Sunday, 30 August 2009

Loud rock music all weekend in the field next to where I live. Makes normal life impossible. I have had to take to listening to loud music through my (quite good) Sennheiser headphones. Thus I re-discovered Marin Alsop's broadcast performance of Elgar's second symphony and I have to say it's pretty good in a rough and ready sort of way. Alsop knows you must not linger in Elgar, and she propels the orchestra through the four movements, all to great advantage. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has some good wind players and exuberant brass, though the violins always sound a little weak (too many anorexic girls in the band). Still, the orchestra makes up with enthusiasm what it lacks in finesse. This was an enjoyable performance that, at times, defeated the sounds of the rock band. A fortuitous selection from my CD shelf.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

It's official: I really, really do not like Heinrich Ernst's variations on "Last Rose of Summer". I listened to the piece again played (impeccably) by Feng Ning. The first few minutes are quite fun, but after that it goes on and on and the pyrotechnics begin to sound just ridiculous. After four minutes, I've had enough. Nor did Mr Ning impress me greatly, outside this piece. He played La Ronde des Lutins as if it were nothing more than a qualifying event at the Olympic Games. Few violinists seem able to bring much fun or enjoyment to the goblins' merry dance, and I recently greatly disliked Chloë Hanslip's super-fast version. Mr Ning's rendition of Tchaikovsky's Méditation sounded carefully studied, bar by bar, and we were a long way from the sorrowful outpourings of a Kogan or an Oistrakh.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

A Schubert evening: Imogen Cooper again in the A major D 959 sonata (with the slow andantino) and Wilhelm Furtwängler's legendary 1951 recording of the "Great" C major symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic playing like angels. Played like this, it is a very great symphony indeed, and this performance is a classic of all time. The reconstituted sound (DG Originals) is almost miraculously superb. I love the way Schubert's moods and harmonies twist and turn in these two late works. Definitely my kind of composer.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The inhabitants of the flats above and below mine are away, so I can indulge in Bruckner and Wagner to my heart's delight at full volume. Spent a pleasant day with Handel's Resurrezione -- my third recording of this lovely work, with a fourth (Emannuele Haïm) on order and due any day now. This latest acquisition is a Dutch affair conducted by an Italian (Marco Vitale). It uses "Roman pitch" of A=392 Hz, and some of the tempi are somewhat stately, so it often sounds as if Handel is in murky Glasgow rather than sunny Rome. A pleasant performance and recording, though my hackles rise at the sound of the San Giovanni (Marcel Beekman). To me his voice sounds unctuous and oily, though his diction and Italian are exemplary.

I interspersed Handel with Schubert, and delved into the first of two recent CDs from Imogen Cooper. Nice playing and nice sound (and terrific music; late Schubert really is very special). But when I was learning music, andantino was not Italian for "at the pace of an elderly snail".

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Yet another talented young violinist. Yawn, yawn. There are now so many one loses track. Especially if they are Asian, as so many seem to be. So I put on a CD of someone called Chuanyun Li playing potboilers and prepared to like the technical perfection but to find the playing anodyne and pasteurised. But it turns out Chuanyun Li is very, very good indeed and I was reminded of my first tentative experimental listening to David Nadien. Li plays superbly (of course) but he also has a sensitive musicality and a good sense of style. After hearing his rendition of Paganini's almost impossible Nel cor più non mi sento I think the piece should be banned to all but those of Li's technical stature; there have been some pretty doubtful renditions of nel cor since recording began.

I was prepared to smile condescendingly at Li's performance of Strauss's Op 18 sonata, thinking back nostalgically to Heifetz and Repin. But, no: even here Li and his pianist (Robert Koenig) are well worth listening to. It should also be remarked that the (Chinese) recording is perfectly balanced and recorded.

