Friday, 29 April 2011

As befits a Royal Wedding evening: a typical English dinner:

In a wok with a little vegetable oil: slices of pepper, shallot. Cook briefly, Add sliced chestnut mushrooms. Cook briefly.

Add sliced scallops cooked (briefly in a separate pan) in butter with salt and pepper. Cook for a couple of minutes, and add soya sauce. Eat with boiled rice. Delicious.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

An unusual evening Monday in that I spent the time listening to ... Yehudi Menuhin, and some of his recordings from the 1930s: Mendelssohn violin concerto, Dvorak violin concerto, Wieniawski's Légende, the Bach double concerto (all with Enescu) and then the Elgar concerto from 1932.

Menuhin's approach to all the music was highly personal, and there is a freshness and enthusiasm in his playing that is most appealing. There are better performances of Elgar's violin concerto per se, but Menuhin's personal approach is fascinating. And during the 1930s he could really play well with a sound and style that are immediately distinctive.

The sound in the Naxos transfer for the Elgar is pretty miraculous given the 1932 date of the original recording. The other pieces were Dutton transfers and suffered to some extent from over-filtering with no ambient warmth -- a frequent problem with Dutton transfers. The Menuhin / Enescu 1938 performance of the Mendelssohn was the first recording I ever possessed (on 78 rpm discs played on a wind-up gramophone). Re-hearing the work with Menuhin's bow arm articulation and freshness of approach was an enjoyable experience; this really is a classic recording.

Monday, 25 April 2011

In his memoirs published in the 1950s, the usually waspish Carl Flesch praises Erica Morini, commenting only that her technical style now sounds "outdated". Listening again to the recent Audite release of Morini in Berlin in 1952, the "outdated technical style" does provide fascinating glimpses as to the sheer range of violin technique, particularly in the small salon pieces by Brahms, Wieniawski and Kreisler. Morini's bow flashes and dashes, her tone production is subject to infinite variations and colours, her spiccato and staccato are jaw-dropping, and her trills belong to an age where such things were taken seriously. There is none of the smooth, luscious, son-filé sound one would get from violinists such as Joshua Bell or Tasmin Little in these pieces. Every collection of violin recordings needs Erica Morini, a violinist well out of fashion, but a major 20th century violinist never the less.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Concerto evening on Saturday. First, Beethoven's violin concerto (yet again) with Christian Tetzlaff and the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman. For once, the first movement tempo sounded right: "fast, but not too fast", Beethoven indicated. That is how Tetzlaff played it. The dynamic range of the recording is again wide, which again meant there were pianissimo passages on the violin that I just could not hear at normal listening volume. It's probably also a fault with my elderly ears. Tetzlaff again plays an adaptation of the "Beethoven" cadenzas -- I seem to have heard that drum symphony far too often of late. Tetzlaff's cadenzas in this work make one realise why, from Mendelssohn onwards, most composers preferred to dictate the cadenza rather than leave it to the taste and imagination of the soloist.

The second concerto was, again, the first Shostakovich violin concerto played by Ilian Garnetz at a Queen Elisabeth Competition gala evening in Brussels (2009). Like Elgar's concerto, Shostakovich's first is lucky on record and rarely fails. Garnetz is from Moldova, born in St. Petersburg. Good, firm, accurate, enjoyable playing, with commendable empathy for the music. So yet another fine version -- my 41st recording of this twentieth century classic.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

I have always been a loyal follower of Isabelle Faust. Her new recording of Brahms' violin concerto is honourable, but nothing more. Most of the problem lies with the (recorded) ghosts of Kreisler, Oistrakh, Milstein, Heifetz, de Vito, Kogan, et al. The orchestra here is the "Mahler Chamber Orchestra" and that's a problem, coupled with Faust's light touch in much of the violin part. This is Brahms Lite, and the Brahms violin concerto is not a feminine, whimsical piece. And, Ms Faust: Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace is not Italian for "go hell-for-leather" in the finale. Look it up. The adagio comes off best.
The latest volume in Tianwa Yang's traversal of the complete works of Pablo Sarasate does not disappoint. The ability of the young Chinese girl to identify with the sound and spirit of the 19th century Spaniard is quite uncanny. Interesting to learn that, like Sarasate, Yang also plays a 19th century violin by Vuillaume (and on one track of the current CD she plays on Sarasate's Vuillaume, and very good it sounds, too).

