Saturday, 31 December 2011

There are not too many violinists whose violinistic voice one can recognise within seconds; Heifetz, Rabin, Kreisler and Elman come immediately to mind, and then one has to think a bit. It was good to hear Mischa Elman again this evening, in a BBC studio recital from 1961 when he was 70 years old. Immediately one smiles at the plaintive sound of his violin, and the deliberate articulation with his bow. Technically he was all there even at this age, and it's good to have this additional souvenir of him. Elman always complained about the fact that he found it difficult to get recording contracts; his sound was too dated, and too out of fashion. The first recording I have by him dates from 1906. The last from 1966. His playing didn't change much over those 60 years. I have always had a soft spot for Mischa Elman and his link with the old fiddler way of playing back in the Russian lands in the nineteenth century. His rendition here of Vitali's Chaconne is an object lesson in violin technique. The recording quality is surprisingly mediocre for its date; the German radio networks did a lot better than this much earlier on.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A violin-loving friend in Brussels sent me a DVD of Alina Ibragimova, the violinist who can do no wrong, playing the fourth Mozart violin concerto (with the Deutsche Kammerphilhamonie Bremen and Paavo Järvi). It is an entrancing performance. Ibragimova plays with immaculate technique, immaculate taste and immaculate musicianship. What is rarer: she communicates a real sense of enjoyment in her playing of this youthful work – and she plays her own cadenzas that fit very well and are not too long or “virtuostic”. A three-star DVD.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

I finished listening today to all six CDs of Josef Suk recordings from the 1950s and 60s. Not too much to add concerning my deep admiration for Suk's violin playing: accurate, silky but not over-sweet, intensely musical and, in the duos, with the real musicianship of a superb chamber music player. I would just add that I enjoyed all 26 works on the discs – even including the works by Jaroslav Jezek and Arthur Honegger. And never once in all 26 works did I have any doubts concerning the tempi adoped by Suk and his collaborators (who include André Navarra). Most unusual (I often find performers post-1960 tend to err on the slow side). A great box, and I'm glad I bought it. Very hard to think of a modern violinist who could give so much pleasure for over six hours in such varied repertoire.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

About to start listening to Disc V of my six-CD pack of Josef Suk (all very good, so far). Waiting in the wings is a 2-CD pack of Mischa Elman (BBC recordings from 1961). Then this morning arrives a 10-CD box of Josef Szigeti. There never were such times. The Szigeti box cost me £9.99 from Amazon (including postage).

Friday, 23 December 2011

My father, who played his double bass in the London Symphony Orchestra throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, had an immense regard for Pierre Monteux and one can hear why in a recording by Monteux and the LSO (1959) of Sibelius's second symphony. A commentator to this blog pointed me towards this recording: fortunately. It's a CD I picked up a couple of decades ago, probably in America in the days when one could ferret around in foreign record stores and come up with something unobtainable elsewhere (the CD notes are entirely in French, so I may have picked it up in Boston as an over-stock from Canada. Whatever). I complained about Riccardo Chailly not allowing his Beethoven works to “breathe” – whatever that may mean. What it does mean is what you can hear with Monteux and the LSO; the music sounds exactly right at Monteux's tempi, and there is a luminousity about the orchestral playing that puts this performance right at the top. Also on the CD is Elgar's Engima Variations played by the same forces, a recording that was highly thought of in its day and still strikes me as pretty well ideal. I can hear why my father liked Monteux so much (and, as an orchestral player, he generally did not think much of conductors). Monteux gets the orchestra to play, without drawing too much attention to the conductor. That is a great and welcome art. I am tremendously glad I had this recording in my voluminous archives; it won't be buried again.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Riccardo Chailly and the Symphonies of Beethove

Riccardo Chailly - Beethoven Symphonies

I bought this new set mainly to have a well-played and well-recorded set of the Beethoven symphonies suitable for my new headphones. I did not expect Chailly to supplant Klemperer in Beethoven; but, then again, I rarely listen to the Beethoven symphonies any longer.

Day One: the first symphony. I like this performance. Under Chailly the performance dances along and does not try to find much gravitas in the work. The first symphony is pretty pseudo- Haydn to my ears, without much depth. Suits Chailly and his tempi very well. I will move on to the second symphony.

Day Two: the second symphony. Somewhat to my surprise, I find I am not all that familiar with this work. It’s a minor piece but, again, Chailly seems at home and OK. Good playing, good sound.

Day three: the fourth symphony. For the time being I have skipped the Eroica, the first two movements of which I esteem very highly and I cannot imagine anyone coming near Klemperer there. So on to the fourth symphony which contains much first class music. I admire the playing of the Leipzig orchestra; the players really are first class. I admire the Decca recording. I admire Chailly’s emphasis on Beethovian dynamics and sforzandi. I do not like his tempi in the first two movements, both of which sound rushed and take us back to the bad old days of Toscanini. There is wonderful music in the first two movements and I wish Chailly had found the time to savour it a little rather than rushing ever onward as if he had a train to catch at the end of the concert. Music often needs to breathe, and Chailly does not give it time to catch its breath.

Day Four: the fifth symphony -- not one of my favourites. It often sounds pompous, banal and pumped-up. I have no problems with Chailly, Decca or the magnificent Leipzig orchestra in this performance, but I do have problems with Ludwig van Beethoven. The first movement goes very well with Chailly, and his swift tempi and lightness of touch remove the puffed-up extremes in which too many conductors indulge. The second movement has always disappointed me: a set of variations, with a refrain that comes round three times too often, has never struck me as an inspired way to continue a symphony that -- in Chailly’s hands at least -- starts well. After the scherzo and trio, we have that over-blown finale, sounding like something the young Gustav Mahler might have written. Beethoven should have learned from his hero, Handel, that triumphal music should not last too long. But how many really good finales are there that actually add something to a major work? Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique; Mozart’s Jupiter; Beethoven’s Seventh; Brahms Fourth; Schubert’s Unfinished (!); Bruckner’s Ninth (!). It’s a short list; revelatory finales are hard to write.

Day Four (continued) and the Pastoral symphony. On the whole, Italians are city and town dwellers and rarely feel at ease in the countryside. Chailly sounds as though he wants to keep his visit to the countryside as short as possible. His traversal of the work reminds me of the days when my “record player” had a control where you could select 78 rpm, 45, or 33 -- and sometimes I would select the wrong speed. The first and second movements speed by; the rustic third movement is tossed aside. The finale isn’t bad but, by then, it’s too late. This is a pretty disastrous rendition of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. Both Furtwängler and Klemperer came in for plenty of criticism in their day over tempi; this is a difficult tone poem / symphony to bring off. But I sense that, true Italian that he is, Chailly just does not like the countryside. On to symphony number seven, leaving the sixth to others better qualified.

Day Five: Symphony No.7. I prefaced this with the Egmont Overture: good, but not grim and black like Klemperer. Somewhat against my expectations, I took to Chailly’s version of Op 92. Again, superb recording and superb playing. An excellent middle-of-the-road interpretation (thank goodness the scherzo and trio were taken briskly; obviously, Beethoven hadn’t counted on people having listened to this 86 times in their lifetimes). Any niggles? Well, in 50 years time people will speak of Beethoven performances by Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer, Mengelberg, Weingartner, Knappertsbusch … and a few others. But not, I suspect, of the Beethoven of Chailly which, in the last resort, lacks the 12.5% that separates “excellent” from “great”. But, this is a Beethoven 7th to which I will return happily in years to come.

Day Six: Symphony No.8. Fast, frantic and full of sforzandi. I did not enjoy it. For all I know, this was echt Beethoven. But, for me, bring back Tommy Beecham and a little late 18th century charm and elegance.

Day Seven: Back to the third symphony. I have always thought the first two movements to be among Beethoven’s greatest and half wish he had abandoned the work after the funeral march; the third and fourth movements, to my taste, simply are not up to the standard of the first two. Klemperer for me defines this symphony, perhaps above all in his mono recording with the Philharmonia (1955; better than the 1959 stereo re-make -- Otto was a pretty variable conductor). I have no problem with Chailly’s basic tempo for the first movement. But I do have a problem with his refusal to adapt his tempo to the music being played. He gives the impression of putting the orchestra on autopilot and brings to mind the “Italian bandmaster” jibe made à propos Toscanini by (Beecham? Furtwängler?) No rubato here, no easing of the tempo, no reaction to some of the wonderful music in the score. The music does not breathe. No relief in the second movement; Chailly sets up a giant metronome and goes off for un espresso, leaving the orchestra to cope bravely. None of Klemperer’s grim darkness, lit by occasional rays of light. The order is: “Get it over with in 12 minutes and 11 seconds, and forget about all that adagio assai stuff”. Halfway through I lost patience and skipped on the the third movement. The third movement and finale go much better for Chailly, aided by his superb orchestra and excellent recording. Reinforces my growing conviction over the 37 movements of the Beethoven symphonies that the less emotionally and musically complex the music, the better Chailly comes over. I suspect he’s a dead cert for the William Tell overture of Rossini. But on to the ninth symphony, and how will he measure up to Furtwängler’s incandescent 1942 Berlin classic?

Final Day: Beethoven’s 9th. Contrary to my expectations, I quite enjoyed this, not least because almost all my other recordings of the work date from the 1940s and 50s and, with this new release, I hear so much more detail than I have done before. That said, the first movement is pretty relentless, and many favourite wayside flowers in the music are trampled underfoot in the headlong rush through the music. Again, the music isn’t allowed to breathe. The adagio lacks the ecstatic quality that Furtwängler brought to it. The long and ugly finale -- an infuriating mixture of sublimity and banality -- is greatly helped by the recording quality. Not a great Beethoven 9th, then, and certainly not one to any way rival Furtwängler in March 1942. But not bad.

