Sunday, 29 November 2009

The music critics and academic musicians of the twentieth century have a lot to answer for. Their systematic denigration of anything they considered to be "traditional" music -- ie, non-revolutionary -- made composers such as Sibelius shut up shop. I recall the premier of Shostakovich's first violin concerto being damned with faint praise, as was the premier of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. All music was post- Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Nono, Stockhausen, Boulez, et al. Bartok was suspicious, Stravinsky was admitted cautiously for his later, cerebral music. In England, William Glock and Hans Keller reigned supreme at the BBC and made sure that no 20th century music with even the hint of a tune or melody was allowed on the air. Practising musicians -- and audiences for music -- may have hated the dodecaphonists and all their followers and hangers-on. But few such people worried what musicians and audiences liked.

Slowly, the hidden music of the 20th century is being brought to light. To read one of the initial criticisms of Rachmaninov's fourth piano concerto, quoted by Yevgeny Sudbin, is to realise just what composers were up against: "It is neither futuristic music nor music of the future. Its past was present in Continental capital half a century ago. .. Mme Cécile Chaminade might safely have perpetrated it on her third glass of vodka". Thank you, learned American critic. On a new CD, Sudbin plays the original, uncut version of Rachmaninov's fourth piano concerto and makes a very fine job of it. The concerto was dedicated to Nikolai Medtner -- another victim of writing "unrevolutionary" music -- and the CD couples this with Medtner's second piano concerto, dedicated to Rachmaninov. Sudbin writes his own programme notes and opines, concerning the Medtner: "Why this concerto is not performed more often nevertheless remains a mystery and is nothing short of scandalous. It offers everything a pianist, or a conductor, can wish for". Bravo Yevgeny Sudbin for the (excellent) performances. And bravo BIS for recording the two works and making them available. Stockhausen's second piano concerto, anyone?
There is no shortage of recordings of Beethoven's complete set of 10 sonatas for violin and piano; from sets I have, Kreisler-Rupp (1930s), Szigeti-Arrau (1940s), Ferras-Barbizet (1950s), Grumiaux-Haskil (1950s), Pamela and Claude Frank (1990s) and Christian Tetzlaff with Alexander Longuich all spring to mind. I have now added Isabelle Faust with Alexander Melnikov; the new set is of a very high standard indeed but somewhat "different". Faust goes from pianissimo to fortissimo; her tone goes from sweet to (intentionally) somewhat harsh. Her bow darts around. The firm end result for me was intense admiration -- for Beethoven's music. Played by Faust and Melnikov he comes over as a true revolutionary of 1800, writing music that is often experimental and frequently "different". Too often this music can sound like a wannabe-Brahms; but not here. Maybe the second movement of Op 30 No.3 doesn't sound as beautiful as usual; but you turn to Faust and Melnikov for excitement, variety and astonishing mood changes, not for simple beauty.

The recording (Harmonia Mundi) is excellent, with a good balance between piano and violin. Faust and Melnikov have a true duo partnership. Kreisler and Rupp are still around after 70 years; maybe Faust and Melnikov will have a similar long life. I have long been a fan of Isabelle Faust, and this new CD set confirms my admiration.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

My appetite is returning, so the virus is abating. Just a question of multiple boxes of Kleenex for a while.

I embarked on the latest instalment of Sigiswald Kuijken's Bach cantata series (Volume 9). I am now a fan of the series (and of the music). The instrumental contributions are usually excellent, and the vocal contributions variable, but usually good. One complication is Kuijken's claimed "discovery" of Leipzig pitch at A=465 Hz, versus Dresden pitch at A=415 Hz. This seems to be based on organ tunings. For instruments this is no great problem, of course -- they either tune higher or lower, or transpose. But voices can sound a bit desperate at A=465, with the bass, Jan Van der Crabben often sounding more like a basso castrato, and the tenor, Christoph Genz, sounding even weedier than usual; no Heldentenor, he. What with Marco Vitale's "Roman pitch" of A=392, and Kuijken's "Leipzig pitch" of A=465, those who claimed to possess "perfect pitch" (whatever that was supposed to be) must be having a hard time of it.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Back from travels to Brussels and Paris. 'Flu has struck and I am laid low with a vast pile of new CDs to choose from. What will I pick first? Well, first was Paul Agnew singing Purcell songs; yet another Purcell song disc for my collection, but no one can have too many such discs. Agnew sings very well indeed; the three accompanying instruments are excellent (Elizabeth Kenny et al) and a special note for the recording quality; one notices right from the start the excellent balance between the four participants and the excellent "space" around the music. I like Purcell.