Sarasate's music, like his playing, was characterised by elegance and sophistication. There is no vulgar showmanship in Sarasate. One comes away from Tianwa Yang's latest disc full of admiration for her playing, and for Sarasate's music. I don't know whether Miss Yang would be so "right" in the music of Bruch or Brahms. But she can certainly get inside the skin of the man from Navarra.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

At least Vilde Frang has a nice easy name to write about -- unlike Patricia Kopatchinskaja or Liza Ferschtman. On her new recital disc, the young Norwegian reveals an impeccable technique and an exemplary sensitivity. That being said, I felt that her sensitivity to the moment, allied to her extremes of dynamics, did make much of the music on the CD far too episodic. The Strauss sonata missed the ecstatic fervour brought to it by violinists such as Heifetz and Repin, and Bartok's sonata for solo violin featured a string of linked episodes rather than a coherent whole. One of the great gifts of Wilhelm Furtwängler in Bruckner and Wagner was his ability to meld passages and movements into a coherent whole work. Ms Frang's extremes of dynamics meant that I spent much of the time in the Bartok slow movement straining my ears to hear whether she was playing, and if so, what. And in the finale, it was a relief when the mute came off and she played senza sordino.
Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a highly interesting violinist. A recent recording by her (with Philippe Herreweghe and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées) is almost the first time I have enjoyed Beethoven's two Romances Op 40 and 50. Kopatchinskaja plays them simply and at a flowing tempo. Her Beethoven violin concerto on the disc is also excellent, and a version I enjoyed greatly. No lingering, no posturing, just excellent playing (with excellent support from Herreweghe). A big disadvantage, however, is the cadenza; Kopachinskaja chooses to play around with the cadenza Beethoven wrote for the piano, complete with dubbing of an extra track of violin runs (to emulate the piano version) and more drums than in an African village. Liza Ferschtman played around with the same unsatisfactory cadenza in her recording of the concerto; given the number of excellent cadenzas written for this concerto, why do these young women have to mess around with a thoroughly unidiomatic piano cadenza? And it's a great shame these experimental cadenzas are not give a separate track so that, if necessary, one could just skip them (or remake the disc with a cadenza interpolated from the excellent selection on a Ricci disc). We can, of course, just skip to the second movement of the concerto once the cadenza starts, but then we would miss Kopatchinskaja's delicate, hushed reprise after the cadenza.

The recording claims to feature "period instruments", whatever that means. Kopatchinskaja plays on a violin from 1834, which is the wrong period for a concerto written in 1806. But, happily, she is not a "baroque" violinist, so we are spared the dry, colourless sound so typical of the baroque brigade.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

David Frühwirth in a recording for Avie in the year 2000 shows that you can compile a violin recital disk without having recourse to the inevitable Banjo & Fiddle, Liebesfreud, Thaïs Méditation, or La Capricieuse. He assembles 17 short pieces for a 70 minute CD that is varied, interesting and refreshing. We pass from Hubay to Kurt Weill to Zimbalist to Glazunov to Ovide Musin to Hans Sitt to Chopin to Vieuxtemps ... and it's all enjoyable. Yes, it can be done.

