Monday, 30 August 2010

'Tis apparently the season of obscure violin concertos. Following on from Rodolphe Kreutzer, yesterday evening saw me listening with pleasure to the A minor concerto of Julius Röntgen. This is a work that deserves a regular hearing. Röntgen was born in Germany in 1855 -- he later became Dutch -- so this work has echoes of Brahms, Joachim, Bruch and Goldmark. Competent violinist is Ragin Wenk-Wolff who is stronger on beef than on subtlety or nuance, but she is enjoyable to listen to and appears to like what she is playing. I listened to the concerto twice over, and have it out for a third hearing. Not too usual for me with a new "minor" work.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Back to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations Op 120. A couple of years ago I really admired a 1988 performance from Richter. Now I am really admiring a 1985 live recording by Grigory Sokolov from St Petersburg. Beautiful pianism in a performance that emphasises much of the mystic nature of many of these variations. I am not an uncritical Beethoven fan, finding some of his music a little bombastic and sometimes trivial. But the Diabelli Variations are a high point and I shall keep Sokolov alongside the 1988 Richter.
Back safe and sound. Triumphantly put on my newly-arrived CD of Philippe Graffin playing Ysaÿe and Saint-Saëns ... only to realise I already had the admirable CD on my shelves. Money down the drain. I turned instead to three violin concertos of Rodolphe Kreutzer (numbers 15, 18 and 19) kindly supplied by Ronald. Pleasant, easy-listening music, well played as usual by Laurent Albrecht Breuninger whom no one can accuse of always playing the same old hackneyed pieces. Good times; can one imagine a recording of three Kreutzer violin concertos appearing in the 1950s-90s from the likes of RCA, Decca, EMI, Philips, Columbia, etc?

Monday, 16 August 2010

I hesitated before recording the 15th August 2010 performance of the first Shostakovich violin concerto that Julia Fischer gave at the Proms with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. First of all, I already have 38 recordings of this concerto with artists such as Oistrakh, Kogan, Repin and -- my favourite -- Leila Josefowicz. So why record another, especially since Ms Fischer had been a bit prim and prissy in Bach, Mozart and Schubert (although I admired her Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Khatchaturian)?

Well, I am glad I did. Julia Fischer gave a magnificent performance of what, to me, is the No.1 of all violin concertos. Her starting point is complete and utter technical mastery of what she is playing. A good starting point: but then? In this performance, she used her technical mastery as a vehicle to launch into Shostakovich's complex, neurotic, fantastic world. And she took us with her, bar by bar. Magnificent. Josefowicz may have been even more involved? Fischer is even more technically assured? You need both girls.

The first Shostakovich violin concerto is one that needs a true partnership between soloist and orchestra (in the same way as the Beethoven and Elgar concertos). Equal honours here to Jurowski and the London Philharmonic. A performance to remember, and a very welcome No.39 to my collection.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

I am currently working my way through the three hours of Handel's Berenice, so a slight digression from music to praise the film "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" which I watched yesterday on DVD and enjoyed thoroughly. Not often a film of a good book is also enjoyable, but this Swedish film continues Sweden's excellent cinema heritage. Sweden may not be a great place for gastronomy (from my recollections). But it does produce excellent novels, films and furniture.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

I didn't think I'd be writing enthusiastically about Rachel Barton. In the past, my acquaintance with her playing hasn't caused me much interest, and I had put her down as a kind of modern Bronislaw Gimpel or Alfredo Campoli -- worthy, but somewhat dull. But I find myself liking her "Instrument of the Devil" CD. Technically, she is highly impressive, even making Ernst's Erlkönig caprice quite listenable-to. And I also admire the sheer gusto with which she approaches her "devilish" music -- Danse Macabre, Mephisto Waltz, Ronde des Lutins, Le Streghe, et al. Attractive programme compilation, attractive playing; Ms Barton is never afraid to slash at her violin when the occasion warrants it. A CD for the "play again" pile. As I say: unexpected. But highly welcome and a disc that stands out from most of the routine compilations that spring up almost monthly. I am less sure about Tartini's Devil's Trill played here with a harpsichord and cello that add nothing to the music, and shorn of the cadenza in the Kreisler version to which I always look forward. But the Tartini is only around 16 minutes of a generous CD that lasts 79 plus minutes.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Back to Monsieur de Bériot and his highly attractive and tuneful second violin concerto (in B minor, Op 32). Having enjoyed the work played by Philippe Quint, I put on the same work played by Albrecht Breuninger. I must confess, I prefer the German. Quint is a superb violinist, but he doesn't show as much affection for de Bériot's work as does Breuninger. And the German seems more relaxed and at home in the idiom, whereas Quint is more the international power-violinist.

