Saturday, 29 December 2012

Adrian Boult in Brahms

I would never have believed it: listening (for pleasure) to four Brahms symphonies in one day? It came about because I sampled the first symphony (conducted by Adrian Boult, in the 11-CD monster box I acquired recently). I enjoyed it so much that I went on the the second symphony ... and the third … and the fourth.

It all shows the value of serendipity when one buys these incredible bargains. Boult has never really figured in my pantheon of major conductors. I enjoyed his traversal of the Bach Brandenburgs (in this box) immensely. His Brahms is sane: organic, free-range, no added ingredients, no conductors' whims or follies. Brahms, the whole Brahms, and nothing but the Brahms. The recorded sound (1970-2) is rich and really well done; during that period, EMI had some of the best recording engineers around. The orchestral playing is good (London Philharmonic in all but the third symphony, where the LSO takes over. The sound of the LSO is noticeably less full and less rich than the LPO of that period). All in all, an excellent set of the Brahms symphonies. Boult has risen rapidly in my esteem. He was never an international figure and, in so far as I am aware, never conducted outside England. There again, many major musicians chose not to join the international circuit and remained admired figures in their native lands. Adrian Boult was born in 1889 in Chester, so by the time these recordings were made he was well into his 80s. Remarkably, he shows no signs whatsoever of the elderly conductors' disease of slowing down (e.g., Klemperer) or speeding up (e.g., Toscanini). Over the 16 movements of these four symphonies I found not one movement where I had doubts concerning Boult's chosen tempo. Remarkable.

Keep to Hand

As I once mentioned, once I have listened to a new CD, it is filed away for future listening. An exception is with recordings into which I like to dip on frequent occasions, and these are kept in a (limited space) rack next to my CD player. At the very end of 2012, the “keep close at hand” selection looks like the following:

* Beethoven: Late string quartets (Busch Quartet)
* Shostakovich: Complete string quartets (Fitzwilliam Quartet)
* Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues (Nikolayeva)
* Bach: 48 Preludes & Fugues (Edwin Fischer)
* Bruckner: Symphonies 8 and 9 (Carl Schuricht)
* Telemann: Operatic arias (Nuria Real)
* Berlioz and Ravel: Songs with orchestra (Véronique Gens)
* Claire-Marie Le Guay: Recital of Russian piano music
* Vivaldi: Operatic arias (Roberta Invernizzi)
* Rachmaninov: Piano music (Xiayin Wang)
* Liszt: Lieder (Diana Damrau)
* Bach: Solo violin sonatas and partitas (Alina Ibragimova /
__Gregory Fulkerson)
* Bach: Solo cello suites (Pablo Casals / Pierre Fournier)
* Thibaud & Cortot: Sonatas by Franck, Fauré and Debussy
* Schubert: Late piano sonatas (Leif Ove Andsnes)
* Yuja Wang: Piano recital

No particular rhyme or reason to this selection except that almost all the works are here because of the music, and not because of the playing. If I'm still around, I'll re-list the pile as at the end of 2013. Meanwhile, I'm off to Vietnam for a couple of weeks, so this blog will (probably) be somewhat silent for a while.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Sherban plays Ernst

Volume III of the music of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst provides more evidence that Ernst wrote agreeable and enjoyable music. In particular, he loved a good tune and playing lovable melodies. The new CD (Toccata Classics) also provides evidence that modern recording producers are all at sea when it comes to balancing violin and piano in these kinds of salon works. The piano's role is normally to provide background harmonies and to support the lone violin (most of the time, but in some places the piano has a prominent melodic role, with the violin accompanying). Sherban Lupu plays valiantly, but all too often his sweet melody is severely impacted by plonking chords on a piano that is given more than equal prominence to the violin. This is wrong. We wish to listen to Mr Lupu playing Ernst's music; we do not want to listen to Ian Hobson playing supporting chords. Come back Emanuel Bay; all is forgiven. It's probably not Hobson's fault that he often dominates the violin part. We need to blame the producer for detracting from our listening pleasure.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich did not have an easy life. During the 1930s and 40s in the Soviet Union he ducked and weaved during the purges in order to survive. His music was banned, then re-instated. He wrote private music, and public music. Outside the Soviet Union, his reputation did not have an easier passage. He was denounced by the Western musical avant-garde for by-passing serialism and atonality and for writing music in A minor, and C major. When he stayed in New York there was an organised demonstration outside his hotel demanding that the “Commie Musician” return home forthwith.

Between all the ducking and weaving, demonstrations and denunciations, he was – in my view – the greatest composer of the twentieth century. I spent this evening listening to his first violin concerto (composed in 1947, but not published until after Stalin's death) and to his tenth symphony. Searing music that goes straight to the heart. The violinist in the concerto was Lisa Batiashvili in a quite incredible performance; the conductor of the tenth symphony was Vasily Petrenko. Plain to see that the heirs of the old USSR have taken Shostakovich's music to their hearts – as have I. Lined up for later listening are Shostakovich's fifthteen string quartets, music I just have to get to know. I recall being somewhat outraged in the mid- 1950s listening to the British premiere of the first violin concerto (played by David Oistrakh) when the BBC announcer half-apologised for the fact that this was not really “modern” music, but was the kind of thing Soviet composers had to write. I listened to the concerto for the first time and found it superb, despite the denunciations of the BBC, the musical cognoscenti and the Cold War warriors. In my view, now, the first violin concerto (in A minor, no less) of Shostakovich is the greatest of all violin concertos.

Schneiderhan and Furtwängler

The orchestral side of concertos can often sound routine. But with Wilhelm Furtwängler at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven's violin concerto, the orchestral contribution is anything but routine; Furtwängler always seemed to be at his best in this concerto, and the violin part in the latest release from the admirable Pristine Audio is played by Wolfgang Schneiderhan (live, May 1953). This is the fourth version I have with Schneiderhan in the solo part, and very good it is too.

It is difficult to understand why this superb performance did not receive better circulation. Part of the problem may have been the critical climate in the 1950s and 60s, when live recordings were somewhat disparaged and the accepted dogma – maybe propounded by the school of Walter Legge – was that recordings were “definitive documents for all time” and that every semiquaver had to be impeccable, something that did not happen with live recordings and performances. The Mark Obert-Thorn transfers for the present release are very good but cannot disguise the highly bronchial audience, nor the fact that the violin is recorded well forward of the orchestra. No real matter; this is a truly excellent performance from two people – Schneiderhan and Furtwängler – who excelled in this concerto, with the added frisson of a live performance with its feeling of tension and continuity. Many thanks to Andrew Rose and Pristine for bringing this performance back into circulation. The cadenzas here are by Joachim, and the tempi for all three movements flowing and acceptable -- something that is not always the case with the first movement of this concerto, which is too often over-expanded and dragged out.

