Monday, 26 June 2017

Ivry Gitlis

Recently, trying to squeeze a violin CD played by someone whose surname began with “G” on to my violinist shelving, I discovered the “G”s were pretty well full (thanks also to Arthur Grumiaux). It was then that I discovered I had no less than 13 CDs of recordings by Ivry Gitlis, the Israeli violinist born in 1922 (and still with us, living happily in Paris). Gitlis was always a somewhat idiosyncratic violinist, but with a wonderful sound and a pretty well flawless technique. I heard him play in London many years ago – when he must have been over 80 years old. He was still Gitlis (playing Saint-Saëns) but with the fabulous technique a little under strain; not surprisingly. A quick look in Wikipedia shows Gitlis having made many, many recordings over the decades, with a notable absence of much Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms. As part of Gitlis's highly individual sound, there is often odd choppy phrasing and rhythm, a kind of anti-legato – which almost sounds contrived. His use of on-off vibrato became a mannerism, and bars of “dead vibrato” often make me wince. However, he had cast-iron violin technique and intonation, like a good Carl Flesch pupil and colleague with Flesch with Bronislav Gimpel, Joseph Hassid, and Ginette Neveu.

On Le Violon Enchanté CD (Philips, Japan, 1994, 22 tracks) Gitlis is heard at his best in Bartok's Six Romanian Dances; at his least best in the Handel sonata (Op 1 No.15).

Extravaganza (EMI, Japan 1989, 14 tracks) confirms that I enjoy Gitlis most in fast music, where his on-off vibrato, choppy phrasing and exaggerated rubato can intrude least. He turns in a fine Devil's Trill sonata. Chopin's posthumous nocturne (arranged by Milstein) is well played, but does not have the “heart” of the recording by his fellow Flesch pupil, Ginette Neveu (arranged there by Rodionov).

Méditation de Thaïs (EMI, Japan, 1985, 19 tracks). For me, some of the pieces suffer from Gitlis's odd rubato, and his attempt to phrase so that the violin “speaks”, rather than sings. Dvorak's Songs my Mother Taught Me suffers from this, as do Bloch's Nigun, and Rachmaninov's Daisies. La fille aux cheveux de lin (Hartmann) comes off well. Gitlis seems to have an affection for Fritz Kreisler's pieces and arrangements, and both Liebesleid and Danny Boy come off well. The Méditation from Thaïs gets a very fine performance; Hora Staccato is good, but not in the Dinicu / Heifetz class. Excellent Zigeunerweisen (as expected).

A concert in Strasbourg in 1975, almost certainly an amateur recording, shows Gitlis in surprisingly good form for the Bach Chaconne, with little scope for weird on-off vibrato, or exaggerated rubato. A pity about the final unison chord, that does not need vibrato. The acoustic is cavernous, but the Bach work shows off Gitlis's fine technique and lovely violin tone. I enjoyed it. The rest of the recital, with Georges Pludermacher at the piano, suffers badly from the poor acoustic and very bad balance between piano (over-dominant) and violin. Probably a good concert if you were there, but highly forgettable if you were not. Paganini's 24th caprice is given in Leopold Auer's arrangement, with a quite unnecessary piano part.

An excellent off-air recording from 13th June 1972 confirms Gitlis as a first-class player of Paganini. The second concerto, with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stanisław Skrowaczewski, is really well worth listening to. Paganini suits extrovert violinists with big egos, and Gitlis is in his element and turns in one of the very best performances of Paganini 2 that I can think of.

I did not bother re-listening to a Vox CD of Berg's violin concerto (recorded 1953), Hindemith's concerto (1962) and Stravinsky's concerto (1955). Life is too short, and time should not be wasted. The twentieth century produced many fine violin concertos. These three were not among them. The respective esteemed conductors were William Strickland, Hubert Reichert, and Harold Byrns.

I never cared much for Gitlis with Martha Argerich in the Franck and Debussy duo sonatas (1977). A bit too much of two prima donnas slogging it out together, and Gitlis does not appear to be at his best. On a Via Classics CD (1968) Gitlis turns in a spirited performance of the Mendelssohn concerto (with the Monte-Carlo orchestra under David Josefowitz). Not great recorded sound (it would appear that Gitlis rarely was given the A team for his recordings) but good enough.