Hunting round for something to criticise: it's a pity young violinists seeking to make their marks do not look round for attractive violin miniatures outside a selection from the usual twenty or so. There must be around 400 good pieces available, but here we get the same old Zapateado, Salut d'Amour, Kroll's mediocre Banjo & Fiddle, Gluck-Kreisler Mélodie, etc. Only things missing are Liebesfreud and Massenet's Elégie. But Mr Li does turn in a very good Ronde des Lutins.

Monday, 17 August 2009

In his interesting book Fiddling with Life, the Canadian violinist Steven Staryk expounds on the importance for teachers of communicating the concept of different styles of performance to their pupils. Staryk's words came back to me listening to Ivan Zenaty and Antonin Kubalek playing Dvorak's music for violin and piano (a Dorian recording from 1992). Leaving aside Zenaty's violin playing, Kubalek's piano playing and Dvorak's music, one is very conscious of how, stylistically, everything sounds right. Actually the playing, and much of the music, are also right.

Nationalism in musical performance is a dangerous area. Once one admits that the Russians are a bit special in Russian (and Slavonic) music, the French and Belgians in French music, and the Central European school of Czechs, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans in the music of Central Europe: what about all those superb instrumentalists in Israel, North America, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, etc? What are they supposed to specialise in? (The Americans only have the Barber concerto, for Heaven's sake).

And there are well-known examples of chameleons who cross the boundaries. Heifetz's sophisticated and subtle playing is well suited to the French repertoire, and his playing of César Franck, Lalo, Vieuxtemps and Saint-Saëns easily rivals the performances of the Gallic Artur Grumiaux or Christian Ferras. Gioconda de Vito's Brahms was famous, and the Canadian Leila Josefowicz sounds superbly at home in Shostakovich. However, as a generalisation, the nationalistic bias has some foundation in practice: after 80 years, the English Albert Sammons is still my first choice in the Elgar violin concerto, and the Germans Georg Kulenkampff and Erich Röhn fight it out over the Beethoven violin concerto.

Perhaps the best example of non-style is Yehudi Menuhin who sounds exactly the same in Bach, Bartok, Brahms, Enescu or Lekeu. No chameleon, he.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Handel considered Theodora to be one of his best oratorios, and one of his best works. It was not very successful in 1750: "Ye Jews won't come, 'cos it's a Christian theme. Ye women won't come, since it's about a virtuous woman" Handel is reported to have said, philosophically. 250 years later, I spent a highly enjoyable Sunday evening listening to Theodora (being neither Jewish, nor female). The work has an attractive unity and flows convincingly from melodic aria to chorus to recitative. Handel was right: it is one of his best works (though pretty well unknown since 1749 when he wrote it).
Thanks to Lee, I am conducting a re-appraisal of the playing of Itzhak Perlman. So far I have listened to de Bériot's delightful Scène de Ballet, and Viott's Concerto No.22 in A minor. Perlman has never greatly appealed to me; I once heard him live around twenty years ago (in London) playing the Sibelius violin concerto and recall that, although being highly impressed by the accuracy of his playing, I found the end result somewhat bland and nowhere near the classic performances by violinists such as Heifetz or Ginette Neveu.

My impression is confirmed by the present CD. It is difficult to imagine better violin playing; it's almost a text book. However, the unfailing and relentless sweet tone begins to jar after a while, and the Viotti concerto seems to go on for ever. As well as a beautiful sound, perfect taste and perfect technique, a violinist has to have variety of sound in his or her playing. Perlman is Mr Sugar. I never liked his playing of the Paganini Capricci and always found them too bland and too monochromatic.
Further explorations of the baroque organ in Saxony and Lower Saxony. I have made some new friends: Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627-93), Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-67), Johann Pachebel (1653-1706), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). Much of the music on the two CDs (listened to so far) is a welcome addition to my listening repertoire -- I think of Johann Froberger's Toccata V da sonarsi alla levatione, or Samuel Scheidt's Variationen über eine Gagliarda von John Dowland. A touch of variety is provided by a piece by Theodor Grünberger (1756-1820): Neue Orgelstücke nach der Ordnung unter dem Amte der heiligen Messe zu spielen. The liner note writer pinpoints Grünberger exactly: "a kind of amiable, countrified descendant of Viennese Classicism".

