Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Shows how old I am: yesterday I bought my very first music download (flac files, from Andrew Rose's Pristine Audio). After a bit of faffing around, I managed to find a program that would convert the flac files to wav files that I could write to a music CD. Et voilà! The works I wanted to investigate for their boasted transfer sound qualities were two old Casals recordings: the Brahms double concerto (1929) and the Dvorak cello concerto (1935).

The sound quality was quite astonishingly good (for the vintage of the originals). Three stars for Mr Rose. I have both recordings in other guises, but the Pristine Audio beats them all hands down. As for the works: I have never really taken to the Brahms double concerto, where Brahms' usual muddy, bass-heavy orchestration suits the cello but not really the violin which stands out like a girl in a men's rugby team. Violin and cello make unsatisfactory concerto partners (which is probably why there are not many concertos for violin and cello). Here, Casals sounds magnificent (with a full tone for his cello). Jacques Thibaud hovers in the background, and Alfred Cortot conducts the Catalan orchestra. A classic performance of a less-than satisfactory work.

In the Dvorak concerto, Pau Casals is again magnificent and George Szell and the Czech orchestra now come over in pretty good sound quality. But it's not a concerto I particularly warm to, and I do not think the cello is really cut out to be a bravura solo instrument. Such things are best left to violins or pianos.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sarasate was a product of the Paris Conservatoire in the mid-19th century and his playing, from many descriptions and from the few recordings he made at the end of his life, is stamped with the Conservatoire's aims of brilliance, delicacy and good taste. Full-blooded bravura playing was not considered appropriate. Tianwa Yang, in her fourth Sarasate CD for Naxos, exemplifies what might be termed "the Sarasate sound" -- at least when she plays Sarasate's attractive and tuneful music. Hopefully these four CDs (of a projected seven) will popularise Sarasate and not just the few bits everyone plays. Three stars, again, for Ms Yang; listening to her rendition of the ever-popular Carmen Fantasy, you realise just how many virtuoso passages many other players smudge over. No smudging for Tianwa; she plays every note perfectly in tune -- and with the utmost delicacy. A real pleasure to listen to.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

I've been having second thoughts about Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in Brahms' G major sonata for violin and piano. Maybe it's not a little slow and sentimental; maybe that is just the way the two musicians think it should be played. On a second hearing, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it reminded me of something Julia Fischer said in a recent BBC radio interview, talking about playing pieces everyone knows all too well [in the case in point, the Franck sonata]. Julia Fischer said you need to forget about "making your own mark" and concentrate on playing the music as you think it is meant to be played. Sounds as if Alina and Cédric are following her advice, and I like the result.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The duo partnership of Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien is a very fine one and I greatly enjoyed a new off-air recording of them playing the first Brahms sonata, plus the Strauss sonata. It's also good to hear Ibragimova in full-blooded Romantic music, since she often seems to stick to the 18th and 20th centuries. The Brahms was a bit sentimental and slow for my taste, and there really should be a twenty year moratorium on anyone playing the Brahms sonatas, fine as they are. There are so many excellent violin and piano sonatas that rarely get an airing -- Saint-Saëns, Alkan, Shostakovich, et al -- that it's a great pity violinists are always forced to play Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel and Prokofiev. At least Ibragimova and Tiberghien ventured into Strauss's fine sonata; a pity he did not write more of them.

Monday, 13 September 2010

I have (almost) four recordings of the third concerto (G Minor) by Jenö Hubay. I have not been an avid Hubay fan in the past, but I have quite taken to this third concerto. Earliest recording is from Efrem Zimbalist in 1930 who, for some strange reason, only seems to have recorded the second and third movements (and I find the first two movements easily the best). Next in 1975 comes Aaron Rosand, followed by Vilmos Szabadi in 2000 and Ragin Wenk-Wolff in 2005. All suffer the usual fate of being accompanied by small-town orchestras and unknown conductors so that it's a miracle the music still makes a good impression.
Ragin Wenk-Wolff, the latest acquisition, annoys by always playing fortissimo in her violin's lower registers (and making a rich, warm sound) while the upper registers of her violin sound a bit weedy (she would have been better making use of higher positions on the "A" string, as Heifetz would have done with such a fiddle). The final result, however, is not very satisfactory as an example of violin sound, which should favour a smooth transition over different strings and registers. The recording may also be against her; it's a bit bass-heavy and the orchestral violin strings lack bite and sheen.
Well, if we ever get Vadim Repin, Janine Jansen, Alina Ibragimova or Leila Josefowicz in Hubay's third concerto, I'll be first in line -- especially if the partners are the LSO under Claudio Abbado. Some hopes.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Every generation has its over-venerated composers. To my mind, the current generation has an entirely unrealistic view of Gustav Mahler, but no doubt time will correct all. Similarly, many composers are under-venerated (one thinks of Franz Schubert who, until half a century or so ago, was usually dismissed as just a very talented song writer).

To my mind, Henry Purcell has usually been under-rated. Not by Handel, at least, who, by all accounts (and to paraphrase his reported comment) said around 30 years after Purcell's untimely death that "if Purcell had lived, we'd all be out of a job". Thoughts on listening to yet another fine Purcell anthology entitled "Love Songs" (Dorothee Mields). Purcell was a genius at setting the English language, at modulating, at harmonising. His music is always clever, lovely and intriguing. Critics have riled at the backing by the Lautten Compangney Berlin. I am not worried; creative and unorthodox the group may be, but I am sure Purcell would have approved, just as I am sure that after listening to his violin music played by Jascha Heifetz and Rachel Podger, Johann Sebastian Bach would have been enchanted by Heifetz.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Long, long ago in central Italy (in the 1960s) I came across spaghetti alle vongole. I loved it. It re-appeared in my life (rarely so good) with Fishworks in Bath (a few years ago) and the Carluccio chain restaurants; This evening, armed with Mitchell Tonk's cook-book, and 300 grammes of clams from New Wave in Cirencester, I cooked my first, very own, spaghetti alle vongole.

In one word: superb. What a dish. A source of really fresh clams is a problem, But I will succeed. Thank you Cirencester fish shop. Thank you Mitchell Tonks. And thank you the many Italian simple restaurants that, back in the 1960s, introduced me to spaghetti alle vongole.Sea salt, Garlic. Parsley. Olive oil, chilli. Fresh, fresh, fresh clams, white wine. And that it it.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A very fine new CD from Tedi Papavrami on which he plays familiar French pieces, with orchestra (Liège Philharmonic). I first came across Papavrami in 1993 when I bought his excellent recording of Alkan's quite unjustly neglected sonata for violin and piano. Papavrami excels in the music on this new CD: Saint-Saëns' Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso and third violin concerto, Chausson's evergreen Poème, and Ysaÿe's Poème élégiaque (the piece that inspired Chausson to write his Poème). Papavrami plays very much like someone from the French school of violin playing, which suits this music. His sound is refined, delicate and far from the "power playing" favoured particularly on the other side of the Atlantic. And his violin (Christian Bayon, 2005) sounds just right for the part. I love this music, and the playing. I'll keep the CD close to hand.