A Philips Duo set of CDs brings a Gitlis cornucopia from the period 1966-69. Paganini's first and second violin concertos, three Paganini caprices arranged for violin and piano (ugh!), the first and second Wieniawski violin concertos, Saint-Saën's second and unfinished fourth concerto. Most of the concertos are with truncated orchestral parts, as was lamentably common in those days. Orchestras for Paganini are Polish, and for Wieniawski, Monte-Carlo. A little illogical, mais c'est comme ça. In the first Paganini concerto, Gitlis is highly virtuosic but so are Kogan, Akiko Suwanai or Nemanja Radulovic, to mention just three. Like many analogue to digital transfers of that era, the treble sound is over-bright and somewhat steely. The 1972 off-air Paganini second concerto sounds better, from a recorded sound point of view. In the Philips transfer, for the cadenza (by Gitlis) in the second concerto, it sounds as if he is playing on a $10 tin violin. Alas, that is how things often were in 1994 (when this transfer was made) with many of the major companies as they scrambled to digitise their backlog of recordings.

On the second of the Philips Duo CDs, the first and last movements of Wieniawski's shamelessly neglected first concerto show Gitlis's virtuosity in full throttle. The work is heavily cut (the first movement is all over in less than ten and a half minutes, as compared with just under 16 minutes for the recording I admired by Soo-Hyun Park). The larghetto is too slow, and suffers from some of Gitlis's “sea-sick” rolling phrasing. I am all for musicians being different, but there is also the phenomenon of being different just for the sake of being different. In Wieniawski's second concerto, Gitlis is his fine virtuoso self in the first movement (again, heavily cut) but the Romance confirms my feeling that I often do not admire Gitlis so much when it comes to slower music. The melody of the Romance is chopped up into bits, with no real legato; if Gitlis were a singer, he would be taking a breath every five seconds. Once the Romance is over, Gitlis comes into his own in the Allegro “alla Zingara” that he zips through in a little over five minutes flat.

Finally, on the Philips Duo CDs, we come to Camille Saint-Saëns, and his neglected second violin concerto. Many violinists play the third, but the second rarely appears; it is a fine work, however, perfectly crafted as one would expect from Saint-Saëns. I used to have this Gitlis recording on LP (where it sounded better than the current digital transfer in the Philips box). The concerto has a lovely slow movement, but I don't like Gitlis playing it for me. Not enough legato, too much on-off vibrato, too much rubato. Give me Fanny Clamagirand in this movement, any day. The duo CDs end with Saint-Saëns' fourth concerto (11 minute fragment thereof, pretty much just the first movement; Saint-Saëns never finished it).

Predictably, Gitlis's 1976 recording of Paganini's 24 Capricci is up there with the best. The fantasy / virtuosity elements of this music suit Gitlis 100 per cent. The CD transfer I have from the original LP tapes (Philips) is not the best; when a Guarneri / Stradivari violin starts to sound cheap, you know that the recording / transfer is not good. However, one to keep and to air often, despite the ferocious competition. I just hope that, one day, someone will make a better digital transfer, although the copyright will not expire until 2026 by which time I may well not be here. I received my copy around ten years ago, from a friend. I gave it three stars, but I do not think I have listened to it since. Mea culpa. It is now fixed firmly in my firmament of really first-class Paganini recordings. Just how I would have liked to play the Paganini Capricci, had I practised the violin just a little more seriously in my youth.

I skip-sampled the Vox concerto recordings from the 1954 to 1957 (Double Vox CD), when Gitlis must have been in his technical prime. There are hundreds of recordings of the Tchaikovsky, Bruch G minor, Sibelius, Mendelssohn, and Bartok violin concertos, as there are of Bartok's sonata for solo violin. The conductor for the Bruch, Sibelius and Bartok concertos is no less than Jascha Horenstein, a good stand-by Vox conductor in 1950s Vienna. The transfers are better done than for the double Philips album and, in fact, the sound is perfectly acceptable in this Vox double box. Gitlis's playing reveals a fast vibrato throughout, and the on-off vibrato effect had not yet arrived in his technical repertoire, thank goodness. The six works on the two Vox CDs are given good, solid, classical accounts; I have neglected this box for too long. A “must” for all Gitlis fans, but also excellent performances of the works.

