Tuesday, 29 September 2009

In strict Moslem societies, women -- even pretty women -- are obliged to cover themselves in public with some variety of burka. In the modern musical world, violinists -- even pretty young violinists -- who want to play or record Bach in public are obliged to chose a dry sound with no vibrato. It is not surprising that when Kreisler, followed by Elman and Heifetz, burst upon the world with warm vibrato, the old order of non-vibrating violinists was swept away pretty quickly.

In her new recording of the complete Bach unaccompanied partitas and sonatas (Hyperion) Alina Ibragimova sounds as though she is playing on a somewhat harsh violin. No warming vibrato anywhere. Which is a shame (and Johann Sebastian Bach would probably have thought so too). It's the current fashion, Herr Bach. It's a double shame, since Ms Ibragimova is a very considerable violin talent indeed. Unlike her rivals such as Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Joshua Bell, et al she eschews major publicity. She just plays the violin, very well indeed. I remarked before (17 February) how I was amazed to enjoy someone playing Bach's B minor partita; the music is good quality professional rather than inspired, but Ibragimova has you hanging on to every note. Remarkable, even with the dry, wirery sound of a baroque violin. So far I've only listened to the first sonata and first partita in the new set. I have little doubt, however, that I'll love all six works, despite the violin sound. Here's hoping the sound fashion changes while Ms Ibragimova is still in top-flight form, as here.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A little disappointed with my new "Trout" Quintet played by Martin Helmchen, Christian Tetzlaff, et al. The brook in which this little fish swims is too crystal clear for my liking. I prefer Schubert with a little Viennese warmth to him -- the sort of thing Kreisler would have brought to the music had he ever recorded it. That will teach me to pay attention to all the critics, who thought the Helmchen performance the best thing since sliced bread. I'll go back to some of the classics: Schnabel and the Pro Arte Quartet, or the Vienna Octet, or to my recent much-liked recording with the Capuçon brothers and Frank Braley.

This evening: the first of my Thai fish soups of the season!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Given my love of much late Romantic music, it is strange that it has taken me around 55 years to connect with César Franck's symphony. After 55 years, I only have two recordings of the piece, both acquired "accidentally" as part of compilations. Beecham's 1940 public performance comes in a large, cheap box. And Giulini's 1957 performance comes as part of a two CD Giulini "profile".

At any rate, I have discovered Franck's symphony at last! It is glorious music and, to my mind, much preferable to all the Mahler and Dvorak symphonies that are churned out endlessly, even if the first five minutes sounds like a note-for-note crib from Die Walküre. I cannot recall noticing Franck's symphony on a symphony concert programme (though doubtless it must be played sometimes, somewhere). Giulini's performance sounds good to me, and it's nice to be reminded what a good orchestra the Philharmonia was back in 1957.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Well, my eleven hour retrospect of Fritz Kreisler the violinist is over. Even when the music is not to my taste (the finale of Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata, for example) there is plenty of compensation in listening to Kreisler's vioin playing, to his sense of rhythm and rubato, and to his sound, which is sweet without being cloying. A CD set to keep; every violinist ought to be issued with one, since they could learn more from listening to Kreisler than from years of lessons and master classes with well known figures. Interesting that Kreisler never had a formal violin lesson after the age of twelve -- much like Nathan Milstein and Albert Sammons.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

I am, somewhat bizarrely, embarking on an 11 hour marathon of listening to the violin playing of Fritz Kreisler -- even if it involves me in listening to two Beethoven violin concertos, two Brahms, two Mendelssohn and two Mozart 4th. It is, however, a most interesting experience and I can think of very few violinists who could hold a listener's interest during 11 hours consecutive listening.

The first thing about Kreisler's playing to impress is the fact that he obviously plays music he loves and music he knows. There is never the feeling that "my manager said I should programme this to enhance my reputation". Secondly, although he was a superb violinist, Kreisler never sought to impress anyone with his playing; he never sought to make jaws drop. He just put his violin under his chin and played, lost in the world of music making. I am less impressed with his Mozart K 218 concerto which often sounds languid to my ears, especially in the 1939 re-make with Malcom Sargent. But that is a question of taste.

Kreisler's trills impress, and I am conscious that I always notice the trills of many of the older generation of violinists, never the modern (has anyone ever admired Tasmin Little's trills?) George Enescu was famous for his trills. With Kreisler; I notice them with appreciation. It's also good to hear Kreisler's superb sense of rhythm and rubato; very Viennese. I enjoy the occasional plaintive sound of his violin, with echoes of gypsy and klezmer playing from Central Europe.

In general, the 1926-7 concerto performances (with Leo Blech) in Berlin please me more than the 1935-6 remakes with Barbirolli, Sargent, et al. Partly, one suspects, because in 1926 Kreisler was "only" 51 years old but, by the mid-1930s, he was in his sixties. Never a great fan of practising, and somewhat lazy, there are more fluffs with Kreisler than with modern hot-shots. But, there again, he recorded (from 1904 onwards) well before the age of tape-splicing, and one cannot imagine Kreisler agreeing to multiple re-takes; he was not that kind of musician. We have to learn to live with fluffs; and why not, if the overall magic is there? His 1926 Mendelssohn in Berlin with Blech is one of the best I know; fleet and sweet. I had forgotten it, but now give it three stars.

A sense of Gemütlichkeit, ravishing sound, plus truly interesting violin playing: what more could we ask for? The EMI transfers seem to be fine.