However, it's a good new world where we can find at least two good modern recordings of this likable violin concerto; things would have been difficult back before the CD era.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Saturday evening had three heroes: Charles-Auguste de Bériot, Leonard Walker, and Edouard Leclerc.

Monsieur de Bériot provided the music (played by Philippe Quint). Mr Walker provided (once again) the truly excellent rib-eye steak. And Monsieur Leclerc provided the acceptable red wine (Côtes de Bourg) at only €2.79 per bottle. Cheeses and salad from various contributors.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Not often these days you find me listening to the too-well-known Beethoven violin concerto. But twice in one evening? That is a measure of how impressed I was with a recording from last week's Promenade concert in London where Hilary Hahn (extremely ably assisted by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie under Parvo Järvi) gave a remarkable performance of the work. Miss Hahn rarely raised her voice -- making us listen to her, rather than just sit back and hear. Her performance was commendably fleet, serious and without affectations and distortions. The violin playing was lovely. The refusal to linger or wallow made a welcome contrast to the performance by Arabella Steinbacher on which I commented recently.

Hilary Hahn is quite a violinist. She can be a bit prissy and literal on some occasions; but, when she lets herself go and follows an inspirational thread, as in this performance, she can come across as pretty well unbeatable. This was a Beethoven performance in the Adolf Busch tradition. As mentioned, the orchestra and conductor were inspired equal collaborators. A classic performance of this much-mangled work. And well-balanced by the BBC in the Albert Hall cavern.
It seems to be Paganini week. Last night was his first and second violin concertos, played admirably and accurately by Rudolf Koelman (a violinist whose Paganini 24 caprices I have long admired).

Koelman is a very fine violinist and sails through Paganini's pyrotechnics more or less spotlessly. Interestingly, the CD also contains a performance of Rossini's contemporaneous overture to Matilde di Shabran and one realises that Paganini could easily have written this overture, and Rossini the violin concertos (at least, the orchestral parts). Both composers wrote in the highly spiced operatic idiom of early 19th century Italy, with swooning, sentimental arias and histrionic climaxes. I have always suspected that a performance by the great Nicolò would have been an occasion of high drama, of exquisite rubato, of nail-biting pauses, of long-held notes ... in short, the world of an opera house in Parma around 1810. Rossini claimed he had only shed tears three times in his life: when his father died; when a chicken stuffed with truffles fell into the river during a boating excursion; and when he heard Paganini play.

Well, Mr Koelman pleases us greatly and has an intelligent appreciation of this music. But he would never make us cry. We badly need a recording of Paganini playing.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Good steaks are hard to find. But to find THREE good steaks in a row is not far short of miraculous. All praise to Leonard Walker (butcher) in Malmesbury for having changed my steak horizon. I'll be back. And all praise to me for having judged the cooking of Steak No.3 to absolute perfection.
Sibelius's one violin concerto is undoubtedly the most popular work of its kind written in the 20th century. Pretty well every violinist (apart from Milstein) has played it. I came to know it as a teenager, with an LP of Ginette Neveu, and I pretty well played it to death. At the age of 20 I was in the Festival Hall in London to hear Heifetz play it (not much to watch with Heifetz -- just a moving left hand and right arm, and that was it for 35 minutes). The result of all this is that, for me, the Sibelius concerto is just too familiar for me to be able to approach it with fresh ears. So I was delighted this morning to be able to sit back and enjoy a CD featuring Christian Tetzlaff, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard.

I think it helps that the performers here are Scandinavian and German. Too often the Sibelius concerto is mauled around, sentimentalised, given extra colour and warmth, dragged towards becoming a kind of Scandinavian Tchaikovsky. The music doesn't need it and does not benefit from it (viz the highly undesirable recording some years ago from Vengerov and Barenboim). Tetzlaff is an excellent, capable and intelligent violinist who plays the music straight and who doesn't mess around with the tempo too much (though one might query his concept of allegro ma non tanto for the finale; the polar bears here seem to be dancing in a veritable frenzy). Dausgaard and the Danes collaborate to give us a true black and white Nordic Sibelius, not the technicolour version that is often dished up. I never thought I'd really enjoy the Sibelius violin concerto so much again, but I did here -- even to the extent of re-starting the work when the telephone interrupted it around 10 minutes in.