My final conclusion is that Ivry Gitlis deserves his high reputation among lovers of violin playing. I have thinned out my 13 Gitlis CDs, but the ones I am keeping I keep with pleasure and the knowledge I'll listen to them all again. Gitlis is at his very best when the music is fast; in slow music, his sound and phrasing can be too idiosyncratic; even on the 1950s Vox recordings, his fast, nervous vibrato in the slow movements grates a little. My 13 Gitlis CDs are now down to six, but they are six CDs to which I will listen often.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Carolyn Sampson in French Mélodies

French song is not as “popular” as German song. However, I have long been a fan of French mélodies, so I snapped up a new CD of French songs sung by one of my current favourite singers, Carolyn Sampson. The CD has 33 mélodies, all featuring the poems of Paul Verlaine, with quite a few settings of the same poems by different composers. The overall standard of the music from the ten composers featured is high, though inevitably some stand out more than others. There are surprises: I greatly liked the setting of Paysages tristes by someone unknown to me, Déodat de Séverac.

The French language, a frequent hurdle for non-native singers, sounds pretty secure in the voice of Carolyn Sampson (a quick look at a YouTube interview in French shows she has a pretty good command of the language). 80 very pleasant minutes. Joseph Middleton sounds an excellent accompanist on the piano, and BIS produces a clear and well-balanced recording. Another esteemed acquisition.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Tetzlaff Quartett in late Schubert

All my musical life, I have held the music of Franz Schubert in high regard, particularly his later works: the final three piano sonatas, the final string quartets, and the Winterreise song cycle. A high place is reserved for Schubert's last string quartet, in G major D.887. I came to know it from an LP with the Quartetto Italiano (a performance I still have) and then from the Busch Quartet, recorded in the 1930s. Those two performance were very different, with the Italians bringing their smooth, wonderful tone to the work, whilst the Busch players presented a starker picture. Now along comes the Tetzlaff Quartett, and the mood is starker still – rather like the recent recording of Death and the Maiden with the Pavel Haas Quartet that I so much enjoyed recently.

The Tetzlaff Quartett reveals a more complex emotional world than that suggested by the Quartetto Italiano, with the Italians' softer colours and ironing out of dissonances and dynamic extremes. With Tetzlaff, we wonder at Schubert's kaleidoscopic harmonic shifts as well as at his constant shifts of mood. Looking at the score, pp and ff seem to be alternating every few bars, and the score is littered with accidentals, keeping the harmonic language vague, even at times bringing to mind Schubert's later Austrians – Mahler, Zemlinsky or Korngold. The Tetzlaffs approach is similar to that of the old Busch Quartet, but with later recording techniques the full force of Schubert's violently alternating dynamic range can be felt to the full.

As I have written before, string quartets have often been a medium of intensely personal communication where composers, free of writing for the masses, could indulge in a little experimentation, or in exploration of more personal feelings, as witnessed by many of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Shostakovitch. Even Mendelssohn departed from his usual pleasant sounds with his string quartet in F minor opus 80, written immediately after the death of his sister. As with the Pavel Haas in Death and the Maiden, I am happy to add the Tetzlaff Quartett's recording of Schubert's final string quartet to my Schubert pantheon.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Roberta Invernizzi, and Handel

Apart from Gustav Mahler, it is difficult to think of a composer whose stock has risen faster than that of Georg Frideric Handel. When I was young, when it came to Handel it was the Messiah, the Water Music, the Fireworks music, and some violinist – including me – playing “Handel's Largo”. My current catalogue of Handel recordings amounts to 585 works: duetti, cantatas, complete operas and oratorios, plus arias from individual operas and oratorios. Yes, five Messiahs, six recordings of the “Largo” (but no Fireworks, or Water Music). Inconceivable back in the 1950s and 60s.