Friday, 11 September 2009

A sixty minute recital of 18 short violin pieces. Who could hold our attention from Minute 1 until Minute 60? The answer is: very, very few violinists. Heifetz, certainly. But also Fritz Kreisler, as per my listening this evening. What did Kreisler have that Tasmin Little or Julia Fischer do not? That is a difficult question to answer. The answer is certainly not "technique" (though Kreisler is usually almost faultless in this respect). It is partly a question of style, of empathy with the piece being played. And partly a question of articulation; Kreisler used mainly just the middle of his bow, with bow hair very tight, and he pressed hard on the strings. He thus uses his violin to articulate and this, coupled with his preference for playing where possible on just one string, and using his warming and tasteful vibrato throughout, gives his playing a unique stamp.

The new EMI Kreisler box of 10 CDs cost me just £17. Where, oh where, were such incredible bargains when I was an impecunious youth? There is no excuse for everyone not to buy this box, and to feast on the contents. Kreisler was born in 1875, and so he was probably the first "19th century" violinist to be accessible in reasonable recorded sound (the earliest pieces in this box date from 1904, when Kreisler was already 29 years old). Music from another time and another place. But how lucky we are to have it encapsulated for all time.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

I first heard Mendelssohn's violin concerto around 1952-3 when I was given a set of 78 rpm records with Menuhin playing, Enescu conducting -- it's still a very fine performance, the last recording of Menuhin's "youth". Over the past 55 years I've heard the work far too often; it's a bit of a mystery why it's featured non-stop on conference programmes and in recordings. Yes, it's a most attractive concerto in a light-weight manner; but so are many others by de Bériot, Spohr, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Saint-Saëns and others. Maybe because, at least since Ferdinand David, there have been so many Jewish violinists, and the Mendelssohn concerto is about the only real one written by a Jew. British violinists have to play Elgar; Finnish violinists have to play Sibelius; Norwegian pianists have to play Grieg. And Jewish violinists have to play, and record, the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

It has had many bad performances. The worst I encountered in concert was given by Andrew Haveron, who reminded me what it's like following a car down a winding road where the nervous driver's brake lights come on every 30 seconds. Kreisler, Szigeti, Heifetz, Menuhin, Kogan, Oistrakh, et al would ease up a little during the sentimental passages in the first movement. Many violinists post-1960 keep stamping on the brakes every time a melody appears. All praise then to Leonidas Kavakos, in a new recording, for playing the music lightly and intelligently and letting it speak for itself without grotesque underlining by the soloist. Kavakos conducts the Camerata Salzburg and it's a fine performance. I have liked Kavakos for many years; a very underestimated violinist, in my view.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Mendelssohn's Piano Trios

Felix Mendelssohn was a curious composer. Fluent, melodic, attractive. But rather like composers such as Haydn or Saint-Saëns, his music reveals almost nothing of himself, or his feelings. The shadows and emotions that enliven composers as diverse as Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner or Shostakovich are absent from Mendelssohn's music (apart from the wonderful Op 80 string quartet in F minor).

So I listened with pleasure to Leonidas Kavakos, with Enrico Pace and Patrick Demenga in the first and second piano trios. Agreeable music, very well played and recorded. But no emotions are stirred. It's like being at a polite and well-behaved tea party.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Guillaume Lekeu

Guillaume Lekeu died at the age of only 24. The few works he left behind, however, contain some remarkable music. This evening I was listening to his piano quintet; Lekeu died before he could complete the work with a third movement but, like Schubert's Unfinished, or Bruckner's ninth symphony, it does not seem to matter; the first movement and the lent et passioné slow movement are feast enough. The recording I have by the Eugène Ysaÿe Ensemble (Brilliant Classics) seems good.
An enjoyable new CD of music by Astor Piazzolla, played by various combinations of Jacques Ammon (piano) and the Artemis string quartet. Enjoyable (and interesting) listening. These pieces when played by Piazzolla and his quintet (bandoneón, piano, guitar, violin and double bass) emphasise the earthy, folk side of the music, with its blend of tango, folk, jazz and European classical. When played by the Artemis, one is more aware of the European classical influences. One needs both CDs! But it strikes me that this is how classical music should have developed over the past fifty years, with an instinctive blend of folk, jazz and classical traditions. Back and underline the words "instinctive blend"; we certainly do not need the stark commercialism of so much "fusion" or "cross-over" music, designed to appeal to "yoof". But Piazzolla's music rings true.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Schubert, Handel and Bruckner have become very good old friends. This evening it was the turn of Handel and Bruckner. The new recording of Handel's La Resurrezione di Nostro Signor Gesù Cristo conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm is excellent, with spirited and intelligent playing from Le Concert d'Astrée. I would query some of Haìm's tempi, but there is nothing too out of the way. The five vocal soloists are fine, and I especially warmed to Kate Royal and Luca Pisaroni -- good to have a bass singer who does not bluster. This is my fourth recording of La Resurrezione; what astonishing music it is, for a precocious 23 year old, casually demonstrating all his powers and pulling rabbit after rabbit out of his hat.

Then on to Bruckner, and his ninth symphony. I did not think I would particularly enjoy any other performance after the famous 1944 Furtwängler one, but there are many attractions with the new CD from Sony with Fabio Luisi conducting the wonderful Staatskapelle Dresden. For a start, the sound is superb, recorded in the Semperoper in Dresden. Then there is the orchestra, with beautifully integrated sonorities. Luisi's conducting is sound on structure -- all too important in Bruckner who suffers too often from episodic interpretations. After Furtwängler, Luisi's tempi do sound measured, and one misses the sheer passion that Furtwängler brought to the 1944 performance. But I shall return to Luisi with pleasure; his is a serious and enjoyable performance.