Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Georgy Catoire is a little-known Russian composer, and I made his acquaintance via Carlos who kindly sent me some of his works, including the violin & piano sonatas played by David Oistrakh and Alexander Goldenweiser (1948 and 52). Catoire sounds like Wagner mixed with Fauré and César Franck. Unfortunately the Oistrakh / Goldenweiser CD was a wash-out; the balance was 65% violin and 35% piano (as so often in those days with recordings from Russia or America). But, even worse, it had been "processed" by the DoReMi team purifiers and poor old Oistrakh's Strad in its lower registers sounds like an alto saxophone. DoReMi gets hold of some really interesting and rare material -- then promptly usually proceeds to ruin it by over-filtering. This is far from the first time I have cursed with disappointment.

So I bought a CD of the "complete" violin & piano works of Catoire, since I like his music and the very-late Romantics are one of my favourite follies. The new CD, much better balanced and recorded than poor old Goldenweiser, features Herwig Zack (violin) and Bernd Zack (piano). Presumably, two brothers. I like the Zacks in this music, and I welcome the recording with its lifelike sound and equal balance between piano and violin. The filler is a couple of pieces by Ravel, and they fit a Catoire evening just fine. A good CD.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

It is always exhilarating to listen to Michael Rabin's violin playing. There is a verve, complete technical mastery and enthusiastic identity with the music being played when Michael wields the bow. The new Audite transfers of Bruch's G minor violin concerto plus bits by Sarasate, Wieniawski, etc from 1969 are very well played. The CD also contains a Saint-Saëns Havanaise from 1962 --perhaps the ill-fated Berlin tour where Rabin was booed by a disappointed audience. All the recordings come from RIAS in Berlin.

Disappointingly, the transfer of the violin sound is over-bright (except in the 1962 Havanaise). Someone ought to leave all these transfers to Mark Obert-Thorn.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The twentieth century -- particularly the first half -- saw many important and interesting composers of music. In several decades time, when all begins to fall into perspective, I suspect that the major figure of the century will prove to be Dimitri Shostakovich. For a start, his music is completely distinctive and can never be confused for one moment with the music of Bartok, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Sibelius, Britten ... or anyone else. This evening I listened with very great enjoyment to Shostakovich's G minor piano quintet, played (extremely well) by the "Amsterdam Chamber Music Society" in an excellent 6-CD box I picked up very cheaply. Fine music, beautifully played.
A task for the next few years is to get to know and digest the 15 string quartets of Shostakovich, and the complete major operas of Wagner. A major challenge.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Fame, and who becomes famous, has always been fickle. In the violin world, distinctive giants such as Kreisler, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Elman and Milstein have usually achieved prominence. But so many good, and even great, players have languished unseen and unheard of. And it is no different today. In what may be labelled "The battle of the PR men" very good violinists such as Joshua Bell, Chloe Hanslip or Nikolaj Znaider achieve popular renown. While truly first class violinists such as Liza Ferschtman remain relatively unknown. I listened to Ms Ferschtman yesterday evening with great pleasure in Stravinsky, Franck, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich pieces. Her playing had everything I wanted and I could not imagine better performances of each piece (and her piano partner, Bas Verheijden, was also excellent).

Ms Ferschtman obviously does not have the same weight of PR man as her superb compatriot, Janine Jansen. Which is her loss, but also ours since, in my opinion, she is a far more interesting and musicianly violinist than Bell, Hanslip or Znaider.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A critic a couple of years ago wrote an anguished piece on the subject of "musicians do not always know much about music". The critic had talked to a professional violinist, who had avowed that the music of Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascuéz was a lot more interesting than that of Luciano Berio (an avant-garde Italian composer). The critic squawked with outrage. But the violinist was right; for over a hundred years violinists have loved playing the music of Sarasate, and audiences have loved listening to his tuneful and interesting salon pieces.

Anyone tackling the Sarasate pieces comes up against strong competition and immediately invokes comparisons. In Zapateado, there are two extraordinary 17 year olds: Jascha Heifetz and Josef Hassid. In Playera there is the haunting sound of Hassid, a performance never equalled, in my opinion. In the Romanza Andaluza there are numerous recordings by Leonid Kogan with whom the piece was something of a speciality. And looming behind them all are the recordings of Sarasate himself in 1903 at the age of 60, performances that are straightforward, elegant, poised and in perfect taste.

In a 1989 recording, Mark Kaplan does well in fourteen Sarasate pieces. "Doing well" in such a context means that the listener is still enjoying every piece once the 66 minutes of playing are finished; it is not easy to hold attention over fourteen salon pieces one after the other unless you have a variety of sound, colour and bow strokes. Mr Kaplan does not rival Heifetz, Hassid or Kogan. In Playera, for example, you miss Hassid's superb bow articulation, and in Zapateado Hassid's incredible rhythmic control. But Kaplan does well, and I'll add it to my Sarasate collection with pleasure.

