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Brahms

Piano Concerto No 2; Haydn Variations

Hans Richter-Haaser (piano)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

Recorded: 1958-1976

EMI CDM5 66093

Two very different aspects of , and two revealing perspectives on Herbert von Karajan. The Variations - which were recorded in 1976 - are judiciously balanced, well paced and beautifully played. Variation Four has an inspired solemnity, the finale is appropriately majestic, and the recorded sound consistently revealing. But the Piano Concerto is another matter. Here the main problem - or point of stimulation (depending on which way you listen) - is in an orchestral profile that trades any trace of incisiveness for a treacly, yawning legato.

It's the sort of sound that for years put me off listening to Karajan's records; a heavy, listless backdrop and totally at odds with the rippling biceps of Hans Richter-Haaser's solo playing. Home in 14'35" into the first movement and there's grandeur to spare - real strength, too, especially in the mighty trilling that follows soon after. The slow movement has pianist and conductor in truer accord (there's some rapt soft playing from the Berlin Philharmonic), but the second-movement Allegro is a far cry from appassionata and the delightful finale, oddly sedate. The Concerto is the older recording of the two and sounds it, but it's worth hearing just for the sake of Hans Richter-Haaser. Robert Cowan

Monteverdi Vespro della beate Vergine Netherlands Chamber Choir Concerto Vocale / Rene Jacobs Harmonia mundi 901566.67; As Dennis Morber says in his notes, Monteverdi's Vespers is "a sumptuous tree", an "extraordinary and luxuriant collection". It's hard to think of a musical work which throws its embrace wider. It looks backward to the renaissance and forward to the baroque: sacred and profane elements co-exist in apparently perfect harmony.

When a work is so rich, so wide-ranging, dare one hope for a performance that does justice to everything? Probably not. Rene Jacobs's new recording isn't convincing in every respect. The astonishing opening fanfare was a lot less thrilling, more laid back, than I'd come to expect. In the "Sonata sopra Sancta Maria" the playing of Concerto Vocale is fabulous: bright, crisply articulate, at times really seeming to dance for joy - which only makes the cold, remote, almost disembodied choral sound all the more disappointing. In fact, it's in the choral numbers generally that the energy and concentration of this performance flag. Keep listening for the solo numbers, however, and you are in for some wonderful surprises: sopranos Maria Cristina Kehr and Barbara Borden echoing and intertwining gorgeously in "Pulchra est", or the tenor solo (the booklet doesn't tell us which of the two soloists it is) in "Nigra sum" - Monteverdi's response to the erotic imagery of the biblical Song of Solomon sounds neither prurient nor ashamed, just beautiful.

So, a good-in-parts Vespers? Yes, but in those parts it is very good. If you don't have a Vespers and need an all-round recommendation, Andrew Parrott (EMI) and John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv) are unbeatable. But Jacobs has his particular strengths, and his Vespers should at least be heard.

Stephen Johnson

Poulenc Concert champetre; Sinfonietta; Suite francaise Pascal Roge (piano) Orchestre National de France / Charles Dutoit Decca 452 665-2

Francis Poulenc was something of a Pierrot. Gay countenance, sad heart. It's the bitter-sweetness, the underlying melancholy of the music that elevates it. Drop in on the andante cantabile from his Sinfonietta (now there's a modest title for so fleshy a work): the heart grows heavier but the melody takes wing. He's so clearly led by his heart, is Poulenc. Or rather his heart's desire.

The smart, snappy con fuoco opening of the first movement is purposeful, committed, full of Poulencian joie de vivre. It portends a tightly-knit sonata form movement. But in comes the second subject (with the beginnings of a winning smile) to open up entirely new prospects far, far removed from our point of departure. We know we'll return at some point, but don't actually care when. That's Poulenc, the liberated classicist.

As for the master of allusion and pastiche (it's easy to spot the gods in his pantheon - listen to his deadpan impersonation of Stravinsky in the Suite francaise), one is tempted to ask if the real Francis Poulenc will stand up, please. Except that he rarely sits down. This is restless, inquisitive music, and it's his even when it's someone else's. That extraordinary gift for catching the mood of a fleeting moment makes for a capriciousness that is impossible to second-guess.

Concert champetre (a kind of antiquarian musical mystery tour) drags the harpsichord into the wrong century, where its courtly elegance is deliciously at odds with the times. Tartly alluding to Couperin et al, much of the intrigue (and humour) derives from the soloist's waspish determination to be himself (Pascal Roge catches it beautifully). But still he's a stranger in another time, another place, reflecting on music that is as dark and mysterious to him as it is to us. What do you make of those unanswered questions at the close?

Charles Dutoit, on a busman's holiday here from his Montreal Symphony, keeps the Orchestre National de France on its toes throughout an exhilarating disc. Decca ensure lots of light and air in the texture. And it's light and air that keeps Poulenc, the sentimentalist, the self-confessed lover of "adorable bad music" (he and me both), from cloying.

I've already returned several times to a two-minute sketch entitled Piece breve sur le nom d'Albert Roussel. If Roussel had heard that, he'd have been jealous of the compliment.

Edward Seckerson

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