Second was Chloë Hanslip's new CD of Hubay (Naxos) that comes with a special "glamour" outer cover of the podgy Chloë (presumably paid for by her mother, since Naxos does not usually push young flesh). Once discarded and binned, the tasteless outer sleeve reveals a normal CD inside with a cover picture of Jenö Hubay; much more appropriate, given that he composed all the music on the disc. Hubay was not a great composer, but he wrote some attractive late-romantic music. Ms Hanslip plays very well and partly makes up for the tacky outer sleeve. At least she habitually gives us Hubay, Bazzini, et al and not yet more Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Brahms and the other usual suspects.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A big pat on the back for Brilliant Classics for Volume I of its promised complete Handel cantata series. Prices are eminently sensible (ie, low) for these CDs. The performances of the first four cantatas conducted by Marco Vitale, with Contrasto Armonico and Stefanie True are excellent. Vitale uses a compromise "Roman pitch" of A=392, and this gives an attractive mellow sound without the screeching and rasping that often characterises "baroque" performances.

Ms True is Canadian, and although her Italian sounds accurate, she does not relish individual words in the way a native Italian speaker would. A pity; but at least she sings prettily and in tune. It is a problem with vocal music that no one sings it quite like a native-speaker does. Anyway, a very minor flaw in a superbly recorded, performed and sung CD.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Opus Kura has issued new transfers of George Enescu's 1929 studio recordings of Corelli, Chausson, Kreisler, Pugnani and Handel, together with a 1950 recording of him playing his own third sonata (with Célingy Chailley-Richez). These 1929 Enescu recordings (almost the only ones he ever made, in his prime) are a whole master class in the art of violin playing and illustrate why the voice, the piano and the violin have triumphed over all other musical instruments when it comes to repertoire and popularity.

With Enescu, we hear incredible right arm techniques, truly magnificent trills, a highly sophisticated range of vibrato, the ability to paint with a broad palette of colours, the ability to combine rubato with firm rhythmic control. Corelli's La Follia variations illustrate almost every aspect of a violinist's art -- and also show you do not need to indulge in baroque follies in order to play 18th century music with no excesses of 19th century romanticism.

I expected Enescu in 1950 to sound well past his prime (he was partly crippled with a spinal disorder). But his playing of his own third sonata, despite the obstacles, is still better than anyone else I can think of. It is really tragic that the recording industry did not fight to record Enescu during the 1926-33 period; we have very few performance souvenirs of this great violinist.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Two Christians; two Joachims .... a CD sent to me by a friend seemed to have things in common. Joseph Joachim's first (Op 3) violin concerto is played by Thomas Christian in a recent off-air broadcast (WDR). Joaquin Rodrigo's Concerto d'Eté is an old recording by Christian Ferras (with Ataulfo Argenta).

But there the similarities end. In truth, Joseph Joachim's first violin concerto is a pretty stodgy and uninspired work. Thomas Christian sounds like an accurate player, but he is neither inspired nor inspiring. The work drags on and sounds like many dutiful violin concertos that have never survived the test of time.

Joaquin Rodrigo's violin concerto came like a welcome draught of clear spring water. The concerto is immediately attractive, with good thematic material. Moreover, Ferras communicates a love of the work and his playing (in 1953) is charismatic. Ferras might even have been able to breathe life into Joachim's first concerto ...

There is a strange symmetry between the lives of Christian Ferras and Michael Rabin. Both were truly first-class violinists. Both had an enthusiasm and joie de vivre in their playing. Both sprang on the world in the early 1950s. Both reached their zeniths in the early 1960s. Both fell to earth in the 1970s, one the victim of alcohol, the other of narcotics. On this current CD, it is good to have the playing of Ferras in the Rodrigo concerto preserved.