RECORDS / Neat barbarians: Robert Cowan and Edward Seckerson on Russian Rattle and Latin American rhythm

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No 5. Scythian Suite

City of Birmingham Symphony

Orchestra / Simon Rattle

(EMI Classics CDC 7 54577 2)

RATTLE's Prokofiev Five is mindfully lyrical, and light years removed from either the raucous glare of certain Russians or the hefty, romanticised and occasionally slick statements of, say, Karajan and Bernstein. Dynamic markings are meticulously observed, yet Rattle leans into phrases as befits the musical moment, accommodating the many instances where song predominates. Most telling is his expressive interpretation of texture. There are magical moments, too: one occurs in the Adagio, where, after the opening motive has returned in a mood of high dudgeon, the strings offer gentle consolation.

Rattle has a marvellous ear for detail, and in the Scythian Suite, quite apart from clarifying - rationalising, almost - the opening onrush of chaos, he traces the music's more delicate interludes with the sort of care and precision that he might otherwise apply to Messiaen or Takemitsu. The orchestral playing is keen (clarinets particularly), and the recording has been carefully engineered; you sense that all collaborating parties were inspired by the conductor's vision. And given Rattle's intelligent ear, his feel for the music's general drift, and his ability to relate the Symphony to a world outside its specific locality, that's hardly surprising.

Yes, it is a fine and instructive performance. If it had been a little more spontaneous, it might have been a great one. RC

SO MUCH is right with this performance of the symphony - so why doesn't it add up for me? You can count on Rattle for an infallibly musical line, for startling textural illuminations, for atmosphere. Just listen to the aromatic traceries of sound at the close of the slow movement, or the wealth of redefined detail (like the contrabassoon) in the finale.

Trouble is, I can see how too many of the tricks are done, so to speak, and I've this nagging feeling that Rattle is holding out on us: the control is somehow inhibiting. Less so in that galleon of a first movement, where the perfect tempo is at the service of both shape and transition. Perhaps what I miss most from the scherzo and finale is an edgier, more inbred cynicism. The bite is there, the spiteful E flat clarinet and all; it's alive and kicking, but somehow too calculated. The trio of the scherzo needs to feel more relaxed, more effortless, slinkier - a shining Cadillac in a dubious neighbourhood, while the mechanical coda of the symphony simply hangs fire. Not so those barbarous Scythians, though again the beauty and bestiality has sounded more elemental.

Fine production values, some great playing, but I'm not yet convinced that the Fifth Symphony is quite off the drawing-board. ES

TANGAZO - Music of

Latin America

The New World Symphony /

Michael Tilson Thomas

(Argo 436 737-2)

MY main fear was that 74 minutes of itching percussion would scrub my eardrums raw, but I needn't have worried. The orchestra itself, a dazzling collection of talented youngsters, sounds as fully professional as any you're likely to encounter the world over and Tilson Thomas launches everything on dancing feet; even the slow, austere bass line that opens Astor Piazzolla's otherwise seductive, 14-minute Tangazo - an 'Invitation to the Dance' for the 1990s - has a feeling of polished boards about it.

Actually, Tangazo is the one piece here that makes sparing use of percussion, whereas Amadeo Roldan's Ritmica V relies on it entirely (it's a sort of Varese-cum-Edmundo Ros) and his suite La rebambaramba is set to an aggressively insistent rhythmic base, especially its second movement, 'Comparsa lucumi'. Indigenous motifs are also joyfully engaged for Chavez's Sinfonia india, the first and, in my view, the finest item on the disc. Chavez alternates a haunting pentatonic melody with infectiously high-spirited faster music; in places the Sinfonia actually sounds more like Copland than Copland's own Danzon cubano, a droll, swanky 'tourist souvenir'.

If you want an authentic riot of Latin rhythm, skip to track 16, and Ginastera's hot-breathed 'Danza final', or 'Malambo' (Estancia), a sizzling close to an irresistible and brilliantly recorded programme. RC

TILSON THOMAS's New World freshers go south of the border, and the footwork is furious. So there is concert life beyond Copland's Latino fancies - the pulse of Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Cuba, as captured by the likes of Roldan, Revueltas, Caturla (sounding unfamiliar?), or the more internationally celebrated Chavez and Ginastera. Tangazo is the work of the Tango King himself, Astor Piazzolla - and this has to be the star turn on an altogether terrific disc. Here is the tango of your darkest imaginings - a bizarre, brooding tango tragico which only occasionally forces a smile.

Ginastera's dances from Estancia are a homelier, folksier brew - a real blast of the pampas with a gentle show- stopper in Danza del trigo swaying lazily over piano and pizzicato strings. Right now, I can't get the second theme of Chavez's Sinfonia india out of my head. It has the wistfulness and reach of Copland's rural best, while the rattle and thrum and growl of Mexican percussion keep the spirit gyrating.

The freshness and bravado of these young players is just what the music ordered: their attack and rhythmic energy, their jazzy woodwinds and mariachi trumpets - it's heat and dust personified. ES