Also on the Pristine release are Furtwängler and the Berliners in an orchestral arrangement of Beethoven's Große Fuge; I find it highly pleasing. Apparently Furtwängler considered the Fuge to be superior with an orchestra rather than with a string quartet; arguable, but pretty convincing in this 1952 public performance in Berlin. All in all, €9 well spent.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Gregory Fulkerson plays Bach

A good friend (Lee) kindly sent me a two CD set of someone called Gregory Fulkerson playing the Bach solo sonatas and partitas. In top position I already have many other sets, including Heifetz, Milstein, Lara St. John and Alina Ibragimova (the current favourites) not to mention Oscar Shumsky, Arthur Grumiaux and several others. Abandoned and given away were many other sets, including Rachel Podger, Johanna Martzy and Julia Fischer. So I approached Mr Fulkerson without too many hopes, nor too much enthusiasm.

But my affection mounted quickly. This is fine Bach playing. Fulkerson does not indulge in fashionable “authentic” antics. He hits what I consider to be the “right” tempo for each movement. He never dawdles. He varies his dynamics. He is technically fearless. He does not sound heavy and over-reverential (a frequent mistake by those who play these works). He does not milk his violin sound for all it is worth. So I like him very much, and the four favourites above become five. The B minor Partita is, for me, the weakest of the set of six works; it can often seem to be over-long, and any violinist who can sustain my interest for the full 30 minutes gets my accolade. Fulkerson manages it well, with swift tempi and varied dynamics.

Apparently Fulkerson was much liked by “the critics”, which really put me off, since I have learned over the decades that music critics are highly fallible beasts, subject to all kinds of bias: they rarely agree with each other; they are subject to editorial whims concerning favouring advertisers; they are invited to the entertainment circus by managers and PR people, given exclusive interviews with artists, plied with free tickets; they are subject to current fashions; they usually favour the “Home Town Boy, or Girl” and the performer who is “famous” in their neck of the woods. I have frequently been led astray by over-enthusiastic critics, the first time being when I was around 15 and a friend asked me for a recommendation for a set of the Brahms symphonies. I reported the ecstatic Gramophone review of the Adrian Boult set (Pye Nixa) without realising that the reviewer, Trevor Harvey, was a Boult acolyte and worshipped the conductor. My friend bought the set and was considerably put out to discover that the recorded sound was truly awful; my reputation sank on the spot. Of the current commercial reviews, I listen particularly to the American Record Guide, that does not accept advertising and has many reviewers who are not afraid to be unfashionable, nor to say exactly what they think. The Gramophone has probably the least reliable reviewers; highly parochial and with all kinds of bias towards advertisers and favourites such as Simon Rattle, Rachel Podger, Tasmin Little or John Eliot Gardiner.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Bach's Cello Suites

Twenty to thirty years ago, I used to enjoy playing the Bach cello suites (on my viola). Speciality was the fourth suite, the prelude to which I always thought of as “the killer”; pretty well every bar has accidentals – sharps, flats, naturals – and you never know what key you are in, from bar to bar, while no two sequential notes appear to be the same. You arrive pretty exhausted at the end, but it's invigorating to play.

I sampled the suites again in the classic recording by Pierre Fournier. Beautifully and smoothly played, but Pablo Casals and I (what a pair!) liked to dig into Bach's notes with more gusto, more personality – and almost certainly less authenticity. Those pedal notes on the C string should be savoured! This is above all music for playing. I never quite understand the fascination of Bach's music; he does not have the melodic genius of Handel, Mozart or Schubert, nor the emotional frissons of Mozart, Schubert et al. But he is indubitably and rightly in everyone and anyone's list of The Three Greatest -- my list included-- (whoever the other two happen to be).

Friday, 30 November 2012

Brandenburg Boult

I was moved last month when I visited Köthen in the province of Sachsen-Anhalt. I visited the Schloss where Bach spent a number of years composing mainly instrumental music – including the six Brandenburg concertos. Standing where Bach had stood some 295 years ago was a humbling experience.

I grew up with the Brandenburgs, and made their acquaintance again in a monster box of orchestral music conducted by Adrian Boult, no less, in the early 1970s. These Brandenburgs join those by Klemperer and the Busch Chamber Orchestra on the “old fashioned Bach” shelf. But, to tell the truth, Bach responds to almost any treatment as long as the musical texture is transparent, the rhythmic integrity is preserved, nothing is too fast or too slow, and the players have a somewhat extrovert dexterity when called for. Boult's Brandenburgs impress; only in the third concerto (strings only) did I long for a smaller band of players. Elsewhere, the LPO forms a tutti band, and the LPO principals have a field day playing their instruments (during that period, the LPO had some excellent principals on the main desks). Boult, as ever, conducts impeccably; he was never a man for airs, graces and attention-seeking. I saw him twice in person: once when he was rehearsing an orchestra (in the Schubert Great C major symphony) at a hall in Birmingham, and once at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham where he was having breakfast alone at a table next to mine. On both occasions, he had the same smiling, unruffled expression on his face. No eccentricities with Sir Adrian and, to my surprise, he suits Johann Sebastian Bach perfectly.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Three Violin Recitals

Over the last week of so, various friends have sent me a number of CDs, including violinists, of course. Over the last few days I listened to Rachel Barton Pine, Konstanty Andrzej Kulka, and Ingolf Turban.

Kulka – recorded around 1980 – plays a phenomenal Devil's Trill, Ysaÿe's Ballade sonata, two pieces by Wieniawski, and Paganini's Nel cor più. All the pieces are superbly played, but I take exception to the Paganini since Kulka seems fit to add an entirely spurious and unnecessary piano part; the piano plunks away, adding nothing to the music, but spoiling the violin line. At one time this sort of thing was all the rage; Mendelssohn provided a piano accompaniment to Bach's solo violin works, Schumann to the cello suites … and to the Paganini caprices. Kreisler used to play solo Bach with a piano, and Heifetz the Paganini caprices with a piano. But it is highly undesirable, not on the dubious grounds of “authenticity”, but because Bach and Paganini were perfectly capable of writing for solo violins and cellos.

Ingolf Turban is not someone whose playing I have met often before. On a CD called “solo” he plays 13 works for solo violin, including Nel cor più, thankfully without a piano. He dispatches all 13 works efficiently and with aplomb but, to my ear, without love and without affection. A typical case is Ricci's arrangement of a Spanish Ballad, which in Turban's hands becomes an exercise in ricochet bowing, at great speed.

Barton Pine also includes the Spanish Ballad (albeit in a different arrangement). Her CD is called “Capricho Latino”. Her playing seems to have improved in the twenty years since I found her Sarasate recital disappointing. The Spanish Ballad (known also to we oldies as the theme tune from the film Jules et Jim) is played with expertise, but also with affection for its haunting melody. My main gripe with Barton Pine's disc is that, of the 14 tracks, too few are of really attractive music; she concentrates mainly on music written post-19th century, and this really was not a good time for violin vignettes (apart from those of Fritz Kreisler). So Tarrega, Ysaÿe, Quiroga come off well, but much of the rest is musically sub-standard (do we really need 10 minutes of Ferdinand the Bull, with narration?) My “go on to the next track” button was quite busy. It does, of course, make a change from the endless repetitions of Schön Rosmarin and Banjo & Fiddle; but could she not have found some better pieces to include?

