RECORDS / The peninsular scores: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on Debussy and Mahler refreshed

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DEBUSSY: Images. Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un Faune. Printemps

Cleveland Orchestra / Pierre Boulez (DG 435 766-2)

THE SCOTLAND, Spain, and France of Debussy's Images have always sounded suspiciously alike to me. But who cares when the scents, sounds, and sensations are so alluring? Boulez knows where the greatest intensity of light must fall in any given bar. But I would still suggest that even Debussy caught more of the Iberian temperament than Boulez does. The perfumes of the night are duly seductive; but the dancing castanets, the stamping feet on scorched earth, the strumming guitars and whistling street urchins of the outer tableaux are all a little lacking in primary colour and audacity - a little too, well, French.

But you will come away from Boulez's Debussy with a sense of its natural fluidity. His Faune is no languid beast but an alert, playful creature and the more enchanting for it. He even makes Printemps sound better developed than it is. Nothing can be done with that awful tune, but the sound is entirely Debussy's own. ES

BOULEZ's Debussy is like no one else's. After his sharp, cool, scintillatingly detailed 'Les parfums de la nuit' (the heart of Iberia, the second Image) an old favourite like the Haitink-Concertgebouw recording sounds impossibly suave and humid. But Debussy's lines are thought through on a far larger scale than in the kind of indulgent modern performance where douceur du moment seems to be the sole purpose.

Neither the early Printemps nor Rondes de printemps (the third Image) has much to do with familiar ideas of spring under Boulez's direction - Debussy the composer rather than Debussy the mood-maker or scene-painter seems to be the focus of attention here. And yet what Boulez reveals is so absorbing, and so clearly derived from what the composer wrote, that it demands to be heard. Enter Boulez's Iberia with unprejudiced ears and it won't ever be quite the same again. SJ

MAHLER: Symphony No 7 - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Simon Rattle

(EMI CDC 7 54344-2)

WE WILL never hear Rattle's first recording of Mahler's weird and often wonderful 'song of the night'. For once it was the conductor and not the critic who cried 'studio-bound'. Rattle asked EMI for another go at it - this time with an audience.

Last things first. The finale is a sensation. Rattle pulls off a kind of mad coherence, a gloriously chaotic apotheosis of Viennese dance with one vulgar variation after another elbowing forward for a piece of the action. No less uncompromising is the scherzo, the grinning skull behind the symphony's face: a cadaverous double- bass slithers from beneath a bellowing tuba, bassoons grunt and snort, violin sforzandi claw at the texture.

Rattle makes sweet dreams of the two Nachtmusik movements; but he is always mindful of what may lurk around the corner. I am not entirely convinced by the Maltings, Snape as a Mahler venue (tuttis are a little saturated), but it is vivid and immediate - and on a single CD: that's a first. ES

IF THERE is a rite of admission to the inner circle of Mahlerians, it almost certainly begins with the question, 'Do you believe in the Seventh Symphony?' Show the slightest hint of doubt and the door is firmly shut. Simon Rattle is a believer - no doubt about that - and that he wants us to believe too is evident at almost every stage of this performance. There is hardly a detail in this immense, teeming score that doesn't sound as if it has been thought over long and hard. I cannot remember a more meticulously characterised scherzo, while the combination of garish colours, wild gestures and underlying careful pacing in the finale is tremendously persuasive - at least for as long as the experience lasts.

Looking back on it all, I cannot decide whether Rattle's Mahler Seven is a triumph of insight or of special pleading. Perhaps the answer is, a bit of both. There cannot be any doubt about the quality of the invention after this; whether Rattle uncovers anything like the narrative thread that holds the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies together is another matter. Here the final impression is of a colossal centrifuge, scattering ideas in every direction - but to what end? I also feel that there are one or two passages where Rattle pleads just a little too strenuously - such as the heavy winding-down at the end of the scherzo (all my score says is 'don't hurry'). Even so, it is a remarkable performance, and one I'd be happy to hear again - though let me get my breath back first. SJ

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