Edward Seckerson's Choice

Bartok: The Piano Concertos (Teldec 0630-13158-2)

Puccini: La Rondine

(EMI 5 56338 2; two CDs)

Dvorak: Symphonies 3 & 7

(DG 449 207-2)

Mozart: Piano Concertos

18 & 20

(Nonesuch 79439-2)

Percy Grainger: In a Nutshell

(EMI 5 56412 2)

Poulenc: Concert Champetre

(Decca 452 665-2)

Copland: The Modernist

(RCA 09026 68541 2)

Dyson: The Canterbury Tales

(CHAN 9548; two CDs)

Elgar: Violin Concerto

(EMI 5 56413 2)

Schumann: Music for Cello

(RCA 09026 68800 2)

In the beginning there was rhythm, primal rhythm. And a new word in musical terminology: Barbaro. For Barbaro read Bartok and the first important release of 1997: the three Piano Concertos played by Andras Schiff (on Teldec) with the home team of the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer. From his place in amongst the percussion, the ringing martellato and sticks on skins of the First Concerto, Schiff slowly but surely reinvents the piano as a singing instrument. His is an informed primitivism, rhythm with shape and direction, accented with breathtaking sleight of hand, melodic inflections chipped from the music of time and made folklore. There are no empty notes, no incidental or inaudible notes (brilliant engineering), the spirit is in the counterpoint: like Bach, like Bartok.

Like Puccini? The late Mosco Carner didn't like La Rondine ("The Swallow"). He called it "a bird with broken wings". But then he didn't have the pleasure of EMI's spanking new recording, charmingly, zestfully conducted by Antonio Pappano . Opera's "golden" couple - Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna (just in case you've been vacationing in another galaxy) - are very nearly hype-worthy, she soaring briefly but blissfully with that aria, the both of them belatedly demanding a place for Act 2's luscious waltz song among your hundred best tunes. Puccini wanting to be Lehr wanting to be Verdi? In a performance this good, why not?

It all has to do with understanding the style, of course, and style plays an integral part in making Myung-Whun Chung's coupling of Dvorak's Third and Seventh Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic (on DG) one of the very best Dvorak discs to have come my way in a long time. Here is the spring and winter of his symphonic canon winging it all the way from Bohemia's woods and fields. The Vienna Philharmonic knows how this music goes (as witness that bountiful tune at the outset of the Third), they've played it this way for generations, turning, coaxing, lifting phrases in ways that invite imitation but defy comparison. But Chung isn't just there for the ride. His powerful evocation of the louring Seventh Symphony is born of a primitive dynamism, its Wagnerian reach, its gusty cross-rhythms as unsettling as they are invigorating. The surge factor is high.

So, too, the dark and furtive opening of Mozart's Piano Concerto No 20 as realised by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (coupling No 18, on Nonesuch) - the first in a complete series featuring the American pianist Richard Goode. Goode comes to these concertos with many questions still unanswered. Today's answers are tomorrow's questions, and there's the wonder of his playing. A sense of journeying. You feel it too in Mitsuko Uchida's magical disc of Schubert Impromptus on Philips (a sneaky appendix to my Top 10). Listen late or, better yet, in the small hours.

Listen any time at all to Sir Simon Rattle's bewilderingly rich Percy Grainger compendium, In a Nutshell (on EMI). From folly to inspired folly all the way to The Warriors (the tribal love-in with the cosmic kick), the genius is in the insanity. Debussy's "Pagodes" (from Estampes) reinvented for four grand pianos, "tuneful" percussion and harmonium (an old voice in new-age surroundings)? Hear it and you still won't quite believe it. Something which might also be said of Francis Poulenc's Concert Champetre, whose harpsichord protagonist is so deliciously at odds with the times in which he finds himself. Right instrument, wrong century. And that's typical of Poulenc, master allusionist, prankster, a Pierrot in perpetuity (gay countenance, sad heart), purveyor of sharp, smart, bitter-sweet music which is never quite what it seems. Discover him in the good company of Pascal Roge and the Orchestre National de France under Charles Dutoit (on Decca). And discover Aaron Copland - "The Modernist" - in a cracking disc from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony on RCA. His Piano Concerto (pianist Garrick Ohlsson), once described as "the best roar from the Roaring Twenties", takes Gershwin on to the mean streets and gives him attitude. Symphonic Ode, his first purely orchestral piece, proceeds onwards and upwards in sky-scraping, octave-leaping tower-blocks of sound. Copland, the modernist, has nowhere to go but up. He knows how good the view is.

Down to earth and back in Blighty, it's a close call between two pioneering Chandos issues: Stanford's blazing setting of the Stabat Mater and George Dyson's colourful cantata The Canterbury Pilgrims - both conducted by the irrepressible Richard Hickox. Dyson has it, I think. His green and pleasant music, bolder and more inspirational than its neglect would have us think (he was ever the forward-looking conservative), was simply a victim of changing fashions. Elgar stole his thunder but could not thwart his pilgrimage. Not this one.