Three discs providing a mixed bag, then. But Kulka's Devil's Trill stays in the mind; the piece is a violinists' old warhorse, written to show off the violin and violin technique, and tongue out to those earnest critics who want it played in an “authentic” manner, without Kreisler's marvellous cadenza, to boot.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Otto Klemperer

Yesterday evening, I really took to the conducting of Otto Klemperer. There are many other celebrated conductors: Furtwängler, Toscanini, Kleiber, Karajan, Bernstein, et al. However, listening to Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, I marvelled at the clarity of the orchestral parts, at the exemplary internal balance of the orchestra, at the prominence of the woodwinds, the antiphonal left and right first and second violins, the lack of eyebrow-raising tempo or dynamic distorions – all trademarks of Klemperer's approach to conducting. I have never marvelled so constantly at Berlioz's avant-garde orchestration.

This spurred me on to listen to Klemperer's recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, one of the few Mahler works I actually enjoy, despite the high-stress opening song. Klemperer's soloists are Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich, and the performance is an evergreen classic. Most admirable and an excellent 64 minutes of great music making despite the recording having been made over the period 1964 and 1966 due to the Walter Legge upheavals at the time.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Arabella Steinbacher plays Prokofiev

Probably no violinist makes a more beautiful sound than Arabella Steinbacher. On a new CD of Prokofiev works (the two violin concertos, plus the solo violin sonata) this can sound at times somewhat incongruous; this Prokofiev has expensive aftershave and neatly trimmed nails. One suspects that if and when played by Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Prokofiev would have mud on his boots and roots in Russian peasantry.

No matter; Steinbacher is technically highly proficient, the Russian National Orchestra under the admirable Vasily Petrenko is tunefully authentic, and Pentatone produces a well-engineered and well-balanced Super Audio sound. Steinbacher's 1716 Stradivari violin has us all bewitched for 64 minutes. An excellent new addition to the annals of these much-recorded works. I like Arabella, who is not just a pretty face.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Patricia Kopatchinskaja in Bartok

Despite some 55 years of constant effort, I have never really taken to the music of Béla Bartok. For me, there is a coldness, impersonality and aloofness at the heart of almost all his music. Yesterday I ventured once again into Bartok's music, this time with Patricia Kopatchinskaja playing the violin concerto. I don't know this concerto too well (though I have eight other recordings of the work – it's reasonably popular with violinists). Kopatchinskaja's performance seems to me absolutely ideal (she was the reason I bought this CD); Bartok's music should not always sound sweet and beautiful, and the sound of Kopatchinskaja here is worlds away from how I imagine Nicola Benedetti, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, et al would sound in this concerto. On occasions Kopatchinskaja tears into the music with real, throaty gusto. Bravo!

Also on the current 2-pack CDs is the violin concerto of György Ligeti that I have never heard before. It sounds worth a second hearing, at least; a good idea to have the violin cadenza right at the end of the work. As for Seven by Peter Eötvös that Kopatchinskaja also plays for around 20 long minutes; it is what I think of as “sound effects music” with predictable clunks and clicks and squeals and plonks. Once was enough.

Moldova (Kopatchinskaja's native land), Romania and Hungary have produced whole armies of world-class violinists over the years. Not too many world-class composers, however and that's a pity since this is very much Patricia Kopatchinskaja's native violin language that she expounds so well. Anyway, she is a formidable violinist outside the routine mould of concert violinists and I enjoy her playing immensely.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Otto Klemperer

For a total outlay of £2.27 per CD, I obtained a thunderous duo package of 20 CDs of Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1950s and 1960s. The ten Beethoven CDs give me shelf-space as I remove the old, bulky CDs; the package that contains all the symphonies, often in several versions, also contains Klemperer's performance with the strings of the orchestra of the Große Fuga, a performance I have loved for decades – I bought the LP when it first came out in 1957.

The other 10 CDs see Klemperer in Romantic repertoire – three Schubert symphonies, all the Schumann symphonies, lots of Mendelssohn, the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the symphonies by Berlioz and César Franck. A good box to dip into from time to time. Yesterday I listened to Klemperer and the Philharmonia in 1966 with César Franck's Symphony in D minor. I enjoyed it immensely. The sound was good. The playing of the Philharmonia was still good. Klemperer's skills in architecture, balance and maintenance of pulse were well to the fore. This evening I may well dip into Klemperer and the band in 1963 in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. For music lovers, there never were such times.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Handel's Lotario

The neglect of Handel's opera Lotario is quite baffling. First performed in December 1729, it flopped and was not performed again until the 1950s … when it again flopped. The resuscitation I listened to today was from 2004, with Alan Curtis and his Complesso Barocco featuring a first-class list of today's singers, including Sara Mingardo, Simone Kermes, Sonia Prina and Vito Priante. I even liked the tenor (Steve Davislim) and appreciated the absence of male altos (Curtis uses female contraltos, in deference to my prejudices).

The music is first-class. Curtis apologises that, to accommodate the work on two CDs, some recitatives and some da capos had to be cut in order to bring the work in at 2 ½ hours rather than three. He need not have apologised to me: I have no objection to having the essence of Lotario, rather than every single note, and I am not in the slightest concerned with following the nuances of “the plot” (which is pretty ridiculous, as usual, and all in Italian, anyway). Nice just to sit back and bask in fine music and fine singing for two and a half hours.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Isakadze, and Faust

Off hand, I can only think of two Georgian violinists -- though there must be scores of excellent ones: Lisa Batiashvili, and Liana Isakadze. I've always had a very high opinion of Batiashvili, and have been a faithful fan of Liana Isakadze, having met her playing via her recording of Otar Taktakishvili's second violin concerto (a work I greatly like, but which remains obstinately completely unknown to practically everyone else). On a CD kindly supplied by Ronald, she plays the Beethoven violin concerto (recorded round about 1980), plus two concertos by Vivaldi (with the Georgian Chamber Orchestra) and the usual Polonaise by Ferdinand Laub. There is a freshness about Isakadze's playing that I find most attractive. In the Vivaldi concertos, there is none of that nonsense about no vibrato, and the long-held notes in the slow movements in particular sound so much better; long held notes on a violin with no vibrato can grate on the nerves, which is presumably why so many "authentic" fanatics indulge in ugly bulges. She plays the Beethoven reasonably "straight" and I like the performance. The Beethoven violin concerto is usually OK unless tempi are extreme (either much too slow, or much too fast) and unless some ridiculous cadenzas are imported for the sake of novelty. Isakadze sticks to the Kreisler cadenzas, and her tempi are perfectly acceptable. Well over an hour of attractive and spirited violin playing.

