Conductor Sinopoli digs deep into the core of a score

A decade ago, Giuseppe Sinopoli was virtually unknown. Now, in a meteoric career, he has become one of the most sought-after conductors in the business. Sinopoli studied music composition while he was preparing for a career in medicine and psychiatry. In the early 1970s he taught composition, then conducting. His opera ``Lou Salom'e'' (Salom'e was a student and associate of Sigmund Freud) was given in Munich in 1981.

His first splashes as a conductor were in the opera houses -- Venice, Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna. Then the symphony orchestras began requesting dates. He began to pick only the top orchestras and told the opera world he was available only for new productions. He signed an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon (DG) contract, yet records extensively for Philips.

Sinopoli has an excitable podium manner that only occasionally translates into reckless musical volatility. Generally his propulsiveness is tempered by a profundity that can seem at some times manufactured and ponderous, at others, revelatory. He claims to get at the core of interpretations by using his psychiatric skills to investigate a composer's (or an operatic character's) frame of mind, and so better understand what motivated the music. It sounds grimly analytical, but often Sinopoli has cast new

light on works, emotionally as well as musically.

He has been visiting the New York Philharmonic these past two weeks. From those concerts, various recordings, and his Met debut in ``Tosca'' last season, one can glean a sense of the man's musical strengths and weaknesses.

The recording that best demonstrates his strengths features Schubert's Eighth Symphony (``Unfinished'') and Mendelssohn's Fourth (``Italian''), with the Philharmonia Orchestra, of which he is now principal conductor (DG 410 862-1 -- LP; 410 862-2 -- CD). The Schubert deftly traces a journey from ominous, tormented landscapes to resigned, even hopeful ones. The Mendelssohn crackles with brio, and the players sound as if they are really enjoying themselves. Then there is a touching, thoughtful recorded B rahms ``German Requiem'' (with the Czech Philharmonic, DG 410 697-1 -- two LP).

During these past few weeks with the New York Philharmonic, however, Sinopoli's inconsistencies seemed to be on view. His ``German Requiem'' recording does not prepare one for his harsh view of the same composer's Fourth Symphony. And he favored a blowsy approach to various Wagner overtures and preludes that hampered any stirring sweep.

Yet he illuminated the dramatic struggles in Tchaikovsky's Fifth with unique freshness and power. By replacing the frantic hyperactivity usually favored with a more deliberate pacing, he sustained a darker mood that pointed to the Sixth Symphony, while giving a clearer view of Tchaikovsky's symphonic structure and orchestrational talents.

Although Sinopoli made his name first in early Verdi operas, neither of the two complete recordings issued to date, ``Nabucco'' (DG 2741 021 -- three LP; 410 512-2 -- two CD) and ``Macbeth'' (Philips 412 133-1 -- three LP; 412 133-2 -- two CD), shows him to finest effect. He performs these works at extreme ends of dynamics and pacing, with very little middle ground. This makes the politically inflammatory Verdi sound consistently naive, and also makes things difficult for the singers.

In the case of the ``Nabucco,'' this is a pity. Renato Bruson sings the title role with nobility and sensitivity, and there has probably never been a greater Abigaille than Ghena Dimitrova, today's outstanding Verdi dramatic soprano. ``Macbeth'' finds Sinopoli in marginally more poetic form, caring a bit more for balances and singerly tempos. Bruson's imposing Macbeth, Neil Shicoff's ringing Macduff, and Robert Lloyd's impressive Banquo are distinct assets. Unfortunately, soprano Mara Zampieri's inadeq uate, hooty Lady Macbeth makes it difficult to recommend this set.

Puccini, however, challenges Sinopoli to magnificence. There were numerous unforgettable moments in his Met ``Tosca'' last season -- the perfect blending of accent, orchestral color, and pacing that are branded in my aural memory.

Likewise, ``Manon Lescaut'' has never been as well conducted on records (DG 413 893-1 -- LP; 413 893-2 -- CD). The Manon, Mirella Freni, is in sumptuous voice. Bruson's Lescaut may be lavish casting, but how well he sings and acts the part. Pl'acido Domingo, in sour voice on this set, is the only weakness on an otherwise standard-setting recording (particularly on compact disc).

Sinopoli is not afraid to show the weaknesses in this relatively early score, and is more than happy to demonstrate Puccini's brilliance as an orchestrator and dramatic structuralist. He also clearly understands what Puccini is up to with each character in the drama, and that assurance lends a new richness to each character's musical profile.

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