Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Beethoven's "Von Herzen - möge es wieder - zu Herzen gehn!" [from the heart, to the heart] sums up quite a lot of what moves me in music – be it folk, popular or classical. I don't take to music that is purely commercial, nor music that is purely cerebral.

I bought a Wigmore Hall Live recording by the Skampa Quartet because it was a very cheap offer, and because it contained quartets by Mozart, Smetana and Shostakovich. As someone who loves Mozart's music, I have always been slightly perplexed at my reaction to the string quartets that never, it seems to me, go to my heart in the way that so much of Mozart's music does. The string quartets have always sounded to me merely expertly written. K 575 in D major on this Skampa disc did not convert me; despite the late Köchel number, the music just passed pleasantly but unremarkably. Very puzzling.

So on to Smetana; Czech music usually reaches directly to the heart. But his D minor quartet (number two) did little for me. Finally, Shostakovich and his eighth quartet in C minor Op 110, and here was the real thing, with remarkable music sending frissons to the listener, and all the tensions and traumas of the Stalin years communicated from the heart, to the heart. I will treasure this CD for the Shostakovich, and pass over the Mozart and the Smetana. Very odd.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

There are advantages in having a large collection of recordings, one of which is that, when I suddenly have a desire to hear something different, there is plenty of choice. Today I had a desire to listen to ... Mozart and started with his symphony No.39, one of my favourites. Performed by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia, one of my favoured conductors for the Austro-German orchestral corpus. Wonderful music, superbly played and conducted. Klemperer's desire to have woodwind forward really pays dividends in Mozart's music. Then on to the beautiful voice of Caroyln Sampson singing early religious stuff by Mozart. I never become tired of listening to Ms Sampson, whatever she may sing.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Listening to a new recording of Handel's Aminta e Fillide, I wonder anew at how music, melodies and arias simply poured out of the 21 year old Saxon. The cantata consists of a string of non-stop hits, many of which were re-cycled in later works (particularly the operas). This is the third recording I have of this work, which is highly dependent on having two good soloists, plus expert chamber orchestra back-up. Here on the latest CD, Klaartje van Veldhoven and Stefanie True are the two excellent soloists, and Contrasto Armonico provides the expert back-up. Director is Marco Vitale, and speeds sound acceptable, though verging on the somewhat brisk at times, in the modern manner. Sometimes, we need more time to savour the delights of Handel's arias. But, all in all, a good acquisition.

Friday, 19 August 2011

I am often criticised (particularly by members of my family) for having multiple versions of the same piece of recorded music. Things become even more ridiculous when one has multiple versions of the same piece of music by the same artist. For the record, I have FOUR recordings of Lisa Batiashvili playing the Beethoven violin concerto.

Until yesterday, I had two of the same Lisa playing the first Shostakovich violin concerto; now I have three, having recorded off-air her performance on Wednesday evening at a Promenade concert in London (with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen). Happily, there is a point in having three; this latest version is absolutely superb, and the 32 year old Batiashvili has really grown into the music and underlines the fact that, often, live performances give 15% more than a comparable studio one (Batiashvili recorded this same work with Salonen in a studio last year).

Batiashvili sounds very “Moscow school” and has Oistrakh's smooth, seamless tone. But she has retained her gift of being totally involved in what she is playing, in concentrating hard on the music, and in keeping a long line to the music. I loved this latest performance even though, a bit like the Elgar violin concerto, the first Shostakovich does not lack for superb recorded performances (Julia Fischer, Vadim Repin, Maxim Vengerov and Leila Josefowicz spring immediately to mind). In Wednesday night's performance, Lisa Batiashvili sounds entirely believable and comes over as a great artist. Salonen, as before in the studio, is an admirable partner.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

For much of my life, I have sat down and listened dutifully to the music of Franz Liszt without particularly enjoying it. I must have at least one kilo of Liszt CDs in my collection. This evening, however, I listened to Liszt with enjoyment, thanks to the playing of Lise de la Salle, a 23 year old pianist from Cherbourg for whom I have had a great affection for the past few years.

Miss de la Salle plays without artifice, and without playing to the gallery. Listening to her playing Liszt is like eavesdropping on a private recital; she plays for herself, and we are privileged to listen.

