Sunday, 30 January 2011

I bought the new release of Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium mainly out of curiosity. How dare a company in 2011 issue a Bach oratorio played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Dresden Kammerchor, conducted by Riccardo Chailly?

Well, actually, the release proves there is hope for Bach performance in the 21st century. The lessons of the Central European tradition have been well learned. The lessons of the "original instrument" lot have been listened to, and absorbed. The choir numbers around 20 voices (absolutely ideal, in my book; nicht wahr, Herr Bach?) The orchestra is, more accurately, "members of the Gewandhausorchester". Tempi are somewhat brisk, for my taste, but better that than the other way around. The five solo singers are well balanced. The two hours go quickly and pleasantly. To repeat: there is hope for Bach performances in the 21st century after the excesses of the early 20th century and the late 20th century. With these six cantatas, common-sense and musical taste seem to have returned to the scene.

Friday, 28 January 2011

I've always had mixed feelings about the music of Richard Strauss and have never taken to his orchestral music, nor to the operas except for Rosenkavalier. His vocal music for soprano is another matter, and the collection of 24 Lieder for soprano and orchestra sung by Diana Damrau is unalloyed delight -- especially when accompanied by the Munich Philharmonic (conducted by Christan Thielemann, an all-Bavarian Strauss celebration). All one can say about Damrau is: she is just so exactly right singing this music. Her technique is exemplary, her sound beautiful, her diction superb, her feeling for the music innate. Another gold disc.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

More Heifetz this evening, with Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers from LP of some of the Los Angeles re-makes from the 1950s -- Lalo, Wieniawski, Chausson, Ravel, Tchaikovsky. The transfers are excellent in terms of Heifetz's sensuous sound (one can readily appreciate why one American critic referred to his playing as "silk underwear music"). Naxos is the usual excellent value.

In my view, no one comes close to Heifetz's playing in any of these works. Having said that, the Heifetz recordings would be my first choice for none of them. Too much Heifetz, not enough orchestra, not enough composer.

Staying with the happy note: the Waitrose supermarket turns out to sell veal chops! My supermarket allegiance has just changed all over again. My two chops made a superb meal on Saturday evening. And I picked up 12 more bottles of Monsieur Guigal's excellent 2006 Côtes du Rhône (Majestic Wine).

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

There is often a subtle, but real, link between nationality or geography and the performer of a given piece of music. The subject is fraught with contradictions, however, and few generalisations have seemed so tenuous or fragile.

Thus, I admired greatly the Wiener Oktett recordings of Schubert and Mendelssohn last week because, to me, they sounded so right. In the same way, I admire Schnabel, Erdmann, Ney, Kempff, Backhaus and Fischer in the piano music of Schubert and Beethoven ... because they sound right. As do Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich in the Tchaikovsky piano trio. As do Furtwängler (especially), Knappertsbusch et al in Bruckner. Grumiaux, Ferras et al in Franco-Belgian music. Sammons in the Elgar violin concerto. The Busch Quartet and Chamber Orchestra in the music of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. The Russians -- Oistrakh, Kogan, Vengerov, Repin, and others -- in the Shostakovich violin concerto. Klemperer in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner; Russians performing Russian music; Austro-Germans performing German music; Franco-Belgians performing French music; even the English performing English music (often helped by near-neighbours such as Bernard Haitink, Janine Jansen and Simone Lamsma). Not to mention Czechs in Czech music ... and so on.

Exceptions, of course, prove the rule. My favourite players for the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas this year are Lara St. John (Canadian), Nathan Milstein (Russian) and Oscar Shumsky (American). For the Shostakovich violin concerto, I favour Leila Josefowicz (Canadian) and maybe at the moment Julia Fischer (German). For the Paganini violin concerto, Leonid Kogan (Russian). However, on the other hand, my main preferences for recordings of the Beethoven violin concerto are, in random order: Erich Röhn, Wolfgang Scheiderhan, Adolf Busch, and Georg Kulenkampff. And, after all, if players are confined to the composers of their home regions, it does not leave American, Japanese and Chinese artists much to play in the way of great music. Imagine Hilary Hahn sentenced to a life of playing George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein!
The link between "Homeland" and instinctive empathy is a somewhat mystical one. My ears, however, tell me that it is often a very real link even when language is set aside (as in Lieder and opera, native language speakers usually have a very real head-start over the competition). And, yes, the Chinese Tianwa Yang does seem to have a certain empathy with the music of the Spaniard Sarasate. As do the Finns and Nordics in the music of Sibelius.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Suffering from a kind of mini-flu, I spent the weekend listening to Schubert, mainly centred on some CDs of Robert Goldsand I had received, plus a re-issue of the famous Wiener Oktett recordings from the early 1950s (Octet, Trout, plus the Mendelssohn Octet). Goldsand turns out to be a good, classical pianist from the Austrian school. I liked his playing, but when I put on Edwin Fischer playing the Schubert Impromptus immediately after Goldsand, I noticed the difference. Fischer just sounded "right" and natural, and less contrived; his tempi also sounded "correct" (whatever that might mean).

