Sunday, 28 February 2010

Perhaps, when I make my long-delayed Carnegie Hall début, it will be with the Concertgebouw orchestra in an all- Saint-Saëns programme, with the three violin concertos (around 75 minutes). The orchestra can fill in with some of the orchestral pieces such as Le Rouet d'Omphale.

I have just listened to the three violin concertos with much pleasure. In common with Handel, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote music that was stress- and angst-free, but with good tunes. The Swiss CD, with the Romanian-born but Swiss domiciled Liviu Prunaru playing tastefully and impeccably, is excellent. Prunaru, like most of Saint-Saëns' music apart from his "Organ" Symphony, seems to have passed into obscurity. A shame; popularity is fickle and I would give 50 hours of Gustav Mahler's music in return for one hour of Saint-Saëns.

Two of the three concertos were dedicated to Sarasate (the last two, confusingly numbered 1 and 3) and Prumaru plays much as one imagines Sarasate would have done: suave, sophisticated and tasteful, with a sweet and sonorous violin from the Guarneri family (1676).

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Bit fixated on stewed neck of lamb with dumplings at the moment, the stew well seasoned with thyme and bay leaves. But it's so cold every day! Life needs lamb stew with 2007 Côtes du Rhône wine. I probably will need a change of diet in Bangkok next week, however.

Shuffle-play on CD players has a very limited use for classical CDs. But I discovered yesterday evening it is a great invention for tackling Paganini's 24 caprices which, apart perhaps from No.24, have no really logical order and Paganini would certainly not have expected people to play, or listen to, all 24 in the printed order. Shuffle play here is great, since all too often the first 12 or so caprices are listened to more often than the final 12. Shuffling the order gives everyone a chance to be heard.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Purcell and Handel, with Marc Minkowski

When Henry Purcell died in London in 1695 at the age of 36, Handel was just 10 years old and 10 years away from the start of his meteoric career. Purcell wrote his Hail, Bright Cecilia in London in 1692; Handel wrote his A Song for St Cecilia's Day in 1739; both Purcell and Handel based the poems on Dryden's words (more tastefully, in Handel's case).

The two works make a fascinating juxtaposition on a new CD conducted by Marc Minkowski, with his Musiciens du Louvre. He has assembled a thoroughly competent team of singers -- special mention to tenor Richard Croft and glorious soprano Lucy Crowe -- and it is nice to hear a real choir again, as opposed to the economy quartets favoured by recording impresarios, concert promoters and financial advisers. Minkowski uses a pitch of 415hz, which avoids a lot of the "baroque rasp" that comes from playing stringed instruments with no warming vibrato. All in all, an extremely attractive coupling of two extremely attractive works. The two CD set has a filler a performance of Haydn's Cäcilienmesse but, given my allergy to most church music and indifference to Haydn, it may take me some time to get round to listening to this.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

James Ehnes in Paganini's Capricci

James Ehnes is a violinist I usually admire rather than warm to. But his new (2009) recording of the evergreen 24 Caprices by Paganini is very fine. All 24 caprices are extremely challenging to play, of course, but not all are exercises in red-blooded virtuosity, and Ehnes provides plenty of (welcome) contrast when he tackles the many legato and melodic passages. I like the varied dynamics Ehnes brings to the pieces, and I like his judicious observance of most repeats; the caprices have always been a problem in both LP and CD eras in that they (barely) fit on to one CD if all the repeats are made -- Ehnes weighs in here at just over 78 minutes. This is definitely a set of old Nicolò's pieces to keep with the best, since Ehnes is a very fine violinist and ace technician.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Well, of all things, I enjoyed listening again to Sibelius's violin concerto; probably the 20th century's most played and best loved concerto. It was an off-air recording with Janine Jansen playing the solo part, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. A bit untidy in parts, and the balance was often a bit out (in favour of the orchestra). But the (live) performance was very much on its toes and, as usual, Ms Jansen impressed enormously by her verve, technique and commitment to the music. An excellent performance. What Milstein and Oistrakh were to previous generations, Janine Jansen is to this: thoroughly dependable and recommendable, like pretty well all performances by this young Dutch violinist.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

