The Compact Collection

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I'd never thought of François Couperin as an especially "ceremonial" composer – his quietly decorative harpsichord pieces are anything but flamboyant – and yet a superb new Astrée CD of his Concert dans le goût théâtral promotes some of the grandest French Baroque sounds on disc. It is, in fact, a reconstruction based on existing material, all of it made up of brief dance movements. It's also a first recording by the sizeable Capriccio Stravagante Orchestra under Skip Sempé. The sonorous period-instrument line-up (including lutes and percussion) is bolstered, on occasion, by a quartet of vocalists. There are five moreish Divertissements, framed either end by a prologue and epilogue; but perhaps the most imposing item is a six-minute "L'Amphobie" for two harpsichords, a noble passacaille that has already found its way to my CD tray on a daily basis. The presentation is informative, and their production values predictably high.

High production standards are a constant with ECM, where moody visuals and a carefully chosen roster of performers have helped establish a distinctive house style. It was ECM that put the Estonian master Arvo Pärt on the discographical map, and now it's performing a parallel service on behalf of Pärt's teacher Heino Eller (1887-1970). Pärt credits Eller's work with "a strict logic, a cultivated sense of style, subtle and masterly orchestration and markedly personal style of composition." A first encounter suggests the tunefulness of Grieg ruffled by a certain windswept quality that recalls the latter-day English Romantics. The 1945 Lyrical Suite breezes in on a rich melodic curve, climaxing, six movements later, with an extended, majestic finale. Pärt suggests that the last of Eller's Five Pieces for String Orchestra, a "Homeland Song", is a sort of Estonian Finlandia, though it's far gentler. But the most impressive pieces here are the two elegies, Neenia of 1928 and the more extended Elegy of three years later, both of them powerfully emotive with strongly differentiated textures and some unexpected dramatic twists. They're light years removed in style from Pärt's chiming "tintinnabulation", but run it fairly close for purity of expression. The Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under Tonu Kaljuste gives immaculately groomed performances and ECM's recordings are admirably clean.

Nice, clean sound, too on a new harmonia mundi disc of Dvorak's last two string quartets played with gusto and expressive generosity by the Melos Quartet. Both are glorious works, masterful in construction and rich in American-style melodic ideas. Think of the way the A flat major's first movement skips off the beat, and the New World glow of the G major's Adagio, as a great a slow movement as any in Dvorak's voluminous quartet canon. The Melos gauges the music's pulse, sonority and emotional climate with real intuition: their playing combines tonal lustre with a rustic edge that perfectly suits the scherzos. If you love Dvorak's later symphonies, then these quartets should be your next port of call.

Couperin: Concert dans le goût théâtral – Soloists, Capriccio Stravagante Orchestra/Skip Sempé (Astrée Naïve E8820)

Heino Eller: Neenia, Lyrical Suite, Five pieces for string orchestra, Sinfonietta, Elegy – Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/ Tonu Kaljuste (ECM 1745)

Dvorak: String Quartets Nos 14 & 15 – Melos Quartet (harmonia mundi HMC 901709)

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