MUSIC / Double Play: Facing the inquisitor

VERDI: Don Carlos

Pavarotti, Ramey, Dessi, Coni,

Chorus and Orchestra of

La Scala, Milan / Riccardo Muti

(EMI 7 54867-2 - three CDs)

THIS live La Scala recording isn't economical with the actualite. You hear the fountain in the Queen's Garden, the flames at the auto-da-fe and the audience as they wait for the singing to start. Vocal tone acquires a hard edge in one or two places, and orchestral balance borders on the grotesque. But when the performance is as urgent and dramatically convincing as this, it's hard not to be indulgent.

No live opera performance is going to be ideally polished, but only once - in Carlos and Rodrigo's 'Dio, che nell'alma' duet - did untidiness spoil the effect, as Luciano Pavarotti and Paolo Coni have trouble getting it together, rhythmically speaking, at first. On the whole Coni is a disappointment - not as ardent or shapely as one might hope from a Rodrigo; but he isn't unsympathetic. Samuel Ramey's austere but all-too-human Philip II, Daniella Dessi's warm, expressively rounded Elizabeth and Alexander Anisimov's Grand Inquisitor (a Russian Inquistor - very Dostoyevskian) are all living, musically strong characterisations.

As for Pavarotti, his musical and tonal strengths are evident, and Carlos's constant close-to-the-edge intensity suits him very well. For me, the sound is Pavarotti first and Don Carlos - with a bit of effort - very much second. That won't worry the fans, and for admirers of Don Carlos the addition to the catalogue of a strong, convincing modern recording has to be a plus, even if it is the familiar, cut-down, four-act Italian version that's offered. Those who still find this fascinating, sometimes surprisingly forward-looking score hard to love might find it is a good place to start.

Stephen Johnson

I WOULD have expected Muti to go the distance - meaning the full five-act version. The omission of the original first act seriously compromises the central motivation of the whole piece: the love between Carlos and Elizabeth. Major disappointment number one.

Then there's La Scala itself: glamorous venue, unglamorous acoustic - parched, constrictive. EMI tells it like it is, and Verdi is diminished. More's the pity, for Muti keeps this magnificently brooding score simmering nicely: his grasp of the superstructure is sure, so too his forceful despatch of the dramatic flash-points. When Rodrigo confronts Philip, accusing him of offering only 'the peace of the tomb', the entire orchestra thunders in anticipation of a terrible retribution.

Alas, Muti's Rodrigo, Paolo Coni, is very ordinary indeed - a voice with possibilities but precious little more as yet. More is less with Luciana d'Intimo's Eboli, a cut above the traditional chest- belter so often assigned to the role. She genuinely rediscovers and subtly shades the prodigiously difficult 'O don fatale', and her liberating top, up to thrilling B flat, is fabulous.

Would that Samuel Ramey's Philip were somehow more than it is. His world-weariness, the burden of kingship, is implicit to a point in his searching Act 3 aria. But he lacks the natural authority and gravity of a Christoff or Raimondi. His big scene with the Inquisitor (Alexander Anisimov, whose timbre lends something truly sinister to the role) never quite comes over the footlights. And that feeling persists - until Act 4.

Suddenly, the performance finds itself. Muti unlocks the full intensity of the prelude and Dessi, who earlier made heavy weather of 'Non pianger, mia compagna', comes into her own with a touching account of Elizabeth's great aria. It isn't a special voice, but she sings with fierce conviction, and the Italianate plangency of her timbre has a pathos all its own.

And Pavarotti? Is Pavarotti. When he's on - and he is here - he's on. Never mind the width, feel the quality. Uneven, then, barring that terrific final scene. And I do want the extra act back.

Edward Seckerson

DAVID MATTHEWS:

Symphony No 4

East of England Orchestra /

Malcolm Nabarro

(Collins 20082 - CD single)

THE OLDER of the composing Matthews brothers steers clear of modernism. You are more likely to hear echoes of Tippett, Britten, Shostakovich or even Hindemith than any of today's favourite betes noires. But there are no lazy attempts to court popularity, either.

I'm not sure I'm convinced by everything in his most recent symphony. The parody in the tango movement seems a little effortful in this version. And yet there is an urge to go back and explore, especially the fantastically inventive monody-like first movement, or the nocturnal Andante con moto for muted strings and horn - I would happily have had more of that. The performance sounds authoritative and the recorded sound is first- rate. SJ

DOESN'T every composer want to be Haydn for a day? David Matthews' orchestra is a remarkably good fit; he almost writes four movements, finally giving in to the addition of a distracted Tango replete with ironic, not to say sardonic, violin cadenza. That's a moment to remind us of Matthews' kinship (it's too well absorbed to be an influence) with Britten, Shostakovich, Mahler.

But the spirit of Haydn is alive and well in the gamesmanship, the inquisitive, unbridled nature of the symphony. Haydn might have smiled on its pithy orchestration, still more on its well- tempered unpredictability. The best of its surprises is a first movement whose sparse, seemingly aimless melodising suddenly finds fulfilment in a hothouse of harmony. ES

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