The latest 13 Handel pieces (all from his operas) to join my collection are sung by Roberta Invernizzi (with the Accademia Hermans directed by Fabio Ciofini). Invernizzi has a lovely burnished soprano voice that I enjoy immensely. Her arias are well chosen; the band plays well and stylistically. The CD wins a privileged place in my rack of 15 CDs that I keep to hand. There is a lot to be said for singers who sing in their native languages; for a start, they can concentrate hard on the meaning of the words, rather than on how to pronounce them colloquially. But that is a subject for another essay. I also often prefer Italian bands in this kind of music, rather than their more prim and proper North European counterparts. Maybe Handel, with his evident preference for Italian singers and musicians (at that time) had good instincts. See Thomas Hearne and his condemnation in Oxford of Handel and his “Crew of (lousy foreign) fiddlers”. An early Brexit supporter !

Invernizzi's CD is built around the four famous sopranos for whom Handel wrote much of his operatic music. The fact that two of the sopranos achieved the popular nicknames of “the Elephant” and “the Pig” reminds us of the days when opera singers (as well as musicians in general) were prized above all for their performing ability, rather than for their physical appearance. Alas, nowadays if you are not young and beautiful, you are greeted with polite rejection by the marketing team. We await with horror the future appearance of a teenage Brunhilde, and a teenage Tristan.

An excellent addition to my 585 collection of Handel recordings. I confess to being a bit of a Handel junkie; but rather more Handel than yet another Kreutzer Sonata, or Mendelssohn violin concerto. Viva Invernizzi !

Igor Levit plays Rachmaninov

Igor Levit is a modern pianist who – so far – can do little wrong, in my eyes. I had pigeon-holed him as a supreme pianist in the classical repertoire: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Not a Romantic. I was therefore intrigued when a friend directed me to an off-air performance (6th June) of Levit playing Rachmaninov, one of the great late-Romantic composers. I should have reflected more; some of the very best performances of Rachmaninov's works are by the composer himself, who had no truck with icing the cake and gilding the lily when it came to playing his own works. Rachmaninov played them straight.

Levit gives a superb performance à la Rachmaninov of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Levit is recognisably Levit in the playing, and I should have reflected in advance on his expressed love of playing variations. Superb support comes from the Bavarian State Orchestra under Kirill Petrenko, and the two ex-Russians with one of the world's top orchestras give a performance of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody that goes straight to the top 2-3 performances I can think of. I'll watch out eagerly for more opportunities to sample Igor Levit playing Rachmaninov.

James Ehnes, and Beethoven's Sonatas

For the past twenty years or so, I have followed the career of the violinist James Ehnes with interest. Just over ten years ago, I heard him live at a concert (playing the Shostakovich first violin concerto). I have many, or most of, his recordings. Looking at the most recent CD cover photo, I was struck by his physical resemblance to Jascha Heifetz: neat attire, clean shaven, immaculate short hair. On the concert platform also he resembles Heifetz's famous no-nonsense playing stance and facial expressions.

Like Heifetz, Ehnes is a superb and sophisticated player, with technique to burn as shown in his recent re-recording of the the 24 Paganini Capricci. Of course, Ehnes's playing sounds nothing like Heifetz's; no one's ever does. But the similarities between the two men are somewhat striking. As a loyal Ehnes fan, I bought his latest CD featuring Beethoven's violin and piano sonatas Opus 30 No.1, and Opus 47 (Kreutzer). The pianist is Andrew Armstrong, who does well, although I always get the impression that Beethoven's piano parts in these sonatas are less important than in many other duo sonatas by other composers. No problem with Armstrong, however, and no problem with the excellent Onyx recording. Like almost all violin and piano recordings, this one is best heard through good quality headphones rather than speakers; modern loudspeakers – at least in the quality range I can afford – are designed to give good bass response (which is what most music listeners pine for, it appears). Treble response is sacrificed, which means that the sound from the bass-heavy piano predominates over the sound from the treble-heavy violin.

