RECORDS / Fatal attractions, flawed alliances: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson review Puccini's Tosca and Gorecki's Symphony No 3

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PUCCINI: Tosca Freni, Domingo, Ramey, Philharmonia, Royal Opera Chorus / Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG 431 775-2)

A DISTINGUISHED cast, and a conductor who is not known for playing safe - it sounds like a recipe for an interesting Tosca at the very least. In fact it is a well thought-through and equally well mannered performance, which enjoys the big moments without trying to wring the last drop of emotional juice from them. Sinopoli's rubato gets a little expansive in one or two places, but on the whole he keeps the music moving forward, with force, clarity and elegance.

It is hard to think of another Tosca recording that does so many of the right things while remaining so essentially cool. Domingo is a proven Cavaradossi, and for sheer beauty and poise this version takes some beating. He characterises the role warmly, though this is hardly a red-hot performance. Mirella Freni's Tosca can be more urgently dramatic, and that outstanding piece of musical costume jewellery 'Vissi d'arte' is full of nice little expressive touches; yet there is a recurring unsteadiness, just enough to disturb.

Samuel Ramey's Scarpia is more problematic. The authority and the musicianship are all there, but could anyone really believe him capable of treachery and cupidity on such a scale? The most stirring realisation is a relatively minor one - Bryn Terfel's Angelotti. No doubt about his first appearance: the man is afraid - and he sings beautifully. Angelotti the strongest memory? That can't be right. SJ

WITH Sinopoli on the podium this was never going to be 'the Freni Tosca'. His fiercely dramatic but protracted, suffocating manner will inevitably raise hackles. Sinopoli lives to linger and brood. 'Frozen' moments are many, not least the gaunt, chilling coda to Act Two - Scarpia's shroud. His Act One 'Te Deum', sensationally slow, magnificently recorded, is a black mass indeed, somehow the more decadent, the more shocking for its opulence.

But there is a price - impetus, the roller-coaster effect. Far from hurtling towards an inevitable conclusion, Tosca's fateful 24 hours are experienced here in a kind of slow motion. Which brings me to the diva behind the diva - Freni. Would that she and DG had come sooner to the work. Here is a real Tosca, a great singer, caught just beyond her prime, more's the pity. The tone is spreading now, the reach shortening, the technique more effortful.

Even so, the performance is terrific, the genuine article with every phrase motivated and filled. You really cannot fake 'Vissi d'arte' - so much of the music is in the words. Freni's persecutor is Samuel Ramey, a handsome-sounding but rather anodyne Scarpia. He fails to use the curl and insinuation of his words, the suave, seductive legatos of his immensely grateful vocal lines. This is something of a one-colour performance.

And Domingo (in his third recorded Tosca)? He may have lost a little of his ease, but definitely none of his ardour; and the dark mahogany sound is just as glorious as ever, pressed only at the very top. A Tosca of fatal attractions but as many fatal flaws. ES

GORECKI: Symphony No 3

Dawn Upshaw, London

Sinfonietta / David Zinman

(Elektra Nonesuch 79282-2)

I HAVE definitely been here before. That was my first thought. My second, some 50 minutes later, was that the experience was entirely new. Imagine a spiritual alliance between Arvo Part and John Tavener, the kind of music that precedes the notes and resonates long after they have died. Mystical minimalism with a heart and a soul. There you have Gorecki's beautiful symphony - one man's message of hope 50 years after Auschwitz. Something special stirs here from the moment that his parched string basses begin their long, slow, painful ascent. As the polyphony swells, so do feelings of renewal. An early masterstroke interpolates a setting of the 15th- century Polish prayer at the moment of most intense light, whereupon the ecstatic polyphony resumes as if it had never ceased. Perhaps it never had.

Harmonically richer than Part or Tavener, Gorecki's subsequent movements turn exclusively to song - rapt, melismatic settings sung here as though everything depended upon them by a radiant Dawn Upshaw. And if you think you have heard revelatory modulations, just wait. Gorecki's final surprise must remain so. ES

ACQUAINTANCE with a handful of Henryk Gorecki's stark, moody, obsessively repetitive later pieces had not prepared me for this, or at least not for the first movement. This 26-minute Lento follows a clear ternary scheme: a string canon on a chant-like theme builds up to a massive polyphonic climax; a soprano sings a 15th-century Polish devotional hymn on the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin, and then the whole process is repeated in reverse. It has something of the dignified ecstasy of John Tavener at his best, only here the expression is darker, more pained.

The strings sustain the huge expressive arch magnificently, and Dawn Upshaw's soaring purity in the central song is the crowning feature it deserves - her Polish is rather impressive too. Following a Lento with more slow movements is not unprecedented, but here the textural economy is radical, especially in the third and final one: a folk song (a very beautiful one, I admit) is supported by regularly swaying chords at first, and later by the purest A major harmonies. It is quite lovely, in an uneventful way. For me, though, going from the last movement back to the first is to pass from almost undifferentiated mood to a complete, powerfully structured emotional experience. SJ