Monday, 21 March 2011

It is something of an event to be able to welcome a Melodiya CD of transfers from the 1960s in good sound. And even more of an event to be able to listen happily to Boris Goldstein playing in 1962 and 1968. Goldstein was one of the submerged Russians whose recording career was sacrificed in favour of Oistrakh and Kogan, but he was a major player. A pity the CD contains such ephemeral material: the Conus concerto is always welcome, but the D minor concerto by the 13 year old Mendelssohn is not worth repeated listening, and the violin concerto by Oskar Feltsman has understandably fallen into oblivion since its first hearing in Russia in 1962. The sound is good, however, and the playing deserves better material.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Some ideas about filling a CD containing the Beethoven or Brahms violin concertos comes with an enjoyable CD where we find Philippe Graffin and the Ulster Orchestra playing "Rare French Works" for violin and orchestra. I greatly enjoyed Lalo's Fantaisie Norvégienne, Ernest Guiraud's Caprice, Saint-Saëns' Morceau de Concert, Joseph Canteloube's Poème, and other pieces. Hands up all those who know any music by Guiraud, apart from his recitative interpolations into Bizet's Carmen? Well, his Caprice (nearly 12 minutes long) is most enjoyable.

Most of the works on the CD were written around / because of / dedicated to, Pablo Sarasate. Philippe Graffin plays in the manner of the 19th century violin celebrity.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

“You play Bach your way. And I'll play Bach his way” Wanda Landowska, an arrogant Polish harpsichord player, is alleged to have told someone. What do we know about what Bach wanted? We know with his music he was keen on texture, on structure, on harmony and on rhythm. We know from his frequent borrowings, transpositions and re-writings that the actual sound of his music had a lesser place; an oboe might replace a violin, a bassoon might replace a clarinet, the prelude to the third partita for solo violin would turn up as an organ solo in a cantata. So when it comes to the sonatas and partitas for solo violin: what would Johann Sebastian have expected of the player?

My feeling (unlike Landowska I don't know these things) is that Bach would have expected players to stick to the text, to play all the notes … and to use all the craft, skills and technique in their armoury to make the notes come alive and to arouse interest and admiration. I think that Bach would have been disappointed at many “baroque” performances, and also by the many who play his notes accurately and well but without bringing anything to the party.

I greatly admired Jascha Heifetz's playing on a recent re-listen. I have really enjoyed Lara St. John's two CDs of the six works this evening. Lara brings love, spirit, enthusiasm and an extensive palette of bowing, dynamics and colouring so that the music is constantly alive. Bach, I feel, would be happy. Lara does not worry about how Bach would have played the pieces; she just uses the scores to show what a violin can do. In my personal pantheon of desert island recordings, Heifetz and St. John are now neck-to-neck in the final strait.
On a CD, Ruggiero Ricci once assembled cadenzas to the Beethoven violin concerto by David, Vieuxtemps, Joachim, Laub, Wieniawski, Saint-Saëns, Auer, Ysaÿe, Busoni, Kreisler, Milstein and Schnittke. I find it a pity that Liza Ferschtman chooses to use the cadenza Beethoven wrote for the piano version of the violin concerto (adapted by Wolfgang Schneiderhan). It's too long and, being derived from piano music rather than the violin, it doesn't exploit the violin too well.

But that is now my only minor gripe concerning Liza Ferschtman's new recording. The dynamic range is still wide and you have to set the tuttis to be as loud as bearable in order to hear all the softer music. Fortunately the Beethoven violin concerto does not have many loud tuttis. Liza F. plays beautifully; the style is classical, which suits this concerto admirably – one reason why Adolf Busch and Eric Röhn feature high on my list. I was impressed with the orchestral contribution on the new CD; the wind players are given the kind of prominence one associates with Otto Klemperer and, in this concerto, it's a great advantage. So, after my second hearing, I am most enthusiastic. The only other minor gripe is that the concerto is only 45 minutes long, and it would have been good to have something else interesting on the CD – Britten, Korngold, Vieuxtemps, or whatever – instead of the two minor Romances that Beethoven wrote as pot-boilers.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Another Beethoven Violin Concerto, but I could not resist hearing Liza Ferschtman playing it (Challenge Records). Surprisingly good orchestra is "Netherlands Symphony Orchestra" (this is probably a pseudonym). The good news is that Ms Ferschtman plays beautifully, is well integrated with the orchestra, is balanced ideally, and knows all about playing piano and forte.

