Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Schubert's later piano sonatas and string quartets have a special place in my affections, so it was good to renew acquaintance with the G major string quartet D 887 (coupled with the earlier B flat major, D 112). When it comes to Schubert, the Busch Quartet was very special indeed, and I enjoyed Pristine Audio's latest re-incarnation of these 1938 recordings. The sound is a little "clean", and lacking warmth and reverberation. However, the original sound and balance were so good that minor quibbles can be forgotten and I much prefer listening to this presentation of the D 887 quartet compared with my recent disappointment with the Belcea Quartet. Adolf Busch and friends -- like Hanna Shybayeva who impressed me recently in two of Schubert's late piano sonatas -- make sure the music is generated from within itself, and not adorned with layers of varnish and Affekt. Schubert doesn't need additives.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Of all things, I am enjoying a recording of Liszt's 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante. I gave up on Liszt long ago (and have never taken to his sonata). But the études, at least as played here by Lazar Berman in 1963, are pretty thrilling stuff. I see I also have them played by Cziffra and I must also dig into those. Perhaps also invest in Boris Berezovsky for a post- 1960s recording (the Berman recording sounds a bit tinny).

Yesterday evening saw me eating the best "bolognese" sauce ever. Whether the inhabitants of Bologna would recognise it, is another matter. But it was meaty, tangy and succulent. Well done Chef Collier (for once).

Sunday, 11 April 2010

A somewhat eclectic food weekend. I bought three large squid and decided to cook them in a tomato and chili sauce (from a jar). Good, but next time I'll use my own tomatoes, chili and garlic rather than a processed concoction. Then the "special offer" rump steak turned out to be excellent, somewhat to my surprise. And the fillets of plaice were super. So not a bad weekend from a gastronomic point of view. But one needs to avoid ready-made sauces, since they do not measure up to The Real Thing.

I confirmed my previous view that Hanna Shybayeva in Schubert is truly excellent. There is music that needs a charismatic intermediary -- one thinks of Thomas Beecham in Saint-Saëns, Delius, Fauré etc. And there is music that just needs to be played, like Oscar Shumsky in Bach, Bernard Haitink in Mahler ... and Hanna Shybayeva in Schubert.
I did not recall having heard Ottorino Respighi's 1917 sonata for violin & piano, even though I have recordings of it by Heifetz, Politkovsky and Shumsky. It's a work with many attractive moments and lasts for 27 minutes in its latest re-incarnation by Frederieke Saeijs and Maurice Lammerts van Bueren. The works sounds like something by Guillaume Lekeu crossed with Richard Strauss, with a dose of Nikolai Medtner. The well-played and recorded Naxos CD also contains Ravel's somewhat hackneyed violin & piano sonata, plus a nondescript sonata by Enrique Granados (that sounds like anything but Granados).
The 24 caprices by Nicolò Paganini are staple diet to advanced violinists, but they are not that easy to play; some, in fact, are pretty difficult. The caprices also contain some very attractive music, and this is sometimes lost while the violinist struggles to play three parts at once in different parts of the sound spectrum. Thus, the new recording of the caprices by a string quartet does, in fact, make for pleasant and interesting listening. Paganini's not-inconsiderable musical and melodic gifts can be fully appreciated -- especially in some of the caprices that are technically difficult on the violin. The recording is by the Wihan quartet, and the excellent arrangements by William Zinn. A thoroughly worthy enterprise all round, and something that should enter the repertoire of string quartets.

Also a happy listening experience is the re-issue of the 1986 recording by Oscar Shumsky of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. I have many, many versions of these in my collection, but Shumsky appeals greatly. As to be expected, he plays simply and in an undemonstrative manner; it is as if the only people in the world were Bach, Shumsky and a violin. No grand-standing here. And how nice to hear Bach played with an attractive sound, warming vibrato, and dead-accurate double-stopping almost worthy of Fritz Kreisler's playing. Oscar goes into my select few for these works.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Bernard Coutaz, the founder of Harmonia Mundi, died on 26th February at the age of 87. I have many recordings, and quite a sizeable number of them are from Harmonia Mundi, a company that proves that, in the musical world, small can be both beautiful and powerful, and that one individual can make an enormous difference. Thank you, Monsieur Coutaz; and rest in well-deserved peace.
Like most people, I imagine, I had never heard of Hanna Shybayeva until I read a review in the American Record Guide extolling her CD of Schubert sonatas. The best adjective for Ms Shybayeva's playing is probably level-headed. She does not draw attention to her pianism; attention is focussed strictly on the music. And what music! Schubert's later piano sonatas have everything that I missed in Chopin the other day: a sense of a real person behind the music, a person of ever-changing moods and ideas -- in 12 bars, Schubert can encapsulate three or four different modulations and mood changes. The music is enough by itself and needs a first-rate pianist who finds the right tempi and concentrates on communicating the music. This Hanna Shybayeva does to an exemplary degree. Originating from Belarus, she now appears to be based in Holland from whence this very cheap and very desirable Brilliant CD comes. The sonatas on the disc are the A major D959 and A minor D784, both supreme works in the piano repertoire.