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Double Play: Sympathy for the devil

LISZT: A Faust Symphony

Jianyi Zhang (tenor), Berlin

Radio SO and Chorus / Eliahu Inbal

(Denon CO-75634)

FAUST's anguish, Gretchen's purity and Mephistopheles' mischievousness all served as grist to Liszt's creative mill. This is surely the most artfully integrated of Faust-inspired musical masterpieces, with memorable themes magically transformed and countless pages of brilliant orchestration. Eliahu Inbal lavishes much care over interconnecting phrases, dynamics, and the specific shape of Liszt's long-breathed melodies.

But Faust's 'fighting spirit, ambition and disquiet' (to quote the CD booklet) seem too coolly rationalised. Things perk up considerably for his 'ideal of the hero'. Gretchen is made to bear the full weight of Mahlerian exegesis, a trend due (I suspect) to Inbal's natural interpretative sympathies. There's plenty of tenderness, but too little in the way of light and shade.

Mephistopheles emerges as rather elegant and coy, a kindly, middle-aged ham rather than an ageless devil; there's nowhere near enough glint or snarl to his manner. The closing 'Mystical Chorus' is well paced and nicely sung. The recording, too, is a comparatively muted affair, with a tendency towards soft focusing. I retain a marked preference for Sony's mid-price Bernstein / New York Philharmonic CD. ROBERT COWAN

THIS is the first Faust Symphony I've heard with singing in all three movements - by the conductor, that is. It's possible to get used to this - as one had to do with Barbirolli's vocals in his Mahler Six - and to the slightly tunnel- like reverberation around the tenor Jianyi Zhang's solo line. But the organ-orchestra tuning clash in the final bars is a flaw that glares however often you hear it - and just when the 'eternal feminine' hymn was going so nicely.

Technical irritations apart, this Faust is worth hearing. As a structure, the work often reminds me of Henry James's remark about certain Russian novels - 'loose and baggy monsters'. But Inbal finds the narrative thread and pulls it taut, and the characterisation is vivid without being over the top. The young Chinese tenor Jianyi Zhang is a find: his phrases in the final hymn soar, even at Inbal's measured andante, and the tone is warm and rounded. STEPHEN JOHNSON

NIELSEN: Flute and Clarinet Concertos, and other orchestral / choral pieces

Soloists, Stockholm Boys' Choir, Swedish Radio Choir and SO / Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sony Classical SK 53276)

DUALISM rules from the start. The Saul and David second-act prelude alternates brass and lyrical woodwinds: pure Nielsen through and through, yet light years removed from the mercurial Clarinet Concerto. Here the soloist engages, resists, squeals and reflects, the melodies brief but engaging, while a maddeningly insistent side drum rarely allows more than a moment's respite.

At once classical and cynical, it's a cunningly condensed masterpiece that finds a sympathetic soul-mate in the more breezy - but no less hyperactive - Flute Concerto. Both works prompt masses of busy instrumental dialogue, and Salonen's Swedish musicians arrest attention with playing that combines character and virtuosity. The Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands is a haunting, almost expressionistic tone poem, a stone's throw from Sibelian desolation. Initially brooding and sparely scored, it suddenly flares to a grim dance, and Salonen makes the most of the contrast.

Having sampled Nielsen as epic narrator, abstract essayist and tone painter, we leave him amid the verdant stretches of his birthplace - the Danish island of Funen - with a 17-minute cantata of the utmost freshness and beauty. Salonen embraces Fynsk forar like an excited child on the first day of spring, and if his soloists aren't quite the finest voices of the day, their evident love of the music more than compensates. A superb, boldly engineered collection. RC

IF anyone still thinks that Carl Nielsen's only distinction is as a composer of epic symphonies, this disc is for them. The two concertos are among the most fertile and vibrant products of his last years. An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands reaches its folk-dance apotheosis via one of the most compellingly strange openings in Scandinavian music, while every bar of Springtime on Funen radiates simple, unaffected charm. Few composers could use folk styles as naturally as Nielsen, but then he was telling his own story - with feeling, but with typical lack of sentimentality.

Initiates should be pleased too. This is Esa-Pekka Salonen's most convincing Nielsen recording so far. In the concertos he makes sure no detail in the orchestral writing goes for nothing, but allows the soloists to carry the arguments, which they do very persuasively, especially Hakan Rosengren in the one-movement Clarinet Concerto - not an easy work to get to grips with, but worth the effort.

In An Imaginary Journey Salonen grips the tiller firmly, confidently charting Nielsen's dark Northern seascape, and Springtime on Funen is the biggest surprise of all - is this really the severe young Finnish intellectual who once claimed he'd only do Brahms if his mother insisted? Genuinely touching performances from all concerned - orchestra, soloists, choir and children. SJ