It goes without saying that Ehnes's playing in these two sonatas is absolutely first rate, and it is difficult to find fault with him (or with Armstrong). It is a good lesson in sophisticated violin playing. Truly excellent versions of these two sonatas, in other words. I re-discovered the sad fact that I really do not enjoy the Kreutzer sonata; give me any of the other nine Beethoven sonatas in its place. I find it too long. The slow movement is a set of variations rather than one of Beethoven's sublime adagios; and it goes on for some sixteen minutes, with the whole sonata lasting nearly forty minutes – far too long for its subject matter, in my view, and I rarely enjoy Beethoven in his more aggressive moods. No fault of Ehnes and Armstrong, however!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Volodos plays Brahms

It is highly unusual for me to buy a CD of Brahms piano music. I enjoy a wide range of piano music, especially Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Rachmaninov. I no more can play the piano than I can play the marimba, so the piano music of the “pianist” composers does not feature prominently on my shelves; little Liszt, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Scriabin (Rachmaninov is an exception). But I was curious about all the critical furore regarding a new Brahms piano music CD recorded by Arcadi Volodos, so I ventured out with my money, and bought it. And I have now listened to it many times.

When it comes to solo piano music, I still greatly prefer Rachmaninov to Brahms. However, Mr Volodos does an excellent job in persuading me to keep this CD for frequent listening. It is not so much the music; it's the playing. Volodos has an uncanny talent for light and shade, for graduations of piano (not much of the music on the CD is vigorous or loud). So I sit entranced listening to Volodos's piano playing. The three Opus 117 intermezzi are familiar – even to me – but what piano playing!

I cannot say I am in the market now for Brahms piano recitals. But if Volodos ever records more Brahms, I'll be there with my money. I sense Volodos is not a pianist for the great classics; the magic (a word I usually dislike and avoid) is in his playing, rather than in the music. Just what is required, to my mind, for Brahms opus 76, 117 and 118. A comparison springs to mind with the conductor Thomas Beecham, who was superb in lavishing meticulous attention on minor works, but who left the "big" works of Beethoven, Brahms, etc. to others.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Carolyn Sampson sings Bach

As the proud possessor of 270 (!) recordings of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, I am somewhat baffled as to why I am still adding to my collection. When on earth am I going to listen to 270 recordings?

Be that as it may, the latest CD to arrive chez moi features the wonderful Carolyn Sampson singing three cantatas with the Freiburger Barockorchester. The CD has everything I require of a good Bach cantata recording: first class music, first class singing, fine instrumental backing, and a good recorded sound. Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten is deservedly well known and features some of Bach's best secular cantata music. It is difficult to sing, but Sampson manages it superbly. Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn adds a bass-baritone, Andreas Wolf, and very effective he is too, with a nice contrast to the soprano part. Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut is another well known cantata that confirms that Sampson is not just a pretty voice, but also responds intelligently to the words she is singing. Fine oboe playing (Katharina Arfken) throughout the cantatas add up to a welcome addition to my Bach cantata discography.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Playing Mozart

Jascha Heifetz claimed that the most difficult music to play, was the music of Mozart. I can well believe it. Mozart demands what I think of as elegant and sophisticated simplicity, an extremely difficult concept to embrace. Of all the difficult Mozart works (and there are many) K 595, the final piano concerto no. 27 in B flat major, must pose the biggest difficulties for the pianist. The music is calm, with no Sturm und Drang. Beneath the calm surface surge many emotions, all articulated with artistry and sensitivity. Liven it up, lest it becomes boring? Absolutely not !

I learned to love the work long ago via a recording with Clifford Curzon and Benjamin Britten (a recording I still esteem highly). However, for me the summit of performances of K 595 is inhabited by Clara Haskil, Maria Pires …. and Igor Levit in an off-air performance in London on 2nd September 2015. All three understand the concept of elegant and sophisticated simplicity. All three leave my ears completely satisfied.