Isabelle Faust stands in a long line of celebrated Austro-German violinists that includes Carl Flesch, Georg Kulenkampff, Erich Röhn, Adolf Busch, Gerhard Taschner, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Thomas Zehetmair, Arabella Steinbacher, Julia Fischer .. and many others. On 19th October 2012 she gave a recital of unaccompanied Bach at a place identified by the BBC as simply “St. Luke's Church”, wherever that may be. She played the first and third sonatas, and the third partita. I enjoyed all three very much indeed. Her playing is in the German classical tradition. She is not an artist who seeks to show off her technique or lovely sound. In addition, she is technically on top of everything. This is Bach one sits back and enjoys.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Furtwängler's Pastoral

Re-united with an old friend this Friday: Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1952 in Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the recording with which I grew up on LP in the 1950s, despite all the forewarning and head shaking of the critics of that period. The recording has been re-transferred and cleaned up by the admirable Pristine Audio, and the sound now is perfectly listenable-to without having to make many allowances.

What comes over in this performance is love: the Vienna Philharmonic obviously loved the work, as did the conductor. The opening allegro ma non troppo is quite definitely non troppo in this leisurely performance and, as critics remarked at the time, it is not much different in tempo from the following andante molto mosso. Who cares? It's a lovely performance in which life is breathed into Beethoven's music; one feels he would have been much taken with this rendition of his Pastoral. A happy day in the Viennese countryside with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The task of the conductor and orchestra, of course, is to breathe life into notes on paper, and to attempt to re-create what was in the composer's head when he wrote it. (It goes without saying that what the composer heard in his head at the time might well not have been the following performance that he awaited with resignation or trepidation: “What do I care about your wretched fiddles when the spirit comes over me?” Beethoven is alleged to have remarked).

Anyway, after 60+ years, this classic recording from another age and another world lives on. In Furtwängler's hands, it lasts for 45 glorious minutes; conductors such as Chailly or Norrington probably dispatch it in half the time and then speed on to the next work on the list.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Tatiana Nikolayeva

Picasso had his cubist periods and his blue periods. I seem to have a Russian period at the moment. Current source of delight is Tatiana Nikolayeva playing the 24 Shostakovich preludes & fugues Op 87, a Russian recording from 1987 available very cheaply from Regis Records. I bought the Nikolayeva set partly on the recommendation of a friend (Martin White) and partly because I so enjoyed the recent set by Alexander Melnikov and wanted a second option.

The quality and variety of music in the 48 sections of the 24 preludes and fugues is amazing. This is music to listen to regularly; like Bach's music, it satisfies both cerebrally and emotionally. The sound world oscillates between the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. I keep listening to five or so of the pieces at a time. As to Nikolayeva versus Melnikov: I have no idea who is “best”. I just know I like both of them very much.

How refreshing to listen to the two Russian piano-babes, Maria Yudina and Tatiana Nikolayeva. Pretty obvious neither was selected for their sex appeal or luscious curves. The two are famous and still listened to because they were marvellous pianists and musicians. How many of today's violin or piano babes (or their male equivalents) will still be famous and listened to in fifty years time? The insatiable desire of the “music industry” to commercialise, commoditise and earn large amounts of money short-term is highly detrimental to musicians. Yudina, Nikolayeva, Casals, Elman, Heifetz, Beecham and their like would never get further than the doorman at modern international recording companies.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Richter, Bashmet, Kagan, Shostakovich

Regis Records is a small British company that specialises in remastering and reissuing older recordings at extremely reasonable prices. From my experience, the remastering is also done with skill and taste. Latest acquisition is a splendid CD of Shostakovich's late violin & piano sonata, with his very late viola & piano sonata. Pianist in both cases is the incomparable Sviatoslav Richter. Violinist is Oleg Kagan (1985 public performance in Moscow) and, in the viola sonata,Yuri Bashmet (same place, 1982). These are truly classic performances of two great works. Neither Kagan nor Basmet have featured among my favourite performers but here, in the 1980s in front of a Russian audience and with Richter the exemplary partner, they both triumph.

For Melodiya recordings at public concerts in the 1980s, the recordings are excellent (I noticed only one disturbing cough). The remastering (by Paul Arden-Taylor) is very good indeed. The price – I paid £5.50 for my copy – is remarkable. “You get what you pay for” is not always true. Two superb performances of two superb works for the price of four litres of diesel fuel is the bargain of the century. The disc goes into my “never be without” rack.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Daniil Trifonov

Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto is an old warhorse. It's also a very good piano concerto when played well, with an opening that is dramatic, and as memorable as the opening of Beethoven's G major piano concerto. I listened to it yesterday evening played by Daniil Trifonov (born 1991) accompanied by Valery Gergiev, with the Mariinsky Orchestra recorded in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in St. Petersburg. In one word: stupendous. Trifonov has power when needed, and poetic musing when needed. He does not try to “wow” us with his playing. He brings out all aspects of Tchaikovsky's work, the lyrical as well as the grandiose. This is some 21 year old!

The Russians seem to be well over-quota when it comes to producing world-class pianists and violinists. Trifonov makes me question, once again, whether it is necessarily true that artists give better performances when they mature, as maintained by conventional wisdom. Young artists can come to a work with fresh eyes; they also have reputations to build and establish. Older artists can fray a bit after playing the same work 200 times in public, and often no longer have a need to establish a reputation, but just to appear on stage and to play a work without making a mess of it.

This remarkable performance (of a remarkable work) also reinforces my feeling that nationalism does have a role in musical performance. In the current traversal of Tchaikovsky, the combination of a Russian soloist, a Russian conductor, a Russian orchestra playing Russian music in a Russian concert hall seems to me to give the music an extra 10% of authenticity. Everyone involved here plays with fervour and with feeling. Three stars.

For the rest of the CD, Trifonov gives us solo piano pieces – mainly of very welcome Liszt arrangements of Schubert songs. But I am so entranced with the Tchaikovsky that I haven't yet managed to listen beyond it.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Ignatz Waghalter (who?)

An hour's violin music by Ignatz Waghalter (1881-1949) does not suggest that here we have a newly discovered great master. The word that constantly comes to mind listening to the (agreeable) pieces on this Naxos CD is: generic. The music is generic German in the line of Brahms, Schumann and Bruch. The playing of the soloist, Irmina Trynkos, is generic modern efficient violin playing. The Royal Philharmonic orchestra sounds like a generic modern London orchestra. The finales of the violin concerto and the sonata for violin & piano underline how difficult it is to come up with really meaningful finales. On the whole, I prefer the violin & piano sonata to the orchestral concerto, which does sound a bit inflated and post-Joachim.

An odd liner note from one Michael Haas of the “International Committee of Suppressed Music at the Jewish Music Institute, London University”. He spends much of his text fulminating against the fact that Wagner didn't care much for Jews – though what that has to do with Ignatz Waghalter, or the price of fish, it is difficult to fathom. We are even informed that Anton Webern was not Jewish – in case anyone was interested. Apparently Mr Haas is a bit of an obsessive.

