RECORDS / Melody through the looking glass: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on Mark-Anthony Turnage and Purcell

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MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE: Three Screaming Popes - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Simon Rattle (EMI CD Single TSP 2 04681 2)

UNDERNEATH it all, Mark-Anthony Turnage is just an old-fashioned boy. All right, so Three Screaming Popes is a little like acid-house Bartok with attitude, but what really tells here, as in all his music, is the craftsmanship, the pull of traditional values: melody, rhythm, texture - in that order. The Turnage 'tunes' never effuse here as they did in his bovver-boy opera Greek (he has a gift for free-range lyric melodies). Rather, they lie buried, decomposing beneath a distorting multilayered surface - exactly like the Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X as vandalised by Francis Bacon in his three notorious 'Pope' paintings.

That was Turnage's starting point. Somewhere in here is a set of Spanish dances. But don't hold your breath. What you will actually hear is a naughty melodrama, very Gothic, very decadent - a kind of religious hallucination where the promise of tranquillity (cooling woodwinds, harp, altar- bells) eventually succumbs to a rampantly sacrilegious dance of death, vamping along like the proverbial Vatican Rag. Turnage wields a mean orchestra, the colours at once sensual and abrasive, striking use made of glissandi and the plangent voice of the saxophone - a Turnage favourite in both its melancholic and rebellious guises.

The final minute (of an eventful 16 minutes) suggests four screaming popes. Is that Turnage's last laugh? Stunning performance and recording. ES

MY ADVICE is, forget the title. Yes, there are sounds that scream - shrill piccolos, high wailing saxophones, fruitily dissonant outcries from the large brass section - but for me the impression is more of fantastic mood-painting alternating with a very polished kind of abandonment: a sophisticated transformation of Latin dance and early jazz. At times I am reminded of the description by Sacheverell Sitwell of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring: 'barbarism for the super-civilised'.

Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra play this challenging, very individual score as though it had been in their blood for years and the recording, in the much- eulogised Birmingham Symphony Hall, gives some idea what the fuss is about - the sound is gorgeous. Coming so soon after the James MacMillan disc from Koch, this CD single is particularly encouraging: together they offer powerful proof that a contemporary composer can be 'accessible' without talking down to the audience. SJ

PURCELL: King Arthur, Argenta, Gooding, Perillo, MacDougall, Tucker, Bannatyne-Scott, Finley, The English Concert and Choir / Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv 435 490-2)

FOR MODERN listeners King Arthur is problematic. An 'opera' in which none of the principal characters sing? Without the spoken dialogue it is impossible to get the feel of the drama; the effect is more like a string of excerpts. Idiosyncratically pleasant though much of the text is, Dryden's arch couplets do not sound any wittier to modern ears when repeated, however lovingly Purcell embellishes them.

Still, put these dramatic fragments and set-pieces together in a good recording and somehow it all comes to life. This new version is more than good. Nancy Argenta's elegance and vocal allure reach their height in the hit number 'Fairest Isle'; Linda Perillo and Julia Gooding make a ravishing pair of topless (Dryden is most insistent) sirens; Jamie MacDougall and Gerald Finley plainly relish their character parts; and Brian Bannatyne-Scott shivers rhythmically as the Cold Genius in 'What power art thou. . . ?' - a piece of wintry scene-painting Vivaldi might have envied.

Bannatyne-Scott's tuning is not entirely free of the wobbles later on, but it is a very expressive performance, and his exchanges with Argenta ('Thou doting fool, forebear, forebear]') are one of the high points of the set.

I can imagine one or two purists taking exception to Jamie MacDougall's Comus and his super-charged chorus of Mummerset yokels (apparently from the Walter Gabriel school of character acting) - I loved them, though. In fact the chorus is generally excellent, as is the orchestra, with its splendid array of 18th- century instruments (the continuo alone is a colouristic delight). If you find it difficult to imagine yourself singing along heartily to 'Heigh for the honour of old England', try this. SJ

THE INSPIRATION may be spread a little thinly by comparison with, say, The Fairy Queen, but surrender to the gaiety. Purcell's incidental music to King Arthur ('semi-opera' is such a confusing term) does eventually yield more than just passing fancy. I remain deeply suspicious of fairies, nymphs and shepherds, however charming, but will concede that Purcellian vitality can prevent even the sweetest numbers from caramelising.

Then there is the harmonic spice, forever enticing and enriching (the sudden darkening of mood in the chorus 'Brave souls' is one such expensive moment), and flashes of remarkable characterisation. The icy staccati of the 'Frost Scene' are an uncanny foreshadowing of 'Winter' from Vivaldi's Seasons; Cold Genius 'thaws' amusingly, scarcely able to draw the breath for his aria.

Be patient - some of Purcell's most beguiling music comes with the second disc, when we arrive at Act Four.

The rising of Britannia from the sea brings a Symphony of rare enchantment, with solo trumpet and violin blissfully entwined, and that in turn is Purcell's cue for a pageant of British sovereignty replete with roistering rustics (the art of coarse accents alive and well), a ravishing endorsement from Venus ('Fairest isle', exquisitely sung by Nancy Argenta), and a little martial pomp.

Style and exuberance mark out the performance, and the recording places us excitingly close to the action, at barely an arm's length from Trevor Pinnock's busy harpsichord. ES

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