How not to tackle Mozart I watched with some horror on a friend's television set in France last week. Simon Rattle (complete with buffoon hair-do) and Mitsuko Uchida swooned their way through the piano concerto K 488, eyes raised to heaven, heads swaying in ecstasy. Great for the cameras, great for showbiz; no wonder Rattle and Uchida are “celebrities”. But Mozart was lost, and as for elegant and sophisticated simplicity … that was lost, as well, in favour of showbiz razzmatazz. And who ever coined the phrase “Oriental inscrutability” had never seen Uchida swooning over her keyboard. Rattle and Uchida should both emigrate to Hollywood. Rattle in Mozart did not surprise me; I have always considered him as a bit of a poseur, and a media-darling. Ms Uchida needs to spend more time in Japan, and less in England. Perhaps then she will learn to put everything into the music, rather than into the camera.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Véronique Gens

It is sad, but there are well-known works of music that I have simply heard too often in my lifetime. No loss in my musical world if I never again hear Mendelssohn's violin concerto, nor the G minor violin concerto of Max Bruch, nor Dvorak's cello concerto, nor the fifth symphony of Beethoven. Sad, but over-familiarity breeds indifference, and no performers can ever re-create the magic for me; not even Fritz Kreisler in the Mendelssohn concerto, this week.

Off tomorrow for a few weeks in France, then Sicily. Lots of spaghetti alle vongole, and many plates of fritto misto del mare (I hope). Before leaving, I am luxuriating in the smoky soprano of Véronique Gens singing Berlioz's Les Nuits d'Eté, and Ravel's Shéhérazade. That is music that keeps me alert and entranced. As I have often mentioned, I am a great admirer of Véronique Gens who combines a lovely voice with superb diction and exemplary musicality. Ravel's Shéhérazade has long been a favourite of mine, dating back to an LP with Frederica von Stade singing superbly (1982).

Friday, 21 April 2017

Joseph Achron's Violin Concerto

I complain often about the conservatism and lack of ambition by violinists or impresarios when it comes to violin concertos. We hear the same old 12-15 concertos season after season. A friend recommended to me a recording of the first violin concerto of Joseph Achron, dating from around 1926. Achron – a violinist – would seem to have written three violin concertos (the third being commissioned by Heifetz). A search of the web suggests that only one of his concertos, the first, has ever been recorded; and recorded once only, 19 years ago by Elmar Oliveira. Hard to understand. Achron's musical language in the first concerto reminds me of the concertos of Aram Khatchaturian and Otar Taktakishvili; friendly folk-based music from down there in Armenia, Georgia, etc. Nothing to frighten audiences or record buyers. Plenty of playing to enjoy. Maybe, like many concertos written by violinists for violinists, the orchestra has a bit of a nominal role. However, in this one recording of this one of Achron's violin concertos, Oliveira seems to play well and with enthusiasm. I enjoyed listening and, after having now listened twice, I'll be sure to listen again at some time.

Liner notes and booklets always seem designed to annoy me, even when I have enjoyed the music and the playing. I do so dislike labels. Joseph Achron grew up in Europe, with a solid European background in Russia and Germany. He served in the Russian army in the first world war. He didn't go to America until he was 39 years old. Nevertheless, Naxos labels him as an “American Classic”, complete with American flag. Joseph Achron was no more a product of America than was Joseph Stalin. As if that is not enough, the CD is also labelled “American Jewish Music”. I dislike labels. Are we to have a series of “the five greatest Lesbian pianists”? Or “the three greatest Protestant composers”? Or “the greatest Nordic-Teutonic violinist”? It is said that Erica Morini (or was it Ida Haendel?) rightly objected when a newspaper critic labelled her as “a major woman violinist”. Music is independent of sex, language, religion, race or nationality, which is one of its strengths. Let us keep it that way.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Fritz Kreisler's Early Recordings

Fritz Kreisler was already 29 years old when he made his first recordings in 1904, followed by a second batch in 1910. Naxos issued his complete recordings, with the early ones being excellently re-mastered by Ward Marston. I have just been listening to the early recordings, starting with 1904, with a great deal of pleasure.

Despite being recorded well over 100 years ago, the essence of Kreisler's playing comes over as if it were yesterday: his burnished, golden tone; his deeply singing double-stops; his unmatched sense of rubato; his legendary bowing dexterity; his impeccable sense of style. And, over and above all that, the famous geniality of the man communicates itself. Everyone loved Fritz Kreisler, from audiences to fellow violinists. Even hyper-competitive Jascha Heifetz loved Kreisler and his playing ever since hearing him at a concert in Vilnius when Heifetz was still very young. A photo of Kreisler always hung in Heifetz's music room, the only violinist so honoured.