All praise to Naxos for providing – yet again – a cheap opportunity to explore unknown repertoire from the past. Maybe Waghalter would have benefited from a more subtle violinist such as Janine Jansen or Alina Ibragimova (not to mention Jascha Heifetz). Anyway, it all makes a change from endless Bruch, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

Patricia Petibon

I seem to have a crush on nightingales; the latest soprano to hit my letterbox is Patricia Petibon whose new CD – bizarrely called Nouveau Monde – joins those by Sandrine Piau, Diana Damrau and Simone Kermes. Petibon has a lovely voice, she is technically agile and has an infectious personality, though perhaps she does overdo some of the whoops and shouts in the South American folk music on the disc. However, for all I know, that's how they do things in Peru.

The disc almost qualifies as “crossover” music with its mixture of baroque era folk and classical. The South American pieces are catchy, with traditional songs side-by-side with José de Nebra and Henry Le Bailly. As usual, I find the French baroque pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Marc-Antoine Charpentier of lesser interest; I think French music only found its stride starting with Berlioz well into the 19th century. Petibon sings a very moving “Dido's Lament” from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas – surely one of the very greatest laments ever written. She also does a moving “Greensleeves” and a well-sung Fairest Isle (Purcell).

The conductor, Andrea Marcon, does go a bit overboard with drums, castanets, guitars and South American harp, possibly on the ground that since so much of the music is sung in Spanish, all sorts of percussion can be wheeled up and let loose. However, listening to Nouveau Monde and Patricia Petibon is an excellent way to spend an interesting and enjoyable hour or so.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Maria Callas in Norma

7th December 1955. Antonino Votto is in the pit at La Scala. On the bill: Bellini's opera Norma. With Mario Del Monaco (Pollione), Giulietta Simionato (Adalgisa). Fortunately someone, somewhere was making some kind of recording of the evening. The Italian audience was noisy and ecstatic.

There are few real golden classics of recorded music. The Busch Quartet in Beethoven and Schubert; Edwin Fischer in Bach's 48; Casals in the Bach suites for solo cello … and a good handful of others including Maria Callas in Tosca and … Maria Callas as Norma.

I have had the December 1955 Norma for some years (Hunt CD). I am eternally grateful to Andrew Rose (Pristine Audio) for having taken the fragile and imperfect recording in hand and having produced something to which one can listen without wincing too often. Bellini's music is sublime. Del Monaco has been bettered, as has Simionato. But Norma is about Norma, and on 7th December 1955 Norma was Maria Callas. Here, she is simply without any equal whatsoever. This is one of those recording where you forget the sound quality, you do not judge the other singers; you simply concentrate on Norma. And you throw out any other versions you may have (including two other Callas versions).

So many real golden classics of the recorded era date from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This was the age before the itinerant musical stars took to the air to sing or play on one continent on Monday and another on Tuesday. Germans performed Wagner and Bruckner in a way that does not compare with today. Italians sang Puccini and Verdi … and Bellini, in performances such as you no longer find when the principal tenor flies in from New York and Norma flies in from Moscow. But listen to Callas as heard on 7th December 1955 in Milan and you understand fully and completely why she was so revered and why, to this day, she still has no equal whatsoever.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Rachmaninov and Pletnev

Good food day today, with two excellent plaice for lunch and, for dinner, a plate of smoked salmon followed by (slightly too many) langoustines, perfectly cooked by me. To complete the gastronomy, I felt like a rich, orchestral diet and gravitated towards one of my favourite orchestral works: Rachmaninov's second symphony. I have many versions of this work but always end up with: Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestral. It sounds: so Russian, in this recording and I have always loved it, and the music. This is music in which one can wallow.

Maria Yudina

My recent purchases of CDs have been heavily slanted towards pianists, and sopranos. Violinists have taken the back seat, for the moment. I already have a very extensive collection of violin recordings, and, alas, the immensely talented new generation is steered almost exclusively towards the same old 9-10 concertos and 9-10 violin and piano sonatas. Even the very highly esteemed – by me --Alina Ibragimova is about to appear with … the Mendelssohn violin concerto of which I already have 74 recordings, the earliest being Fritz Kreisler in 1926. To make things worse, Ibragimova couples the concerto with Mendelssohn's juvenile concerto that Yehudi Menuhin exhumed. Alina won't get my money this time round.

So I've spent my time with sopranos, and currently with the Russian pianist Maria Yudina playing Bach, Liszt, Beethoven and Brahms (Melodiya recordings from the 1950s). 3 ½ hours of Yudina is intensely pleasurable. What comes over (apart from complete technical mastery) is the passionate convinction with which she plays. No feminine delicacy with Yudina; at times she sounds a bit like a Russian T34 tank. She was an eccentric artist (and person) but played as she thought the music should be played; not to make an impression, not just as she was taught. Her sincerity and convinction are completely credible.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Simone Kermes: Drama

I find to my surprise – and delight – that I now have no less that six recital CDs featuring Simone Kermes. The latest, Dramma, is unalloyed delight. Kermes is in her speciality repertoire – opera from the first half of the eighteenth century. She has a lovely voice, she is technically secure in even the most virtuoso arias (such as Giuseppe de Majo's Per trionfar pugnando with which the CD opens). She can also sing softly and beautifully (Porpora's Alto Giove). The band, La Magnifica Comunità, fully lives up to its name. The recording and balance are exactly right. All twelve tracks feature music that is either excellent, or superb. Even the liner notes, by Kermes herself, are highly interesting. All in all, one of those (somewhat) rare discs that is a 100% winner. I think Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga is taken too slowly, as usual. But I had to cavil at something.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Guillaume Lekeu

Belgium is not a country to which I warm. I prefer to fly over it. Or to drive through it rapidly (rapidly, in so far as possible, given that all its major routes are choaked with lorry traffic, taking a main artery from east to west). However, one of my favourite musical byways is the music of Belgians Henri Vieuxtemps, Eugène Ysaÿe and …. Guillaume Lekeu. My CD of the moment features Lekeu's piano trio (1890-1) and the unfinished piano quartet (1892) played by the Canadian Trio Hochelaga (with Teng Li, the viola in the piano quartet). On a wet English afternoon in August, Lekeu's music captures the mood of the moment. His melancholy suggests he knew he would die the day after his 24th birthday. I have long been a lover of Guillaume Lekeu's music – the few compositions he left us.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Xiayin Wang in Rachmaninov

In the process of digesting Yuja Wang in Rachmaninov, and others, I divert along the way to a new CD featuring Xiayin Wang in Rachmaninov. All these talented Wangs! I find Xiayin entirely enjoyable and convincing. Technically, she is completely on top of the difficult pieces on this disc. Her musicality and sensitivity shine through in such contrasting pieces as the 6th and 7th of the Op 16 Moments musicaux – the first being quite breathtaking in its murmurings, the second devastating in its power and command. Throughout the CD, I particularly admire Ms Wang's ability to twist and turn with every nuance of Rachmaninov's music; here is a pianist who is living the pieces she plays.

