RECORDS / Double Play: Journeying into unknown regions: Robert Cowan and Edward Seckerson on new discs of Grieg and Vaughan Williams

Grieg - Songs: Anne Sofie von Otter, Bengt Forsberg (DG 437 521-2)

PROBABLY the vocal record of the year - and it's only May. If you caught Anne Sofie von Otter's recent recital at the Wigmore Hall, you'll know that this gifted singer is now at the peak of her considerable powers. Gone is any hint of circumspection: she always could do any and everything with her voice - now she does. She's the kind of singer whose penetrating way with inflection, colouring, phrasing - just the sound of the words - transcends the language barrier. You know the full emotional story before even a glimpse at the translation.

So here she is dreaming the dreams of the lonely young herdgirl in Grieg's Haugtussa songs - feisty in the rustic vernacular; questing, reposeful in the nature songs, peeling away layer upon layer of subtext with each stanza of 'At Gjaetle Brook'. Then there is the ecstasy of the dream becoming reality in Ein Traum, where the length and breadth of the voice is given full rein, or the mysterious inner-light of the Ibsen setting 'A Swan' - so spare, so still (and so beautifully accompanied). And, of course, the loftiest of all Grieg melodies 'Spring', virtually reborn. ES

GRIEG was a more worldly artist than his popular reputation would suggest: 170-odd songs testify to a poetic awareness that travels far beyond the local charms of his homeland. The present collection has the distinct advantage of featuring a Scandinavian singer whose command of Norwegian, Old Norwegian, Danish and German allows us access to the texts that Grieg actually set, rather than having us make do with clumsy translations.

Von Otter liberates the candid eroticism in Haugtussa ('The Mountain Maid'), a 25- minute song-cycle about two lovers who (in the fourth song) 'throw their young arms around one another and in a daze give one another their mouths'. The artistic partnership between Von Otter and the pianist Bengt Forsberg is co-operative virtually to the point of symbiosis, while the programme itself is both satisfying and enormously varied.

Taken as a whole, this is the first CD - at least in my experience - to present Grieg as a serious contender among such Lieder masters as Schubert, Schumann (an undoubted influence), Brahms and Wolf. There will be other notable commemorative issues this year, but none more satisfying. RC

Vaughan Williams - Symphonies Nos 8 and 9: Philharmonia Orchestra / Leonard Slatkin (RCA 09026 61196 2)

A QUICK Flourish for Glorious John (Barbirolli, that is), then it's off towards unknown regions for Vaughan Williams' strangest and most adventuresome symphonic essays. The Eighth was written expressly for Sir John and ultimately makes a joyful noise, out-gamelaning even Turandot with its gleaming Toccata of tuned percussion. This new Slatkin production will light up your living room, if not your life. But it's the introspection of the opening on trumpets and vibraphone that really stays with me - a kind of cosmic musical box, carrying us back into VW's past, to jaunty wind-band music and a Cavatina for strings where we glimpse once more that lark ascendant. Eloquent bowing here from the Philharmonia.

The Ninth - dark and primordial, with its strange, mystic trio of saxophones - is harder to fathom. It's a quest, a search for answers that I'm not sure Slatkin or anyone else has yet found. But the journey - stressful, hostile (with the ultimate in grotesque VW scherzos) - is an eventful one, traversed in music of real power and profundity. ES

DOWN beyond the garden gate, where the distant city looms, lies the mysterious world of Vaughan Williams' Ninth. Defiant and wise to the end, it acknowledges the metropolis in a way that his previous symphonies do not: sleazy saxophones loiter among the harps and strings, dance-band ghosts that parallel Mahler's cynically lilting Landler, while the broad outer movements' climaxes lurch skywards with significant import.

To weigh down the Ninth with extra-musical associations, or brand it as a definitive 'last testament', would be misleading. It is, however, a vastly underrated piece, its richness and restlessness giving the lie to the 'Dan Archer of English Music' myth. The Eighth is less searching, though equally inventive, its Cavatina a thoughtful study for strings, its closing Toccata a joyful epithalamium. The brief Flourish for Barbirolli is a tasty aperitif.

Slatkin takes on both big works with enthusiasm and understanding, and his engineers have a ball with VW's innovative orchestration. The only rivals are now old: Previn for the Ninth, and Barbirolli for the Eighth. But Slatkin knows what VW is about; his advocacy of the Ninth in particular should do much to make people think and, I hope, change their minds. RC