Repertoire was unavoidably limited back in the old days of acoustic recording, all gathered round a big horn that acted as a microphone. But despite the limitations of repertoire, and despite the prevalence of extensive portamento, these old Kreisler acoustic recordings are ones to cherish and to listen to with pleasure every year or so. No one now plays like Fritz Kreisler, more's the pity.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Wonderful Julia Lezhneva. And Carl Heinrich Graun

Music that has lain undisturbed for around 250 years is usually best left in peace. But not always, and the opera arias of Carl Heinrich Graun (a contemporary of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, et al) have turned out to be a happy resurrection, thanks also to the inspired singing of Julia Lezhneva, the Jascha Heifetz of the soprano world. What a lovely voice, what intelligence and enthusiasm, and what an incredible vocal technique! Unlike Sonya Yoncheva, the last soprano I listened to, Lezhneva really feels the words she is singing. Ten of the eleven arias on this new CD of Graun's music are world premiere recordings. All eleven well-varied arias are well worth listening to. All the arias are in Italian, the opera language of the day, and Ms Lezhneva's diction is exemplary; a lesson to many of her rivals.

True, Herr Graun did not have Handel's genius when it came to writing memorable music for the orchestra in operatic works; but neither did anyone else in the eighteenth century until Mozart came along. Ms Lezhneva, now at the ripe old age of 27, is an amazing voice and a major artist. My thanks to a good friend who sent me a copy of this CD as a present. It's a CD I will not file away for a long time to come. Enjoyable and interesting listening on a Sunday afternoon. A sample is at:

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Sonya Yoncheva

Sonya Yoncheva. A pretty woman. A lovely voice. Wonderful music (in arias from Handel operas). Her latest CD is a compilation of Mr Händel's Greatest Hits.

The highly competent orchestra (Academia Montis Regalis) is relegated somewhat far back, which is a shame, since Handel's instrumental parts are always extremely interesting. In Handel's opera arias, the orchestra is never a mere backing group, as in so much operatic music. We need to hear the orchestra! When Ms Yoncheva sings, “Traditore!” or “Amore!” are given the same sound and inflections. Sopranos should listen to Maria Callas, or Lorraine Hunt, or Joyce DiDonato, concerning the ability to convey meaning within the sound. Handel's marvellous music and melodic gift convey the meaning of what is being sung; but so should the singer be able to colour the voice accordingly. A non-stop beautiful mezzo-forte really is not good enough.

Ms Yoncheva's accent, whether in Italian or English, is carefully-trained East of Europe (Bulgaria). The CD has a “B+” from me for beautiful music and beautiful singing. But every aria on the CD can be found better communicated. Violinists (and pianists) take note: a beautiful sound is really not enough. You need to be able to communicate the music behind the notes.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Good Times for Music Lovers

Young people who like classical music (“young” for me being under 45 years of age) do not realise how lucky they are. Not much more than 100 years ago, you took what you were given in terms of repertoire played in your local area. The advent of broadcast music then helped enormously to widen choice and knowledge of alternatives, as did the arrival of recorded music. But, until the arrival of the World Wide Web, streaming, downloading, and online ordering, choices were still somewhat limited. I have just had a mini-festival of the violin music of Julius Röntgen, played by Ragin Wenk-Wolff, Liza Ferschtman, and by Atsuko Sahara. As it happens, I enjoy the genial music of this Dutch composer who was admired by Brahms and by Grieg. But I would have been hard pressed to listen to different recordings of Röntgen's music even thirty years ago. Nowadays, with a few clicks of a mouse, one can find pretty well any piece of music, somewhere or other. And listen to it, or buy a recording of it made any time after 1900.

The current era is good for those wanting to listen to music, but it is also good for professional musicians who want to be known and heard. Not more than around 60 years ago, there was room for only a handful of pianists, conductors, orchestras or violinists to become well known and famous. When I started collecting recordings back in the 1950s, even popular classics such as the Beethoven symphonies could only be found with a choice of 5-10 versions, according to the place in which one lived. When I wanted a recording of Ginette Neveu playing the Sibelius violin concerto, one of my sisters had to buy it for me in New York, since it was not available in England (the recording companies released recordings territory by territory, in those days, and shopping around, except in person, was pretty difficult).