From all accounts, and from a few (very late) recordings, Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués was a violinist noted for taste, technique, refinement of sound, and sensibility; no red-blooded, high-octane bravura. And this sound world is perfectly reproduced in the admirable Naxos recordings (planned to cover all of Sarasate's works on twelve CDs). Where would we lovers of the violin literature be without the likes of Naxos? Waiting patiently for EMI, Philips, RCA, Sony or another of the old "major" labels who failed so dismally in this repertoire from 1910 onwards?

Volume III of the projected twelve has just appeared, and features Sarasate's works for violin and orchestra. The quality of the music varies, a little; Sarasate was no Mozart or Schubert. The recording quality in this latest volume is adequate (an orchestra in Navarra). But the violin playing of Tianwa Yang (born in Peking in 1987) really impresses. Miss Yang may not produce the right sound or style for Bruch or Brahms (for all I know). But her feeling for the music of Sarasate is emphatically right. Jiggle with the labelling a little, and it could even be Pablo himself playing the violin. And with Miss Yang's dead-on sense of style is her truly incredible mastery of the violin; there is nothing Tianwa Yang cannot play with 100% accuracy. The final section of the over-familiar Zigeunerweisen is truly breathtaking and goes immediately to first place in front of the 75 (!) versions I have. Step back, Mr Heifetz!

"Oriental" violinists are sometimes denigrated for being technically superb but lacking rapport with the music they are playing. In my view, Tianwa Yang's rapport with the music of Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués is complete (as a quick cross-refence to Sarasate's few recordings in 1903 will confirm).

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The second Cavalleria Rusticana this evening, following the recording by Riccardo Muti I listened to a week ago. And the winner is: Giuseppe Sinopoli, with no doubts. The Sinopoli recording has superior pacing, superior dynamic shading, superior playing from the Philharmonia (the same orchestra as for Muti) and a superior recording. The violence blazes in the hot Sicilian sun much more vividly for Sinopoli.

Earlier, I enjoyed again Dietrich Henschel singing Vaughan Williams (Songs of Travel), Mahler, (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen), Pizzetti (three songs) and Dupac (five songs). Henschel manages his multi-lingual programme well (with French coming off worst, however). I prefer the Mahler with piano rather than orchestra, and the fahrenden Gesellen is one of the few Mahler works I can really enjoy. The 69.50 minute programme is a bit gloomy on a grey February afternoon, however. Henschel's excellent pianist is the delightfully named Fritz Schwinghammer.
I love the music of Henri Vieuxtemps, and pass few opportunities to purchase new recordings when they come out (which, alas, is somewhat rare). The recording of Vieuxtemps' viola music by the violist Thomas Selditz is good, and Selditz plays like a true viola player rather than as a wannabe violinist. I am less sure about the pianist, Vladimir Stoupel, however, who plays more like the Russian he is rather than the Belgian he is not. Despite Selditz's fine viola playing and sound, I'll stick to Pierre Lénert and Jeff Cohen in this attractive viola music.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

There have been many fine sets of the Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano since recording began; one thinks immediately of Szigeti and Arrau, of Grumiaux and Haskil, and of many others. I do find the new set by Ludwig van Beethoven, Alexander Melnikov and Isabelle Faust to be completely satisfactory, and the above order of the artists is deliberate. From this set one comes away with an admiration of Beethoven, and with a consciousness that the piano has the lion's share in these sonatas. This is far from decrying Faust's contribution; she plays to perfection the part allotted to the violin by the composer. A set to keep, with a fine recording quality and balance, to boot. At times Faust reminds me of Adolf Busch in Beethoven, and there is no higher praise than that.

An excellent Thai fish stew this evening, without mussels but with lots of squid and plenty of fish bits. I am improving steadily !