The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture

Eighty or so years ago, the French mezzo-soprano Jane Bathori was giving world premieres with mundane regularity, touting the musical wares of Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, Roussel and others as if they were already established classics. Last year Dawn Upshaw took to the stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in an act of homage to her great forebear, singing the songs that Bathori sung and that had borne personal dedications from their composers.

Eighty or so years ago, the French mezzo-soprano Jane Bathori was giving world premieres with mundane regularity, touting the musical wares of Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, Roussel and others as if they were already established classics. Last year Dawn Upshaw took to the stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in an act of homage to her great forebear, singing the songs that Bathori sung and that had borne personal dedications from their composers.

Upshaw's singing style is smoother and smoochier than Bathori's (Frederica von Stade is a sure-fire influence) and her vocal characterisations are charm itself. Listen to how she relates the vain rituals of Ravel's "Peacock" ( Histoires naturelles) or the gentle rapture of Debussy's walking lovers. Entertaining, heart-rending and provocative, it's a delightful programme, sensitively accompanied by Jérome Ducros and with an "extra" that, as Upshaw herself tells us in a brief spoken introduction, was written in homage to Poulenc. Henri Dutilleux's haunting "Francisco Night" is the one item that Bathori did not premiere (she was in her eighties when it was composed), and Upshaw offers us its world premiere recording. Incidentally, if you want to hear Bathori, her recorded legacy is available in toto on a pair of Marston CDs (51009-2).

Two further "homages" - creative ones, this time - hog the musical limelight on an absorbing live Millennium Concert where Ingo Metzmacher leads the Hamburg State Philharmonic through a motley panorama of the passing century's repertory, starting with Bernstein's Candide Overture and ending with Khachaturian's Sabre Dance. Dumbing down, perhaps? Don't even think of it. Hindemith's "well-tempered" Rag Time puts dancing shoes on the second fugue of Bach's "48", and Anton Plate's spacious tone-picture You Must Finish Your Journey Alone conjures distant memories of Mendelssohn's string Octet. Both are modest revelations. There's a pair of beery Marches by Kagel, a wild Dance of the Maenads from Henze's The Bassarids, a carefully pondered La valse, Weill's restless Der Silbersee Overture, Zimmermann's Silence and Return plus Ives, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and more Khachaturian. I sense no obvious agenda save, perhaps, the joy in surveying a heady diversity of composing styles. Metzmacher's performances maximise on colour and EMI's engineers keep every note well within the frame.

But if "hi-fi" sound isn't an essential prerequisite, you can turn the clock back fifty years and hop aboard Arturo Toscanini's turbo-Bach. Listen to the old man sing along as he drives through Respighi's outrageous orchestration of the C minor organ Passacaglia, or accentuates the last of Handel's Op 6 Concerto Grossi. Vivaldi's "newly discovered" Violin Concerto in B flat (RV370) was, believe it or not, receiving its American premiere, and Bach's Third Suite has a fibrous roughness that even the period-instrument people will find abrasive.

Refined it isn't, but forceful, passionate, involving - it's all of these and more. Naxos has affected a perfectly good transfer and the £5 price-tag alone could easily win a whole new crowd of converts to the Toscanini cause.

Hommage à Jane Bathori Erato 3984-27329-2

The Millennium Concert, Metzmacher EMI CDC5 56970 2

Bach, Handel, Vivaldi Toscanini Naxos 8.110835

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