The grand old conductors of the past such as Weingartner, Mengelberg, Knappertsbusch, Furtwängler and Klemperer all had their quite different approaches to Beethoven, Brahms, et al. But what comes through in all their performances is a humanity and a love of the music they are conducting. These are the qualities I miss in Chailly’s Beethoven: that sense of love and veneration. Like his fellow Italians of previous generations -- Arturo Toscanini and Guido Cantelli -- Chailly is a virtuoso conductor who can make an orchestra do anything he wants. But, to stick with Italians, there is more warmth and humanity in Victor de Sabata’s 1947 performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony (with the Santa Cecilia orchestra of Rome) than in the whole of Chailly’s Beethoven cycle. It may well be that Riccardo Chailly’s Beethoven set is one for the 21st century. But I do not feel it is one for someone, like me, born in 1941. Great virtuosi -- of the bow, the keyboard or the rostrum -- are not necessarily the greatest musicians.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Josef Szigeti, Oscar Shumsky and Josef Suk were all violinists of the first rank who eschewed low-cut dresses, TV shows and all the other “celebrity” razz-matazz. They were simply first class violinists of the old school. Working my way through a six CD box of early (1950s and 60s) recordings by Josef Suk, I find myself in immense admiration of his playing. So far I've heard his early Dvorak, Suk, Janacek and Smetana; and no one, but no one, plays it better.

In another world and time, I am also working my way through Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in all nine Beethoven symphonies. Heard five of them so far; four to go. Report in due course.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Sibelius seems to have fallen out of fashion for the moment, although back in the 1950s and 60s he was all the rage (just as, at the present time, we suffer from wall-to-wall Mahler). Almost by chance, this evening I pulled his second symphony off the rack (LSO conducted by Colin Davis) and I enjoyed it immensely. A big plus for my wireless headphones, this ability to listen to the thundering climax at the end of the finale without feeling guilty because of my neigbbours. I must listen to Sibelius more often; strangely enough, I've never been able to take to the third and fourth symphonies – though I like all the others and have a very soft spot for the somewhat uncharacteristic sixth symphony. Davis and the LSO are good in Sibelius whose symphonies inhabit that fin-de-siècle land that also contained Rachmaninov and Elgar.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

I rarely venture outside of Western “classical” music. But one of the other paths I enjoy is gypsy music, and the other is selective American folk / country music. Listening this evening to Nina Simone was a very great pleasure. She was a singer who sang from the heart and mixed black, country, jazz and classical streams. I first came across her in the late 1950s singing “Love me and leave me” with a very Bach-like fugal accompaniment; she was a pianist who trained at the Juilliard school. I even went to one of her concerts in London in the early 1980s. She was one of a kind, an abrasive individual with an immediately identifiable persona (a bit like Edith Piaf, Elvis Presley or Leonard Cohen). She died a couple of years ago in southern France where she lived in voluntary exile from America where she was born and where she grew up. Her voice lives on and I have many recordings of her, much cherished.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Susan Graham sings a very fine version of Chausson's Poème de l'Amour et de la Mer (with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier, 2004). Nice to hear a singer really engage with the words and the music. Chausson's early death (in a bicycle accident, of all things) was yet another sad loss for music. I've had a long love affair with Chausson's sad song cycle, starting back in the late 1970s with an LP and Janet Baker. The music still tugs at the heart strings after all these decades.

Zehetmair in Paganini

After being somewhat diappointed with James Ehnes's re-recording of the Paganini Caprices, I am pleased to give a good welcome to Thomas Zehetmair and his 2007 recording of the same works. I particularly enjoyed Zehetmair's subtle and prevalent variation of dynamics -- from pp, to ff. And Zehetmair, unlike Ehnes, brings out much of the showman character of these capricci. Welcome to the Paganini stable.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The recent superb Beethoven violin concerto recordings by Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Christian Tetzlaff and Liza Ferschtman were spoiled for me by their bizarre choice of cadenzas (when so many good alternatives exist). It would not have taken much to put the cadenzas on a separate track and thus give us the option of inserting some other version. That (should be) an advantage of the digital age. There are many good cadenzas for both the Beethoven and the Brahms violin concertos, and any decent violinist should have 2-3 in his or her repertoire. Give us a choice, and avoid having excellent performances spoiled by bizarre cadenzas. After Brahms, pretty well all composers became wise and wrote their own cadenzas (or supervised the contribution of some virtuoso). Ruggiero Ricci produced CDs of both the Beethoven and Brahms concertos with a wide selection of alternative cadenzas; so it can be done.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

It is pretty self-evident that a significant proportion of current “famous” young classical performers owe as much to their looks as to their prowess with the bow, the keyboard, the larynx or the baton. How many young fat, be-spectacled young performers can you remember with front-rank billing?

There are exceptions. I have always been somewhat mesmerised by the violin playing of Lisa Batiashvili – and still am, listening today to her in the Shostakovich first violin concerto (with Salonen) on a CD with a bizarre collection of fill-ups. Even through headphones, with the lights off: I can listen to Batiashvili for hours with real pleasure. And who cares what she looks like? She could well be the front runner for the title of “the most perfect violinist”.
Over an hour of virtuoso violin music is hard to bring off, but I enjoyed a new CD of opera fantaisies from an unknown (to me) young violinist, Haik Kazazyan (from Armenia). A past CD of opera fantaisies from Gil Shaham disappointed greatly a few years ago, but Kazazyan is an intelligent and sensitive player (as well as being a thorough virtuoso) and brings a wide range of dynamics and tone colour to the six pieces. The fantaisies by Zimbalist (Coq d'Or), Sarasate (Magic Flute), Wieniawski (Faust) and Ernst (Otello) are much to be welcomed. I would have preferred Sarasate's Carmen fantasy to that of the over-played Franz Waxman; and I could have done without Igor Frolov's over-long fantasy on Gershwin's Porgy & Bess (I don't like jazz or show-biz music on the violin).

A short word of praise for Kazazyan's pianist, Andrey Shibko, who is not the usual piano-thumper in the corner and plays most attractively when given the chance (he has quite a few good solo bars in the Wieniawski Faust work).
Three stars for Lucy Crowe! I have not really come across the young English soprano before, but her CD of cantatas and cantata arias by Handel really impresses. She has a lovely voice, with a golden timbre to it, and – oh joy! – she actually enunciates clearly so we can hear every word of the recitatives and arias. How rare, how welcome, and what a contrast to Alexandrina Pendatchanska whom I criticised severely recently for her unintelligible libretto.

A highly welcome Handel aria disc to join the many in my collection. Any niggles? Well, The English Concert is a little reticent as recorded and I suspect Georg Frideric would have wanted a livelier sound for his glorious music. And the CD does contain a pretty high dosage of melancholy lamentations; not a wise Christmas gift for a relative subject to depression.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Another recording of Handel's opera Agrippina, this time conducted by René Jacobs. Once again, I enjoyed every minute of the three and a half hours. Jacobs is much more theatrical than was John Eliot Gardiner, and he doesn't go for Handel's after-thought unsatisfactory ending, as did Gardiner. I prefer Gardiner's Agrippina (Della Jones) but much prefer Jacobs' Ottone (Bejun Mehta, versus Gardiner's Michael Chance). Very much swings and roundabouts when it comes to choosing an ideal version.

None of the two casts features real Italians, which is a great pity. Singers can learn to pronounce words perfectly, every vowel and every consonant; but it is usually only native speakers who can really relish the sound and significance of individual words. Jacob's Agrippina, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, sings dramatically and in tune; but even reading the Italian libretto while she sings, it is often difficult to make out just what she is singing. Do they not teach enunciation in Bulgaria? With Maria Callas you could understand every word she sang, even if you didn't speak the language.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

In the beginning, I listened to 78 rpm records on a portable (sort-of) wind-up gramophone where you had to change the steel needle after every side. I soon advanced to a record-playing deck (78s only) that plugged into the radio for sound. Then I had my very own record player (Pye Black Box) with an autochanger and the ability to play LPs. Things progressed over the years; I was a late adopter of CDs, since the sound of early CDs was inferior to that of LPs. But the mountain of releases of material not available on LP – notably the Heifetz recordings of the 1950s and 60s – had me buying a CD player. In the end, LP player and cassette players went and I settled down with two very large Acoustic Research speakers (each weighing around 25 kilos) and a succession of amplifiers and CD players.

Yesterday I fired up for the first time a pair of Sennheiser RS 170 wireless headphones: and a new era has begun. The sound from the headphones is superb and far better than from my 20 year old speakers. The sheer convenience is amazing (including the reception range of up to 80 metres). Only conceivable disadvantage is I can no longer hear the telephone when I am listening via the headphones. Expect to see my speakers on Ebay before long (buyer collects); I'll buy a pair of smaller speakers for when someone else wants to listen to something with me. However, the remarkable uncompressed wireless quality of the Sennheisers is remarkable and I now hear all sorts of details that were previously just a blur. Age VII has begun!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

After many years and many tries, I am beginning to enjoy Shostakovich's tenth symphony. The performance by Vasily Petrenko conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic sounds excellent to me, and the recording (on a cheapo Naxos CD) is first rate. This evening, however, I decided that for such music I have to invest in a pair of wireless headphones. Click, click on Amazon; the headphones will be delivered Monday. Symphony orchestras and apartment buildings just do not get on well together. My neighbours will be happier.
What happened to “classical” music after around 1950, both in terms of writing, and performance? Having greatly admired Josef Szigeti yesterday (1940 recordings) I find myself today bowled over by Walter Gieseking in Beethoven sonatas (1938-40). Giesking plays like, I imagine, Beethoven might have done, with an appropriate wildness to much of the music.

Difficult to think of much significant classical music after 1950, apart from a few last stragglers from Shostakovich or Britten. For performers, Heifetz, Klemperer and a few others made it for a few more years after which, apart from welcome oddities such as Sviatislav Richter, there not many great names that come to mind. Historians in a hundred years or so will probably discover that music became “mediatised” after the second world war and that there were plenty of marvellous composers, pianists, singers and violinists except their output never saw the light of day since they did not fit the perceived commercial mould. We are very fortunate that music – written or performed – has been preserved for eternity on paper or recorded media.
Yesterday evening I dipped into Josef Szigeti (with Andor Foldes) playing short pieces by Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Hubay, Kodaly, Mussorgsky, Lalo and Debussy (recordings from 1941, on a Biddulph CD). It was striking how violinists of the pre-1950s era were able to invest each short piece with its own colour and character. One listens to Szigeti, and the 33 minutes or so occupied by the pieces speed past. Modern violinists are churned out of violinists factories to play every piece with a beautiful, seamless, golden flood of sound; Szigeti uses his bow to invest different colours and to point up rhythms. I enjoyed the experience immensely, which would not have been the case had a technically expert violinist such as Chloë Hanslip or Joshua Bell been playing. A salutary re-discovery, and I was also pleasantly surprised how well the old Biddulph transfers came up (Lewis Wiener, produced by Eric Wen). Peter Biddulph knew about violin sound and seems to have insisted on fidelity. I am glad I have so many Szigeti recordings; his playing and sound are no longer fashionable; but fashion ain't everything, and quality, is.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Cantelli in Tchaikovsky. Ehnes in Paganini

I was disappointed a few weeks ago revisiting Guido Cantelli in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony; it seemed to me simply too fast and too Toscanini-like. However, the Pristine Audio reincarnation of Cantelli's 1950 Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony restores this famous performance to life. Also on the Pristine disc is Cantelli's 1951 Romeo & Juliet Overture; this is a work I love, and this is the performance with which I grew up (it was on an LP with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll on the other side of the disc). Evergreen classics, and it's good to have both the Tchaikovsky works again in very passable sound (Mark Obert-Thorn transfers).

