RECORDS / DOUBLE PLAY: Dealing out a dubious hand: A difference of opinion on Ozawa and unanimous praise for Eliot Gardiner

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TCHAIKOVSKY: The Queen of Spades

Boston Symphony Orchestra / Seiji Ozawa

(BMG/RCA 09026 60992-2 - three CDs)

A FEW cards short of the deck, I'd say. There is no madness in Ozawa's well-honed conducting - that's the problem. From the moment that Tchaikovsky's galloping woodwinds violate the uneasy melancholy of the Prelude, we are inside Herman's head. Ozawa responds affectionately to the lyricism, he rises to the hot spots, but the chill, the ever-intensifying darkness of the score, eludes him. Tchaikovsky's predominant colours are the blacks of bass woodwinds, probing, gnawing; Ozawa too readily succumbs to the all-embracing warmth of the Boston strings.

On paper the casting looks choice. In practice, Vladimir Atlantov's Herman is something of an endurance, barking mad in every sense of the phrase: loud, unyielding, the spreading tone coarse and unruly - the price, perhaps, of a few too many Otellos. Contrast this with the artistry of Mirella Freni's Lisa. The great Italian stylist is in the 36th year of her career, but who's counting? Her big Act Three aria - a gloriously wholehearted and idiomatic piece of singing - is probably the highlight of the set, one of too few moments where artist and score truly connect.

Another is Dmitri Hvorostovsky (the best I have yet heard him) in Yeletsky's Act Two aria - tall, dark, handsome in sound and rising to a brave crescendo of exasperation with the final cadence. And there is Maureen Forrester's indomitable Countess, she alone evoking the awful pallor of the second scene in Act Two, where her tremulous song, her memories, and her secret die on her lips. EDWARD SECKERSON

SLAVIC wobble lives on, and not only among the Russians - in fact Sergei Leiferkus's Tomsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Yeletsky are two of the securest, least vibrato-laden performances here, and though I was initially put off by Vladimir Atlantov's quavery Herman, his edginess and intensity convinced me more as terror takes over from early pensiveness.

No, the real problems lie elsewhere. Mirella Freni can be marvellous in quieter, more inward passages - her 'No] Live]' at the end of Act One is thrilling - but as passion mounts and her melodic lines reach ever higher, tone hardens and pitch unfocuses alarmingly. Katherine Ciesinski's Pauline is more controlled, but apart from a big, meaty vibrato, there's a heaviness that, while it may suit her gloomy 'Romance' in Act One, takes the fun out of the little Russian dance that follows.

Yet despite all these complaints, my final impression was by no means overwhelmingly negative. Maureen Forrester's Countess is splendid - matronly vibrato quite in order here - and her confrontations with Atlantov are suitably chilling. And despite technical problems, Freni's later scenes are full of fine things; her final agony is all too real. The Boston Symphony trumpets can blare at climaxes but Seiji Ozawa's direction has sweep and atmosphere, and the ending is magnificent. Did the Tanglewood Festival Chorus import Russian basses? STEPHEN JOHNSON

BEETHOVEN: Mass in C. Ah] perfido. Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt

Margiono, Robbin, Kendall, Miles, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner

(DG Archiv 435 391-2)

PRINCE Esterhazy II was puzzled - disappointed, one imagines, that he was unable to second-guess the composer. But there lies the wonder of the Mass in C: the way in which Beethoven constantly seeks to challenge the accepted response to these texts as if re-examining his own motives for setting them. Who could predict the reflective, meditative opening to the Sanctus (the sunburst on the words 'Pleni sunt coeli' like a sudden surge of faith)?

It is a questing, questioning piece which begins and ends in quiet certainty. If ever an opening portends greatness it is this Kyrie. But the real fascination lies in its uncertainty, its trail-blazing determination. Suffice it to say that John Eliot Gardiner, his infinitely resourceful, articulate choir, finely matched soloists, fervently show us the way. Charlotte Margiono has already found her way to the heart of the concert aria Ah] perfido through many enticing shades of piano. ES

WHY is the Mass in C so little known? Probably because those that do know it tend to make unfavourable comparisons with the Missa Solemnis - but how many choral works could sit comfortably in company like that? Viewed on its own terms the Mass in C is a brilliant enrichment of the Haydn liturgical model which looks forward to greater things without over-reaching itself. It is also relatively easy to sing. So perhaps John Eliot Gardiner's characteristically clean-cut performance will challenge a few choral societies. It certainly challenged me - how could I have listened to the Agnus Dei without realising how original it is?

The rest of the disc is no less fascinating. Ah] perfido is much more than the gauche tribute to Mozart some have made of it. Charlotte Margiono rages and implores beautifully, though leaving one in no doubt that in spite of her per pietas, Beethoven's heroine is going to smash a few plates and get it all out of her system as soon as the final chords have sounded. Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt ('Calm sea and prosperous voyage') again echoes Haydn - shades of The Creation in the way the breeze sweeps in over previously still waters - and again it is beautifully done by Gardiner and his team. SJ