussorgsky's label) fully to life. The symphony has always been fair game for players of Spot the Influence (Schumann, rather than Beethoven, on the whole), but when it's performed with this kind of conviction, it's much easier - and more enjoyable - to appreciate the work on its own terms. How many other 19th- century Russian composers could combine native long- breathed lyricism, orientalism and classical symphonic drama with as little apparent effort as Borodin? The Second Symphony is, if anything, still more compelling - all credit to Ashkenazy for getting one of London's overworked orchestras to ride an old warhorse like this with such panache and conviction. Borodin's originality emerges with new force, and his generous melodic writing seems to have warmed the RPO's collective heart: the horn solo at the beginning of the Andante is a special moment. It's refreshing to hear this work treated as more than a tone poem or a concerto for orchestra - Borodin deserves it. Stephen Johnson

STRAUSS: Four Last Songs. WAGNER: Wesendonck Songs; Prelude and Liebestod (Tristan und Isolde). Cheryl Studer, Staatskapelle Dresden / Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG 439 865-2)

SCHWARZKOPF, Della Casa, Popp - the hierarchy among Four Last Songs recordings. Cheryl Studer's bid for ascendancy is premature. Her immense promise has run into a few technical problems of late. Nothing, I imagine, that good advice and a few cancellations could not fix. The top of the voice has lost some of its lustre, the sound narrowing and hardening under pressure. But more worrying than that is her increasing inability to sustain quality and pitch through the softer inflections. Nowhere is that more evident than in the trance- like ascents of 'Im Treibhaus' from the Wesendonck Lieder. Of course there are glimpses of her interpretative insights: summer really does smile in the second stanza of Strauss's 'September', and there are perceptive shadings in the last two songs. Her singing always comes from somewhere. But if the Liebestod is advance notice of a complete Isolde to come, then she really should think again. ES

THE message from DG is clear: here is a fully rounded vocal artist - you don't perform repertoire like this unless you have a firm technique and exceptional expressive reserves. So is it simply message received? Studer does have her lovely moments - fine colours or turns of phrase that make you realise why she is currently one of the world's most sought-after sopranos. But I listened with growing unease. It isn't that the intonation falters spectacularly, or that line or tone distort in the higher registers, but there's a constant uneasy feeling that they might. And just occasionally something disturbing does happen, as at the quiet high phrase in the third Wagner song, 'Im Treibhaus' - the culminating 'susser Duft' ('sweet fragrance') strains upwards, but doesn't quite land square on the top note. Yes, even some of the greats of the past could wobble off centre in such perilous patches, but here there's a tense quality, as if Studer were on her guard. It's hard to enjoy the ride when the driver looks nervous.

The sound the Dresden players give for Sinopoli is gorgeous, and there are occasional treasurable moments from section principals: the horn solo at the end of Strauss's 'September', for instance - warm, autumnal, with just a hint of Central European vibrato. Sinopoli's Tristan prelude is surprisingly urgent and intense, and it's beautifully recorded. Whether that's enough to sell the disc is another matter. SJ