Less keen revisiting James Ehnes in his recent re-recording of Paganini's 24 Capricci. Being Ehnes, the playing is technically and stylistically impeccable. But in this Paganini playing I do miss a sense of joie de vivre, of exhuberance, of sheer revelling in the music. I must investigate some of the other recordings I have (I remember liking in particular that by Leonidas Kavakos).

Monday, 7 November 2011

Monday, and finishing up things since I shall not be eating in again until Saturday evening. So a good start with pâté de foie de canard, followed by perfectly cooked langoustines, followed by a truly excellent sirloin steak, followed by the remains of a very ripe Camembert. The whole accompanied by a good green salad and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône. No dessert, alas.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Three and a half hours go by quickly when listening to Handel's Agrippina. I listened to the 1991 recording on Philips conducted by John Eliot Gardiner which is excellent, with a good spacious sound and with Gardiner less manic than often. The singers are very good, though sometimes lacking in theatrical thrust. The singers (with not an Italian amongst them) simply do not relish the words in a way a native Italian speaker would. But what music! Music positively streamed out of Handel who apparently wrote the entire three and a half hour opera in just three weeks. I liked the work so much I have just ordered a second version for comparison – the new recording conducted by René Jacobs. Reports in due course.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

People who like drawing up lists of “top three” or “top ten”, or whatever rarely have much problem with the three greatest composers, and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven almost always romp home. But the second tier? And the third tier? Almost as difficult for list-builders as “the greatest French / English / Italian composer”.
However, Handel (and Schubert) must always come immediately after the top three. Listening today to a new CD of arias from his oratorios (late Handel, composed 1744-50) I marvel anew at his sheer musicality and his incredible gift for simple but memorable melody where he is on a par with Mozart and Schubert. Many, many composers wrote arias for operas and oratorios or cantatas; very, very few are on a par with the caro Sassone.
The present CD features two Canadians – Karina Gauvin (soprano) and Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto). The Complesso Barocco is conducted by the reliable Alan Curtis. All are completely beyond reproach. A happy disc.

Monday, 31 October 2011

There are some CDs that, without star names or trumpet-blowing PR, manage to be highly enjoyable. One such I heard yesterday evening features Svetlin Roussev (violin) and Frédéric d'Oria-Nicolas (piano). They play the third sonata by Nikolai Medtner, coupled with the third sonata by Grieg. Both works are first class. The recording and balance (2008) are first class. The playing reminds me that “big names” are not always a guarantee of first-class results and that this CD really does deserve the three stars I gave it.

I also heard the thoroughly admirable Albert Sammons in the first Schubert “sonatina” (with William Murdoch) and in Vieuxtemps' Ballade & Polonaise Op 38 – the latter recorded in 1916 with the Band of the Grenadier Guards, euphonium to the fore. The son of a shoemaker, Sammons was one of the very few violinists who was entirely self-taught. He never had (nor sought) an international reputation and was always happy to tour the local English musical circuits. By any measure, however, he was a front-rank violinist as his whiplash right arm in the Vieuxtemps demonstrates. Again, you do not need to look for big names to find first rate.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

During the 1950s and 60s, my father lived just two streets away from Alfredo Campoli, and since he played in the LSO for almost all of that period, he came across Alfredo frequently. He never had a good word to say for the violinist. Partly because of Campoli's background (a café violinist who announced he was turning “classical” after 1945 when café orchestras went out of fashion in England) and partly because of what he once termed to me “his pretentiousness”.

Being the son of my father, I imbibed this prejudice. And listening again this evening to Fat Alfredo playing the Elgar violin concerto, I concede that my father was right. Alfredo was not a violinist of stature. The Elgar violin concerto (1954, with Adrian Boult) features ever-so-sweet violin playing, a bit like eating a meal of sweet courses where even the ham is braised in honey, the whole accompanied by a sweet white wine. When the music is sentimental, Alfredo wows it like a cheap Italian tenor from a minor Italian opera house. The 1954 recording is one of those mono recordings where the orchestra has three microphones (or whatever) and the soloist a microphone all to himself; the effect is almost as if Alfredo had been dubbed on afterwards. We have here an Anglo-Italian version of the Israeli Itzhak Perlman and I don't like it, just as I don't care for Perlman. Bring on the unlikely duo of Albert Sammons and Thomas Zehetmair (for the Elgar violin concerto).

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Ion Voicu was a phenomenal virtuoso of the violin. Coming to prominence as a violinist in Romania during the period 1940-65 he was of gypsy heritage and not the least attraction in listening to him is the confluence of gypsy, Central Europe, and great virtuosity. Like so many superb violinists of that period in Central Europe, he never became really well known but he lives on via his posthumous reputation among violin lovers. Born in 1923, he died in 1997.

A friend sent me 90 minutes of Voicu, including the Mendelssohn and second Wieniawski violin concertos, plus a recital disc. The Mendelssohn is refreshing and played fast and straight, with no attempt to inflate the music into something it is not; I suspect Mendelssohn would have liked it. The Wieniawski is marvellous. On the recital disc, the Bach “Air on the G string” is pretty lugubrious, a Locatelli sonata marvellous for the playing, if not for the appreciation of a suitable style for Locatelli, Paganini's Le Streghe a real tour de force, Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen as good as one would expect, Eugène Ysaÿe's sixth sonata is quite spell binding. The recital rounds off with a most attractive folk piece for solo violin by Voicu himself – the Morning After the Wedding and here one can really hear the gypsy in Voicu's ancestry. Quite exhilarating. First time I have ever heard it, and I suspect no one else could ever play it like this (except, maybe, Kopatchinskaja).

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Pleasant hour listening to Liana Isakadze and comrades playing string music by Otar Taktakishvili, Sulchan Nassidse, Nodar Gabunija and Sulchan Zinzadse. Hardly household names. An old copy CD, courtesy of Carlos. I particularly enjoyed the concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra by Sulchan Nassidse; some quite original music, and a strong link with Georgian folk music. Interesting and enjoyable. The orchestra was the Georgian Chamber Orchestra conducted from the violin by Isakadze.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Good food and a good meal. Somewhat difficult to find in restaurants, even if one pays much money. A little easier to find at home, if one cooks it without outside intervention. This evening was superb: a truly excellent aged sirloin steak (thanks to Marks & Spencer). A good green salad with a highly superior dressing (out of a bottle). A three star Reblochon cheese, with a three star Camembert, both from the market in Cirencester. All accompanied by half a bottle of Cien y Pico 2007 red wine. Difficult to eat better, especially at the home-cooking price.

Afterwards: Josef Suk with the Czech Philharmonic playing Dvorak and Suk (the composer) back in the 1970s. Should have been as good as the steak, but the Supraphon digitised transfer had Josef Suk playing on a cheap Chinese violin once he played above the stave. Don't these transfer engineers have ears?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

With great delight, I am steadily working my way through four hours on four CDs of Walter Gieseking playing Debussy (a truly incredible bargain from Regis, with the complete set costing only something like £12). The recordings were made by EMI during the period 1951-4 and sound extraordinarily good, since the piano is much more tolerant towards digitised “old” sound compared with the violin. And the performances are beyond praise; Gieseking's delicate touch and light and shade come through faithfully, but he also gives Debussy's music real backbone, unlike many of the somewhat effete performances one hears elsewhere. Difficult to imagine why anyone bothered to record this music after Gieseking over half a century ago.

A different kettle of fish comes with Miroslav Vilimec playing the fourth violin concerto of Jan Kubelik. I was not aware that Kubelik wrote any violin concertos until I received this from my friend Ronald. This is a live performance from 1994 and the music is interesting. Kubelik had a talent for thematic material (evident in many of the short pieces for violin that he wrote). Here the music reminds me of the Viennese Korngold, crossed with bits of Mahler. I enjoyed it, since the violin, although having lots of “virtuoso” passages, also sings lyrically in many places. A concerto to come back to. The other work on the CD-R, the Op 23 violin concerto by Heinrich Ernst played by Lukas David, sounds much more conventionally “virtuoso” compared with the Kubelik concerto. I much prefer Jan Kubelik.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The violin concerto by Aram Khachaturian is not the world's greatest. And the Romanian Radio studios in 1954 were not the world's greatest recording venue, nor the Romanian Radio Orchestra the best orchestra of the time. But the performance recorded in 1954 by the said forces conducted by Niyazi created one of the all-time greatest violin concerto recordings in history. Julian Sitkovetsky plays like one possessed during the public performance. In the annals of violin playing, this is above that of Heifetz, Kreisler, Milstein, Oistrakh, Kogan, Rabin and the other greats. This is truly incredible technique allied to truly incredible passion. One of a kind. Available to date only on either Russian Disc, or Arlecchino (both currently unavailable). Sitkovetsky recorded the concerto again in Moscow two years later, with the composer himself conducting. But the version with Niyazi is the one to have.

Two years after this, Julian Sitkovetsky was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two years after that, he was dead at the age of 32. Not since the early exit of Josef Hassid has violin playing been robbed of such a supreme exponent. On my shelves, his recording of the Khachaturian violin concerto with Niyazi will hold a place of honour. And I'll play it to anyone who questions as to what the violin can really achieve.
A hot afternoon in England, with temperatures going up towards 29 degrees. So a good time to sit back in a cool(ish) lounge and spend three hours with Handel, this time with his opera Berenice.