On these two CDs, Klemens Schnorr plays the baroque organ at the Basilica in Benediktbeuern, and Dietrich Wagler plays the Zarachias-Hildebrandt organ of the church in Langhennesdorf. Still to be heard is a CD of Pachelbel played by Wolfgang Rübsam.

One puzzling casualty in my organ listening is J.S. Bach. One is very conscious here that Bach was something of an anomaly, a high baroque throw-back to a more polyphonic age. Although most of the composers mentioned above composed and played around Bach's country just before his time, one is conscious that Bach is different. Personally, I find the magnificent, magisterial and complex sound of much of Bach's organ music unsuitable for my living room (much as Mahler's symphonies turn out to be just too noisy for my lounge). Mahler's noisier music probably needs a large concert hall, and Bach's noisier organ music a big, big church.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Naxos CD of duos by de Bériot contains some excellent music. My opinion of de Bériot goes up and up. On a summer's afternoon, with a glass of Crémant de Loire in hand, there is little that could beat this music. The playing by Christine Sohn and John Marcus, two New Yorkers, is fluent and professional. You would not mistake the duo for Heifetz and Milstein, and they lack the individual sound and style that these two would have brought to the music. But the CD is very welcome indeed and makes one wonder why these attractive pieces of music are not played and recorded regularly. I'm also sad that I never had the chance to play them in my violin-playing days.

Friday, 7 August 2009

I am quite pleased with myself. It is good to find I am not yet too old as to overcome prejudices. Give me a jazzy-type CD featuring a quintet playing South American-type music (all those sambas, tangos, rumbas and -- for all I know -- tongas), and throw in the fact that the lead player squeezes away on an accordion, of all things: a recipe for the back of a back shelf. But a CD featuring a quintet (in 1963) led by Astor Piazzolla playing the music of the said Piazzolla has given me a great deal of pleasure. The music is highly sophisticated and the instrumental combination -- violin, guitar, piano, double bass, and accordion -- interesting and eclectic. A disc to re-listen to often. Supplied courtesy of Carlos.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Old buffers such as Norman Lebrecht like to talk about the "golden age of recording" in the 1930s, 50s and 60s. But in truth, during that age there were only 6-8 recording companies distributing records internationally, which meant that only a dozen or so violinists and a dozen or so pianists and a dozen or so conductors had any look-in. If you wanted Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart performed by well-known names, you were OK. But demand Charles-Auguste de Bériot's 12 Scènes ou Caprices Op 109 for solo violin, and you would need to wait many decades.

Which is a pity, but the current real golden age means not only do we have instant access to all those recordings by Menuhin, Heifetz, Schnabel, Furtwängler et al; we also have access to the concertos, solo violin pieces and duets for two violins by Monsieur de Bériot. In this case, courtesy once again St Klaus of Naxos. The new CD of 68 minutes of solo violin pieces played by Bella Hristova reveals some very attractive and melodic music -- quite as interesting as Paganini's capricci. Ms Hristova (who grew up in Bulgaria but now lives in America) is an entirely competent and accurate player. I miss, however, the variety of sound and colour needed to hold one's attention for 68 minutes of solo violin playing, the kind of variety that I so admired in the playing of Fanny Clamagirand (Ysaÿe solo sonatas) or that Heifetz would have brought to these pieces. (Miss Clamagirand has, apparently, just recorded the three violin concertos of Saint-Saëns, and I'll be waiting in line for these).

A second de Bériot CD (St Klaus again) of duos played by Christine Sohn and John Marcus awaits listening by me. Not much de Bériot music was available during Norman Lebrecht's golden age of recording, which is a great shame since it is highly enjoyable music.