Monday, 31 October 2011

There are some CDs that, without star names or trumpet-blowing PR, manage to be highly enjoyable. One such I heard yesterday evening features Svetlin Roussev (violin) and Frédéric d'Oria-Nicolas (piano). They play the third sonata by Nikolai Medtner, coupled with the third sonata by Grieg. Both works are first class. The recording and balance (2008) are first class. The playing reminds me that “big names” are not always a guarantee of first-class results and that this CD really does deserve the three stars I gave it.

I also heard the thoroughly admirable Albert Sammons in the first Schubert “sonatina” (with William Murdoch) and in Vieuxtemps' Ballade & Polonaise Op 38 – the latter recorded in 1916 with the Band of the Grenadier Guards, euphonium to the fore. The son of a shoemaker, Sammons was one of the very few violinists who was entirely self-taught. He never had (nor sought) an international reputation and was always happy to tour the local English musical circuits. By any measure, however, he was a front-rank violinist as his whiplash right arm in the Vieuxtemps demonstrates. Again, you do not need to look for big names to find first rate.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

During the 1950s and 60s, my father lived just two streets away from Alfredo Campoli, and since he played in the LSO for almost all of that period, he came across Alfredo frequently. He never had a good word to say for the violinist. Partly because of Campoli's background (a café violinist who announced he was turning “classical” after 1945 when café orchestras went out of fashion in England) and partly because of what he once termed to me “his pretentiousness”.

Being the son of my father, I imbibed this prejudice. And listening again this evening to Fat Alfredo playing the Elgar violin concerto, I concede that my father was right. Alfredo was not a violinist of stature. The Elgar violin concerto (1954, with Adrian Boult) features ever-so-sweet violin playing, a bit like eating a meal of sweet courses where even the ham is braised in honey, the whole accompanied by a sweet white wine. When the music is sentimental, Alfredo wows it like a cheap Italian tenor from a minor Italian opera house. The 1954 recording is one of those mono recordings where the orchestra has three microphones (or whatever) and the soloist a microphone all to himself; the effect is almost as if Alfredo had been dubbed on afterwards. We have here an Anglo-Italian version of the Israeli Itzhak Perlman and I don't like it, just as I don't care for Perlman. Bring on the unlikely duo of Albert Sammons and Thomas Zehetmair (for the Elgar violin concerto).

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Ion Voicu was a phenomenal virtuoso of the violin. Coming to prominence as a violinist in Romania during the period 1940-65 he was of gypsy heritage and not the least attraction in listening to him is the confluence of gypsy, Central Europe, and great virtuosity. Like so many superb violinists of that period in Central Europe, he never became really well known but he lives on via his posthumous reputation among violin lovers. Born in 1923, he died in 1997.

A friend sent me 90 minutes of Voicu, including the Mendelssohn and second Wieniawski violin concertos, plus a recital disc. The Mendelssohn is refreshing and played fast and straight, with no attempt to inflate the music into something it is not; I suspect Mendelssohn would have liked it. The Wieniawski is marvellous. On the recital disc, the Bach “Air on the G string” is pretty lugubrious, a Locatelli sonata marvellous for the playing, if not for the appreciation of a suitable style for Locatelli, Paganini's Le Streghe a real tour de force, Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen as good as one would expect, Eugène Ysaÿe's sixth sonata is quite spell binding. The recital rounds off with a most attractive folk piece for solo violin by Voicu himself – the Morning After the Wedding and here one can really hear the gypsy in Voicu's ancestry. Quite exhilarating. First time I have ever heard it, and I suspect no one else could ever play it like this (except, maybe, Kopatchinskaja).

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Pleasant hour listening to Liana Isakadze and comrades playing string music by Otar Taktakishvili, Sulchan Nassidse, Nodar Gabunija and Sulchan Zinzadse. Hardly household names. An old copy CD, courtesy of Carlos. I particularly enjoyed the concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra by Sulchan Nassidse; some quite original music, and a strong link with Georgian folk music. Interesting and enjoyable. The orchestra was the Georgian Chamber Orchestra conducted from the violin by Isakadze.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Good food and a good meal. Somewhat difficult to find in restaurants, even if one pays much money. A little easier to find at home, if one cooks it without outside intervention. This evening was superb: a truly excellent aged sirloin steak (thanks to Marks & Spencer). A good green salad with a highly superior dressing (out of a bottle). A three star Reblochon cheese, with a three star Camembert, both from the market in Cirencester. All accompanied by half a bottle of Cien y Pico 2007 red wine. Difficult to eat better, especially at the home-cooking price.