The usual ridiculous plot of sundry kings, queens, princesses and princes in exotic lands (Egypt, this time). No really memorable characters (such as strong, wicked sorceresses). And no great arias in Berenice, thought many pleasant and admirable ones. Not Handel's greatest work, but an enjoyable way to spend a hot Sunday afternoon. Alan Curtis is highly competent, as usual, as is Il Complesso Barocco. The admirable cast does not really have a weakness, and I particularly enjoyed the singing of Klara Ek, Ingela Bohin, Franco Fagioli and Vito Priante.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

“Harry Collier”, said Mephistopheles; “your time has come, and we will descend together to a very warm place where you can re-join many of your friends. I have decided that you may take with you just one copy of just one violin concerto – the violin is my instrument. The concerto will be: that of Piotr Tchaikovsky. Make your one choice, and come with me”.

“Lord Mephistopheles”, I stammer (playing for time – I have seen the film The Seventh Seal over and over again since I was 16 years old in the sixth arrondisement of Paris, but hopefully Mephistopheles has not). “I have 76 versions of that concerto. How can I choose just ONE, in so short a time?”

“ONE!” says Mephisto, raising his pitchfork. So I run off to choose just one, out of 76, the oldest version in the collection being from 1928 (Bronislaw Huberman, excrutiating) , and the most recent from 2010 (Leonidas Kavakos, excellent). How does one choose between seven versions by Vadim Repin, for example?

In the end I stand juggling Julia Fischer (2006) and Mischa Elman (1947, in the Hollywood Bowl). Have to have Elman but, there again, the Fischer account is an excellent modern classic.

Mephistofeles lets me off the hook: “Forget Tchaikovsky”, he says. “Go with Beethoven and choose one of your 80 versions – you have ten seconds left”. Well, that is a lot easier than the Tchaikovsky, and I descend happily with Mephisto clutching Erich Röhn and Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1944 performance. Lucky he didn't pick Sibelius or Brahms.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Fleeing the advancing armies, or tidal wave, or whatever: which CDs do I grab and take with me? Do I choose work, or performance? This involves also the perennial question of recording quality, versus performance.

For me, performance of a given work is always the No.1 consideration; recording quality comes second. Where there is a clear “winner”, rival candidates can safely be left behind. So I will tuck under my arm Albert Sammons in the Elgar violin concerto (1938), Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin in the Schubert Fantasia (1931), Wilhelm Furtwängler in Bruckner's 9th Symphony (1944), the Busch String Quartet in the late Beethoven quartets (mid-1930s), Julian Sitkovetsky and Niyazi in the Khachaturian violin concerto (1954). From my recent purchases I would add Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in the Lekeu sonata and the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane in the Elgar Piano Quintet. For Kreisler pieces, I will always go for Kreisler himself during the first three decades of the last century. For the great Bach choral works I will defy contemporary wisdom (and the BBC) and pick Otto Klemperer in the Mass in B minor, and the St. Matthew Passion (1960s).

For most works, however, it's a toss up. There are many recordings of the Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Sibelius and Shostakovich violin concertos, some from great players of the past in poor or average sound, some from excellent players of today in average or very good sound. Which CD do I seize for the first Shostakovich violin concerto? There are so many good ones; Batiashvili? Josefowicz? Fischer? Khachatryan? Kogan? Oistrakh? Repin? Vengerov? And some of these have recorded many versions; there is no obvious choice, as there is not for the Sibelius violin concerto, nor the Mendelssohn, nor the Bruch. Bruch's Scottish Fantasia is a fight between Heifetz and Rabin, with everyone else standing in the wings. Many candidates for the Paganini caprices but, for the first Paganini violin concerto, a fight between Rabin and Kogan (with many runners up, however).

I am extremely happy when I discover a new “golden classic” that can overtake older recordings – one reason why I was pleased with Thomas Zehetmair's 2008 recording of the Elgar violin concerto which, although it certainly does not overtake Sammons' classic version, certainly provides a thoroughly acceptable modern alternative. But otherwise, when the great wave bears down, which version of the Sibelius violin concerto do I grab and run with out of the 50 on my shelves?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Somewhere around I have all 21 Brahms Hungarian Dances played by: Marat Bisengaliev, Aaron Rosand, Hagai Shaham, Oscar Shumsky .. and Baiba Skride. A vast assembly of individual violiinsts plays a selection of one or more indidual dances, from Leopold Auer to Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz, and beyond. I have no doubt as to the winner of the complete 21 dances: Baiba Skride and her sister, Lauma, take the jackpot. One of those rare cases where I need no other recordings. I am mortally ashamed that I left Ms Skride out of my recent list of top-notch young female violinists. She is a superb player.

Monday, 26 September 2011

After enjoying my recent Naxos CD of three Russian violin concertos, I turned to Julia Fischer on a PentaTone CD where she plays three more Russian concertos (Khatchaturian, Prokofiev 1, and Glazunov) accompanied by Yakov Kreizberg and the Russian National Orchestra. A pity Ms Fischer has left PentaTone; it's a company that currently produces some of the best quality recordings.

I greatly admired these performances of both the Glazunov and the Khatchaturian concertos (I haven't yet re-listened to the Prokofiev). The Glazunov “belongs” to Heifetz, Rabin and Milstein, of course, but Fischer is competitive. I have always enjoyed Khatchaturian's melodic and attractive violin concerto (although some miserable critics tend to sniff at it since it is not “progressive”). The great recorded performance of this concerto is that of Julian Sitkovetsky with the Romanian Radio Orchestra conducted by Niyazi (1954) a searing and scintillating performance that will probably never be equalled on record. Julia Fischer, however, does well and is, of course, better recorded than poor old Sitkovetsky back in 1954. The twentieth century Russians certainly produced many highly attactive violin concertos.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A new Naxos CD of “Russian Violin Concertos” makes pleasant listening. The three concertos are quite undemanding of the listener and pass an enjoyable 64 minutes. The violin concerto by Julius Conus is (relatively) well-known. The Concertino for violin & string orchestra by Mieczslaw Weinberg claims to be a world première recording; the piece, dating from 1948, was only published in 2007. I enjoyed it greatly. The third concerto is that of Anton Arensky; it appealed to me less, mainly because – unlike the Conus and the Weinberg – is does not have much in the way of memorable thematic material.

Well done (again) Naxos. No good relying on the “old” record companies of the world for this kind of CD. The violinist in all three concertos is Sergey Ostrovsky, a name quite new to me. He plays well like a good little Russian, with a sound world heavily influenced by the smooth sound of the Oistrakhs who left a deep imprint on Russian violin playing. Excellent back-up with the undemanding orchestral parts by the excellent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling (son of Kurt). And finally, and most welcome, Naxos gives all three works an excellent recording, with good balance between orchestra and soloist. A real bargain for £5.50, or thereabouts.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Baiba Skride

In any recorded performance of the Brahms violin concerto, the important elements – apart from the composer – are the violin soloist, the conductor, and the recording engineers. Despite my recent massacre of my CD collection, I have still ended up with 79 (!) recordings of Brahms' Op 77. The most recent is by Baiba Skride, with Sakari Oramo on the Orfeo label.

It is excellent. Miss Skride plays beautifully, intelligently and with a perfect technique. Oramo – himself a violinist – gives maximum support with the Stockholm Philharmonic. And Orfeo achieves the rare feat of an excellent recording with ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. An ideal balance between one solo violin and an orchestra of around 100 players is easier said than done; in the concert hall, the conductor is supposed to look after questions of balance. In recordings, it is down to recording and balance engineers who too often get things wrong (usually spotlighting the soloist). In a concert hall, the eye can help the ear in, for example, feeding the information that the soloist is scrubbing away desperately even when the orchestra is at full throttle. In a recording, the ears are everything, and unaided, and thus deserve a little help from the balance engineers. For Baiba Skride, the Orfeo engineers get it just right.

This recording balances the “macho” Brahms with the more feminine and lyrical side of his music. I liked it very much indeed. Yet another Brahms violin concerto to add to the highly recommended list. And yet another young female violinist deserving international fame. I have been disappointed with several recent recordings of this concerto; I am delighted with this one. Technique, tempo, interpretation, collaboration and recording all come together. As an encore, Orfeo and Baiba Skride (with her sister Lauma) offer Brahms' Hungarian Dances (all 21 of them, arranged by Joachim). The playing here reminded me often of Toscha Seidel in Brahms, and there can be no higher praise than that.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

When I was younger, most major pianists were bald-headed men: Solomon Cutner, Wilhelm Backhaus, Sviatislav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, et al. But after enthusing recently over Lise de la Salle, I have now to enthuse over Yuja Wang. Her recital CD of Stravinsky, Scarlatti, Brahms and Ravel is one to keep close to the CD player. She displays cool intelligence, plus an incredible technique. Which does not necessarily mean I long to hear her in the Beethoven Diabelli, or the Bach Goldberg. But her Brahms Paganini variations scintillate, as do her two well-known Scarlatti sonatas. Ravel's La Valse sounds suitably demonic and sinister, and the suite from Stravinsky's Petrouchka does not really need an orchestra when Ms Wang is around. A three-star CD.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I first heard Elgar's Piano Quintet at a concert at Boxgrove Priory many years ago and was immediately attracted to it. For some reason it has often been disparaged by critics, some of whom no dealt felt that, because of its date of composition (1918-19) Elgar should have been dabbling in serialism and electronic synthesisers, or whatever.

For me, the music is saturated in nostalgia, in mourning for the end of an era and for the 5.5 million young English, French, German and Austrian men who died in the terrible years of 1914-18. It is End of an Era music, rather like Strauss's Four Last Songs of nearly 30 years later.

I already have the work recorded by John Ogdon and the Allegri quartet, Peter Donohoe and the Maggini and Harriet Cohen and the Stratton quartet (1933) but I launched out on the new recording by Piers Lane and the Goldner Quartet, on the grounds that one can never have too many recordings of the Elgar piano quintet. I am glad I did; the Goldner performance is a revelation and knocks spots off all the rivals. Despite all the participants being Australian, they get to the very heart of this complex, multi-faceted but very English score. I love this performance, which is very well recorded (Hyperion) with a model balance between piano and string quartet. The CD also contains the string quartet to which I have never really taken; perhaps the Goldners will convert me.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

It is a little difficult to understand why the music of Henri Vieuxtemps isn't played more. His music is melodic, well written and immediately appealing. It is, however, pretty well absent from concert halls, and rare in recordings, apart from the fifth violin concerto, for some reason.