A good friend pointed me towards a most useful website listing live performances of performances with orchestras ( What riches, and what a plethora of artists I have never heard of! Twice in my life I have been to Braunschweig in Germany, but it was only through the on-demand website that I discovered there is a Braunschweiger Staatsorchester whose conductor is named Albrecht Mayer; together, they turn in an excellent performance of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. And then there was a young violinist called Maria Milstein (no relative of Nathan, I suspect) playing the Glazunov violin concerto (very well). Apart from the on-demand website (and many similar) there is also YouTube to introduce unknown players to the general public. We are lucky to have this explosive burst of classical music, new and old.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Mozart's String Quintets. And Arthur Grumiaux

Ask 100 music cognoscenti to name the three greatest composers, and you will almost certainly end up with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Ask them for the ten greatest, and the fighting will start. I recall a twitty young journalist a few years back who insisted on listing the seven greatest composers – amongst whom he included Mahler and Stravinsky!

I will agree with the traditional top three. If I had to slim it down to the top two, it would be: Bach, and Mozart. Listening today again to the six Mozart string quintets (with two violas) one has to recognise that, even at the age of seventeen with the early quintet K 174, Mozart was not content with merely writing fluent, agreeable music. Even at seventeen years old, he was pushing the envelope of harmony and development. And the other five quintets went on to explore even greater depths and feats of daring. I grew up with the miraculous K 516 in G minor (with an early LP from the Amadeus Quartet). Subsequently, I took in the other five works. Today, despite competing versions, I will settle happily for the (augmented) Grumiaux Trio, recorded in the 1970s. Arthur Grumiaux was an incredible violinist, particularly in the classical repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. His duo recordings with Clara Haskil in Mozart and Beethoven are, rightly, regarded as something of a gold standard in recorded music. He played and recorded (thanks to Philips) almost the entire violin literature, but it is his playing of the older classics that really stands out – plus much of the Franco-Belgian musical heritage. We have the Dutch Philips company to thank for its long-term recording support of Grumiaux; and also for its excellent recording team (a tradition that the team carried over to the Pentatone label after the sale of Philips).

Monday, 3 April 2017

Accompanied by ...

Let's face it; when it comes to the orchestral contribution to Sergei Rachmaninov's piano concertos, the orchestra has a minor role. Not quite as minor as accompanying a violinist in Paganini's violin concertos. But nearly. So all praise to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi who really make the most of it when playing the orchestral part for Rachmaninov's second and third piano concertos with Khatia Buniatishvili. Ms Buniatishvili receives the lion's share of publicity (and musical glamour), and quite rightly so. But listening again, I also greatly admired the Czech Philharmonic. Rare an orchestra receives praise for accompanying a major soloist in a virtuoso concerto; when playing with violinists such a Jascha Heifetz or Michael Rabin, the orchestra – as well as being relegated to the background by the recording engineers – also had the indignity of seeing whole swathes of the orchestral music cut as being of little interest. Who wants to listen to the backing group (in popular music parlance)? Which is yet another reason why I treasure Wilhelm Furtwängler “accompanying” artists such as Edwin Fischer, Yehudi Menuhin, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, or Erich Röhn in concertos. And the Czech Philharmonic does well partnering Ms Batiashvili.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets

Even with my thinking cap on hard, I can think of only one example of a great composer dedicating a major work to another great composer. The one example is Mozart's dedication of a set of six string quartets, to Joseph Haydn. What a gift! Mozart was seemingly incapable of writing purely routine music, but the six “Haydn” quartets go as far from the routine as possible, and one senses Mozart applying his very greatest skills in composing music in order to impress his revered colleague. This is "Grade A" Mozart.

I have the six quartets played by the Quartetto Italiano, by the Alban Berg Quartett, and by the Hagen Quartett. I have just finished listening to the Hagens in all six. Wonderful playing, but the extreme pianissimo dynamics become irritating as one constantly has to notch the volume level up or down. I feel that, particularly in the first of the six quartets – K 387 – the changes in volume level almost bar by bar, grate on the nerves. Back to the Italiani of over 50 years ago.