Sunday, 31 January 2010

To warm up a cold English January: an evening of Cavalleria Rusticana (one of my favourite operas). A bit of white-hot passion is no bad thing, from time to time. I usually favour the recording by Giuseppe Sinopoli, to which I have become accustomed, but this evening I listened to the (young) Riccardo Muti. Difficult to know which I prefer; I'll need to go back to Sinopoli before Muti has faded from my memory. For the record, Sinopoli takes four minutes longer than Muti. I suspect I'll still favour Sinopoli, in the end.

Confirmed that the 21-day aged steak at Sainbury's is still the safest buy if one wants a guaranteed excellent quality steak. I have bought some excellent steaks in my life -- including a special offer Argentinian one around 25 years ago, and an Irish one a couple of years ago. But too often it's hit and miss, and very often miss. But the Sainsbury's aged steak seems to be at least 95% success each time. I'll buy more.
After six miserable days of a flu-like virus, I am back in action. Greatly enjoying Bach's Magnificat as performed by the Ricercar Consort, with Philippe Pierlot and five solo singers. I am often undecided about Bach's choral music performed by just a few solo singers, but the present performance is a resounding success, with dead-accurate singing, exemplary balanace, and highly skilled instrumental work. 10/10 for Monsieur Pierlot.

The Magnificat only takes up just over 26 minutes, so the rest of the CD is occupied by a Mass BWV 235, and two organ solos. The Mass, on one hearing, strikes me as JSB writing on auto-pilot. Nothing wrong, but there are reams and reams of such music from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The two organ pieces are downright noisy; Bach could write quiet music for the organ (viz the chorale-prelude Am Wasserflüssen Babylon) but not often, and not here. Here we have a power-drunk organ determined to blast the congregation from the church. I do not like noisy organ playing; organs can play quietly, if they want to, so why is so much organ music so loud, with every available stop pulled out?

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The great Naxos empire is re-issuing the early Fritz Kreisler recordings (transferred by Ward Marston). Volume I (to which I have just finished listening) comprises Kreisler's recordings from 1904 and 1910. The first thing that is staggering about these transfers is how little one needs to make allowances for the sound of over a century ago (unless one is a fan of piano accompaniments, which do here sound a bit dim). But Kreisler's playing comes over loud, sonorously and clear. He was here at his peak (in 1910 he was 35 years old) and the playing is just wonderful, with a tremendous palette of bow strokes, incredible trills (viz the Corelli-Tartini variations) and Kreisler's own special double stops. Overlaid with Fritz's inimitable sense of style for the 24 tracks of this CD. The disc should be a compulsory purchase for all who claim to play the violin. I have most of these recordings already in many guises (espcially from Strad and Symposium) but the Naxos disc is a winner.
A second CD from Svetlin Roussev is very fine (Fondamenta). A good choice of works: Grieg's third sonata for violin & piano, coupled with the rich pastures of Nikolai Medtner's third sonata. Roussev impresses with lively rhythms, well-shaded dynamics and a welcome willingness to "dig in" when the music warrants it. Well recorded, and an excellent pianist in Frédéric d'Oria-Nicolas.

Roussev's playing derives from the Moscow Conservatory, rather than from Prague, Munich or Paris. But Bulgaria, from whence he comes, has a rich violin tradition (one thinks of the Milanova sisters, for two).

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Very pleasant CD of solo violin music played by Carmelo Andriani [never heard of him]. There are so many excellent violinists roaming around; this CD appears to be a private or limited issue, not from a major company. Andriani varies his sound in his well-chosen programme: the fourth solo sonata by Ysaÿe, the Paganiniana by Milstein, Prokofiev's sonata for solo violin, Kreisler's Recitativo & Scherzo, and a clever pastiche of Bach solo violin themes in a "Hommmage to Bach" by Orazio Maglio. Good programme, very well played.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Culinary triumph this evening, with a pack of exotic mushrooms and fungi that I cooked in a wok with butter, garlic (too much), salt, pepper and parsley. Extremely tasty; I must repeat.

No greater praise for Handel Italian cantatas volume II than to say that, after its second hearing this evening, I immediately went off and listened to volume I again. The lion's share of praise goes to the 22 year old George Frederic, of course. But plenty of praise left over for the delicious Stephanie True, and not forgetting Marco Vitale, Contrasto Armonico, the Brilliant Classics recording team -- and the Brilliant Classics marketing department for keeping the pricing realistic. I am sitting waiting with my credit card ready for volume III.
As I have remarked before, Janine Jansen's recent recording of Britten's violin concerto is a modern classic and, single-handed, she elevates this somewhat neglected concerto into the "significant" bracket (aided by Paavo Järvi and the LSO). What comes over with Jansen's playing is her passionate commitment to the music.