These are good days for lovers of rarer music in recording. Yesterday I took delivery of a boxed set of all seven Vieuxtemps violin concertos for the price of less than three hours work at the English minimum wage. The set, from Fuga Libra, would never have existed thirty years ago. The orchestra – Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège – would never be mistaken for the Vienna Philharmonic, but it plays with affection and enthusiasm and is well recorded. The seven concertos are given to seven different soloists, all young and from Latvia, Armenia, Russia, Belgium and Australia. Many are pupils of Augustin Dumay, who is also the “artistic advisor” for the seven concerto recordings.

The first concerto is a long work (over 37 minutes) and extremely difficult to play. Vieuxtemps must have had a formidable right arm since whole stretches of the concerto demand incredible bow control by the hard-pressed soloist. As with the music of Spohr and Sarasate, the Vieuxtemps concertos are on the whole light on bravura and rich in melodic violin figuration. Vineta Sareika (Latvia) plays the first concerto extremely well and no allowances need to be made for the fact she is an unknown violinist. The 1690 Gofriller she plays sounds just right for this music. As with the orchestra, there are probably many pluses to featuring lesser known musicians; probably Joshua Bell and the Philharmonia orchestra would sound more polished, but they might never achieve the commitment and enthusiasm evident in these recordings. “We try harder” is not a bad motto; the results can be rewarding, as here.

In the second concerto, the Armenian Hrachya Avanesyan is perfectly good, if not as exceptional as Vineta Sareika was in the first; it's a question of naturalness and fluency -- the Armenian sounds as if he has only recently learned the concerto, and he is not as good a violinist as the Latvian. He sounds as if he has been coached to play in a style that does not come naturally to him. The wisdom of having Dumay as artistic director comes across; however disparate and contrasting the Latvian and the Armenian may be as violinists, their approach to Vieuxtemps is similar.

The Russian Nikita Boriso-Glebsky is given the third concerto, to my mind the least interesting of the first five. He is technically immaculate and copes with the music effortlessly. Stylistically he sounds something of a crossover from the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos, a quite different world from that of Vieuxemps. A word of praise for the conductor, Patrick Davin, who gives excellent support (at least, in the first three concertos).

On to the fourth concerto, which is my favourite. Such a pity Heifetz truncated and mutilated the orchestral part for his recording with Barbirolli. For the current recording, the soloist is the Belgian Lorenzo Gatto. An admirable performance, though quite a few fluffs. He and the orchestra manage the difficult scherzo well – Vieuxtemps indicated that, if it were found too difficult for the performers, it could be omitted. A couple of momentary miscalculations by the orchestra in the slow movement have it sounding a bit like Stockhausen.

The main problem is that Gatto simply does not have the authority that a soloist needs in a concerto such as this. Authority is difficult to describe or define (though not too difficult to recognise). When a soloist such as Heifetz, Julia Fischer, Michael Rabin or Alina Ibragimova – to pick four at random – start to play, you prick up your ears (even during a blind listening session). That is 'authority'. For the fourth concerto, I stick loyally with Arthur Grumiaux, a man with much quiet authority.

Concerto No.5 is given to Iossif Ivanov (born in Antwerp, despite his name). In this work he comes face to face with Jascha Heifetz, and it is pretty obvious that Ivanov knows the Heifetz performance extremely well. He does not quite equal Heifetz (who can?) but he is a gold medal runner-up. On a wet Sunday evening, after a good meal, one could almost be forgiven being confused between the Heifetz rendition and that of Ivanov. A big hit for the Fuga Libra set (the first big hit since Vineta Sareika in the first concerto). On to numbers six and seven ..

Number 6, and the Belgian Jolente de Maeyer. An excellent player, and not a bad concerto but it confirms the difficulty of writing finales; we rarely look forward to a finale, with a few exceptions such as Mozart 41, Beethoven 7, Schubert Unfinished (!), Bruckner 9 (!), Das Lied von der Erde, and Brahms 4, and Vieuxtemps is no exception.

The Australian Harriet Langley has the seventh concerto and does extremely well; it's not a bad concerto either, written, like the 6th, when Vieuxtemps had retired to Algiers (like Saint-Saëns after him; what is it about Algiers? I spent a few days there in the 1970s and hated the place. Perhaps it was better in the nineteenth century). The slow movement has a definite couscous sound to it. Anyway, Ms Langley does very well indeed.

So, to sum up: nearly four hours of highly enjoyable music, well recorded and, in the main, extremely well played. It is good to have the seven concertos all in the same sound and stylistic world. Maybe, individually, some of the concertos might sound better elsewhere, but it's a set I'll return to with pleasure. Well done, Fuga Libra, and Augustin Dumay.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Ibragimova and Tiberghien and Guillaume Lekeu's Sonata

There are certain 'golden classics' of recorded music such as: Abert Sammons playing the Elgar violin concerto, Jascha Heifetz playing Saint-Saëns' Havanaise, and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, Wilhelm Furtwängler in Bruckner symphonies … and more. Having listened almost obsessively many times to Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in Guillaume Lekeu's sonata for violin and piano, I sense that a new golden classic has arrived. Budding violin and piano duos from now on may consider recording Lekeu's sonata but, after auditioning Ibragimova and Tiberghien, hastily change to Franck, or Brahms, or Debussy.

Be it for an enthralling performance of the sonata, for an exemplary example of supreme duo playing, for a state-of-the-art example of what a violin is capable of, or for how entrancing a 1738 Pietro Guarneri can be made to sound: Hyperion CDA 67820 is an instant modern classic. I really love this performance.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

When someone commented to Leopold Auer that he thought Heifetz played a piece too quickly, Auer is reputed to have replied: “Maybe, but you listened to every note, did you not?” And it is true: Heifetz had such a chameleon sound, with infinite variety of bowing, fingering, colouring, rubato and dynamics that we sit glued to the sound of what he is playing.

I remembered Auer's remark when listening to the latest CD (Hyperion) of Alina Ibragimova with Cédric Tiberghien. Along with perhaps Julia Fischer, Ibragimova has a wonderful palette of sound and dynamics, and the Ibragimova-Tiberghien duo is rapidly gaining the stature of such past combinations as Grumiaux-Haskil or Busch-Serkin. I love listening to the playing of Guillaume Lekeu's sonata for violin and piano on this new disc, and although I appear to have 82 (!!) recordings of various aspirants playing Ravel's Tzigane, Ibragimova is well up in the top echelon (though not up to Kopatchinskaja).

Ibragimova is unusual in that she seems equally at home (and impressive) in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Brahms, Debussy, Hartmann, Ravel, Lekeu, Roslavets, Strauss and Szymanowski. The only music she does not appear to play is the virtuoso repertoire (Paganini, Ernst, Sarasate, et al). Probably understandable; she is a supremely musical violinist and her incredible technique is put at the service of what she is playing, rather than flaunted. But I would love to hear her in Vieuxtemps and Spohr, for example. Still, she is only 23 or 24 and probably could not add much to the 32 versions of the Ronde des Lutins that I currently have on my shelves.

Another impressive thing about Ibragimova is that she is always photographed as a normal young woman, rather than posed as some super-model showing maximum flesh. The current CD has just one black and white photo of the violinist, in a warm-looking Icelandic sweater. A refreshing change from some of her competitors amongst the fleshy violin-babes.

We do, however, live in an incredible age when it comes to violin playing. To mention only younger female violinists whose playing I know and like, there are: Alina Ibragimova, Julia Fischer, Lisa Batiashvili, Liza Ferschtman, Janine Jansen, Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Sarah Chang, Simone Lamsma, Tianwa Yang, Arabella Steinbacher, Isabelle Faust, Patricia Kopatschinskaja … and no doubt a horde of others whose names escape me for the time being.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Beethoven's "Von Herzen - möge es wieder - zu Herzen gehn!" [from the heart, to the heart] sums up quite a lot of what moves me in music – be it folk, popular or classical. I don't take to music that is purely commercial, nor music that is purely cerebral.

I bought a Wigmore Hall Live recording by the Skampa Quartet because it was a very cheap offer, and because it contained quartets by Mozart, Smetana and Shostakovich. As someone who loves Mozart's music, I have always been slightly perplexed at my reaction to the string quartets that never, it seems to me, go to my heart in the way that so much of Mozart's music does. The string quartets have always sounded to me merely expertly written. K 575 in D major on this Skampa disc did not convert me; despite the late Köchel number, the music just passed pleasantly but unremarkably. Very puzzling.

So on to Smetana; Czech music usually reaches directly to the heart. But his D minor quartet (number two) did little for me. Finally, Shostakovich and his eighth quartet in C minor Op 110, and here was the real thing, with remarkable music sending frissons to the listener, and all the tensions and traumas of the Stalin years communicated from the heart, to the heart. I will treasure this CD for the Shostakovich, and pass over the Mozart and the Smetana. Very odd.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

There are advantages in having a large collection of recordings, one of which is that, when I suddenly have a desire to hear something different, there is plenty of choice. Today I had a desire to listen to ... Mozart and started with his symphony No.39, one of my favourites. Performed by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia, one of my favoured conductors for the Austro-German orchestral corpus. Wonderful music, superbly played and conducted. Klemperer's desire to have woodwind forward really pays dividends in Mozart's music. Then on to the beautiful voice of Caroyln Sampson singing early religious stuff by Mozart. I never become tired of listening to Ms Sampson, whatever she may sing.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Listening to a new recording of Handel's Aminta e Fillide, I wonder anew at how music, melodies and arias simply poured out of the 21 year old Saxon. The cantata consists of a string of non-stop hits, many of which were re-cycled in later works (particularly the operas). This is the third recording I have of this work, which is highly dependent on having two good soloists, plus expert chamber orchestra back-up. Here on the latest CD, Klaartje van Veldhoven and Stefanie True are the two excellent soloists, and Contrasto Armonico provides the expert back-up. Director is Marco Vitale, and speeds sound acceptable, though verging on the somewhat brisk at times, in the modern manner. Sometimes, we need more time to savour the delights of Handel's arias. But, all in all, a good acquisition.

