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.