Frühwirth does not have Heifetz's palette of colours, nor Kreisler's charm. But he does reasonably well. Out of his seventeen pieces, I would have omitted Ravel's Pièce en forme de Habanera -- it's done too often, and Frühwirth's Havana here is a bit misty on a cold morning -- and George Gershwin's Short Story (that gives the CD its selling title). Gershwin was a meretricious American who wrote smart jazz-inflected pieces for smart Americans in the 1920s. I cannot understand why his smart little pieces are still programmed; it is fortunate for us that he died before he was 40 years old, so his output of playable little pieces is limited. Apart from those two small gripes: 15 out of 17 is a big hit rate for one CD of enjoyable, out-of-the-way "romantic pieces" for violin and piano. It will be played on future occasions.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Robert Mattthew-Walker, writing in the International Record Review of Craig Sheppard's recordings of the final three Schubert piano sonata, writes: “Sheppard delivers performances of the highest intellectual, emotional and technical mastery as he reveals the Holy Grail which are these immortal masterpieces. … I can only urge genuine Schubertians to hear and preferably acquire this landmark release”.

Pretty clear: thumbs well up from Mr Matthew-Walker. I was all set to click my mouse and acquire the set when: “A volatile and uneven artist, Sheppard finds himself out of sorts with Schubert's ultimate genius … Subject to the scrutiny of the microphones, all three performances show a roughness and lack of finesse … this is hard to recommend”, writes Bryce Morrison in The Gramophone.

The perfect answer, of course, is to pay out £20 or so and listen to the sonatas and make up one's own mind. But it would be useful to have a little reliable guidance, from time to time. After all, is that not what record critics are paid for? And just to drag record critics through the mire once again: writing in Classica about the much-admired (especially by me) recording of the first Shostakovich violin concerto by Lisa Batiashvili, Bertrand Dermoncourt dismisses the CD with “alas, total disillusionment”. He doesn't like the programme, he finds Batiashvili “too well integrated with the orchestra”, he doesn't like the recording, he doesn't like the conductor. His choice, ignoring all the excellent performances from Khachatryan, Josefowicz, Repin, Vengerov et al is for a fifty-year old recording by Oistrakh. Well, I can strike Monsieur Dermoncourt off the list of those whose opinions I find to be of interest. But what about Mr Matthew-Walker and Mr Morrison? Which one of those do I listen to?
Not often these days one comes across a new Jascha Heifetz recording in good sound (leaving aside, thankfully, the Bell Telephone Hour truncations). However, from Uruguay, of all places, comes a concert that Heifetz gave in Montevideo with Brooks Smith on 12th May 1955. Remarkably, the recording is in excellent sound and reproduces Heifetz's violin faithfully. Remarkably, too, for a Heifetz recording, the balance between piano and violin is pretty good and this really does make quite a difference in a piece such as the Kreutzer sonata. Most Heifetz duo recordings need to be put on one side as far as the music is concerned, because of a balance that over-favours the violin; but not this one.

I liked the programme of this lucky little CD: Vitali's Chaconne is followed by Beethoven's Kreutzer. Then Debussy's sonata, followed by a Dvorak slavonic dance, Lili Boulanger's Cortège, a Richard Strauss song arranged for violin and piano, Wieniawski's Capriccio-Valse, and ending with Ravel's Tzigane. They don't do programmes like that nowadays, more's the pity. And good to be reminded that even Heifetz was not perfect, with some shaky intonation with the double stops early in the Dvorak piece. Altogether an unexpected pleasure that arrived out of the blue (thanks to my friend Lee).

Friday, 8 April 2011

James Ehnes in the Mendelssohn Concerto

Mendelssohn's violin concerto is a happy, uncomplicated little work. It plumbs no depths and provokes no deep thoughts or feelings. When played in a straightforward manner it offers a happy 30 minutes, or so. I therefore greatly enjoyed James Ehnes's recent recording (with Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia). Ehnes's performance has been criticised by some for being hard-hearted; not by me. He zips through the concerto and does not stamp on the brakes immediately a sentimental episode comes in sight (as did Andrew Haveron at a concert I attended a few years ago). No good trying to pretend Mendelssohn is late Schubert, Mozart or Beethoven. The orchestra does not play a major part in this concerto, so Ashkenazy's punctilious accompanying is fine by me.