Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A CD featuring a recital given in Vienna in May 1974 confirms many of my ideas (and prejudices). The two artists are David Oistrakh and Paul Badura-Skoda. The Russian and the Viennese play Viennese duo classics by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

As with the recent Heifetz recital that emerged from Uruguay, I welcome the absence of a recording studio. Very often, a public performance brings a naturalness and heightened involvement from the artists concerned. In the old days, "live recordings" were somewhat frowned upon. Increasingly today, however, live recordings are becoming far more common (albeit for economic rather than technical reasons, one feels). Another advantage of (some) live recordings is a more natural balance between artists; as in the case of Heifetz and Brooks Smith in Uruguay, and as in the case of Oistrakh and Badura-Skoda here. The balance is ideal, and the players complement each other perfectly. I am not an Oistrakh fan; he was a wonderful violinist, a great musician and, as we hear here, a perfect partner in chamber music. But I have never taken to his ultra-smooth legato style of violin playing -- "too smooth by half", my mother might have said. I like to hear bow strokes, and I like string players who use their bows to articulate and phrase. Oistrakh sounds like smooth, whipped cream and his sound is loved by everyone but me and has had a major influence on much modern violin playing.

Live recordings bring the risk of tiny flaws, of course. But normally the flaws are a small price to pay for the heightened spontaneity and involvement by the players. Oistrakh recorded so often, and it is always good to hear him live. One wonders about some great studio performances; even a great classic such as Nathan Milstein playing the Goldmark violin concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1957 has one wondering about reality; the 31 minutes of the concerto apparently occupied two days of recording (second and fourth of August) and the Testament CD contains just under 15 minutes of "alternative takes"; when you hear the technician announce "Take 78" you start to remember Otto Klemperer's remark to his daughter on a similar Philharmonia / EMI occasion: "Lotte: ein Schwindel!" And a recording technician recently quipped concerning a studio recording by a famous violinist somewhat over the hill: "There was a take for every note he played".

Studio recordings are often somewhat suspect. They have also been detrimental to performances in making audiences and listeners expect complete perfection in every bar -- another factor in the marked slowing-down of tempi in performances of so many classical works, as artists seek safety in reduced speed.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Patricia Kopatchinskaja CD Part II. This was a lot better than the first part (Kreutzer Sonata). In fact, the performance of the Bartok Six Romanian Dances by Ms K. and Fazil Say was truly excellent. Mr Say's hair style suggests he is a fan of Franz Liszt, but his five movement sonata for violin and piano is a long way from Liszt but not at all disagreable; it is well written, clever, and pleasant to listen to. The music comes across as vaguely Balkan.

Ravel's G major sonta is also well played by the duo, but European music's (happily brief) flirtation with American jazz during the 1920s and early 30s was not particularly a beneficial one. Not a sonata I particularly enjoy (especially not the slow movement).

Monday, 18 July 2011

An unusual day saw me listening to Brahms, Dvorak and Mahler, hardly my normal daily fare. The Dvorak four pieces, plus the E minor Mazurek, were played by Josef Suk and very fine they were, too. I particularly admired Suk's bowing, articulation and immaculate double-stops in the Mazurek. Then on to Suk and Julius Katchen in their classic 1967 account of the three Brahms violin & piano sonatas, and what particularly struck me here was the fact that throughout the ten movements of the three sonatas I did not once query the tempi set by Suk and Katchen. The “ever-slower” fashion did not catch up with Suk.

But it certainly did with Katarina Karnéus and Susanna Mälkki in Mahler. The Kindertotenlieder dragged on for ever. The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were better, after the first song, but brakes were applied sharply wherever there was the slightest opportunity. I do not know the Fünf Rückert Lieder well enough to pronounce on the tempi, but they often sounded very slow indeed. Which is all a great pity, since Mälkki did a good job with the orchestra, BIS produced an excellent recording and Karnéus has an attractive voice. And I like Mahler's vocal music. In the modern musical world, slow bespeaks with feeling, soulful, reverence, deep emotions. But go back sixty years or so, and one realises that most slow music benefits from being taken at a “proper” tempo (which takes us back to Suk and Katchen).