Afterwards: Josef Suk with the Czech Philharmonic playing Dvorak and Suk (the composer) back in the 1970s. Should have been as good as the steak, but the Supraphon digitised transfer had Josef Suk playing on a cheap Chinese violin once he played above the stave. Don't these transfer engineers have ears?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

With great delight, I am steadily working my way through four hours on four CDs of Walter Gieseking playing Debussy (a truly incredible bargain from Regis, with the complete set costing only something like £12). The recordings were made by EMI during the period 1951-4 and sound extraordinarily good, since the piano is much more tolerant towards digitised “old” sound compared with the violin. And the performances are beyond praise; Gieseking's delicate touch and light and shade come through faithfully, but he also gives Debussy's music real backbone, unlike many of the somewhat effete performances one hears elsewhere. Difficult to imagine why anyone bothered to record this music after Gieseking over half a century ago.

A different kettle of fish comes with Miroslav Vilimec playing the fourth violin concerto of Jan Kubelik. I was not aware that Kubelik wrote any violin concertos until I received this from my friend Ronald. This is a live performance from 1994 and the music is interesting. Kubelik had a talent for thematic material (evident in many of the short pieces for violin that he wrote). Here the music reminds me of the Viennese Korngold, crossed with bits of Mahler. I enjoyed it, since the violin, although having lots of “virtuoso” passages, also sings lyrically in many places. A concerto to come back to. The other work on the CD-R, the Op 23 violin concerto by Heinrich Ernst played by Lukas David, sounds much more conventionally “virtuoso” compared with the Kubelik concerto. I much prefer Jan Kubelik.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The violin concerto by Aram Khachaturian is not the world's greatest. And the Romanian Radio studios in 1954 were not the world's greatest recording venue, nor the Romanian Radio Orchestra the best orchestra of the time. But the performance recorded in 1954 by the said forces conducted by Niyazi created one of the all-time greatest violin concerto recordings in history. Julian Sitkovetsky plays like one possessed during the public performance. In the annals of violin playing, this is above that of Heifetz, Kreisler, Milstein, Oistrakh, Kogan, Rabin and the other greats. This is truly incredible technique allied to truly incredible passion. One of a kind. Available to date only on either Russian Disc, or Arlecchino (both currently unavailable). Sitkovetsky recorded the concerto again in Moscow two years later, with the composer himself conducting. But the version with Niyazi is the one to have.

Two years after this, Julian Sitkovetsky was diagnosed with lung cancer. Two years after that, he was dead at the age of 32. Not since the early exit of Josef Hassid has violin playing been robbed of such a supreme exponent. On my shelves, his recording of the Khachaturian violin concerto with Niyazi will hold a place of honour. And I'll play it to anyone who questions as to what the violin can really achieve.
A hot afternoon in England, with temperatures going up towards 29 degrees. So a good time to sit back in a cool(ish) lounge and spend three hours with Handel, this time with his opera Berenice.

The usual ridiculous plot of sundry kings, queens, princesses and princes in exotic lands (Egypt, this time). No really memorable characters (such as strong, wicked sorceresses). And no great arias in Berenice, thought many pleasant and admirable ones. Not Handel's greatest work, but an enjoyable way to spend a hot Sunday afternoon. Alan Curtis is highly competent, as usual, as is Il Complesso Barocco. The admirable cast does not really have a weakness, and I particularly enjoyed the singing of Klara Ek, Ingela Bohin, Franco Fagioli and Vito Priante.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

“Harry Collier”, said Mephistopheles; “your time has come, and we will descend together to a very warm place where you can re-join many of your friends. I have decided that you may take with you just one copy of just one violin concerto – the violin is my instrument. The concerto will be: that of Piotr Tchaikovsky. Make your one choice, and come with me”.

“Lord Mephistopheles”, I stammer (playing for time – I have seen the film The Seventh Seal over and over again since I was 16 years old in the sixth arrondisement of Paris, but hopefully Mephistopheles has not). “I have 76 versions of that concerto. How can I choose just ONE, in so short a time?”

“ONE!” says Mephisto, raising his pitchfork. So I run off to choose just one, out of 76, the oldest version in the collection being from 1928 (Bronislaw Huberman, excrutiating) , and the most recent from 2010 (Leonidas Kavakos, excellent). How does one choose between seven versions by Vadim Repin, for example?

In the end I stand juggling Julia Fischer (2006) and Mischa Elman (1947, in the Hollywood Bowl). Have to have Elman but, there again, the Fischer account is an excellent modern classic.

Mephistofeles lets me off the hook: “Forget Tchaikovsky”, he says. “Go with Beethoven and choose one of your 80 versions – you have ten seconds left”. Well, that is a lot easier than the Tchaikovsky, and I descend happily with Mephisto clutching Erich Röhn and Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1944 performance. Lucky he didn't pick Sibelius or Brahms.