Italian maestro a bold newcomer to world scene

Giuseppe Sinopoli is a relative newcomer to the international conducting scene. Yet the Italian maestro, who recently finished three weeks of guest appearances with the New York Philharmonic, has been granted a unique privilege: He is learning his craft with only the major ensembles of the world. His history is unusual. He is a trained surgeon and psychiatrist as well as a thoroughly trained musician with a much-discussed opera under his belt - ``Lou Salome.'' He has been in constant demand as a symphony and opera conductor (he will only do new productions, with full casting approval), and he has a major recording contract with the powerful, European-based Deutsche Grammophon Records.

His most recent recordings include the first two installments of a projected Mahler cycle and a complete Verdi ``La Forza del Destino,'' all with his London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as a Wagner disc with the New York Philharmonic. These, along with two of the three programs heard here, add up to a less than complete picture of this enigmatic figure.

Sinopoli's musical repertoire is quite limited. He fa vors the German romantic and post-romantic literature, with ``asides'' to such composers as Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. In a separate category, there are the operas, and of course, his own works. On the Philharmonic programs I heard, he offered music by Mahler, Ravel, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss. He has made Mahler something of a specialty - as have Klaus Tennstedt, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Georg Solti, and Eliahu Inbal, who have all recently completed their recorded cycles; and Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink, who are re-recording them now.

I went to hear Sinopoli's reading of Mahler's massive Third Symphony twice to be sure that the stolidity and lack of charm that undermined the first performance was not just due to opening night jitters or insecurity. It wasn't. The orchestra played very well, particularly at the second performance, giving Sinopoli exactly what he wanted, driven downbeat for driven downbeat.

It is crucial, however, in any meaningful performance of a Mahler symphony for the conductor to know what is being communicated every moment and what every musical gesture implies in the context of the entire symphony and the entire Mahler oeuvre; Sinopoli does not give that impression. His account captured few of the needed resonances and managed few magical moments. At least mezzo Florence Quivar was on hand to give us some sumptuous singing in the solo movement.

These problems affect Sinopoli's recent Second Symphony recording with the impassive Philharmonia Orchestra (DG digital, two CDs 415 959-2), which has some moments of interest, but he substitutes calculation for the ecstasy and radiance the music demands. The compact disc issue is filled out by a fine performance of the ``Early Songs'' with Bernd Weikl, and a rough but com mitted ``Songs of a Wayfarer'' with Brigitte Fassb"ander. Sinopoli's reading of the Fifth (DG digital, CD 415 476-2), on the other hand, is dramatic and particularly good at toying with the macabre elements in the score, and the Philharmonia seems to be playing with at least a modicum of conviction.

At Avery Fisher Hall, Sinopoli's Ravel - the ``Tombeau de Couperin'' - lacked charm. He tried to follow the sinuous weavings of the melodies, but the Gallic lilt that animates the music was simply out of his grasp. Nor was his Berlioz especially interesting. The dramatic scene ``La Mort de Cl'eop^atre'' is a feast of orchestral accompaniment for a gifted soprano with a strong middle voice. It is just such a strong middle that Rosalind Plowright lacks, so that much of the scena simply could not be heard or ``felt.'' And the top notes at the performance I attended were squally.

Miss Plowright is Leonora on Sinopoli's disenchanting new recording of Verdi's ``La Forza del Destino'' (DG, three CDs 419 203-2). She sounds as if she has never performed the role on stage, so awkward is the approach to vocal line, so error-ridden is her Italian, so neutral is her sense of drama. She gets no help from Sinopoli, who seems utterly at a loss when trying to bring the opera to life in a recording studio.

Added to the problems of this set are the unexpectedly disappointing performances of Renato Bruson (Carlos), Paate Burchuladze (Guardiano), and Agnes Baltsa (Preziosilla). Jos'e Carreras is in good voice as Alvaro, but he cannot carry the show.

Richard Strauss's music brings out conflicting aspects of Sinopoli's performing profile. In ``Death and Transfiguration,'' he stressed a certain agitated quality that became tiresome, and the apotheosis lacked the needed quality of release. But Sinopoli's ``Dance of the Seven Veils'' from the opera ``Salome'' was brilliant in conception and execution. It captured the daring blend of odd harmonies, clashing rhythms, and vulgarized Orientalisms that Strauss wove into a lurid bit of mood painting.

So thrilling was the account, it whetted one's appetite for a complete Sinopoli ``Salome'' in an opera house. Would that his Wagner record with the New York Philharmonic (DG digital, CD 419 169-2) did the same. It was done in a rush at the Performing Arts Center at the State University of New York in Purchase and finds the ensemble in less than glorious form. The ``Siegfried-Idyll'' is not exactly the sort of sustained, hushed music that shows off the Philharmonic to best advantage under these hasty circumstances, and Sinopoli's rather brash way with the various selections from ``Die Meistersinger,'' ``Lohengrin,'' and ``Der Fliegende Holl"ander'' have a hectic quality that precludes majesty and profundity.

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