Saturday, 16 July 2011

I greatly enjoyed the performance of the Beethoven violin concerto by Josef Suk (coupled with the Dvorak concerto) ably and interestingly accompanied by Malcolm Sargent conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Albert Hall, September 1965. The performance by Suk is within the classical Central European tradition (compare with Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Erich Röhn, Adolf Busch or Georg Kulenkampff). No fuss, no strutting of personality, just a beautiful and meticulous traversal of Beethoven' music. For a change, we have short, appropriate cadenzas (by Vasa Prihoda) which is a relief after some of the monstrosities I have had to listen to recently. Suk's violin sounds wonderful and, considering the recording venue, the recorded sound is excellent. For once, I was impressed with Sargent's very real contribution. Makes a change to feel enthusiastic about a recording of the Beethoven violin concertos after so many disappointing versions. This CD, that also contains the excellent recording of the Dvorak concerto I have commented on previously, was a very good buy.

For lunch today I concocted a superb dish of mushrooms, fried in bacon with garlic, salt, pepper and mixed herbs. Completely delicious.

Friday, 15 July 2011

At the moment, practically every music-related publication I pick up seems to feature a full page colour advertisement for a violinist called Charlie Siem. I have no views on Mr Siem and have not yet heard him (mainly since his choice of repertoire to record spells out endless duplications in my collection; the only thing that interested me so far was Wieniawski's first concerto, but I think that was coupled with yet another version of the Bruch G minor concerto. How ambitious).

Which is all a long route to saying that "star" musicians are not necessarily the best of the pack, and I was conscious yesterday evening listening to Josef Suk playing the Dvorak violin concerto (1964) that Suk was a very considerable violinist with, albeit a moderately low-level profile. He spent pretty well all his life in and around Prague appreciated by violin cognoscenti but unheard of by most of the music-loving public in the Western world. Dvorak's violin concerto has had a mediocre career ever since Joachim wriggled out of giving its premiere and, to my knowledge, was not played by violinists such as Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman or Szigeti (Menuhin, Oistrakh and Milstein were exceptions in so far as "big names" pre-1970 were concerned). Its popularity is faring better of late, but I have never really taken to it. I did enjoy Suk's 1964 performance on this current CD, however. His violin playing is wonderful, and he understands about not wallowing in the music and bringing things to a near halt every few minutes. I have neglected my Suk collection (not enough full-page colour advertisements?) I shall dust off the CDs and listen again with interest. Josef Suk died this month at the age of 81; his recorded contribution will live on.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

I am not making wise CD purchase decisions at the moment. After the recent Respighi disaster, I decided on the spur of the moment to order a CD by a violinist I much like and admire, Patricia Kopatchinskaja -- despite the fact that none of the music was among my preferred pieces. So I started with the Beethoven Kreutzer sonata -- and hated it. Miss Kopatchinskaja plays in a "pseudo baroque" style, which means ugly bulges on longer notes instead of vibrato. She also deprives the music of any basic pulse -- dynamic or tempo -- and, to paraphrase Carl Flesch discussing Bronislaw Huberman, "she either whispers, or she shouts". The whole of the first and second movements sound unstable, with the two players seemingly striving to be "different" rather than to understand the music. The finale is better but, to compound matters, the sound on the CD (Naïve) makes the violin sound rasping and screechy, and the piano (played by Fazil Say) resembles an over-played pub piano; we are a long way from the sound of Alfred Cortot.