At last, I have enjoyed the music of Franz Liszt! Any quibbles? Is it unreasonable to ask why, in a CD with over an hour of Liszt's music, there is no photo of Liszt but seven “arty” photos of a rather fed-up looking Miss de la Salle? Who makes the most important contribution, here? But, quibbles apart, this is a most enjoyable CD and I'm glad I bought it.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A quote from the American Record Guide sums up my feelings after listening to Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin playing Schubert's Fantiasie D 934 in 1931: “Why is it that pre-WW II chamber music recordings – this one is a good example – are almost invariably more relaxed and laid-back in style; sweeter, riper and richer in tone; smoother and more refined in execution; more involved and overtly communicative in execution; more focussed on rhetorical style and architectural integrity?”

I could not have put it better myself. Pre-1940 Schubert (and Bruckner) laid down standards of performance that simply did not transition to the more recent world. When Busch and Serkin play, the focus is simply and purely on the music; tricks of performance, feats of violinistic or pianistic excellence, simply play no part in the music making. Busch and Serkin playing Schubert in 1931 join the short list of recordings that have never subsequently been bettered. Or even equalled.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died in 1736 at the age of 26. Guillaume Lekeu died in 1894 just one day after his 24th birthday. What immense losses! Had Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner et al died at the age of 24, how much poorer music would be.

At the moment, I am conducting a mini Lekeu festival in my flat, centred on his chamber works. I have two recordings of the magnificent (but unfinished) piano quartet, one from the Ensemble Eugène Ysaÿe, one from a quartet led from the piano by Daniel Blumenthal (copy courtesy of Carlos). The Blumenthal version is by far the best: taut, focussed with well integrated sound. More Lekeu is on order (Quatuor Debussy) as well as the violin sonata from Alina Ibragimova, due at the end of this month.

I like Lekeu's music, which echoes Brahms, Wagner or Bruckner without the Teutonic thickness of the writing and the ideas. His death after just 23 years of life was an immense tragedy for all of us.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Living in England, I have been deluged all my life with eulogies to Great British pianists, tenors, violinists, oboe players, conductors, composers, and so on. In whatever country you live, you need to apply a strong filter to news / reviews / promotional puffs.

So I am reticent when approaching Kathleen Ferrier, easily the most famous British contralto / mezzo soprano in history. Over-hyped? Tragic story of local girl makes good, then dies young?

I listened to a recent molto-cheapo Regis CD of Ferrier with great enjoyment and admiration. In Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and three of the Rückert Lieder, she was quite superb. In Brahms' Vier Ernste Gesänge (with piano) she is deeply moving. The voice is wonderful, the diction exemplary. But what is especially impressive is her ability to empathise with what she is singing, and in this she rivals Maria Callas (but in a very different repertoire). Only drawback to the Regis disc; there is no libretto and extensive hunting of the Internet fail to reveal the words Ferrier sings for the fourth of the Ernste Gesänge.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

It is surprising, given my highly ambivalent feelings towards the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, that I have spent the past few days in semi Mahler saturation. The latest was an ultra-cheap Regis CD of Kathleen Ferrier singing the Kindertotenlieder, plus three of the Rückert songs.

I complained about Katerina Karnéus in the Kindertotenlieder: first song 6' 12”; second song 5' 08”. With Bruno Walter at the helm for Ferrier (with the Vienna Philharmonic), the first song is 4' 48”, and the second 4' 35”. Chronometers are not all in music performance, of course. But they are often indicative. I grew up with Ferrier-Walter-Kindertotenlieder in the 1950s (second-hand Columbia ten inch LP). I have always loved it and it is one of the instances where I do not need an alternative version. The 1949 recording comes over well, helped by the fact that, until the last song, we do not hear a full orchestra. Ferrier and Walter go on (1952) with three of the Rückert Lieder and these, again, seem to me timeless and ideal. Both singer and conductor had an incredible empathy with the music of Mahler.

Before that, it was Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf and Szell in the Knaben Wunderhorn. Produced by Walter Legge. Orchestra the London Symphony Orchestra. The music awoke my misgivings about much of Mahler: not much depth, a bit superficial, brilliantly and intelligent written. But where is the meat? A foretaste of Hollywood. I remain ambivalent about Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf: one a bit coy and arch too often, the other a bit blustery, on occasions. Szell and the LSO came off best, in my estimation. Walter Legge probably stiched together 298 takes.