Friday, 19 August 2011

I am often criticised (particularly by members of my family) for having multiple versions of the same piece of recorded music. Things become even more ridiculous when one has multiple versions of the same piece of music by the same artist. For the record, I have FOUR recordings of Lisa Batiashvili playing the Beethoven violin concerto.

Until yesterday, I had two of the same Lisa playing the first Shostakovich violin concerto; now I have three, having recorded off-air her performance on Wednesday evening at a Promenade concert in London (with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen). Happily, there is a point in having three; this latest version is absolutely superb, and the 32 year old Batiashvili has really grown into the music and underlines the fact that, often, live performances give 15% more than a comparable studio one (Batiashvili recorded this same work with Salonen in a studio last year).

Batiashvili sounds very “Moscow school” and has Oistrakh's smooth, seamless tone. But she has retained her gift of being totally involved in what she is playing, in concentrating hard on the music, and in keeping a long line to the music. I loved this latest performance even though, a bit like the Elgar violin concerto, the first Shostakovich does not lack for superb recorded performances (Julia Fischer, Vadim Repin, Maxim Vengerov and Leila Josefowicz spring immediately to mind). In Wednesday night's performance, Lisa Batiashvili sounds entirely believable and comes over as a great artist. Salonen, as before in the studio, is an admirable partner.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

For much of my life, I have sat down and listened dutifully to the music of Franz Liszt without particularly enjoying it. I must have at least one kilo of Liszt CDs in my collection. This evening, however, I listened to Liszt with enjoyment, thanks to the playing of Lise de la Salle, a 23 year old pianist from Cherbourg for whom I have had a great affection for the past few years.

Miss de la Salle plays without artifice, and without playing to the gallery. Listening to her playing Liszt is like eavesdropping on a private recital; she plays for herself, and we are privileged to listen.

At last, I have enjoyed the music of Franz Liszt! Any quibbles? Is it unreasonable to ask why, in a CD with over an hour of Liszt's music, there is no photo of Liszt but seven “arty” photos of a rather fed-up looking Miss de la Salle? Who makes the most important contribution, here? But, quibbles apart, this is a most enjoyable CD and I'm glad I bought it.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A quote from the American Record Guide sums up my feelings after listening to Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin playing Schubert's Fantiasie D 934 in 1931: “Why is it that pre-WW II chamber music recordings – this one is a good example – are almost invariably more relaxed and laid-back in style; sweeter, riper and richer in tone; smoother and more refined in execution; more involved and overtly communicative in execution; more focussed on rhetorical style and architectural integrity?”

I could not have put it better myself. Pre-1940 Schubert (and Bruckner) laid down standards of performance that simply did not transition to the more recent world. When Busch and Serkin play, the focus is simply and purely on the music; tricks of performance, feats of violinistic or pianistic excellence, simply play no part in the music making. Busch and Serkin playing Schubert in 1931 join the short list of recordings that have never subsequently been bettered. Or even equalled.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died in 1736 at the age of 26. Guillaume Lekeu died in 1894 just one day after his 24th birthday. What immense losses! Had Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner et al died at the age of 24, how much poorer music would be.

At the moment, I am conducting a mini Lekeu festival in my flat, centred on his chamber works. I have two recordings of the magnificent (but unfinished) piano quartet, one from the Ensemble Eugène Ysaÿe, one from a quartet led from the piano by Daniel Blumenthal (copy courtesy of Carlos). The Blumenthal version is by far the best: taut, focussed with well integrated sound. More Lekeu is on order (Quatuor Debussy) as well as the violin sonata from Alina Ibragimova, due at the end of this month.

I like Lekeu's music, which echoes Brahms, Wagner or Bruckner without the Teutonic thickness of the writing and the ideas. His death after just 23 years of life was an immense tragedy for all of us.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Living in England, I have been deluged all my life with eulogies to Great British pianists, tenors, violinists, oboe players, conductors, composers, and so on. In whatever country you live, you need to apply a strong filter to news / reviews / promotional puffs.

So I am reticent when approaching Kathleen Ferrier, easily the most famous British contralto / mezzo soprano in history. Over-hyped? Tragic story of local girl makes good, then dies young?

I listened to a recent molto-cheapo Regis CD of Ferrier with great enjoyment and admiration. In Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and three of the Rückert Lieder, she was quite superb. In Brahms' Vier Ernste Gesänge (with piano) she is deeply moving. The voice is wonderful, the diction exemplary. But what is especially impressive is her ability to empathise with what she is singing, and in this she rivals Maria Callas (but in a very different repertoire). Only drawback to the Regis disc; there is no libretto and extensive hunting of the Internet fail to reveal the words Ferrier sings for the fourth of the Ernste Gesänge.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

It is surprising, given my highly ambivalent feelings towards the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, that I have spent the past few days in semi Mahler saturation. The latest was an ultra-cheap Regis CD of Kathleen Ferrier singing the Kindertotenlieder, plus three of the Rückert songs.

I complained about Katerina Karnéus in the Kindertotenlieder: first song 6' 12”; second song 5' 08”. With Bruno Walter at the helm for Ferrier (with the Vienna Philharmonic), the first song is 4' 48”, and the second 4' 35”. Chronometers are not all in music performance, of course. But they are often indicative. I grew up with Ferrier-Walter-Kindertotenlieder in the 1950s (second-hand Columbia ten inch LP). I have always loved it and it is one of the instances where I do not need an alternative version. The 1949 recording comes over well, helped by the fact that, until the last song, we do not hear a full orchestra. Ferrier and Walter go on (1952) with three of the Rückert Lieder and these, again, seem to me timeless and ideal. Both singer and conductor had an incredible empathy with the music of Mahler.

Before that, it was Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf and Szell in the Knaben Wunderhorn. Produced by Walter Legge. Orchestra the London Symphony Orchestra. The music awoke my misgivings about much of Mahler: not much depth, a bit superficial, brilliantly and intelligent written. But where is the meat? A foretaste of Hollywood. I remain ambivalent about Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf: one a bit coy and arch too often, the other a bit blustery, on occasions. Szell and the LSO came off best, in my estimation. Walter Legge probably stiched together 298 takes.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A CD featuring a recital given in Vienna in May 1974 confirms many of my ideas (and prejudices). The two artists are David Oistrakh and Paul Badura-Skoda. The Russian and the Viennese play Viennese duo classics by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

As with the recent Heifetz recital that emerged from Uruguay, I welcome the absence of a recording studio. Very often, a public performance brings a naturalness and heightened involvement from the artists concerned. In the old days, "live recordings" were somewhat frowned upon. Increasingly today, however, live recordings are becoming far more common (albeit for economic rather than technical reasons, one feels). Another advantage of (some) live recordings is a more natural balance between artists; as in the case of Heifetz and Brooks Smith in Uruguay, and as in the case of Oistrakh and Badura-Skoda here. The balance is ideal, and the players complement each other perfectly. I am not an Oistrakh fan; he was a wonderful violinist, a great musician and, as we hear here, a perfect partner in chamber music. But I have never taken to his ultra-smooth legato style of violin playing -- "too smooth by half", my mother might have said. I like to hear bow strokes, and I like string players who use their bows to articulate and phrase. Oistrakh sounds like smooth, whipped cream and his sound is loved by everyone but me and has had a major influence on much modern violin playing.

Live recordings bring the risk of tiny flaws, of course. But normally the flaws are a small price to pay for the heightened spontaneity and involvement by the players. Oistrakh recorded so often, and it is always good to hear him live. One wonders about some great studio performances; even a great classic such as Nathan Milstein playing the Goldmark violin concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1957 has one wondering about reality; the 31 minutes of the concerto apparently occupied two days of recording (second and fourth of August) and the Testament CD contains just under 15 minutes of "alternative takes"; when you hear the technician announce "Take 78" you start to remember Otto Klemperer's remark to his daughter on a similar Philharmonia / EMI occasion: "Lotte: ein Schwindel!" And a recording technician recently quipped concerning a studio recording by a famous violinist somewhat over the hill: "There was a take for every note he played".

Studio recordings are often somewhat suspect. They have also been detrimental to performances in making audiences and listeners expect complete perfection in every bar -- another factor in the marked slowing-down of tempi in performances of so many classical works, as artists seek safety in reduced speed.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Patricia Kopatchinskaja CD Part II. This was a lot better than the first part (Kreutzer Sonata). In fact, the performance of the Bartok Six Romanian Dances by Ms K. and Fazil Say was truly excellent. Mr Say's hair style suggests he is a fan of Franz Liszt, but his five movement sonata for violin and piano is a long way from Liszt but not at all disagreable; it is well written, clever, and pleasant to listen to. The music comes across as vaguely Balkan.

Ravel's G major sonta is also well played by the duo, but European music's (happily brief) flirtation with American jazz during the 1920s and early 30s was not particularly a beneficial one. Not a sonata I particularly enjoy (especially not the slow movement).

Monday, 18 July 2011

An unusual day saw me listening to Brahms, Dvorak and Mahler, hardly my normal daily fare. The Dvorak four pieces, plus the E minor Mazurek, were played by Josef Suk and very fine they were, too. I particularly admired Suk's bowing, articulation and immaculate double-stops in the Mazurek. Then on to Suk and Julius Katchen in their classic 1967 account of the three Brahms violin & piano sonatas, and what particularly struck me here was the fact that throughout the ten movements of the three sonatas I did not once query the tempi set by Suk and Katchen. The “ever-slower” fashion did not catch up with Suk.

But it certainly did with Katarina Karnéus and Susanna Mälkki in Mahler. The Kindertotenlieder dragged on for ever. The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were better, after the first song, but brakes were applied sharply wherever there was the slightest opportunity. I do not know the Fünf Rückert Lieder well enough to pronounce on the tempi, but they often sounded very slow indeed. Which is all a great pity, since Mälkki did a good job with the orchestra, BIS produced an excellent recording and Karnéus has an attractive voice. And I like Mahler's vocal music. In the modern musical world, slow bespeaks with feeling, soulful, reverence, deep emotions. But go back sixty years or so, and one realises that most slow music benefits from being taken at a “proper” tempo (which takes us back to Suk and Katchen).