Well, still to come, once I pluck up courage, are the Ravel sonata (not one of my favourite works), the Bartok six Romanian dances (which may suit Kopatchinskaja much better) and a Turkish sonata by the pianist on this CD. Can't wait. In fairness to myself, I did have second thoughts and tried to cancel the CD less than two hours after ordering it online. But Amazon deemed this too long and cancellation was denied. I can hardly send it back saying I don't like it.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The latest transfer of Bruckner's fifth symphony, transferred by German engineers from the original tapes, is pretty remarkable. For a recording made in October 1942, the sound is perfectly acceptable, with just the loudest fortissimo passages sounding restrained. In addition, you get the inspired conducting of Furtwängler; no one now in Bruckner has the same mastery of pulse, tempo, dynamics and rubato. And finally, you get the wonderful playing of the old Berlin Philharmonic playing in its old hall.
For me, the only downside is the music. I am fond of Bruckner's 4th and 8th symphonies, I love the 7th and adore the 9th. But the 5th and 6th always leave me standing outside. Anyway, with this new Testament release I can sit back and admire the conducting and the playing, if not the music.

My friend Lee sent me the first CD (of a scheduled six) on which Sherban Lupu plays violin and piano works by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. I started listening with some scepticism; the only works by Ernst that I know at all well are the Erlkönig transcription and the Last Rose of Summer variations, neither of which is a favourite piece, since in them all too often Ernst seems to be intent on writing music that is pretty well unplayable. However, the pieces on the new CD converted me and Ernst now inspires warm feelings. He had a wonderful gift of melody (better than Paganini). Even if one or two of the Carnaval de Venise variations show Ernst's determination to write violin music that is almost impossible to play, almost all the current CD is highly enjoyable. Lupu plays well, with just the right degree of sweetness the music demands, and Ian Hobson is excellent back-up in the piano parts (which are often interesting in themselves). Hobson even concentrates throughout the repetitive arpeggio figure that accompanies the Carnaval de Venise for ten minutes. And, most important in music such as this, the recording balance (Toccata Classics) is well judged and there is just the right amount of "air" around the sound. Many thanks to Lee for this birthday present; I'll probably buy the next five CDs as they appear.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Nearly twenty years ago in 1992, the Staatskapelle Dresden was a marvellous orchestra, at least when playing the German Romantics. It probably is superb, to this day, but this evening I was listening to Colin Davis conducting the orchestra in Schubert's 'Unfinished' symphony, and Brahms' third. Glorious music, glorious playing (and pretty fine 1992 recording, as well). Only conundrum is: where does one file such a coupling so it can be found again?

The evening began equally well with one of my finest omlettes (ham and mushroom). This really is a better dish than any 'ready to eat' dishes one can buy.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Most of Sunday was devoted to listening to Wagner's Parsifal, in a glorious recording from the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev. Although I also have the opera conducted by Goodall, and by Knappertsbusch, I suspect this Parsifal is the one to have. The opera needs good voices, but there are no real "star" roles or arias. The orchestra is all-important, so a recording with excellent sound, an inspired conductor and marvellous orchestral playing is almost a sure winner.

The Gurnemanz of René Pape is superb (Goodall's Gurnemanz was pretty dreadful). I am not sure Violeta Urmana has the right voice for Kundry; the voice needs more honey if she is to seduce Parsifal -- one pines a little for the sound of Sandrine Piau or Simone Kermes. But these are details in a superb recording of a superb opera. Even if one blanches a little at Wagner extolling the virtues of Christianity and chastity (the old hypocrite!), Parsifal remains an amazing creation and one of music's major peaks.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Rare I buy something completely unplayable. I bought a Naxos CD of music by Respighi thinking it was a violin disc with a hitherto unknown violinist. But the violin concerto “by” Respighi turns out to be arranged, completed and edited by one Salvatore di Vittorio, who also conducts an orchestra. The non-violin concerto part of the CD (most of it) is of pastiche music similarly assembled and conducted by the said di Vittorio. The music is sub- 18th/19th century fake and sounds like the worst excesses of music from the despised Hollywood cauldron. What possessed me to order the CD, I cannot think. At least it was cheap. The disc goes straight into the "morgue" section of my CD shelves.
Some CDs are an instant hit with me, and so it is with a new disc featuring Sandrine Piau (with Susan Manoff). Piau's golden voice has never sounded better than in this compilation of songs by Strauss, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Chausson, Vincent Buchot, Poulenc and Britten. An hour of pure enjoyment in German, French and English. And Manoff's piano is an excellent partner.