Elgar, meanwhile, has returned Kennedy (no more Nigel) to the classical ascendancy. His brave new recording of the Violin Concerto with Sir Simon Rattle (on EMI) is at once a short step and a giant leap from his much- prized earlier account. This is Elgar unmasked, hurtling from one emotional crisis to the next but possessed of an inwardness that few have shared, leave alone understood. Public pomp, private circumstance: Kennedy seems to assume his identity - or rather identities.

Just as Steven Isserlis assumes Robert Schumann's. His RCA disc of the complete extant music for cello - led, of course, by a gloriously articulate performance of the Concerto - is not so much a collection, more a crusade. Devotional in the best sense. If ever a player truly empathised with the improvisational character and cast of the music, this one does. It would be eerie if it weren't so unutterably beautiful.

ROB COWAn's Choice

Steve Reich: The Works

(Nonesuch 79451-2; 10 CDs)

Haydn: The Quartets

(Decca 455 261-2)

Tchaikovsky: Orchestral Works

(Philips 456 187-2; eight CDs)

Mahler: Symphonies 3, 6, 10

(Conifer 75606 51279-2; three CDs)

Bruckner: Symphonies 8 & 9

(DG 449 758-2; two CDs)

Mozart: Symphonies 32, 36, 41

(CPO 999 473-2)

Schubert: Mass in E flat

(Testament SBT 1111)

Elgar: Cello Concerto

(Biddulph LAB 144)

The Great British Experience

(EMI CD 50; two CDs)

Axel Schiotz: Lieder recital

(DACOCD 458; two CDs)

The season for boxed sets started early this year with Steve Reich's "Works" on Nonesuch, mostly reissues of classic sessions - Different Trains, Drumming, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ etc - but with significant new additions, the best being a mellifluous re-make of the expansive Music for 18 Musicians. Reich, like the philosopher Wittgenstein (a palpable influence), stretches the germ of a good idea as far as it will go, though barbed-wire modernists seem to resent the constant pulse.

No doubt, in his day, Joseph Haydn also prompted raised eyebrows, what with his musical jokes, audacious harmonies and oddball symphonic structures. Haydn fathered the string quartet as we know it and any understanding of his genius rests largely on the appreciation of the Quartets Op 17, 20, 33, 54, 55, 64, 71, 74, 76 and 77 - all of them "sets" including up to six works. Decca have squeezed the Aeolian Quartet's consistently satisfying cycle on to 22 budget-price CDs and packed them into a box that, a few years ago, would have housed a mere seven.

Space-economic packaging also allows what Philips describe as the "Complete Orchestral Works" of Tchaikovsky (inaccurately, as it happens) to fit into a pair of slim-line boxes, with the first - eight CDs' worth - featuring all the concertos, the best-known tone-poems and the best available symphony cycle (Manfred included) under Igor Markevich.

Taking a sonic dip back to the early 1950s finds us in the company of Mahler acolyte Charles Adler for gripping, though occasionally rough-edged, accounts (on Conifer) of the Third, Sixth and (incomplete) Tenth Symphonies, all employing a dedicated Vienna Symphony Orchestra, while the epic-symphony axis is further explored by Eugen Jochum, High Priest of Bruckner (or so some would tell us), whose first recordings of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies (on DG) - recorded in Hamburg and Munich, respectively - merge wild excitability with malleable but controlled handling of those heavenly slow movements. For me, they strike a more perceptive chord than some of Jochum's later stereo re-makes, though for sheer spontaneity it would be hard to beat a trio of Mozart Symphonies (Nos 32, 36 and 41) conducted by composer Hans Zender on CPO (available either separately on a single disc or as part of a wider-ranging "Hans Zender Edition").

Zender, like Jochum, has the ability to inspire remarkable results even from a less-than-first-rate band (in this case the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony), whereas Erich Leinsdorf commands a mighty response from the Berlin Philharmonic, the St Hedwig's Cathedral Choir and a star line-up of soloists (including Fritz Wunderlich and Pilar Lorengar) in Schubert's great E flat Mass (on Testament), one of the conductor's finest - albeit least-known - recordings. The stereo sound comes up fairly well, better than a heart-rending 1945 set of Elgar's Cello Concerto re-released by Biddulph with Pablo Casals (a humbling experience), though when it comes to the lighter end of British music - I mean the likes of Knightsbridge, the Archers theme, Coronation Scot and 47 more - EMI have done sonic wonders with sparkling vintage recordings for their two-CD The Great British Experience.

And lastly, from Danacord, the incomparable tenor Axel Schiotz can be heard in a heart-rending, previously unissued account of Schumann's adorable song-cycle Dichterliebe, beautifully transferred at London's Abbey Road Studios and included as part of a generous package that also programmes tuneful songs by Grieg, Peter Heise and a whole host of Danish unknowns. Danacord's "Complete Aksel Schiotz" edition is now drawing to a close, but I can't imagine that future releases will be more inviting than this notable Volume 8.

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