Saturday, 16 July 2011

I greatly enjoyed the performance of the Beethoven violin concerto by Josef Suk (coupled with the Dvorak concerto) ably and interestingly accompanied by Malcolm Sargent conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Albert Hall, September 1965. The performance by Suk is within the classical Central European tradition (compare with Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Erich Röhn, Adolf Busch or Georg Kulenkampff). No fuss, no strutting of personality, just a beautiful and meticulous traversal of Beethoven' music. For a change, we have short, appropriate cadenzas (by Vasa Prihoda) which is a relief after some of the monstrosities I have had to listen to recently. Suk's violin sounds wonderful and, considering the recording venue, the recorded sound is excellent. For once, I was impressed with Sargent's very real contribution. Makes a change to feel enthusiastic about a recording of the Beethoven violin concertos after so many disappointing versions. This CD, that also contains the excellent recording of the Dvorak concerto I have commented on previously, was a very good buy.

For lunch today I concocted a superb dish of mushrooms, fried in bacon with garlic, salt, pepper and mixed herbs. Completely delicious.

Friday, 15 July 2011

At the moment, practically every music-related publication I pick up seems to feature a full page colour advertisement for a violinist called Charlie Siem. I have no views on Mr Siem and have not yet heard him (mainly since his choice of repertoire to record spells out endless duplications in my collection; the only thing that interested me so far was Wieniawski's first concerto, but I think that was coupled with yet another version of the Bruch G minor concerto. How ambitious).

Which is all a long route to saying that "star" musicians are not necessarily the best of the pack, and I was conscious yesterday evening listening to Josef Suk playing the Dvorak violin concerto (1964) that Suk was a very considerable violinist with, albeit a moderately low-level profile. He spent pretty well all his life in and around Prague appreciated by violin cognoscenti but unheard of by most of the music-loving public in the Western world. Dvorak's violin concerto has had a mediocre career ever since Joachim wriggled out of giving its premiere and, to my knowledge, was not played by violinists such as Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman or Szigeti (Menuhin, Oistrakh and Milstein were exceptions in so far as "big names" pre-1970 were concerned). Its popularity is faring better of late, but I have never really taken to it. I did enjoy Suk's 1964 performance on this current CD, however. His violin playing is wonderful, and he understands about not wallowing in the music and bringing things to a near halt every few minutes. I have neglected my Suk collection (not enough full-page colour advertisements?) I shall dust off the CDs and listen again with interest. Josef Suk died this month at the age of 81; his recorded contribution will live on.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

I am not making wise CD purchase decisions at the moment. After the recent Respighi disaster, I decided on the spur of the moment to order a CD by a violinist I much like and admire, Patricia Kopatchinskaja -- despite the fact that none of the music was among my preferred pieces. So I started with the Beethoven Kreutzer sonata -- and hated it. Miss Kopatchinskaja plays in a "pseudo baroque" style, which means ugly bulges on longer notes instead of vibrato. She also deprives the music of any basic pulse -- dynamic or tempo -- and, to paraphrase Carl Flesch discussing Bronislaw Huberman, "she either whispers, or she shouts". The whole of the first and second movements sound unstable, with the two players seemingly striving to be "different" rather than to understand the music. The finale is better but, to compound matters, the sound on the CD (Naïve) makes the violin sound rasping and screechy, and the piano (played by Fazil Say) resembles an over-played pub piano; we are a long way from the sound of Alfred Cortot.

Well, still to come, once I pluck up courage, are the Ravel sonata (not one of my favourite works), the Bartok six Romanian dances (which may suit Kopatchinskaja much better) and a Turkish sonata by the pianist on this CD. Can't wait. In fairness to myself, I did have second thoughts and tried to cancel the CD less than two hours after ordering it online. But Amazon deemed this too long and cancellation was denied. I can hardly send it back saying I don't like it.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The latest transfer of Bruckner's fifth symphony, transferred by German engineers from the original tapes, is pretty remarkable. For a recording made in October 1942, the sound is perfectly acceptable, with just the loudest fortissimo passages sounding restrained. In addition, you get the inspired conducting of Furtwängler; no one now in Bruckner has the same mastery of pulse, tempo, dynamics and rubato. And finally, you get the wonderful playing of the old Berlin Philharmonic playing in its old hall.
For me, the only downside is the music. I am fond of Bruckner's 4th and 8th symphonies, I love the 7th and adore the 9th. But the 5th and 6th always leave me standing outside. Anyway, with this new Testament release I can sit back and admire the conducting and the playing, if not the music.

My friend Lee sent me the first CD (of a scheduled six) on which Sherban Lupu plays violin and piano works by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. I started listening with some scepticism; the only works by Ernst that I know at all well are the Erlkönig transcription and the Last Rose of Summer variations, neither of which is a favourite piece, since in them all too often Ernst seems to be intent on writing music that is pretty well unplayable. However, the pieces on the new CD converted me and Ernst now inspires warm feelings. He had a wonderful gift of melody (better than Paganini). Even if one or two of the Carnaval de Venise variations show Ernst's determination to write violin music that is almost impossible to play, almost all the current CD is highly enjoyable. Lupu plays well, with just the right degree of sweetness the music demands, and Ian Hobson is excellent back-up in the piano parts (which are often interesting in themselves). Hobson even concentrates throughout the repetitive arpeggio figure that accompanies the Carnaval de Venise for ten minutes. And, most important in music such as this, the recording balance (Toccata Classics) is well judged and there is just the right amount of "air" around the sound. Many thanks to Lee for this birthday present; I'll probably buy the next five CDs as they appear.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Nearly twenty years ago in 1992, the Staatskapelle Dresden was a marvellous orchestra, at least when playing the German Romantics. It probably is superb, to this day, but this evening I was listening to Colin Davis conducting the orchestra in Schubert's 'Unfinished' symphony, and Brahms' third. Glorious music, glorious playing (and pretty fine 1992 recording, as well). Only conundrum is: where does one file such a coupling so it can be found again?

The evening began equally well with one of my finest omlettes (ham and mushroom). This really is a better dish than any 'ready to eat' dishes one can buy.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Most of Sunday was devoted to listening to Wagner's Parsifal, in a glorious recording from the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev. Although I also have the opera conducted by Goodall, and by Knappertsbusch, I suspect this Parsifal is the one to have. The opera needs good voices, but there are no real "star" roles or arias. The orchestra is all-important, so a recording with excellent sound, an inspired conductor and marvellous orchestral playing is almost a sure winner.

The Gurnemanz of René Pape is superb (Goodall's Gurnemanz was pretty dreadful). I am not sure Violeta Urmana has the right voice for Kundry; the voice needs more honey if she is to seduce Parsifal -- one pines a little for the sound of Sandrine Piau or Simone Kermes. But these are details in a superb recording of a superb opera. Even if one blanches a little at Wagner extolling the virtues of Christianity and chastity (the old hypocrite!), Parsifal remains an amazing creation and one of music's major peaks.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Rare I buy something completely unplayable. I bought a Naxos CD of music by Respighi thinking it was a violin disc with a hitherto unknown violinist. But the violin concerto “by” Respighi turns out to be arranged, completed and edited by one Salvatore di Vittorio, who also conducts an orchestra. The non-violin concerto part of the CD (most of it) is of pastiche music similarly assembled and conducted by the said di Vittorio. The music is sub- 18th/19th century fake and sounds like the worst excesses of music from the despised Hollywood cauldron. What possessed me to order the CD, I cannot think. At least it was cheap. The disc goes straight into the "morgue" section of my CD shelves.
Some CDs are an instant hit with me, and so it is with a new disc featuring Sandrine Piau (with Susan Manoff). Piau's golden voice has never sounded better than in this compilation of songs by Strauss, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Chausson, Vincent Buchot, Poulenc and Britten. An hour of pure enjoyment in German, French and English. And Manoff's piano is an excellent partner.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. How the world of music would be so very much poorer had they not existed, all three within 30 years of each other in Vienna. I was surprised many years ago when wandering round a graveyard in Vienna, to come across the grave of Anton Diabelli, he who gave a waltz theme to Beethoven for his variations, opus 120. Diabelli's tomb is only a few metres from the area where Mozart's remains were hastily interred.

I grew up with the 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, played around 55 years ago to me by a Decca LP with Wilhelm Backhaus. I have lived with them ever since. A CD that arrived yesterday played by Paul Lewis earned a rare three stars from me. I cannot agree with Lewis's statement of Diabelli's waltz – condescending, and dismissive. Diabelli was a highly important Viennese publisher, and Beethoven would never have mocked his waltz in that way. But after the first two minutes and 27 seconds, all goes well and Lewis joins a pantheon of profound performances of this superb piece of music and Western culture.
The music of Eugène Ysaÿe has never been really popular (with the exception of some of the solo violin sonatas). It inhabits a post-Wagnerian / early modern sound world and is thoroughly violinistic in nature. Ysaÿe wrote a lot of music, but not much survives in recordings bar the sonatas and a very few favourite pieces. One of its problems is often length; on a CD kindly sent to me by my friend Ronald, the “Au Rouet” (opus 13) clocks in at thirteen minutes, and the “Fantaisie” opus 32 at fourteen and a half. However, for me it is music where one sits back and lets it wash over, admiring the violin playing on the way.

On the current CD-R (from a Supraphon LP circa 1963) the Ysaÿe pieces are coupled with Szymanowski's three Mythes, of which the Fontaine d'Aréthuse is often played, but the other two (Narcisse, and Dryades et Pan) much less often except by completists who want to feature all three. Again, length is a problem: Aréthuse is just over five minutes, but Dryades weighs in at a fraction under nine. Szymanowski inhabits a surprisingly similar sound world to that of Ysaÿe.

Violinist on this current CD is Karel Sroubek about whom I know nothing at all except he plays very well for three quarters of an hour. A reminder that the Czechs have produced more fine violinists than the Swiss have cuckoo clocks. Fine Czech violinists – apart from Josef Suk – never received the kind of mega marketing and promotion of violinists such as Zukerman, Perlman or Stern. But I'd rather hear Sroubek in this music than any of those mega limelight fiddlers!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The cradle of violin playing extended from the Ukraine and the Black Sea, to Venice and northern Italy, then across to Hungary, then south again to Romania. This is where luthiers Jews, gypsies and folk bands grew up and cross-fertilised. The violin (like the clarinet) was popular because they were portable; when the gendarmes or vigilantes turned up, you could put your fiddle under your arm and melt away into the forests and mountains.