The bad news is that the broad dynamic range of the excellent recording means that you need to listen to the music in a BIG room, in an isolated space, with big speakers and a powerful amplifier. Otherwise, like me, you will miss much of the pianissimo violin playing (of which there is much in this concerto). Fortunately I know the Beethoven violin concerto backwards, so I can fill in the blank spaces; fortunately Beethoven doesn't go in for pianissimo passages in harmonics. But do recording engineers not realise the constrictions most of us face when listening to recordings? I suppose I could ask my neighbours to leave the building for 40 minutes, then really turn up the volume ... But I'll probably just have to get out my headphones and listen to it that way.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

For many years now I have been a loyal fan of Erica Morini, so I was pleased to receive a new Audite release of Morini in Berlin (1952). She plays the Tchaikovsky concerto (with Ferenc Fricsay) plus miscellaneous baroque sonatas and encore pieces with Michael Raucheisen. The Sevick school -- including Morini, Kubelik and Schneiderhan -- went out of fashion after the 1940s with the advent of the "plummy" Russian violin school with stars such as Oistrakh and Stern. But there is a lot to be said for the "Sevcik sound": the immaculate intonation, the tightly focussed tone, the sparing use of vibrato, the emphasis on articulation via bow strokes. Erica Morini was a major violinist and it's sad we have so few recordings of her in her prime.

I was, also, very impressed with Audite's sound restoration from performances and recordings in 1952 Berlin. Amidst the ruins of the city, there was a strong renaissance of music making and recording (the Tchaikovsky concerto being a public performance in the Titania-Palast that replaced the old Philharmonic hall on which someone had decided to drop a bomb).

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Unusual weekend so far. Music centred on Ludwig van Beethoven (of all people) and re-visited the works of my childhood: sixth and seventh symphonies, plus fourth and fifth piano concertos.

The symphonies were played by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (public performances, April 1940). The (Pristine) sound was excellent, for the period, and the orchestra glowed with a rich, golden sound. Fascinating to hear a great conductor and a great orchestra of 70 years ago. But I cannot take Mengelberg's tempo in the trio of the third movement of the seventh symphony; it is so slow! When the wretched trio came around for the second time, I had to skip forward to the finale.

The two concertos were played on a new CD by Yevgeny Sudbin who is my kind of pianist. A truly incredible technique, but playing that has you listening intently to Beethoven, rather than to Sudbin. Pretty definitive versions of these two old warhorses.

And Morrison's had a special offer of gilt-head bream, so I bought two fish and eat one this evening. Grilled simply with olive oil, mixed herbs, salt and pepper and then adorned with squeezed lemon. Light, flavoursome and delicious. When I am re-incarnated I'll open a restaurant: Casa Paganini?

Sunday, 6 March 2011

This weekend my favourite scallop dish (ginger, salt, pepper, spring onions, soya sauce, cooked briefly in a wok) and then squid (garlic, salt, pepper, parsley) cooked in a wok. Then two favourite violin concertos: the first Shostakovich concerto (Lisa Batiashvili) and the Elgar concerto (Thomas Zehetmair). Both concertos in the top three recorded performances ever, and both 21st century recordings, which bodes well for the future of classical violin playing.
Latest Pristine Audio offering is THREE performances of the Mendelssohn violin concerto with Heifetz (plus Toscanini, Beecham, or Munch), all on one CD. Heifetz made his public début at the age of seven playing the Mendelssohn concerto; I don't think he liked it very much. All his performances show a lack of warmth and affection and concentrate on rapidissimo virtuoso playing. Breathtaking: yes. But not particularly attractive.

For once, the Pristine Audio transfers disappoint and are not better than most other people's efforts. As the ratings agencies would have it: Pristine is downgraded in my eyes from AAA to AAB.

Friday, 4 March 2011

A friend sent me an off-air recording of Vadim Repin and Nikolai Lugansky playing at a concert in Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, 25 December 2010. The recital included two works that also appeared on their DG CD -- the Janacek sonata, and second Grieg sonata. Plus two extra works: the C minor Op 30 No.2 sonata by Beethoven, and the Romanian Folk Dances by Bartok. This new CD is also three star; the recording suffers a little from limited dynamic range (going from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte) but the playing has a virile energy and exuberance that is completely captivating. The recording is well balanced between piano and violin. Back in the 1950s when I began listening to recordings, non-studio recordings were sniffed at because of the occasional warts. This new Repin-Lugansky CD seals the argument for me, however: there is all too often a discernible frisson and élan in a live performance that does not reproduce under studio conditions. Two Russians playing in Moscow receive exceptionally warm applause from the Christmas Day audience -- well merited.

My purge of recordings goes on apace. But as fast as I shovel recordings out of the back door, in come more through the front. I need yet another recording of the Beethoven violin concerto like I need an extra five centimetres round my waistline. But Liza Ferschtman has just recorded the Beethoven concerto (unfortunately with a token orchestral partner of the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra under Jan Willem de Vriend). And how can I not discover a new Liza Ferschtman performance?