Monday, 28 February 2011

Scallops, Prawns and Squid. Plus Bach's Solo Violin Works

Fresh scallops, prawns and squid. Marinated for a few hours in fresh ginger and spring onions. Cooked in a wok for a few minutes with black pepper and a little oil. Dash with a little soy sauce. Excellent meal on a bed of rice. Quite delicious.

I discovered recently that I have complete recorded sets of the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin by: James Ehnes, George Enescu, Devy Erlih, Christian Ferras, Julia Fischer, Bronislaw Gimpel, Arthur Grumiaux, Jascha Heifetz, Alina Ibragimova, Oleg Kagan, Sigiswald Kuijken (x2), Johanna Martzy, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein (x2), Ruggiero Ricci, Benjamin Schmid, Oscar Shumsky, Lara St. John, and Emil Telmanyi. 21 different sets! Which is ridiculous. The grand purge will begin very shortly. Left will be Heifetz, Ibragimova, St. John, Shumsky, Milstein (DG) and maybe one other. Until another interesting set appears ...

Monday, 21 February 2011

Patricia Kopatchinskaja comes from Moldova, the daughter of two folk-music parents, and seems to be inheriting the mantel of Gilles Apap as an enfant terrible of the violin. I listened to her new CD with interest, since it is based upon folk and pseudo-folk music of Moldova and Romania. When Kopatchinskaja tackles Enescu's third sonata, Ravel's Tzigane and Dinicu's hora staccato, they are certainly different. She brings a folk-fiddler's freedom and wildness to the violin parts and the result is extraordinarily refreshing. Enescu's sonata was written in a pastiche folk idiom ("dans le caractère populaire roumain") and the playing of Kopatchinskaja -- and the pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa -- brings out the folk roots quite brilliantly. We are a long way from Joshua Bell (or André Rieu). Ravel's Tzigane Hungarian gypsy imitation also comes over well, with Daddy Kopatchinsky playing the piano part on a cimbalom -- novel, but in character and a pleasant change.

The CD also contains some attractive horas and doinas from Moldova and Romania played by the Kopatchinsky family (Mother plays the violin and viola). The couple of bits by Ligeti and Kurtag can be skipped over, and the bit by someone called Jorge Sanchez-Chiong should be skipped over, even though it only lasts one minute and four seconds -- about one minute too long, for me.

Pavel Sporcl made an excellent CD of gypsy pieces, and that is a CD I listen to regularly. When violinists play folk music with which they have a special empathy, the results are often most enjoyable. I'll keep Kopatchinskaja's CD near to hand and it will probably be my first choice when I want to hear Enescu's third violin & piano sonata.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

I haven't heard Elizabeth Watts before and, on a new CD of Bach cantatas and solo cantata arias her voice sounds quite beautiful. She is billed as a soprano, but on this CD comes over more as an alto or, at best, a mezzo soprano. This seems to be the problem with the chosen pitch of A = 415 Hz, where everything comes over a bit murky and even the normally exuberant trumpet in "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" sounds here a bit like an emasculated trombone. At this pitch, most of the orchestral detail, so important in Bach, recedes into the undergrowth. Slower arias are taken very slowly, and much of the CD reminds me of what things used to sound like when I inadvertently played a 45 rpm disk at 33 rpm. Let us hope to hear Ms Watts at a more acceptable pitch and with a more alert conductor than Harry Bicket.
It was interesting re-listening to Jascha Heifetz's 1952 recordings of the Bach solo sonatas and partitas (new transfer by my friends at Pristine Audio). For the first time for ages, Heifetz's violin at last sounds like Heifetz's violin (which was not the case with the RCA / BMG transfers). There was a lot of warmth in Heifetz's sound. These new Pristine transfers are the ones I will keep, and the old set can go to a charity shop.

Listening to all six works during a 24 hour period can often be a challenge, with monochrome and monotone violin playing from many contestants. No challenge with Heifetz: the range of bowings, colours and dynamics he produces means that all six works are a pleasure to hear, one after another. 1952 was not a great vintage period for American recording technology, but in their new re-incarnation the Heifetz recordings are perfectly acceptable (the first sonata, for some reason, sounds slightly lower recording quality than the other five works). The Bach unaccompanieds are a highly competitive area, but these Heifetz recordings now join Lara St.John, Oscar Shumsky and Nathan Milstein in my personal pantheon. Probably Heifetz beats Milstein now; he is just even more interesting to listen to.

Friday, 18 February 2011

I bought -- and listened to -- a Mahler symphony! No one can say I have not been faithful to Gustav Mahler since around 1956 when I bought my first Mahler pieces (fourth symphony, and Kindertotenlieder). The new acquisition was Mahler's fifth symphony, I work I got to know first as a teenager by studying the full score I loaned from a public library; the new CD has Valery Gergiev conducting the LSO (very fine recording, and orchestral playing).

