Music on CD

BEETHOVEN Overtures: Leonore; Fidelio etc Cleveland Orchestra/ George Szell; Louis Lane Recorded 1963-1970 Sony `Essential Classics' SBK 63062;
It's said that George Szell inspired respect rather than love and yet listening to his warm-textured, thoughtfully articulated account of Beethoven's Coriolan overture more suggests a highly cultured East European (which he was) than a hard-hitting Toscanini clone (which he wasn't). Szell's Beethoven is sturdily built but sumptuously upholstered: everything is audible, instrumental solos are distinctive, and dialogue between individual players has the expressive intensity of a top-ranking string quartet.

The three Leonore overtures are as many taut statements of the one narrative, magnificently played, with Fidelio a concise encore. No 2 was Furtwangler's favourite, No 3 Wagner's, whereas the pared-down First is a concert-hall rarity. I'd always thought of the four as performed by Szell in a single breath - they are so interpretatively consistent - and yet the recordings occupy a five-year span, three having been set down in Cleveland and the fourth (Leonore No 1) in London. Veteran producer Paul Myers supervised the various sessions (he's still going strong), which also embraced a fiercely dramatic Egmont and a rumbustious King Stephen.

Prometheus is left to Szell's worthy assistant Louis Lane: it's a good performance, very well drilled, but you can sense that the Old Man isn't there. CBS's recordings are chunky and up-front. Robert Cowan

MENDELSSOHN Piano Concertos, etc CBSO / Lawrence Foster Hyperion CDA 66969

You can tell this is special from the first chord. The elegant, gently sensuous arpeggios that open the Capriccio Brillant are enough to show that Stephen Hough's involvement with Mendelssohn is going deeper than most. There's plenty of stylish brilliance in this short showpiece - which is exactly what it needs. But with the First Concerto we enter a new dimension. Where most pianists go for the burn straight away, Hough shows how much character there is in this music - stormy one minute, pleading the next - even if it does develop at lightning speed. The slow movement is a revelation, from the CBSO strings as much as from Hough. No stale sentimentality, but poise and depth of feeling - yes, depth is the word. Forget the Wagnerian propaganda: Mendelssohn could be so much more than an "artificial" sophisticate.

The Second Concerto, often dismissed as a shallower sequel to No 1, may be slightly eclipsed, but it still sounds like strong, passionate, scintillating music in Hough's hands. Again, orchestra and conductor can't be casually overlooked - after all, they set the scene powerfully in the quiet, ominous opening.

But inevitably Hough steals the show. As with the First Concerto, I don't think he has an equal on record in this music, even with competitors like Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia. Issues like this add to the feeling that the great Mendelssohn reappraisal is underway at last. It's long overdue. Stephen Johnson

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