My kind of pianist. I like pianists called “Wang” and must investigate Xiayin further. And Rachmaninov's music is growing on me apace. Like all the turn of the century composers, he had a bad press with many of the critics, the avant-garde and the so-called opinion makers. But a hundred years of so on, Sergei Vasilievich's music has survived and enjoys constant and widespread popularity with both performers and listeners. Including me.

Joseph Szigeti

I have long had a soft spot for the playing of Joseph Szigeti (1982-1973). A pupil of Jenö Hubay, he came from those rich lands in Central Europe that also gave us Joseph Joachim, Leopold Auer, Jenö Hubay, Carl Flesch … and many, many other violinists. One doesn't go to Szigeti for lush sounds, vibrant vibrato or swooning melodies; his playing is characterised by an uncompromising honesty and refusal to play to the gallery. Even after nearly 80 years, his recording of Prokofiev's first violin concerto still gives rise to warm admiration. A recent 10-CD box from Membran cost me the princely sum of £9.85 and is a veritable treasure trove of around 10 hours of Szigeti's playing. His peak period was probably 1915-40 after which his technique declined (arthritis). The earliest recordings I have of him date from 1908 (playing Hubay, and Bach). Like so many of that generation, he missed out on the better years of recording technology but, with Szigeti's playing, the absence of a plummy sound does not matter too much; the essence of Szigeti comes over loudly and clearly.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Gillian Welch

This evening, in a complete change from Diana Damrau, Leonidas Kavakos or Sandrine Piau, I plugged into ... Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, two hill-billy singers from East Tennessee / Kentucky. Fortunately I had a copy of the song texts; I have as many problems with their local accents as the inhabitants did with mine, when I was there. Good folk music (when it is found) is a great treat, and is one reason I love the folk / gypysy music from Central Europe. Ms Welch here sings straight from the heart, and the two CDs I have are mercifully free from commercial pop. Many of the songs are truly memorable and paint vivid pictures of the everyday life of the under-privileged in that region of the world. CDs I get off the shelf at regular intervals.

Leonidas Kavakos

For a couple of decades now I've been a great admirer of the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. An incredible virtuoso (hear his Paganini) but also a supreme musician. He has never had much of an official recording career – probably fortunately, since this has enabled him to steer clear of monthly doses of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bruch, etc. A fair percentage of my Kavakos recordings come from off-air performances, the latest being last week's recital with Nikolai Lugansky at the Edinburgh Festival at which they played the Janacek and Respighi sonatas, plus Brahms' first and Stravinsky's Duo Concertante – a typical interesting Kavakos programme. Be it Paganini's 24 capricci, Ysaÿe's six solo sonatas, Brahms' violin concerto or a recital of Kreisler salon pieces: Kavakos is up there with the best. His current recital with Lugansky is mellow and highly musical, as one would expect from such a combination. Anything with Kavakos almost always comes with three stars.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Gardiner, and Kulenkampff

Back to Bach's St John Passion. After my big disappointment with Budget Bach Jos van Veldhoven, I went out and bought John Eliot Gardiner (2003 recording, Solo Dei Gloria). Much more my cup of tea. Since the 1980s, Gardiner appears to have mellowed, and a degree of mellowness never hurts Bach. Good soloists (a little recessed in the recording) and an excellent choir, unlike van Veldhoven and his puny line-up. Not a counter tenor nor a male alto in sight, thank goodness. The Jewish crowd sounds suitably vicious in Gardiner's -- and Bach's -- hands. I must dig out the 1987 version with Sigiswald Kuijken that I have lurking on a shelf somewhere.

Violin listening has featured Georg Kulenkampff. My kind of violinist. In Central Europe during that era, there was none of the pressure to play faster and louder than anyone else, and fellow violinists were colleagues rather than overt competitors. Things changed after 1945, but I really enjoyed and appreciated listening to Kulenkampff just playing the music. The Beethoven and Spohr No.8 violin concertos are particularly pleasing; there is a calm and naturalness about the playing that is good to listen to. Strange that, in the Beethoven violin concerto in particular, my desert island choices out of the hundreds of versions recorded would be – in random order – Kulenkampff, Röhn and Busch.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Back to Diana Damrau, and Franz Liszt

An unsettled day, musically as well. Michael Rabin, Martha Argerich, Günter Wand did not really suit my mood. This evening, I discovered the magic formula for today: Diana Damrau singing 76 minutes of Liszt lieder.

I did well to keep this CD in my “near at hand” file. Is it Liszt that so appeals to me? A bit unlikely, given my track record with Franz Liszt. Or Diana Damrau? I suspect it is the combination of this singer, in this music (with Helmut Deutsch as the perfectly balanced piano partner). In any case; the CD left me with a warm feeling and goes back on the “keep near at hand” file.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Michael Rabin

After the watered down Bach of van Velthoven, it was time for some red meat. And no meat redder than Michael Rabin playing Paganini and Glazunov concertos. What a superb violinist Rabin was! One to stand beside Kreisler and Heifetz as one of the very great violinistic voices of the last century. Ruthelessly exploited during his youth, and callously abandoned once he started to stumble, we are lucky to have many recordings of him in repertoire in which he excelled … whilst regretting all that might have been and should have been.

What a fine violin concerto Alexander Glazunov wrote; a pity he didn't write more. I listened to the recordings in Testament transfers, kindly donated to me by Lee. They are an improvement on the original EMI-Capitol CD transfers.

Bach's St. John Passion

Famously, as I have often mentioned before, Bach's music will survive almost anything. Recently, perhaps due to some raving critic, I bought a recording of Bach's St John Passion conducted in 2004 by Jos van Veldhoven. It is well recorded, and mainly well sung; I liked the Evangelist (Gerd Türk), the bass (Bas Ramselaar) and the soprano (Caroline Stam). I did not care much, as usual, for the counter-tenor (Peter de Groot). I am not a counter-tenor kind of person.

A glance at almost any Bach score will tell you that his is rich music. Bach liked many notes, and many layers of music and counterpoint. A Bach score is visibly very different and more complex compared with those by his contemporaries such as Handel or Vivaldi. It is therefore logical to imagine that, in his head as he wrote his major concertante works, Bach heard a rich sound. The St Matthew and St John Passions, as well as the Mass in B minor, need gravitas and an impressive depth of sound. A grave disadvantage of the current fad for “Budget Bach” is that in works such as the Passions, a handful of players just cannot sound rich and impressive. The Veldhoven performance seems to boast less than 20 participants in all, including “chorus”, instrumentalists, soloists and conductor. It all sounds too light-weight and super-economy. Poor old Bach; after suffering for decades with giant choirs and inflated orchestras, he now has to suffer from an augmented string quartet and an omnipresent plucking theorbo that at times threatens to dominate the instrumental line. Bach's Jews in their dialogue with Pontius Pilate in the St John Passion are audibly a nastier lot than the Jews in the St Matthew; here, alas, the jaunty light-weight chorus makes the Jews sound a jolly group of locals. The “orchestra” -- what there is of it --- plays discreetly and gives the impression of being a coven of musicologists trying to re-create 1726, or whenever.