And the Wiener Oktett in Schubert (and Mendelssohn) also sounded "right". These classic performances will now be the ones I turn to when I want to hear Schubert (which seems to be more and more often these days; I love the restless tonality and modulation in his music).

Sunday, 9 January 2011

I have admired the violin playing of Vadim Repin for over twenty years now. But I hesitated a while before buying his new CD (with Nikolai Lugansky). Main obstacle was the Franck sonata, a magnificent work but one of which I already had 48 recordings (including one by Repin and Lugansky from Tokyo, 2004). But I ceded, swayed by the presence of the Janacek sonata and the second Grieg sonata (not the over-played third, thank goodness).

My purchase turned out to be a wise decision. This is a CD with three gold stars and deserves to stay in the catalogues for the next 50 years. To list the virtues:

** The DG engineers have achieved a true recorded balance between piano and violin (no easy thing to do). We do not have a GIANT piano, and a tiny violin. Nor do we have (as prevalent in much of the past) a GIANT violin and a tiny piano. And pianissimos are quiet, fortissimos are loud.

** The players play as a true duo. Often, one is torn between listening in admiration to what Repin is doing with his violin, or Lugansky with his piano. Nota bene, Mr Heifetz, wherever you are.

** Both pianist and violinist are on truly excellent form. This is (almost) a "throw away every other version" record of these three pieces.

A pity the Janacek and the Grieg were not placed with something besides the over-exposed Franck sonata (Lekeu, or Elgar, or Magnard, to list neglected violin and piano sonatas of a similar ilk and period). However: still three gold stars. This goes into my "do not file away" rack.
I have always been ambivalent about the music of Béla Bartok. I recognise the exemplary craftsmanship, and I enjoy many passages and themes in his music. But enjoyment of Bartok is too often cerebral, and I rarely warm to real emotions, feelings or revelations of the man behind the music. I feel the same now having just listened to the two violin concertos (and I know the second, main concerto very well by now). There simply is not the same emotion in the music that one gets, for example, in the twentieth century concertos of Elgar, Shostakovich, Britten or Sibelius.

Nevertheless, the new PentaTone recording is absolutely first rate, with a completely ideal balance between soloist and orchestra (Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski). The thoroughly capable and admirable soloist is Arabella Steinbacher, a violinist whom I admire more and more (except, as detailed previously, for her Beethoven violin concerto).

Monday, 3 January 2011

Not too many people (I would guess) listen to Glazunov's violin concerto three times within the space of a couple of hours. But I did, today: Oscar Shumsky (1987), Julia Fischer (2004) and Arabella Steinbacher (2006 - off-air). Shumsky was three stars -- serious, beautiful playing, undemonstrative. Fischer was good, but a bit studied and somewhat dictated by head rather than heart. Joint winner with Shumsky (somewhat to my surprise) was Arabella Steinbacher. Technically as good as Shumsky and Fischer, but with a heartfelt commitment to Glazunov's glorious score that was highly welcome. And less dawdling than Fischer.

Of course, still to come in my potential listening pile if I ever find the energy are Jascha Heifetz (two versions), Nathan Milstein (four verions), Riccardo Odnoposoff, David Oistrakh, Michael Rabin, David Nadien, Stoika Milanova, Galina Barinova, Myron Polyakin, Viktor Tretyakov, Vadim Repin, Bronislav Gimpel, Julian Sitkovetsky, Erica Morini, Ida Haendel and Semyon Snitkovsky. If Alexander Glazunov were still alive, he would be mightily pleased at the success of his friendly and likeable little violin concerto

Saturday, 1 January 2011

As I've remarked previously, the shuffle-play facility on CD players is not often relevant to classical music. But sometimes it does come into its own, like this evening. Yevgeny Sudbin plays 18 piano sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (and very good they are, too). Shuffle-play prevents over-familiarisation with the first ten or so. Then on to 19 tracks of Kreisler pieces, played most enjoyably by Ulrike-Anima Mathé, a CD I haven't taken off the shelf for a long time. The music is excellent; no wonder it is still going strong after over a hundred years. And I like Mathé's playing; she understands that Kreisler's music does not respond well to dawdling and over-sentimentalising, and she understands the Viennese dance rhythms that underlie so many of the pieces. A good hour's listening, and another excellent candidate for the shuffle-play (there are no multi-track pieces on either this or the Scarlatti CD).