But, alas: Mahler is not for me (except for a few isolated bits). I find too much of the music banal and superficial. Mahler was a great orchestrator, but so many of the bits I like (usually involving small forces of harp, pianissimo violins, woodwind, etc) seem to turn up in all the works. Set beside two other Austrians who happened to write nine symphonies -- Schubert and Bruckner -- Mahler is revealed as not being in their league. There is no profundity, no spiritual element, in Mahler's works. Flashy; yes. Well-written; yes. But no greatness and often noisy (Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz for the second movement tempo indication says it all). I remember a concert in London where I last heard Mahler's fifth and finding the sheer noise level thoroughly disagreeable.

Added to the fact that the two plaice I had bought turned out to be scrawny and unsatisfactory, and I didn't enjoy the rosé wine I had with them; it was not a great evening! Back to Schubert and Bruckner.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

After over 70 years, the six Bach suites played by Pablo Casals still stand as Number One choice for these works. There is a zest and humanity in Casals' playing that defies comparison with anyone else. Like the playing of Fritz Kreisler, Casals is simply hors concours.
One can happily forget "historically informed", or "authentic". This is simply Bach played by a supreme instrumentalist who loved these works.

This blog is becoming a bit of a Pristine Audio fan club site. However, the new Pristine transfer of these six suites puts any previous reincarnations to shame. It sounds as if Pablo is playing away in the corner of my lounge. No other versions of these suites are required.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

One of the world's great dishes: squid comme chez moi. Around 1 kilo of fresh squid. Olive oil. Flat-leaf parsley. Garlic. Black pepper. Salt. Cayenne pepper. Freshly squeezed lemon juice. A suitable pan. A good rosé wine to go with it. Good bread. Not cheap. Not instant. But absolutely delicious. As a dessert: a plate of good Normandy cheeses.
Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven's fifth symphony (1944, fill-up on Pristine Audio CD with the violin concerto played by Röhn). The first LP I ever bought at the tender age of 14 was Erich Kleiber conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Beethoven's fifth symphony. I don't like the work! I found the Furtwängler performance inflated, grandiose and banal. Maybe it would sound better with an orchestra of 12 players. But, for whatever reason, like so much of Beethoven's orchestral music -- apart from isolated movements -- it is no longer my cup of tea.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Since its arrival in 1955, the first Shostakovich violin concerto has established itself as the most often played in concert and most often recorded violin concerto of the last 50 years; if one excludes the Sibelius concerto, it may even be the most played and recorded of the last 100 years. It seems to me that every version that comes along I herald yet again as “the best”. I have 40 recordings of the work; and no less than 10 have my rare “AAA” rating. A strange state of affairs.

Well, it was nine AAAs; but the latest recording to thunder through my letter box – Lisa Batiashvili with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on DG – makes it ten, and Batiashvili joins Julia Fischer, Leila Josefowicz, Sergei Khachatryan, Alexei Michlin (for the violin playing), Stoika Milanova, Vadim Repin (several versions) and Maxim Vengerov at the crowded top of the tree.

I have been a loyal Batiashvili fan for the past ten or eleven years. Her sound and playing are highly distinctive (a rare thing with modern violinists). Difficult to describe, but there has always been a nobility about her playing, with an extremely well executed vibrato, a way of concentrating on every note and every phrase, and a contralto sound that often alternates between clarinet and oboe. Her actual sound often reminds me of Gioconda de Vito. Her performance here of the Shostakovich first concerto deserves classic status, helped greatly by a first-rate recording, good recording balance and first-class partnership with the orchestra and conductor. The noble violin rides above the storm.

The CD has some attractive and out-of-the way fill-ups, and the two pieces for violin and piano with Hélène Grimaud remind us how much better things are when duos are played with real pianists, and not with Emanuel Bay look-alikes.

Friday, 4 February 2011

17 January 1944 in the Alte Philharmonie in Berlin Erich Röhn stood up to play the Beethoven violin concerto, with Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. The concert was recorded on tape and, just over 67 years later, it remains probably the classic yardstick performance of the Beethoven concerto. Serene, classical, traditional; and, one senses, true to the inner spirit of Beethoven's work. The rejuvenated sound from Pristine Audio is little short of miraculous; we seem to be listening to one of the better recordings of the 1960s. I have over 60 recordings of Beethoven's only violin concerto; but this performance is almost certainly at the top of the list (thanks to Röhn, Furtwängler and the unknown German radio engineers). Soon afterwards, the Alte Philharmonie vanished in a bombing raid. Fortunately, this performance lives on and on and on.

Now, Mr Rose; please turn your attention to rescuing Adolf Busch's recordings from the 1930s of Beethoven, Bach and Scbubert.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Friends have lauded Alexei Michlin and his performance of the first Shostakovich violin concerto (13 June 1963, Queen Elisabeth Competition, Brussels). But I have sat on my CD copy for months. Yet another unknown Russian. However, having listened to it this evening, I have to say I have never heard anyone play the solo part better. No one. An amazing performance. As is the wont with these kinds of recordings, the Belgian orchestra under André Cluytens just thrums away in the background. No matter; this is a disc for admirers of Alexei Michlin. Superb.