Wednesday, 31 December 2008

New Year's Eve. A disappointing leg of lamb (a bit tough) but my last bottle of Monsieur Bachelet's 1998 red wine was in flawless condition.

As a musical hors d'oeuvre I listened to Simone Lamsma playing Elgar salon pieces; entirely admirable, both music and playing. Ms Lamsma knows that music like this must not be milked, but must be allowed to flow freely and swiftly. As a main work, I listened to Masaaki Suzuki directing his forces in Bach's Bach in B Minor. What a magnificent work this is! To my mind, one of the three pinnacles of Western music (the other peaks being the St Matthew Passion, and Beethoven's C sharp minor string quartet opus 131). Suzuki's performance is excellent, though in places he could allow the music a little more time to breathe (a common modern drawback in Bach performances). Now on to 2009 ...

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas 2008 has been dominated by Bach cantatas. Today I polished off the last Kuijken disc, and now await new issues in 2009. Following a reference in a book, I listened to BWV 054 (Widerstehe doch der Sünde) and picked the Gardiner version. Very good. Listening on to the next cantata on the Gardiner disc, however, I baulked at the large Monteverdi choir; large choirs for the coro in Bach's cantatas, to my mind, destroy the intimate, chamber character of the works. When it comes to performances of the baroque repertoire I am a bit schizophrenic (since I would happily deport the likes of Rachel Podger and her cohorts to Australia at the drop of a hat).

I also listened to Handel's Orlando: sheer delight. As an excursion from Bach and Handel I also played a (new) CD of the Soloisti di Moscow under Yury Bashmet in Grieg (Holberg), Mozart (Eine Kleine Nachtmusick) and Tchaikovsky (Serenade in C). But, alas, it was like interrupting the drinking of a bottle of 1995 Margaux grand cru premier classe in order to take a few sips of diet Pepsi-cola. There is not too much you can listen to after Bach and Handel.

Finally, I tried yet again to make friends with Shostakovich's 10th symphony. I love his first violin concerto, his piano trio and his piano quintet. But the symphonies just are not me. A pity.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

This weekend was occupied with listening to twelve Bach church cantatas! All performed by Sigiswald Kuijken and his team.

At the end of it, I am full of admiration for Bach and for his ability to churn out week after week high-class, high quality music of real and long-term interest. Also admiring of the Kuijken team for sustaining interest and performance standards; I now have one volume left to listen to of Kuijken's current seven volumes in his new cantata series.

This weekend has confirmed my view that Bach's instrumental parts in these cantatas are at least as important as the vocal parts (and frequently even more challenging for the musicians). I also, at last, now agree with Kuijken (and others) that in the church cantatas, it makes perfect sense to use just four voices for the choruses and chorales. Whatever the historical rights and wrongs, four voices confirm the intimate chamber music nature of these church cantatas. I will find it difficult to go back to the choirs of Gardiner or Herreweghe.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

My musical listening remains dominated by Johann Sebastian and Georg Frideric. This evening I sat back and basked in the new Acis & Galatea (John Butt). Music to sit back with and enjoy. Then on to three Bach cantatas directed by Sigiswald Kuijken; as I wrote very recently, what appeals to me about Kuijken in Bach is the exemplary concentration on clarity of texture; with Sigiswald, you hear all the notes. I must augment my collection of Kuijken Bach cantatas -- I am missing three of the current seven volumes.

Meanwhile, I have become the true champion cook of braised oxtail. The remains this evening were of world championship standard. I must embark on a new stew-up (oxtail, onions, carrots, mushrooms, many herbs, and good red wine, plus 5-6 hours of slow cooking).

Sunday, 7 December 2008

It is not often I sit down and listen to three different recordings of the same work. This weekend, however, I did just that to Bach's cantata BWV 21: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. It was Sigiswald Kuijken versus Philippe Herreweghe versus Masaaki Suzuki. The winner was: Sigiswald Kuijken, by quite a margin with a 20 year old recording with La Petite Bande and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. Kuijken's soprano (Greta de Reyghere) was as good as Herreweghe's (Barbara Schlick) and both were superior to Suzuki's (Monika Frimmer). Kuijken had Christoph Prégardien as his ever-admirable tenor. But what gave Kuijken his big advantage was the supreme clarity of his orchestral and choral textures. Bach's textures are often dense and complex (a source of much criticism during his lifetime), and in this cantata the bass line often has a key role in heightening the harmonic tension. With Kuijken, you hear all the parts, and his choir during the fugal passages thins down to just one or two per part. In additon, with Kuijken's direction you sense a deep love of this marvellous cantata by all concerned.