Sunday, 31 August 2008

Listened with great pleasure to three hours of Handel in Radamisto (Joyce DiDonato, Patrizia Ciofi, Maite Beaumont, et al with Il Complesso Barocco directed by Alan Curtis). Handel knows how to keep his listeners' attention with a stream of contrasting airs and recitatives, with stunning and varied orchestration.

For a change, a stream of CDs going out, rather than in (though new ones keep arriving). So exeunt various recordings of Gil Shaham, Maxim Vengerov, Joshua Bell and Kyung-Wha Chung. Who knows: maybe in five years time I'll just be left with Heifetz, Handel, Bach and the late Beethoven string quartets.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Jonathan Keates' truly excellent biography of Handel is proving an extremely expensive read. As soon as Keates enthuses over something or other by Handel that I do not have, the temptation is too great not to speed to my computer and order the work online. He even has me ordering a CD of cantatas by Nicolò Porpora! Still, it makes a change from ordering Tchaikovsky's violin concerto.

On a different note, it was interesting to hear Jakob Shapiro in Brahms Op 40 Horn Trio (with Gilels and Kogan in 1951 -- excellent Doremi transfer). French horns do not usually blend at all satisfactorily with solo violins. But Shapiro's soft-toned Russian horn with typical Russian vibrato blends in extraordinarily well and makes one realise -- at last -- that Brahms knew what he was doing.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

For some reason, I have never previously come across Borodin's D major piano trio. But I enjoyed it this afternoon played by Emil Gilels, Dmitry Tziganov and Sergei Shirinsky (Moscow, 1950). Followed it with Fauré's Op 15 quartet for piano and string trio (Gilels again, Kogan, Barshai and Rostropovich). Moscow, 1958.

The Soviet Union was a pretty grim place back in those days. But it did produce an astonishing crop of first-class musicians and musical performances. Compare it with Switzerland's contribution! The two transfers from Doremi are extremely good, and the company appears to have mended its glassy, over-filtering ways of the past.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Yesterday evening I was most impressed listening to Cornelia Vasile playing the Paganini 24 Capricci. Her bowing was an object lesson in violin technique, and even Paganini himself would have been amazed at Vasile's ability to overcome any hurdle, seemingly effortlessly.

The recording comes from Bucharest (1967) and makes you realise how many unknown superb instrumentalist there were (and still are) out there. Vasile's Capricci are so much better than Ricci's somewhat hit-and-miss playing; yet it is Ricci who gets the renown. Unfair!

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Jonathan Keates' revised and updated biography of Handel is an excellent read, closely integrating life, history and music. A model of its kind. Spurred on by Keates' enthusiasm, I spent Sunday listening with great pleasure to Handel's Agrippina -- one advantage of having a vast library of CDs that have rarely been listened to more than once.

I thoroughly enjoyed the three and a half hours of Agrippina which is, of course, packed with Handel's "hits". The 1991 recording by John Eliot Gardiner and an almost entirely British caste is excellent (though I still deplore Eliot Gardiner's habit of autumatically adding "molto" whenever he comes across an allegro, vivace or presto).

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Naxos is a pretty marvellous record company; along with Harmonia Mundi, the two companies seem to provide most of my purchases of new recordings (as opposed to re-issues of old recordings). With Naxos one can admire the price, the daring repertoire choices, the consideration for purchasers over 30 in having track details etc in large type, the absence of scantily-dressed bimbos on CD sleeves, the "no delete" policy, etc. I have just really enjoyed what is apparently Volume One of a complete two-volume set of the music for violin & piano of Nikolai Medtner. Talented violinist is Laurent Kayaleh (I have never heard of her, but she plays a lovely Guarneri violin of 1742 that used to belong to Carl Flesch). At this price, one can buy without too much hesitation. And the third violin and piano sonata of Medtner is well worth getting to know -- alongside such large and mainly unplayed sonatas as those by Alkan or Lekeu.

Naxos, Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion are all record companies founded and run by music-loving men who were more interested in repertoire and recording than they were in "stars" and profits. Imagine EMI, DGG, Sony, RCA or the old American Columbia bringing out a two-volume Medtner set!

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Demand to know my "10 favourite CDs". This is a bit of a conundrum, since does Tristan & Isolde, for example, count as four, or one? Are we talking "works", or CDs? And what about a CD with three works on it? Whatever, here goes in purely random order, since to select My Ten Essential CDs and then put them in order of preference would be too much and quite haphazard.

1. Bach: 48 Preludes & Fugues. Edwin Fischer. Just timeless classic.
2. Beethoven: Late string quartets. Busch Quartet. Again, timeless classic.
3. Handel: Amadigi di Gaula. I have to have some Handel, and there are so many candidates. I like Amadigi and it contains some excellent Handel, so it will have to do. Probably choose the Minkowski version, since he underlines the contra-bassoon in the lovely Pena Tiranna aria.
4. Heifetz: The recently re-vamped CD of the Vieuxtemps fifth concerto, together with Bruch's Scottish Fantasia and G minor violin concerto.
5. Michael Rabin playing Wieniawski's first violin concerto. I'll cheat and add to this Leonid Kogan playing the first Paganini violin concerto since, after all, they would both fit easily on to one CD!
6. Bach: Mass in B minor. I have to include this; probably choose the Klemperer recording, despite the slow Kyrie. But I like Klemperer, and like the clarity of his (smallish) chorus.
7. Schubert's B flat major sonata D 960. One of those works you keep coming back to. Choice of version is a bit hard: Richter, Schnabel, Lewis or Andsnes? And there are others ... Curzon, for example. But I have to have the first movement repeat, so Andsnes.
8. Shostakovich: Violin concerto No.1. Needs to be in the list, since it is probably my favourite violin concerto. Big, big choice of versions. But I'll settle for Leila Josefowicz, since her CD also contains a definitive version of the elusive sonata for violin & piano.
9. Bruckner: Symphony No.9. The ninth spot must go to Bruckner and his ninth symphony. There is only the recording of the public performance on 7th October 1944 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwängler; no other performance comes within 10 miles of this one .. and the recording is astonishingly good through large loudspeakers.
9.99. Elgar: Sospiri conducted by John Barbirolli. Cheating a bit, but it can't be left out.

Well, Number 10 is going to need some reflection. There must be over 50 candidates for the one slot.

10. Josef Hassid: violin recital. Well, No.10 has been chosen. Not Wagner, not Sibelius. Just eight short encore pieces recorded by Josef Hassid between the ages of 16 and 17. If ever one wants to hear just what a violin can do, it is enough to listen to Hassid playing Sarasate's Playera. Leaves Heifetz on the starting line (and that is saying something!)

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Back from my trip to Senigallia (Le Marche). Al Cuoco di Bordo was as good as remembered; the raw seafood -- including langoustines -- is quite amazing. I also have fond memories of I Cappuccini in Arcevia, and of Al Contuccio in Urbino.

Feasted today on squid (butter, garlic, parsley and white wine) plus this evening a big dish of moules marinières enhanced with clams. Excellent. Wines were a cheap Côtes du Rhône, plus a cheap white Rioja (both good, and both from Tesco Online).

Then, in the evening, to what is becoming my musical Bible: Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues played by Edwin Fischer. When listening to Fischer's playing of this inexhaustible music, one is very conscious of Bach's introductory inscription: "... to execute the same well, but above all, to achieve cantabile style in playing ... " Bach would have approved of Edwin Fischer. I have a feeling that these three CDs of the "48" will never be shelved and filed away by me.