Record Reviews: Replay

The Final Recordings Count John McCormack (tenor) Gerald Moore (piano) (Recorded 1941-42) (Pearl GEMM CDS 9188; two CDs)

John McCormack's greatness resided in a God-given tenor that aged gracefully and a feeling for words that transformed even the tawdriest lyric into a thing of beauty. McCormack's opera performances were famous, but his finest roles were the mini-narratives and wholesome declamations found in Irish and English song, from the "sorrow bravely borne" of Baynes's Off to Philadelphia to the patriotic resolve of Parry's Jerusalem. Every word tells, every phrase spells its own special magic; and if the tone isn't quite what it once was (that is, in the Twenties), the manner of address makes ample amends. To hear ballads like Little Boats, Linden Tree, She Moved through the Fair or I'll Walk Beside You (48 tracks in all) treated with such reverence and sincerity is to reaffirm the more creditable of our "old-fashioned" values.

McCormack's enunciation is exemplary, his feeling for musical line infinitely subtle and his sense of timing that of a born singing actor. This particular release includes a number of previously unissued tracks (two of them with Dame Maggie Teyte) plus superb annotation by Brian Fawcett-Johnston. True, there's some shellac surface noise - but the voice reproduces clearly and Gerald Moore's bench-mark accompaniments provide the musical props. Essential listening.

If Nikolaus Harnoncourt set the ball rolling, Reinhard Goebel gave it a hearty kick. Nine years on, and we're still reeling from the shock. And if you think I'm joking, try either the second movement of the Third Brandenburg or the first movement of the Sixth, both of which spring into action with vein-bursting intensity.

Quite how the Margrave of Brandenburg would have reacted is anyone's guess, though one thing's for sure: he wouldn't have been bored. Goebel's uptight, "period-instrument" Brandenburgs harbour all manner of textual surprises, some fairly forceful (the horns in No 1), others more discreet (the cleanly etched bass-line in the same concerto's Adagio).

Musica Antiqua's playing is often astonishingly agile, although rhythmic emphases sometimes verge on the martial and there's the odd phrasal mannerism. Goebel's own fiddle-playing is sleek and attenuated (the swirling violin embellishments in No 4's first movement sound crazier than ever) and No 5's first movement harpsichord cadenza features a fledgling Andreas Staier.

The two Suites seem calmer, cleaner-shaven and altogether more civilised than the Brandenburgs, with a particularly mellifluous brass tone in the Fourth. The digital recordings tell all, but don't switch on before fastening your seat belt.

ROBERT COWAN

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-3

and Orchestral Suite No 1; Brandenburgs

Nos 4-6 and Orchestral Suite No 4

Musica Antiqua Koln / Reinhard Goebel

(Recorded 1985-1987)

(Archiv Produktion Masters 447 287-2 and 288-2; two CDs)

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