RECORDS / Double Play: Daring to confess the plain truth: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson review new music that speaks - and two old favourites

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MacMillan - The Confession of Isobel Gowdie; Tryst: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Jerzy Maksymiuk (Koch 3-1050-2)

ECLECTICISM is said to be a very British trait, but few of our young composers cast their nets as widely as James MacMillan. Influence-spotters would have a fine time with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie: shades of Ives, Stravinsky, Copland, Messiaen and Birtwistle, while the huge one- note crescendo that ends it all obviously comes straight from Act Three of Berg's Wozzeck.

Or does it? With each hearing I find that passing resemblances matter less. Instead, paradoxically, it is the wholeness and the breadth of the musical personality that impress. MacMillan can plunge from luminous modal string-writing to shrill, acid atonality without a hint of discontinuity. The most riveting passage in the whole piece makes daring use of head-on stylistic confrontation - the strings' modal threnody re-emerging through bursts of brass and percussion violence.

Isobel Gowdie is beautifully played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I only wish it had been as beautifully recorded; the strings sound hard and the basses are not as firm as they might be. Still, it is good to have the piece on disc at last, and with a well-contrasted coupling: the chamber orchestra Tryst may be less spectacular, but the stylistic fusion/friction generates plenty of light and heat. SJ

JAMES MacMillan is one of the new music's plain speakers. He has ways of making you listen. There is his engaging streak of theatricality, his strong sense of musical narrative, his ability to lock an audience into a work's emotional force field and hold it there. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is well set up: the shape, the devices are familiar, but the cutting edge is entirely MacMillan's own. Even the obligatory string glissandi, which rise like so many wailing voices from the mystic woodwind murmurings of the opening, here merit special pleading.

There is a literally terrific 'development', the barbarism of the Inquisition somehow concentrated in 13 brutish chords, while Isobel Gowdie's torment finds almost joyful release in a defiant dance of death, initially a kind of square-dance with its mocking Copland-like fiddle tune. MacMillan positively hurls his orchestra towards the inevitable self-destruction of these pages, but his real masterstroke is the sudden calm, the out-of-body sensation of strings re-emerging with the Lux aeterna, gradually washing over and finally subduing a series of agonising spasms from wind and percussion. The final gesture is a crescendo of all-consuming C natural. Nothing could be simpler, or purer, or more triumphant.

It is like the moment when we arrive at the emotional centre, the meeting place of Tryst - a quiet place where MacMillan takes a long hard look at the simple song which is the basis of his piece. But the journey there and back (jazzily, insistently energetic) is only interesting because you know that MacMillan is a man with a purpose.

We can all relate to that - not least conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk, whose own energy one feels throughout the disc. ES

Dvorak - Symphony No 9; Mozart - Symphony No 38: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Kubelik (Denon CO-79728)

A GREAT conductor comes home - and so does that Symphony. But, unlike the live recording of Smetana's Ma Vlast which marked Rafael Kubelik's long- awaited return to Prague in the spring of democracy, 1990, these 1991 tapes are more of sentimental than lasting musical value. Of course I would go a long way to hear the Andante of Mozart's Prague Symphony attended with such wholehearted affection, the phrasing so shapely and intimate. But I am less sure about a first movement whose geniality rather gets the better of it, out-running even the Presto finale.

The recording is a problem, too: plummy and opaque in the tuttis with boomy, ill-defined bass lines. It really does constrict and diminish the New World Symphony - as do a few too many accidents and untidinesses in the playing. Then again, in page after page, Kubelik and his lovable Czech Philharmonic remind us where this music came from, infecting us with its spirit of folk dance, lifting and savouring those homesick cantabiles in such a way as to make countless other accounts sound positively counterfeit. Passages like that for muted solo strings at the close of the slow movement are homespun in the best sense.

Cherishable moments, then, but Kubelik's DG recording is the one to live with. ES

RECORDING concerts seems such a good idea: in place of antiseptic studio cleanliness you get the electricity of a live event, and if you also get the odd blemish or two in the process - well, to err is human. That's fine, when it works; the trouble is that sometimes the 'live' atmosphere simply refuses to transfer to tape - which must be what happened with Kubelik's Dvorak. Apparently it was a gripping experience for those who were there, but for me, with only the disc for witness, it is too lingering and histrionic for its own good. The New World may not be Dvorak's tautest symphonic argument, but it does not have to sound quite so loose- limbed.

The Prague Symphony, on the other hand, is patently going to be sonething special from the moment where the Allegro molto catapults itself free from the heavy tread of the opening Adagio. Whether this was more (or less) thrilling in the concert hall is impossible to say, but what emerges an record is a performance which is both purposeful and abundantly alive.

Kubelik's classical-romantic reading seems to grow from the notes at every stage; no suggestion of stylistic fustiness here. Each section of the Czech Philharmonic has its moment. Choosing among them is difficult, though I think the principal oboe might just take the prize for his elegant major-minor keening in the first movement's recapitulation.

Technically neither recording offers a perfect orchestral blend, but there is no shortage of atmosphere. SJ