Let us hope that the current fad for Budget Bach will run its course and we will eventually hear performances that are worthy of the character of the music. The vibrato-less singers who were all the rage in the 1980s and 90s seem to have died a welcome death, so there is hope for change over the decades to come. Most critics – with the honourable exception of some who write in the American Record Guide – go along with the fashion of the day. But critics die off and are re-cycled.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Schuricht, Boult, Crab

A good evening. Sunny, but mercifully cooler. Superb crevettes (from Waitrose). Truly great crab (from New Wave Fish Shop, Cirencester). The crab was still warm from cooking when I bought it. I can have more, with 24 hours notice! My telephone will be busy, since I am a major admirer of fresh crab – difficult to buy in England, for some bizarre reason or other. And add to that unpasteurised Livarot and Pont l'Evêque cheeses from Normandy (Cirencester market) … All washed down with a good rosé wine. Finished with stewed apricots.

On to Gustav Holst's The Planets suite. Unusual choice, but I enjoyed it. Conducted by Adrian Boult when he was 89, if my mathematics are correct. Boult belonged to that immense, shadowy legion of musical performers who were not “media figures”. Few now know about Boult, Knappertsbusch, Horenstein, Sanderling, Wand, Monteux, Schuricht, et al. Or Kulenkampff, Röhn, Sammons, Thibaud, et al. Heard of Horowitz and Martha Argerich; but who were Cor de Groot, Samson François, Eduard Erdmann? It pays to have a recording contract with one of the (few) major recording companies of the past decades. Or a talented and expensive PR manager. The older I become, the more I question the conventionally perceived concept of “fame”. The evening ended serenely with Carl Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's 8th symphony (1963 recording). Another composer without a loyal publicity lobby.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Crab Soup

Very short posting this evening. The crab soup at The Sign of the Angel in Lacock is really something. For a start: full of crab! A price supplement on the main menu, but well worth it.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Juliusz Zarębski

Always good to find a new work. I am fascinated by the piano quintet of Juliusz Zarębski, a Ukrainian Pole who died in 1885 at the age of only 31. Yet another great loss to music. The piano quintet is a remarkable work; the solo instruments are all often heard in solo passages, as well as in the usual concerted sections. I had never heard of the composer – nor of this work – before this week.

It appears on a 3-CD set of Martha Argerich and friends at the 2011 Lugano Festival in Switzerland. Martha Argerich has never been one of my favourite pianists, too eager, in my view, to establish her reputation as a tigress of the keyboard. In the Zarębski work, I'd loved to have heard Alfred Cortot or Edwin Fischer (amongst others). But Argerich and her team (which includes Gautier Capuçon on the cello) make an excellent case for the quintet.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud

There must have been many great piano trio ensembles throughout recent history. But, in the much of the piano trio repertoire, none better – in my view – than Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals. A long friendship broken apart, alas, by the Second World War and the occupation of France by the Germans. The Swiss Cortot, the French Thibaud and the Catalan Casals became irreconcilable thereafter. Our great loss. Happily, for us, recordings remain pror to the 1939 cataclysm.

This evening I revelled in recordings by just two members of the trio: Cortot and Thibaud playing the Franck sonata in 1929, the first Fauré sonata (1927) and the Debussy sonata (1929). I was struck by: a) the music (they don't write violin and piano music like this any more) b) the pianism of Cortot and the violin playing of Thibaud c) the recording and recorded balance of the original recordings d) the transfers from 78s (Pristine Audio). Quite frankly, surveying over 80 years of recordings of these pieces, I cannot off-hand recall better versions of any three of these admirable sonatas. High praise for Cortot and Thibaud; an indictment of the years post-1940 where so much that was expert-class chamber music playing between friends became commercialised. And high praise for the recording industry of that time, not yet obsessed with pretty girls or macho males. When Cortot and Thibaud played together here, there is no question as to who is “the star”; this is music-making between world-class musicians and close friends.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Shostakovich and Britten for Viola

Benjamin Britten's Lachrymae, and Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, are both “difficult” works for the listener. A new recording from Champs Hill sees both works played by Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) and Katya Apekisheva. The CD also contains Schumann's Märchenbilder. This is my third recording of the Shostakovich “death bed” sonata, and fourth of Britten's piece. They don't get any easier, though – like much of his later work – I find the Shostakovich sonata riveting.

What is immediately laudatory about this new recording is the recorded balance, something that all too often is biased towards one or the other of the instruments. Here, one can set the desired volume level and this will be fine for both piano and viola. Congratulations to the two highly musical instrumentalists, and to the balance engineer. And also congratulations to Champs Hill on providing detailed and interesting liner notes that concentrate on the music.

Squid, and Normandy Cheeses

I do not know from whence came my empathy with the squid. Certainly not from my childhood, where my mother tried to make us eat everything on earth, from the sea, and from the sky .. except squid. Today's squid was provided by William's Market in Nailsworth, one of the world's great culinary establishments. The squid were not too small, and not too big; in fact, they were the ideal size. I cooked them with Cayenne pepper, black pepper, garlic, olive oil and salt. And they were exceptionally delicious. Well done William, and me.

Followed by superb non-pasteurised Livarot and Pont L'Evèque cheeses (Mark, Cirencester Market) and fresh peaches (The Market Garden, Cirencester). Wine from Vinotopia (Long Newnton); an excellent, powerful red from the Languedoc. I probably now need an afternoon siesta.

Back to Real Bach

It is no surprise that the plucking harpsichord suffered more or less instant death once the hammered pianoforte appeared. The emaciated sound of the harpsichord has never appealed to me, either, and I always think of Thomas Beecham's quip about “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”. Good fifth Brandenburg concerto recordings exist with Cortot or Serkin taking the keyboard part, and I was greatly pleased listening to Bach concerto recordings (three CDs) by the London Conchord Ensemble, and London Concertante which include four of the six Brandenburgs (omitting the first and the sixth). All the well-known violin concertos are played, with the D minor double violin concerto appearing from both groups. Not a harpsichord within earshot! And real violins and real flutes! It is a treat to have Bach taken out of the museum and to find his music is good for all eras, all ages, and all instruments. Both groups here are small, agile, technically proficient and appear to enjoy the music. One can appreciate the court at Cöthen enjoying listening to this music (played on instruments of its time) just as, hundreds of years later, we can enjoy the same music played on instruments of our time.

