The Compact Collection

This week's best CD Releases
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There are some works that don't so much "begin" as insinuate themselves along the borders of our consciousness. John Williams's year-old TreeSong, for example, which was inspired by a venerable Chinese dawn redwood in the Boston Public Garden. TreeSong wafts in on a distant marimba, mysterious but crystalline, before Gil Shaham's violin sings like an exotic bird. It's a tiny life-force seen at close quarters, a veined leaf freshly fallen.

As a score, TreeSong is crammed full of quiet surprises yet is extremely easy to listen to. Exquisite orchestration extends our experience of cinema's Number One composer while the Violin Concerto that Williams composed in memory of his first wife is a step nearer to the idea of soundtrack. Could it be that Walton's Violin Concerto was its principal point of departure? Both are bittersweet yet comforting.

Williams's understanding of the orchestra facilitates countless subtleties of tone and colour, and his conducting draws a dedicated response from the Boston Symphony, which is also beautifully recorded. Shaham's inwardly reflective playing particularly suits the concerto yet he can also put on the pressure, as in the last section of TreeSong. He rounds off his programme with three tenderly phrased pieces from Schindler's List, the second of them sounding like a near relation of Prokofiev. Shaham has never made a better CD, but then I'd imagine the composer's presence was an inspiration.

No such luxury informs Musica Barocca by the gifted period-instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. Having already given us primary coloured Bach and Vivaldi concertos their latest venture fits Bach's Third Orchestral Suite among choice Vivaldi, Marcello, Telemann, Handel, Pachelbel and Albinoni. There are no less than three Albinoni Adagios programmed – all of them beautiful and without as much as a hint of the ubiquitous Giazzotto re-composition (ie the "Albinoni Adagio" that everyone knows). Handel's "Queen of Sheba" parades more stylishly than on most other incarnations; there are some improvised variations on "Greensleeves" and a hypnotic Purcell Chaconne. And although the overall approach is historically informed, tempos are often expressively broad. Try Bach's famous "Air" (track two) or the Largo from Vivaldi's Flautino Concerto Rv443 (track eight), both as warmly textured as a winter quilt.

Violist Lawrence Power generates warmth to spare for a musical menu that might otherwise have been served chilled. Sample the supple opening of Roslavets' Viola Sonata, or the furry contours of Ligeti's paprika-flavoured Solo Viola Sonata. Lawrence's powers of concentration help sustain the exquisite atmosphere of Takemitsu's "A Bird Come Down the Walk" but the high point of the recital is the suite of five pieces from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, including the famous "Dance of the Knights". Here Power proves himself an involving narrator, especially in "The Last Farewell" (curiously labelled "La mort de Juliette"), always with a wealth of nuance at his fingertips. On paper, the prospect of a viola Romeo looked unpalatable, but the reality is as agile and as poignant as you'd expect from any star-ranking violinist. Simon Crawford-Phillips provides sensitive and polished accompaniments.

Williams: 'TreeSong'; Violin Concerto; Three Pieces from 'Schindler's List' – Gil Shaham, Boston SO, John Williams (DG 471 326-2)

'Musica Barocca' – Il Giardino Armonico (Teldec Classics 8573-85557-2)

Roslavets/Ligeti/Talemitsu/ Prokofiev – Lawrence Power (viola), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) (Harmonia Mundi 'Les Nouveaux Musiciens' HMN 911756)