All lovers of the violin should possess a copy of Patricia Kopatinchskaya's “Rapsodia” CD. Miss K is from Moldova and, amongst other things, this CD presents “definitive” versions of Enescu's third sonata, Dinicu's Hora Staccato (leaving aside Dinicu's own version, for the moment) and Ravel's Tzigane pastiche. Compulsive listening, and, as the jargon has it, “seminal” for lovers of violin playing.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

For a long time, Alfred Cortot playing Chopin has passed me by. However, a couple of Naxos CDs with exceptional remastering by Mark Obert-Thorn make me realise that this is my kind of Chopin. I like the way Cortot plays. I like the sound of his Pleyel piano. I like his romanticism and phrasing. And if he misses a few notes occasionally; Chopin puts in far too many notes, anyway, so a 5% reduction is no great matter. In future, if I want to listen to Chopin, it will be with Alfred Cortot.
Maybe I was just a bit curmudgeonly when reacting recently to Julia Fischer's latest CD. With time, the Respighi and Suk pieces become more attractive, and Miss Fischer's violin playing evokes ever-increasing admiration. A good CD to keep on the side for the time when a 15-20 minute piece of Romantic violin & orchestra music seems to fit the mood.

And found clams on sale in Morrison's today, so big dish of spaghetti alle vongole this evening.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

For the (gastronomic) record: stewed neck of lamb with carrots, onions, many herbs, pearl barley (second heating, this evening). Followed by highly ripe cheeses (brie, camembert) accompanied by a tomato salad with spring onions and oil and vinegar. Finished with fresh strawberries and raspberries, marinaded in brandy. A good red table wine from the Lot region of France (2008). I await Monsieur Michelin's two stars.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Unusually for me, I had an orchestral evening, starting with Valery Gergiev conducting the LSO in Debussy (L'après-midi d'un faune, La Mer, Jeux). Very fine indeed. The LSO plays marvellously well on this occasion, the LSOLive sound is excellent, and Gergiev has the measure of these works. I have never cared much for Jeux; perseverance needed. La Mer I have know since teenage (starting with von Karajan, then Toscanini, then Cantelli). I very much like this performance, the playing and the recording.

Then on to Brahms, of all people, and his third symphony with Colin Davis conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden. I am not normally pro-Brahms, but I enjoyed this with its lovely mellow orchestral sound and good pacing from Colin Davis. My knowledge of this work goes back to a 10 inch LP with Bruno Walter conducting a New York orchestra on Philips (mono). I'll replay the current Davis version with pleasure.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

I have mixed feelings about the new CD from the highly talented Julia Fischer (with the Monte Carlo orchestra under the late Jakov Kreizberg). At least the repertoire is different and gets away from the eternal Ravel Tzigane or Beethoven Romances. Chausson's Poème is very welcome, as is Vaughan Williams' evergreen Lark Ascending. Respighi's Poema Autunnale is a novelty, and Suk's somewhat long Op 24 Fantasy does not appear often on disc. A collection of rather out-of-the-way pieces, then (apart from the Chausson). Worth the detour? Well, perhaps.

I also have mixed feelings about Julia Fischer's playing. She is a phenomenal violinist, with not a hair out of place, perfect intonation, serious musicality and a style of playing that makes her recognisable. I pigeon-hole her as a 21st century equivalent of someone like Nathan Milstein, Mr Perfectionist himself but never one of my favourite violinists (and I am never sure why).

The death of Jakov Kreizberg was very sad; I remember him conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in an extremely fine performance of Bruckner's 9th symphony. He was a very talented conductor and will be missed.

Monday, 13 June 2011

As a Bach lover, and always ready for a bargain, I bought the three CD Sony set of Murray Perahia playing "all" the Bach keyboard concertos. Most of the concertos are not for solo keyboard, or are adaptations by Bach of the original violin concertos (notably, the G minor, A minor and E major). One is a triple concerto, one the fifth Brandenburg, and one the "Italian" concerto for solo keyboard. In the concertos, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields fills in discreetly in the background, but the lion's share of the oral spectrum is given over to Perahia.

These performances are much praised, but I don't like them much. I long for the more personalised playing of Edwin Fischer or Alfred Cortot (inter alii). There is something relentless about Perahia's playing and a lack of warmth, humanity and love. These are recordings that will be shelved. I am also becoming tired of the cult of personality that invades so much classical music. Murray Perahia's photo always adorns every bit of publicity for him, and the sleeve notes of the CD set are plastered with the same photo. Since he is even uglier than Salman Rushdie and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, I can't think why. Perhaps the same misguided publicity craze that always sees Angela Hewitt photographed displaying all her 98 teeth; her grinning gnashers leer at us from every photo.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

It is not easy to hold the attention of an audience for one and a half hours with just a solo violin. But not the least feature of the Bach recital by Alina Ibragimova at the Assembly Room in Bath this evening was that, by the time she reached the third partita for solo violin, and the end of the concert, we were still hanging on every note she played. She has an extraordinary palette of colours and dynamics (including the famous real pianissimo about which I have complained when it is recorded or listened to off-air). Ibragimova's pianissimi are breathtaking (and her fortissimi shook the Assembly Room).

I have never admired Bach's chaconne (second partita) so much as in the performance this evening; Johann Sebastian might even have written it with Ibragimova in mind, so entrancing and absorbing was her playing. At the end of the piece, was I clapping Bach, or Ibragimova? She has a rare gift, in Bach, of being able to formulate each movement as a whole, and then to formulate all the movements into one work. I would never dream of questioning her tempi, since they all add up to one satisfactory whole in the end. She has obviously thought about these works a lot and they are obviously close to her heart.

The Assembly Room was packed with 600-700 people, and it was a good audience that knew when to clap and when not to, when to clap very enthusiastically, and when just enthusiastically. And no Americans, so no standing ovations, thank goodness.

Criticisms? Not much, for this concert. She might have done better to end the concert with the second partita – and thus the chaconne – rather than with the lighter-weight third. And I did not care much for her new hairstyle; too boyish. But, from row “T” in the Assembly Room, much of Miss Ibragimova, apart from the superb violin playing, was mainly a blur. How such a diminutive young woman can produce such an extraordinary range of sounds from Bach's polyphony makes the imagination boggle.
The final volume in the traversal of Beethoven's ten sonatas for violin and piano is another triumph for Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien. In their hands the music really comes alive; the Kreutzer sonata, which is not one of my favourites, is a magnificent tour de force. Violin and piano here form a true duo partnership, and Ibragimova and Tiberghien really listen intently to each other. This set now vies with the best of breed (including the recent excellent set from Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov). Ibragimova and Tiberghien make these sonatas sound like young people's music, which is no bad thing.

I still think Ibragimova's admirable pianissimo playing probably comes off better in the concert hall rather than as recorded here (she becomes almost inaudible on occasions). And I do hope that the current fad of eschewing vibrato soon runs its course; there are excellent reasons why, over 100 years ago, string instrument vibrato swept all before it. Without vibrato, expensive violins can often sound rasping and unlovely.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Even after over 50 years, Jascha Heifetz's performance of Spohr's A minor Op 47 concerto remains one of the supreme examples of violin playing at its peak. Spohr's concerto demands sophistication from the player; and it certainly receives it from Heifetz. A miraculous performance. The (free) download from Brompton's gives excellent sound from the 1954 original.

Dinner this evening was:

* Fresh asparagus, vinaigrette sauce
* Scallops with mushrooms, onions, Cambodian spices
* Plate of Normandy cheeses (Pont L'évêque, Livarot, Camembert)
* Salad of red fruits (strawberries, rasberries).

Wine: red and rosé (Côtes du Rhône).

All very enjoyable.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

I have probably heard young Mozart's violin concertos too often, so I was surprised to have been enthralled by a May 2011 off-air recording by Alina Ibragimova (with a truly excellent Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko). The violin part of the D major concerto K 218 is fascinating in Ibragimova's hands, with a wide variety of colours and nuances, played fast and straight. This is the 27th recording in my collection of this concerto; and I suspect it is the best of the bunch. Three stars. Miss Ibragimova is becoming The Girl Who Can Do No Wrong. I'll be interested to hear her in person next Saturday in Bath.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Clever of Brahms to have designed his three sonatas for violin & piano so they fit comfortably on to one CD (and, in the case of the present recording by Arabella Steinbacher and Robert Kulek, with room for the FAE scherzo as well).

Steinbacher adopts leisurely tempi, as is the wont nowadays. I still worry that her violin sounds better in its lower registers than in the upper, though the Pentatone recording is exemplary, as so often with this company. Kulek accompanies loyally (although he thumps from time to time) but no one is going to buy this CD to listen to Kulek's pianism.

A worthy CD, with attractive sounds. Steinbacher is an intelligent violinist and always sounds good. Perhaps, however, someone could persuade artists and recording companies to give Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms a rest, for a few decades; there are innumerable fine CDs of Brahms' three sonatas and it would be good to hear a violinist of Steinbacher' stature in Hubay, Myaskovsky, Vieuxtemps, Spohr, et al.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

A note in praise of: Les Caves du Bouteiller (24340 Mareuil sur Belle, France - A pleasant, enthusiastic and knowledgeable owner, a superb range of wines on which the owner can expound for hours: and a range of 250 whiskies (going up to around 300 towards Christmas, Monsieur Thierry Lannier claims). And all this in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere! An address to keep.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

I had half forgotten about Julian Sitkovetky, until Andrew Rose and Pristine Audio released his Sibelius violin concerto (1953) and Paganini second concerto (1955). Sitkovetsky was quite a violinist, with an incredible technique combined with a patrician musicality and an impassioned, noble sound. Distinctive and unforgettable. He had a short life and a truncated recording career, but these two concertos really enthralled me this evening (hard to do, at this stage, with the Sibelius concerto; and even harder with Paganini's second concerto to which I have never really taken). But Sitkovetsky gripped me for nearly an hour.

The transfers are certainly a big improvement on the old Russian Disc / Arlecchino attempts (no great feat, but welcome, nevertheless). Let us hope and pray that Andrew Rose now turns his attention to Sitkovetsky's Romanian Radio performance of the Khachaturian violin concerto (conducted by Niyazi); that is one of the most coruscating, searing performances of a violin concerto ever recorded.