Monday, 15 June 2009

To my mind, the "greatest" of all the violin concertos is the A minor Op 77 by Shostakovich. I have 37 different version of it (with one more on order, lost somewhere). The competition is very fierce, with Oistrakh, Kogan, Vengerov, Repin et al putting forth their best. But I persist in finding the January 2006 concert version (Warner Classics) by Leila Josefowicz and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Orama as being head and shoulders above the competition. Josefowicz identifies body and soul with the changing moods of this piece of music, and her violin playing is suitably abandoned and ecstatic. The recording and balance are excellent. Rare in any much recorded classic I would claim a "best" version. But this is it. There is also a very fine live Promenade Concert version by the same performers (July 2006, off-air). But there is something very special about the January 2006 version. A shame about the other 36!

Appearing in the same year (1947) but a very different kettle of fish, is the violin concerto by Korngold. As different from the Shostakovich as Los Angeles is from Moscow. I have always had a soft spot for this melodic, nostalgic concerto, however. The new Naxos version by Philippe Quint is truly excellent and is probably my favourite of the eleven versions I have -- and that includes two by Heifetz! Out-doing Jascha is quite a feat, but Quint does it (partly, of course, because of a much better recording and integration with the orchestra). Anyway, Shostakovich Op 77 and Korngold Op 35 made a good evening that started with an excellent Jambon de Bayonne, fresh crab, and Pont L'Evèque and Camembert cheeses, finishing with a good espresso coffee from Nespresso. Wine from Saint-Emilion (2004).
Poor old Max Bruch. His first violin concerto was extremely good. His Scottish Fantasy is not bad at all. But the rest is pretty second rate. I cannot understand why I bought the new Naxos CD of his second and third violin concertos. Despite good playing by Maxim Fedotov, the two later concertos are, quite frankly, thoughly boring. The CD is filed on the shelf and may well never leave it during my lifetime.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

I have a large collection of "gypsy" music - which covers much of the folk music of Central Europe. Some renditions are excellent, some good, many indifferent. One of the very best is the CD of a concert by Pavel Sporcl and the group Romano Stilo. Sporcl and the boys never stray into jazz music -- a frequent problem with folk groups. Nor do they dabble with pop music. Sporcl is a phenomenal violinist who has the gypsy idiom at his finger tips, together with the true commanding stature of a real primas. An excellent round up of gypsy-type music from Central Europe played with panache and a true sense of style. A CD I keep near my player. Many thanks, Supraphon.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Even Mike the postman is beginning to think I have too many CDs. But, just occasionally, owning a big collection pays off. This weekend I had a sudden whim to listen to Mozart's string quintets. And I just happen to have a complete set of them played by the "Grumiaux Trio". I originally had these recordings dating from 1973 on LP, later updated to CD. What incredible music, and what ideal performances and recordings! I have loved the G minor quintet K 516 ever since I bought a Pye-Nixa LP of a 1951 recording by the Amadeus Quartet over half a century ago (I still have the LP).
Arthur Grumiaux is not a violinist who had popular fame in the same way as Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh, Stern or Perlman. But he was a supreme self-effacing violinist of the Franco-Belgian school who did not tour much but who made many, many recordings for Philips (thank goodness). In any recording collection, Grumiaux's performances of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the French composers such as Ravel, Franck, Debussy et al are absolutely de rigueur. His playing was always flawless, his taste impeccable, his bowing and tone infinitely subtle. Maybe not a first choice for Tchaikovsky, Bruch or Shostakovich; but often first choice for almost everything else in the violin repertoire. In particular he, often in partnership with Clara Haskil, had a true empathy for the music of Mozart.
I rounded off my rare Mozart weekend with a most enjoyable performance of the K 563 divertimento for string trio very well played by Augustin Dumay, Gérard Caussée and Gary Hoffman (1990). Dumay seems to have vanished, but he was an excellent violinist in the right kind of music.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

For many years I have had a soft spot for Erich Wolfgang Korngold; probably the only 20th century Viennese composer who will remain in popular affections over the next century. The new Naxos CD of his music features Philippe Quint in the violin concerto, and an extremely fine performance it is, too. Quint is not a well-known name; but in the Korngold violin concerto he is really in his element. The -- somewhat surprisingly good -- orchestral partner is the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mineria conducted by one Carlos Miguel Prieto. A long way from Vienna, but it all comes over well. This is my eleventh version of this concerto, and it is one of the very finest.