The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the week's cd releases
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The Independent Culture

When rumours of a Rattle Ellington album began tocirculate, I had visions of "Sir Simon meets The Duke" with nose-to-nose caricatures and snazzy arrangements. In the event, Classic Ellington is dressed for soloists and orchestra by Broadway arranger Luther Henderson and led by Rattle with a degree of fastidiousness that wouldn't be out of place in Mahler or Britten.

When rumours of a Rattle Ellington album began tocirculate, I had visions of "Sir Simon meets The Duke" with nose-to-nose caricatures and snazzy arrangements. In the event, Classic Ellington is dressed for soloists and orchestra by Broadway arranger Luther Henderson and led by Rattle with a degree of fastidiousness that wouldn't be out of place in Mahler or Britten.

Not that the instrumental blend is anything less than sumptuous. "Isfahan" might occasionally sound as if it's located somewhere north of Aylesbury - the opening oboe solo is decidedly "English pastoral" - but as soon as the strings enter, we're smack in the middle of Hollywood.

"Harlem" is stronger meat, a Toscanini commission with symphonic aspirations where Rattle makes a beeline for some crunchy Ellingtonian harmonies. "That Doo-Wah Thing" launches on motorised strings, urbane brashness à la London Palladium, though when the winds take over the playing soon finds the right idiom.

Lena Horne lends a spot of senior sensuality to three evergreens (including the wonderful "Something to Live For"), swinging low with an ease and naturalness that would have been an inspiration at the sessions - had she actually attended them. The truth is that she sang at 111 West 57th Street in June last year while the people in Birmingham lent her extra backing five months later. You can't spot the join, though I'd rather not have known.

So, does this elevated "fusion" hit its musical target? Was Duke Ellington his own finest interpreter? In a sense he was his music, its heartbeat, sound and manner of delivery. When Rattle's "Isfahan" pauses for breath, the music stops dead; but when Ellington (RCA) skips a beat, even the silence swings. That's the difference. Rattle's band is bolstered by crack jazz soloists and only sounds regimented when the strings attempt to swing (solo violinist Regina Carter being a notable exception).

Selections include such indelible standards as "Take the 'A' Train", "Sophisticated Lady", "Solitude" and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be". It's lovely listening in the best traditions of Anglo-American light music, even if The Duke's spirit is only fitfully in attendance.

Turn to a sequence of Delius songs as orchestrated by Danish composer Bo Holten and the chiming of compatible musical styles is immediately evident. Holten is one of Denmark's most skilled up-and-comings, and if his vividly-coloured versions Delius's Five Danish Songs don't quite match the composer's own Seven Danish Songs for subtlety (the two sets are juxtaposed), they still fall delightfully on the ear.

Holten conducts the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, achieving a rare level of sustained beauty in "Summer Nights", where the excellent soprano is Henriette Bonde-Hansen. The CD opens in a mood of bleak unrest with "An Arabesque" (baritone Johan Reuter sings the solo line) and ends with the rarely-heard, 13-minute tone poem "Life's Dance", authentically Delian in part, though profoundly indebted to Grieg.

Two further songs, as well as the Intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda and Sakuntala, complete a highly desirable programme. The sound is clear and intimate.

Classic Ellington: CBSO, etc Rattle. EMI CDC5 57014 2

Delius - Danish Masterworks: Aarhus SO/Holten Danacord/Discovery. Records DACOCD 536

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