Friday, 31 December 2010

I do not have too many prejudices (Me? Prejudices?) But I am wary of singers who sing in a language that is not their own, and I am wary of male altos (would you be comfortable meeting a male alto on a lonely street at night?) So I was both surprised and delighted to enjoy most thoroughly Gérard Lesne singing solo alto cantatas by the Bach family (Johann Michael, Johann Christoph, Johann Sebastian, plus an interjection from Georg Melchior Hoffmann, in a piece long attributed to J S Bach).

This is good music, very well sung with superb diction, and ably backed by Il Seminario Musicale (Naïve. 2001). My pilgrimage through my Bach vocal collection commenceth. If I eat and sleep but rarely, I'll finish around 2016.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

I have kilos of CDs of Bach cantatas and I really must begin to sort out some kind of priority ranking. Not all Bach cantatas are of equal quality, and certainly not all performances are of equal merit. I started today with an excellent example: cantatas BWV180, 49 and 115 performed by the excellent Ensemble Baroque de Limoges directed by the equally excellent Christophe Coin (Astrée Auvidis E 8530, recorded 1993).

All three cantatas are 24 carat Bach, and Coin has a first-rank line-up of soloists: Barbara Schlick, Andreas Scholl, Christoph Prégardien and Gotthold Schwarz (a very good bass). First-class solo voices are very important in Bach, and frequently an area of weak points in many recordings. Not so here. Coin uses a small choir rather than the econo-choirs favoured by modern accountants and performance managers. I prefer my choruses and chorales sung by small choirs.

I note there are two other CDs of Bach cantatas from the same forces; I have ordered them today without hesitation.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Back home with Christmas out of the way for another year. Most unusually for me, I had a Mozart evening. The symphonies number 39 and 41 (Klemperer, of course) and the string quintets K 515 and 516 (Grumiaux and friends, of course). Highly enjoyable. I haven't listened to Mozart for quite a while. Criminal neglect.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Tale of Two Cities. In New York in November 2010, Leonidas Kavakos and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos performed the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (which I downloaded to listen to). It was a bravura performance, greeted by ecstatic audience noise after both the first and last movements (in this concerto, the New Yorkers didn't get the chance between the slow movement and the finale, played without a break). Kavakos and the orchestra both played at white heat and the old warhorse fair galloped along.

In Berlin in April 1939, Georg Kulenkampff and the Berlin Opera House Orchestra conducted by Arther Rother performed the same concerto (well transferred by Michael Dutton). Alas, Berlin won by many furlongs. This is a very well played and very musical performance of this much-performed concerto. I enjoyed it greatly, even with the absence of the somewhat hysterical razzmatazz that marked the New Yorkers. Both Kavakos and Kulenkampff are on my list of preferred violinists. But Kavakos and the New Yorkers should not have flogged the old warhorse to the extent they did.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Schubert's B flat sonata D 960 is definitely one of my top works for listening to. I got to know it decades ago via an LP with Clifford Curzon. I now have thirteen recordings of the piece which is, for me, at the very peak of piano sonatas. Recently The Gramophone magazine ran a brief survey of the 113 (!) known recordings. That by Wilhelm Kempff came out top, so I took it off the shelf and listened to it again. For my taste, it's very good but with a slight air of routine; it doesn't sound as if it were that special a piece for Kempff on that day. Curzon is still very good (especially in the second movement) but, for me, his playing of the piece is too studied and too precious, and he does not make the all-important (for me) exposition repeat in the first movement.

