Saturday, 31 October 2009

James Ehnes's Violin Playing

Perplexing CD of James Ehnes playing short pieces on a variety of old Italian instruments (CD kindly supplied by Lee). Perplexing because Ehnes scores 10/10 as regards violin playing -- intonation, bowing, fingering, intelligence, style. No faults; not one.

Violinists such as Kreisler, Rabin, Heifetz, Elman, Kogan ... and now Jansen, Ibragimova, Josefowicz, Kavakos, et al -- bring to their playing a mixture of warmth, affection, emotion, love, exuberance, grace, style and charm == either as regards their violins, or the music: or both. For me, Ehnes' playing -- like that of past maestros such as Kubelik and Prihoda -- is devoid of emotional involvement. "A" for violin playing; "A" for musical intelligence; "C" for emotional involvement, that magic Ingredient "X" that transforms marvellous performances into great ones. Emotional involvement is often present in recordings; one has only to think of Leila Josefowicz's searing performance of Shostakovitch's first violin concerto (2006), or Lara St. John's recent recording of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. But it ain't present in Ehnes's current recital.
Whether I favour Bach or Handel seems to depend on which one I listened to last. What is certain is that their music is as different as chalk from cheese. At the moment, I am in a Bach mood, having just finished listening to four cantatas on Sigiswald Kuijken's latest disc. As usual, Kuijken's instrumental ensemble is excellent and prominent; there is no choir, with the chorales being taken by the four soloists. The soloists are mainly excellent, with the bass, Jan Van der Crabben being especially good, and the tenor, Christoph Genz, being a bit weedy.

The weekend's food is again my usual range of mussels, squid and crab, supplemented with a little ham and saucisson. Wine is usually the extraordinarily good 2006 Gigondas red (La Ferme du Mont) that I bought from Cirencester.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Good ear-friendly CD from the Bulgarian Svetlin Roussev and the Russian Elena Rozanova playing Franco-Belgian music. Hard to say anything new about César Franck's sonata or Ysaÿe's third sonata. But I enjoyed hearing again Saint-Saëns's Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso. Also an entirely new six minute piece -- an Andantino Quietoso by Franck that I have never heard before. Violinists should take it up as a alternative to the hackneyed Méditation from Thaïs or the crumby Banjo & Fiddle. It probably never made it to the established short-piece list because, at six minutes, it was too long for a 78 rpm side during the vital recording period 1905-50. "Too long, Monsieur Franck".

Roussev plays well, and Rozanova is a highly intelligent player; when I make my long-delayed Carnegie Hall début, I'll choose Rozanova as my partner.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Back from Spain, with a big pile of unlistened-to CDs awaiting me. Of course, I made a beeline for Sandrine Piau singing Handel oratorio arias. A highly satisfactory CD; lovely music, lovely voice, excellent accompaniment (Accademia Bizantina). Handel's music is truly wonderful, and neither German, English nor Italian.

Not so Sergei Rachmaninov; he may have been a wandering cosmopolitan from necessity, but his music is 100% 24 carat Russian. I followed up Handel with Rachmaninov's The Bells (Evgeni Svetlanov from the late 1970s). I have never heard it before, but will listen to it again with interest and pleasure.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Against the oddds, I find myself enjoying Renaud Capuçon's new CD very much indeed. The tempi in the Korngold violin concerto and the Beethoven violin concerto are all slow -- with little exception. Not usually favoured by me. And Capuçon's tone is unfailingly sweet -- a kind of 1909 Kreisler mixed with Heifetz mixed with Itzhak Perlman. Not usually favoured by me. But Capuçon convinces in both works -- how, I don't really know. He plays so well, he sounds so lovely, he is so intelligent. I will re-listen to these works. In the Beethoven he plays the inevitable Kreisler cadenzas, even though there are plenty of alternatives. The Rotterdam Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin sounds almost like the Vienna Philharmonic. Perhaps it's all a trick of the recording engineers. Whatever: a good disc.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The violin concerto by Benjamin Britten has had a chequered history. The first recording was in 1948 (Theo Olof), after which it more or less languished for around fifty years, with sporadic performances, and recordings more as a filler than a central work. It is a dark concerto, anguished and multi-layered; and highly impressive, much more so than the slick Walton concerto. Gradually, however, it is coming into its own with recordings by Mark Lubotsky, Vengerov, Mordkovich, Frank Peter Zimmermann ... and now Janine Jansen.

Ms Jansen is a superb player of this work. She obviously loves it, and plays it often (I also have an off-air recording of her playing it a few years ago). She dominates the work and plays it from "inside", giving the impression she knows exactly what she is doing, and why. And, to boot, she is a fine violinist playing on a fine 1727 Strad. A three star performance of what I am rapidly concluding is a much-neglected three star concerto. Britten is not one of my preferred composers (as with Mahler, I just like bits and pieces of his output). But this is my kind of concerto.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

I have now listened to all six solo sonatas and partitas of Bach played by Alina Ibragimova. The fast movements are entrancing ... many of the doubles in the B minor partita, the finale of the third sonata, the Prelude of the third partita. In the slower movements (such as the first movement of the third sonata) the baroque violin sound whines and rasps a little; violins do not sound at their best playing long notes with no vibrato. However, grouches about the current "original instrument" fad aside, this is a truly excellent set of the Bach works. Ibragimova's technique is exemplary, her bow dashes and darts, her dynamics are beautifully varied from a true pianissimo to occasional fortissimi, and she evokes a myriad of colours. And, very importantly, she plays the music as if she really enjoys it; there is none of the solemnity one gets with players such as Julia Fischer or Johanna Martzy. Ibragimova dances her way through these six works.
The boys' voices / white tone movement seems to have been vanquished when it comes to baroque vocal works. Maybe there is hope for the violin yet. Anyway, Ibragimova goes into the top three. Hyperion's recording is excellent.