The Compact Collection: Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases

A DELECTABLE recipe of fairy dust and aural honey casts a potent spell in the Mendelssohn-Korngold score for Warner Brothers' 1934 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This was the first of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's scores for Hollywood; the director was Max Rheinhardt (it was his only completed sound film), and the stars included James Cagney, Dick Powell and a fledgling Olivia de Havilland. CPO's newly recorded CD (featuring an accomplished Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin) salvages the main body of the score and includes sundry items that never made it to celluloid.

The first surprise is that the overture is not Mendelssohn's incandescent Op 21, but Korngold's busy pot-pourri of the themes which are to come. The rest disperses fruity orchestrations and the occasional novelty among pieces we already know and love, such as the Scherzo, Intermezzo and "Wedding March". Demetrius's Serenade is a sweetened re-working of "On Wings of Song", Titania's Lullaby and Slumber Song are based on two of the most magical Songs without Words, and Fighting Rivals treats the E minor piano Scherzo to a manner of orchestration that Mendelssohn himself might have envied.

Other "references" include the "Scottish" and "Italian" Symphonies, always tastefully redeployed. But for the "real" Korngold, turn to the minute- long Wedding Waltz (track 19), with its cosy saxophones and starlit high percussion. Elsewhere, however, Mendelssohn is the dominant feature, though the CD box omits any printed reference to his name.

A few years after Korngold refashioned Mendelssohn for Shakespeare, Igor Stravinsky completed an exquisite ballet score based one of the major Greek myths.

Orpheus has never enjoyed much of a presence on disc, though even if it had, I doubt that Deutsche Grammophon's new recording by the conductor- free Orpheus Chamber would suffer many rivals. The delicacy of the playing deserves the highest praise, and so does its subtlety and consistent alertness to matters of balance and rhythm. To get a taste, try the springy Pas de Furies, or the quietly mobile Pas d'Action, or the delicious sequence of textures that colours the Pas de Deux.

The coupling (not a terribly generous one, unfortunately) is the lively Danses concertantes, a concert-work-turned-ballet that makes a more pressing call for rostrum leadership but that, in this context, seems to be just as effective without it. The recorded sound is excellent.

My new piano CD of the week - possibly of the year - has to be Marc-Andre Hamelin's extraordinary traversal of the 36 variations on a Chilean song that constitute Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never be Defeated. Not contented with Rzewski's finger-crippling demands, Hamelin tops the lot with his own versicoloured cadenza, which clocks in at six-and-a-half minutes. Viewed as a whole, it's one heck of a journey, as long as Beethoven's epic "Diabelli" Variations (the prompting idea), virtually as inventive, and with scarcely a bar that is not worth re-visiting.

And if you stay the course and still have the energy to listen further, Hamelin has programmed a lively pair of Rzewski's North American Ballads, the second of which starts out as a Minimalist tour de force, soon switches to the blues and ends in a flurry of high spirits. Who says that virtuoso pot-boilers are a thing of the past?

Mendelssohn-Korngold/ Albrecht, CPO 999 449-2

Stravinsky/Orpheus Chamber, Deutsche Grammophon 459 644-2

Rzewski/Hamelin,

Hyperion CDA67077

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