I have previously praised the recording by Leif Ove Andsnes so I took that off the shelf. I still like it very much. Andsnes plays with a simplicity and naturalness that makes one imagine Schubert is in the room. Much of the music is resigned and world-weary and does not need elaborate pointing by the pianist. Andsnes makes the first movement repeat (as does Richter) and I think it is very necessary for the overall form of the work (presumably so did Schubert, which is why he wrote some extra bars as lead-in to the repeat). I must go back to Richter (a performance in Moscow that I like) and also re-sample the recording by "Joyce Hatto" -- who was actually playing I know not, but I remember liking the performance a few years ago.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Albert Sammons was a major violinist. Almost entirely self-taught, he shunned an international career, concert tours and recording marathons -- like many other highly talented artists. Being little known does not automatically mean being of little value. The admirable Pristine Audio has issued rare recordings of Sammons playing the Beethoven Kreutzer sonata (1926) and the Fauré first sonata (1938). Both performances are admirable. I am not usually a fan of the Kreutzer, but I love Sammons' drive here; he reminds me of Isabelle Faust in his refusal to draw attention to his playing and away from the music. Although much of the violin playing is extraordinary, it's the music you remember. Which is as it should be in these works.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Naxos re-issues have now reached Jascha Heifetz's 1950 recordings (transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn) so it is good to find a new excuse to listen to Mr Heifetz playing the violin. The first of these reissues contains the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (Phiharmonia conducted by Walter Susskind, 1950), the Conus concerto (1952 with Izler Solomon), Sarastate's Zigeunerweisen (1951 with Steinberg) and the Korngold concerto (1953 with Wallenstein). The transfers seem to be excellent, though I have not compared them head-to-head with the RCA transfers of 15 years or so ago.

The Romantic repertoire suited Heifetz down to the ground, and he is in his element in all these works. No one, ever, has been able to sound like Heifetz, and the palette of sounds he draws from one small violin remains extraordinary. The current CD also suggests some of the drawbacks from Heifetz recordings: his preference for back-up groups or accompanists rather than partners, and his insistence on being placed well forward. Heifetz must have been mystified by Adolf Busch's rejection of his own studio recording of the Beethoven violin concerto in 1942 because Busch and his violin were "recorded too forward" (Busch had been made to stand on a wooden box next to the microphone).

No matter in the repertoire on the current CD, however. The works by Tchaikovsky, Conus, Sarasate and Korngold can get by with the likes of Susskind, Steinberg, Wallenstein and Solomon waving distant batons and close-up Heifetz playing at his magical best. One can also admire Heifetz's sense of line and phrasing, and the fact that his unwillingness to indulge in sentimental lingering gives all these works a welcome sense of form and cohesion. Heifetz eases up slightly for tender or sentimental passages, but he never wallows as do so many other violinists.

Monday, 6 December 2010

I have made the acquaintance of the playing of the pianist Eduard Erdmann (courtesy of six CDs from Ronald). One of the unfortunate large band of European musicians who came on steam during the years 1930-50 when the time was not propitious to make an international reputation -- especially if you were German or Russian. In terms of piano tradition, Erdmann belongs with Arthur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer and Elly Ney. Along with Alfred Cortot, he is a pianist for those who value musical performance above all, with 100% digital accuracy being less important than 100% musical credibility. Erdmann has a beautiful sound (he is billed on one CD as being a "Poet of the Keyboard"). Maybe he plays a bit too beautifully? There are players (Jascha Heifetz comes to mind) where you can too often find yourself marvelling at their playing, rather than at the music. With artists such as Fischer, Ney, Klemperer or Adolf Busch -- to pick a few random examples -- one marvels at the music.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Back to Bruckner. The admirable Pristine Audio has just released a transfer of Bruckner's seventh symphony (1949, Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwängler, a performance I have known and loved for many, many years). As usual, one can only listen with admiration to the "new" sound on this latest transfer. And one can also admire the fact that, in 1949 and only some 48 months after the end of the second world war, with the virtual destruction of the major German cities, that 100 or so men were able to produce a performance such as this. Light and hope amongst the ruins. Now, Mr Rose, for a transfer of Bruckner's eighth with the same forces (either the 1944 or 1949 version). Then my personal Bruckner canon of 4, 7, 8 and 9 will be complete.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Violin Concertos by Britten and Korngold

Wheels turn, and what was once down starts to go up. Interesting on Tuesday 30th November to find the BBC broadcasting both the Britten violin concerto (James Ehnes) and the Korngold (Jack Liebeck). Written in 1939 (Britten) and 1947 (Korngold) the two concertos are almost contemporaneous, and both suffered the wrath of the critics who were all hung up on the compositional style du jour as epitomised by figures such as Dallapiccola, Nono, Boulez, Stockhausen, et al. I remember distinctly sniffy comments concerning the Shostakovich violin concerto after its premier in Britain around 1957 -- of the sort "well, Russian composers have to write this people's stuff, you know". Well, the composers du jour of the middle of the twentieth century are definitely on the down-circle of the wheel, and the people's stuff coming up. It's good to see Korngold and Britten going up; I have a soft spot for both concertos, though I am ambivalent about much of Britten's music (with important exceptions).