RECORDS / Magical mystery liturgy: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson swap opinions on Venetian Vespers and Schumann piano pieces

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Venetian Vespers - Gabrieli Consort and Players / Paul McCreesh, (DG Archiv 437 552-2 - two CDs)

THE YEAR is 1643, the last year of Monteverdi's life. Paul McCreesh asks you to imagine that this is St Mark's, Venice, on the occasion of the First Vespers of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. The Doge is present, the sacristy bell rings, an antiphon sounds from the farthest corner of the basilica. The ceremonial begins, and with it a magical mystery liturgy of musical offerings from the great and the good of the period.

This elaborate reconstruction has been painstakingly researched and realised, the shifting styles, textures, perspectives making real capital of the innate theatricality of the occasion: a lone cantor is dramatically superseded by the 'joyful noise' of Cavalli's Lauda Jerusalem, high-flown choral edifices give way to gently strummed songs of praise, or maybe a muted organ solo, or even Biagio Marini's curious little Sonata for three violins quite literally in echo. There are big discoveries, such as Giovanni Antonio Rigatti, whose psalm Nisi Dominus, for three solo voices, is liquid gold and in stark opposition to the wrath of his Dixit Dominus.

Monteverdi's catchy Laetatus sum on a ground bass deploys sparkling female counterpoint and a singularly irreverent bassoon obbligato with a penchant for vocal mimicry. Nothing could be further removed from the exquisite harmonic suspensions and quiet resolution of Finetti's motet O Maria, quae rapis corda hominum which follows.

As too with Grandi's motet O intemerata, you have to stop to ask yourself how anything so chaste can communicate such passion. ES

I APPROACHED this with well- prepared objections. Liturgical 'context' can add meaning to devotional pieces, even when you only hear it; but reconstructions on record tend to sound like what they are - fakery, and even if they don't, how often would you want to repeat the experience?

This time, though, the faking is very good, and some of the music is wonderful - and not just the items with the name Monteverdi attached. The intimate entwining of the two falsettos in Rigatti's Nisi Dominus is a high point, Cavalli's sumptuous Lauda Jerusalem is another. I'd go back to those as often as to an obvious star piece, Monteverdi's Laetatus sum, with its breathtakingly brilliant soprano writing - and, in this performance, singing.

More to the point, the placing of these works in Paul McCreesh's hypothetical sequence is like setting gems. All right, the small-scale ending - Rigatti's Salve Regina - was a little disappointing (Anglican prejudice?), but the whole does add up to more than the sum of the parts. Even tiny things like the Banchieri or Fasolo organ solos - the kind of thing that really ought to sound like padding - take on a sense of purpose. Would I have found the acoustic so suggestive if I hadn't known it for St Mark's? I don't much care; the sound, like the performances, only enhances the musical experience - somehow dignified and voluptuous at the same time. Choral Evensong was never like this. SJ

Schumann: Piano Concerto; Piano Quintet - Alicia de Larrocha, Tokyo String Quartet, LSO / Sir Colin Davis (BMG/RCA 09026 61279-2)

A MOST eligible coupling, the quintet like a confidence before that most free and open-hearted of concertos. Alicia de Larrocha is at the point in her career when, temperamentally, she sounds entirely at one and at peace with this music.

There is balance, beauty of tone - perhaps a little too 'covered' in this recording - and an abiding elegance about her playing. Only the mean-spirited could take exception to her broad but gracious (and somewhat 'old-fashioned') rubatos, now so much a part of the sound and character of her playing. She takes a reassuringly relaxed lead in the lovely quintet, content always to slip into accompaniment and give the stage to her distinguished colleagues: nowhere more so than in the slow movement, whose timeless nocturnal patrol is now so inseparable from the opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman's film, Fanny and Alexander.

There will be those whose preference is for a more impulsive reading of the over-recorded concerto. But as De Larrocha replies to the LSO oboe's sweet promise in the opening bars, her easy, contented manner is for me most persuasive. It's mellow, unassuming, the effusive passage-work, the grace-notes and florid turns so naturally in her fingers. She gets momentarily out of step in the final pages, but nothing can impede Schumann's irresistible cascading or the pleasure of her response to it.

I've a feeling, too, that Sir Colin Davis, ever supportive and accommodating, would probably play the solo part this way. ES

PAIRING the Schumann Piano Concerto and Quintet makes good sense, especially when you have a pianist who can sound at home in both media. Alicia de Larrocha certainly does. The control and poise rarely falter, and she seens to have a natural feel for the scale of each piano part - no overblown heroics in the quintet; intimacy but never reticence in the concerto. And in both of the pieces there are nice touches that catch the ear; deft, almost liquid turns in the quintet's Scherzo, or the lovely winding-down towards the end of the concerto's central Intermezzo - just enough rubato to hold the attention without overloading the simple repeated phrases.

'At home,' I said - I wonder if that, in the end, isn't also the problem. While some passages take light, more often the playing is a touch laid-back - particularly in the quintet, where De Larrocha and the members of the Tokyo String Quartet often seem just to be playing together when they should be sparking off each other. Details catch the ear, the sense of larger shape is firm, but nothing really burns itself into the memory. Something more than elegant confidence is needed in the concerto's dance-finale or the quintet's joyous fugal apotheosis.

You don't have to be a young man to play great Schumann, but you do need a young man's fancy - alas, not here. SJ