RECORDS / Double Play: Marriage of true minds: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on John Eliot Gardiner's new recording of The Marriage of Figaro

MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv 439 871-2; three CDs)

NO PERFORMANCE can ever be as great as Figaro itself. But even a good one can lift the spirits. This is better than good. Aria for aria, you might find it wanting in places. But for the sum of its parts, for a gramophone experience that is more than just a string of musical numbers set in aspic, it's a winner. It helps that the performance is live, that each time you play it you anticipate the rise of the curtain.

Figaro is another of Mozart's delicate juggling acts. The trick is keeping all of its elements in the air. John Eliot Gardiner is a past master. The farce is well- rouged, the comedy of manners is elegant, the drama carries import: as witness the inexorable rush of the huge Act 2 finale, or the breadth of his compassion (considerable) in the final scene. And the recitatives are very much a part of that musical pulse, coming vividly to life at something more varied than the breakneck speed of Italian conversation. People think before they speak. You see the facial expression beneath the powdered wigs.

You certainly do in the case of Bryn Terfel's Figaro. There's enough basso weight in the voice to lend authority and even menace to 'Se vuol ballare', but his agility makes for some astonishingly playful appoggiaturas, and the head-tone is gossamer. His 'Non piu andrai' is among the most deftly characterised I've ever heard, and Gardiner is right in there with his rude martial clatter of trumpets and horns.

Alison Hagley's Susanna, feisty and feminine, is a perfect match for this Figaro, still more for Rodney Gilfry's silver- tongued Count. She shows her mettle in the opening duets, her spunky 'Dong dong' conveying more than just the sound of the lecherous Count's service bell. But then comes her Act 4 nocturne, 'Deh vieni', floated in grateful alliance with the woodwinds of the English Baroque Soloists (particularly those buzzy period bassoons).

In context, Pamela Helen Stephen's spirited Cherubino works well enough, stronger on adolescent palpitations than sustained rapture. Hillevi Martinpelto's Countess has no problems on that score - a young voice, very musically, naturally deployed. She doesn't wear her arias too heavily. But if tradition has led you to expect a more opulent, more 'aristocratic' vocal complexion, then you may be disappointed.

Speaking of tradition, Gardiner opts here for a different order of events in Act 3, placing 'Dove sono' before, rather than after, the sextet. So it's cheek by jowl with the Count's big 'exit' aria, making for an intense centre to the act before comedy and intrigue propel it forward again. Like so much else here, I was convinced. ES

AFTER THIS astonishing performance - 'live' in every sene of the word - uncomfortable feelings I'd had about several recent Figaros finally focused as clear objections. The reason so many well- sung, well-played, imaginatively staged productions have set me fidgeting long before the end of Act 4 was because there was so little musical pace to them as a whole. Arias and ensembles were often treated as though they were exhibits in a museum - cases for displaying vocal jewellery rather than inseparable stages in fast- moving comic drama.

Did John Eliot Gardiner place a ban on clapping between numbers? If so, I'm glad he did: holding up the action, no matter how applause-worthy the singing, would be almost like clapping between sections in a classical symphonic movement - that's the kind of pace Gardiner and his virtuoso English Baroque Soloists achieve.

But pace here doesn't simply mean metronome speed - tempos can be brisk but they never strike me as hurried. It's the way the recitatives and arias flow into one another that makes this Figaro so compelling - that, combined with the alert, sharply etched phrasing of the players and the sheer vitality of the central performances, especially Bryn Terfel's Figaro and Alison Hagley's Susanna. Vocal acting like this, sustained and vigorous without ever sounding faked, is rare.

Only once did I feel it went too far; dramatically there's every reason why Pamela Helen Stephen's Cherubino should sound breathless at the beginning of 'Voi che sapete', but it is a lovely tune too . . . Experienced once-off, in the hall, it was probably an inspiration (judging from the laughter, the audience seem to have loved it), but in a would-be repeatable CD set I'm not sure it will wear too well.

That is an exception, though. On the whole it's possible to enjoy the comedy along with the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience (I don't think I've ever heard a Figaro audience laugh so often) and relish the music-making at the same time. Those who like their Mozart expansive and reverential (how could a true Figaro ever be reverential?), with sumptuous star performances clearly spotlighted as such, probably won't warm to the Gardiner approach.

I'll admit that there may have been more seductive Countesses than Hillevi Martinpelto or more richly roguish, grappa-sodden Counts than Rodney Gilfry, but I can't remember a Figaro on record in which the characters blend and clash as electrically as here.

It's the ensembles, not the big set-pieces, that are the heart of this Figaro, and after John Eliot Gardiner's performance, it's hard not to feel that that's how it should be. It can't be said, though, that there isn't plenty of fine solo singing, and the recordings are excellent, even by current 'live' standards - a bit too much stage noise perhaps, but better that than studio sterility. SJ