Which is something that is very much absent from Tasmin Little's recording of the Karlowicz and Moszkowski violin concertos (Hyperion, with the BBC Scottish Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins). Everyone plays correctly, but there is no passion. And, I noticed, Little and Brabbins keep all 70+ minutes of music on the disk alternating between mezzo forte and mezzo piano. Not very satisfactory and I was sad, since I enjoyed the Moszkowski concerto recently but was disappointed by the routine and lukewarm playing (Thomas Christian). It is good that these second and third division concertos are played and recorded but, as the Britten of Janine Jansen proves, they really come into their own when played by performers with a deep commitment.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Volume II of Brilliant Classics' scheduled complete recording of Handel's Italian cantatas is here. Extremely good, with the same forces as Volume I (Stefanie True, Marco Vitale and Contrasto Armonico). At 392 Hz "Tra le Fiamme" sounds less strident than usual (especially the aria Voli per L'Aria, which in other performances can often sound too virtuoso for its own good). As a long-term collector of classical music recordings, I find it quite bizarre that up until 10 or 15 years ago it was almost impossible to buy a recording of Handel's cantatas or duetti. Now, indeed, is a golden age, since this is superb music. Well done all concerned -- Ms True for the singing, Signor Vitali for the conducting, Contrasto Armonico for the playing, and Brilliant Classics for the well-balanced recording and thoroughly realistic pricing.

Monday, 4 January 2010

I have a "waiting to be listened to" pile for CDs. After one or more hearings, the CDs are either filed on my shelves or, very occasionally, put in a rack beside my player as "keep handy for repeated listening". Rarely, and only once in a while, I remove a CD from the "waiting to be listened to" pile if it has been there too long and is evidently unlikely to be listened to, for one reason or another. Such a CD is filed in a "morgue" section reserved for unheard CDs.

Such was very nearly the fate of a CD of twelve sonatas for unaccompanied violin by Georg Philipp Telemann played by Angèle Dubeau (1993 recording). 38 movements of unaccompanied violin pieces by Telemann! The listening challenge was too great. Fortunately, before sending the CD to the morgue, I sampled it. Wonderful music, and I take back all my uncharitable thoughts concerning Telemann and his music. Dubeau's playing is quite acceptable, although violinists such as Janine Jansen or Alina Ibragimova might have brought more light, shade, colour and variety to the violin playing. Anyway, far from going to the morgue, the CD has gone to the "keep at hand for replaying" rack since it is highly enjoyable music and so rarely played, if ever (unlike the unaccompanied violin works of Bach, Paganini and Ysaÿe which are somewhat played to death).
Unlike pretty well all the critics (and Lee), I actively enjoyed Sarah Chang's new recording of the Brahms violin concerto. This concerto has become a highly macho affair over the years (viz the performances by people such as Heifetz, Kogan and Ginette Neveu). So it is interesting to hear Chang's more feminine, more lyrical, more romantic approach. A pity recording wasn't around 20 or so years earlier so we could have heard how Joachim handled the piece. Chang's gorgeously romantic performance reminds me of Gioconda de Vito's 1941 Berlin recording with Paul van Kempen. Brahms does not have always to be attacked by heroes, as the recent lyrical performance of the double concerto by the Capuçon brothers aptly demonstrated.

I recently praised a CD from Hyperion featuring Alina Ibragimova playing Szymanowski for its avoidance of all "violin babe" pictures and blurb. No such praise to EMI for the Sarah Chang CD, however. The disc, covers and notes are covered in glamour photos of Miss Chang (with not one photo of Brahms or Bruch). One gets the visual impression that Sarah wrote the music and conducted the orchestra, as well as playing the violin. Johannes Brahms, Max Bruch, Kurt Masur and the Dresden orchestra get about the same publicity space as "hairstyle by.." in a Hollywood mega-film -- "with thanks to Johannes, Max and Kurt for their help in this recording".

Fairly symptomatic of much of the modern classical recording industry's lack of understanding of its markets. Very few young teenage males are going to buy a violin CD of Brahms' Op 77 and Bruch's Op 26. Many critics and older buyers are going to become somewhat sniffy at the sight of all the glamour photos. A highly talented violinist such as Lara St. John tainted her image with her very first CD and has never quite recovered. An excellent violinist such as Linda Brava was never taken seriously as a musician after her Playboy escapade. One would have thought that professional music industry marketeers would know their trade by now and would realise that peddling flesh is, at the best, futile and, at the worst, counter-productive.

Friday, 1 January 2010

I don't think I will ever completely take to the music of Karol Szymanowski. But the 76 minute CD of his complete music for violin and piano from Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien (Hyperion) is a real pleasure to listen to ... mainly thanks to the incredible violin playing of Alina Ibragimova. Only 25 years old this year, Alina presents an incredible repertoire of violin sounds, dynamics and colouring; just what Szymanowski's music needs, all played with her usual 100% commitment. The violin here rivals a full symphony orchestra in the range of sound and colour it can present; an object lesson in what can be drawn from one, small, 1738 Pietro Guarneri violin.

Tiberghien is an excellent and sensitive partner for Ibragimova's violin. And all praise to Alina and Hyperion for eschewing the usual "violin babe" CD presentation; just one black and white photo of a skinny Alina (and one of the pianist). Otherwise no attempt to market the CD as a sex come-on which, given the fact Alina is a very pretty blond, is quite a temptation to resist.

2010 has now begun. I ended the year with Bach's Mass in B minor (Otto Klemperer recording). 2010 has started with Karol Szymanowski played by Ibragimova; I hope the next 365 days live up to the musical standard of the past twelve hours!