RECORDS / Bent to the will of the master: Robert Cowan and Edward Seckerson collide over Bach and Prokofiev

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BACH: French Suites. Italian Concerto. French Overture Andras Schiff (piano)

(Decca 433 313-2: two CDS) WHAT with synthesizers, harmonicas, guitars, even jazz groups and full orchestras trying Bach for size, pianos hardly get a look in. Yet there are still people who insist that Bach's teeming, multi-voiced keyboard works sound best of all on an instrument that the composer himself would have recognised. The trouble is, our own ears are so attuned to the fuller, warmer and infinitely more dynamic sound of a modern grand, that the jangly harpsichord can seem more a distraction than a source of musical pleasure. Enter, then, Andras Schiff, a pianist who liberates a dazzling array of tones from music that others deem too sacred, or too 'unromantic', to treat lovingly.

Schiff mixes mind with matter, and has the good sense not to stint on fantasy or sensual colouring. Bach did after all compose his French Suites for his second wife to play, and one naturally assumes affection to have been a prompting inspiration. The music itself is pure delight: vivacious, tuneful, and profoundly moreish. The perennially fresh Italian Concerto is here played with controlled abandon. An ideal musical nightcap, this; I've already commended it to all my musical friends. RC

SCHIFF's Bach is eminently, unapologetically pianistic - and much the better for it. No point in thinking harpsichord or clavichord when you're sat at a concert grand. Besides, Bach's feeling for texture and sonority always looked to the future and not the past.

Schiff, on Bach's behalf, rejoices in the additional resonances, the enhanced dynamic range, the greater potential for legato. His Allemandes are free-flowing, his Sarabandes enriched with subtle rubatos. It's a cool, clear, intellectual clarity he conveys in his playing - a quiet expressivity, elegance, good taste. The up- tempo dances retain a degree of decorum, fleet figurations and grace notes tripping easily off the fingertips. Yet he can kick-in the left hand to robust effect to give the Gigues a dynamic bounce.

It's that coarser-grained, high-colour complexion that one might miss in the outer movements of the Italian Concerto. But later, when Schiff resolutely embarks upon the first movement of the French Overture (Partita) in B minor, the sheer depth of sonority in the ringing trills and flamboyant dotted rhythm carves out an ornate grandiosity. Not even a concert grand is grand enough in this music. ES

GLAZUNOV: Symphony No 5. PROKOFIEV: Symphony No 5 Leningrad Philharmonic / Yevgeny Mravinsky (Russian Disc RD CD 11 165: live recordings)

WHAT can Yevgeny Mravinsky have been thinking of? There he was, 'like a high priest preaching to his minions' as someone once described him, but patently ill at ease with Prokofiev's opening movement. Never have I heard a more crude, wilful or disruptive performance of it; in fact, Mravinsky sounds almost as if he's rehearsing the music for the first time, slowing here, speeding there. Where is the master who 'performed the music exactly as it is written' (to quote the disc's annotator) and whose tyrannical methods inspired absolute precision?

No wonder a disbelieving colleague asked me to authenticate the performance. Yet there are giveaway signs: silken, warmly moulded strings in the Adagio, quick-wristed inflections in the Scherzo, and an incisive, head-spinning finale. Still, for overall sweep and architectural grip, you'd be better advised to investigate Ozawa, Dorati, Previn or Rostropovich.

But then you'd miss the Glazunov, a glorious if flawed outpouring of Old Russian romanticism, played here with such persuasive warmth, style and brilliance that it's difficult to believe the two performances took place during the same evening. The recording is passable, but in no way state-of-the-art, even in 1968. RC

THE great Mravinsky caught in the act, Leningrad 1968. Most Mravinsky performances sounded live even when they weren't. His was a temperament which unlocked at the moment of performance; the heat was on from the very first downbeat.

Compare this Prokofiev Five with Simon Rattle's recent studio account: it's almost a different work - the immaculately sculpted against the fiercely spontaneous. Mind you, I should have welcomed a more implacable sense of superstructure for the first movement. Mravinsky's reading is a coiled spring, volatile rubatos quickening the senses and reinforcing the rhetoric. Faltering ensemble directly relates to one or two awkward tempo shifts, but it doesn't really matter a jot. Scherzo and finale redefine the word 'sardonic' with Leningrad strings hacking into the motoric ostinatos and uncouth woodwinds jostling for centre stage.

A wretchedly strident, ill-balanced recording flings them into unnaturally high relief: not a pretty sound - at worst, it's a razor to the ears - but oddly appropriate, except in the slow movement where one sorely misses the shot-silk sensuousness of the texturing. Glazunov, too, is robbed of his tonal opulence, though the tunes themselves are amply upholstered and exuberantly despatched across the Steppes. ES

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