I bet the modern critics, and the BBC, had apoplexy if and when they heard these recordings. Musical dogma is strongly entrenched (though the dogma changes with the times). I love these three CDs, however.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Skate Wing - Aile de Raie

This evening, for the first time in my life, I bought, cooked and eat … a skate wing (aile de raie). Cooked in a court bouillon, then served with a sauce of salt, pepper, butter, wine vinegar and capers … it was quite superb. Maybe, for the rest of my life, I will eat l'aile de raie at least once a week (fish suppliers permitting … this one came from the Friday market in Cirencester).

Monday, 9 July 2012

Russians and Gergiev

Like painting, like ballet, music is a truly international art form. Put a page of music in front of a Chinese pianist, an American cellist or a European violinist, and music comes forth. So, truly international: but up to a point. Listening this evening to one of “my” repertoire works, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, I had to admit that when played by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra it sounded, well, more Russian than usual. The bass parts growled in a true Russian fashion. I loved it, even though I have umpteen Pathétiques played by all sorts of eminent orchestras and conductors.

So music is international. But when Russians play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, when the French play Debussy or Ravel, when the British play Elgar, when the Czechs play Dvorak or Janacek, when the Italians play Verdi or Puccini … the music can often sound with a more authentic note. Anyway; when it comes to Tchaikovsky's or Rachmaninov's orchestral music, give me emotional Russians any day.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Bach's Mass in B Minor. Herreweghe

Johann Sebastian Bach's music will take almost anything you can throw at it. Perform it with a string quartet, a full symphony orchestra, or a brass band; and the music still triumphs. The first recording of the Mass in B minor I owned was conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the full Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, with soloists including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Then came others, including Budget Bach with Joshua Rifkin with the three instrumentalists also singing all the vocal parts as they played, or whatever. Reigning favourite has been Otto Klemperer with a small Philharmonia and chorus. New strong contender now is my second recording directed by Philippe Herreweghe.

To really succeed Bach needs: i) clarity of texture ii) sensible dynamics iii) expert singers and instrumentalists iv) sensible tempi. He does not require fiery, dynamic conductors such as Toscanini, Bernstein, Kleiber, Furtwängler, et al. He does not require baroque hocus-pocus with timpani batons made from Saxon yew trees, or woodwind made from north Italian forests. Bach himself was not too particular about exactly how his music was performed, thus the many, many pieces re-arranged for organ, keyboard, violin, or whatever. “If that violinist is drunk again, use the flute player instead” Bach may have instructed his band. Thus my lack of sympathy with the “authentic Bach” brigade and their chinless, acidic violins and reedy soloists.

Performance directors such as Philippe Herreweghe are ideal if they know their stuff. I listened to this new recording with great pleasure. No nonsense about having the great choruses sung by three people. I have rarely appreciated just how harmonically tortuous Bach's music could become. On the whole, this recording is an excellent rendition of what is one of the supreme summits of Western music, if not the summit. The soloists are all pretty good apart from the tenor, Thomas Hobbs, who sounds a bit weedy. The recording was made in a church, which gives a marvellous acoustic in the many choral passages, but texture and solo duets tend to blur a bit. The Agnus Dei is particularly successful. This recording now goes beside that by Klemperer as my one to keep.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Georg Kulenkampff in Tchaikovsky

Even after all my CD purges, I still appear to have 80 (!) versions of Tchaikovsky's omnipresent violin concerto (not always bought for the concerto, per se; sometimes it's just the other concerto on a CD I wanted at the time).

Actually, almost all the versions post 1960 sound pretty much alike. The piece is taught in every violin conservatoire and there is now a semi-consensus as to how it is to be played. Pre 1950, however, versions vary notably from each other and I enjoyed hearing Georg Kulenkampff playing the work (1939, Berlin). One notices immediately how the violin playing is more relaxed than it is today. The trills are cleaner and crisper. Being before the days of extensive tape editing and splicing, there are more minor fluffs; so what? I sat back and enjoyed the music and the playing, not something I do often nowadays with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto where every violinist plays in the current fashion whilst, conversely, striving to sound different from competitors.

The tranfer by Michael Dutton on the CD I listened to was perfectly adequate, though the different volume levels between some original 78 rpm sides should have been sorted out, as should have the rather clumsy transition between the end of the slow movement and the finale. Good to be reminded of Kulenkampff in fine form, however.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Carl Nielsen

Composers whose music is found all over the world tend to come from a handful of countries. Thus Germany and Austria, Central Europe, Russia, France and Italy have produced composers whose voice can be heard frequently and everywhere. Other countries can dig up one or two composers: the Spaniards have Manuel de Falla. The Finns have Sibelius. The English have Purcell and Elgar. The Norwegians have Grieg. Most other countries don't really have any international representatives – The Netherlands, America, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, etc.

The Danes would claim Carl Nielsen as a popular international composer. I have just spent many evenings listening to Nielsen – mainly his violin concerto, which I have played by Nikolaj Znaider, or Arve Tellefsen. I have persevered but, to my mind, Nielsen is an historical figure rather than a composer with a real message to impart. Think Max Reger, or the worthy compositions of Weingartner, Furtwängler or Bruno Walter. It really seems to be very difficult to write truly memorable themes, tunes or melodies and without these music can appear to meander in a scholarly and erudite sort of way.

Schuricht in Bruckner

I reflected yesterday evening that, out of all the concerts I had attended in excess of half a century, there were three that really stood out in my mind:

1. My first concert at the age of around 14. Bach's Mass in B minor at a nearby church (probably given with piano). The music I found amazing. I was also a little worried that my bicycle left outside the church might not be there when the concert ended.

2. A concert in Paris around 1956 at the Théâtre du Châtelet with Carl Schuricht conducting the Colonne Orchestra. It was Easter, so the programme contained Wagner's Good Friday music from Parsifal, as well as the adagio (only) from Bruckner's seventh symphony. My love of both Wagner and Bruckner dates from that time.

3. The third concert stuck firmly in my mind was in 1961 (I think) at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to Jascha Heifetz (with the Philharmonia conducted by John Pritchard) in the fifth Mozart violin concerto K.219, and Sibelius's violin concerto (yes, even in those days repertoire was stereotyped).

I was reminded of this yesterday evening listening to Carl Schuricht conducting Bruckner's eighth symphony. Solid, no-nonsense conducting, with the paragraphs and movements moulded into a logical and organic whole. Plus the Vienna Philharmonic, almost an essential in a real Bruckner performance; the music seems written for that orchestra's golden sound. Also in the double pack is Schuricht and the same forces in Bruckner's ninth; the re-jigged sound from 1961-3 is truly excellent (EMI). The ninth awaits a future listening.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Arabella Steinbacher recital

A new CD for my collection featuring the admirable Arabella Steinbacher with Peter von Wienhardt illustrates my point about the difficulty of holding a listener's attention over an hour of encore pieces. There are 19 tracks on this CD, but it is difficult to listen to more than around 7-8 at one sitting, since Ms Steinbacher does not have much variety of tone, sound, bowing or approach. She plays beautifully, of course, but she simply does not have enough in her palette of violin colours to vary each of the pieces on the disc. To compound the problem, all the pieces are “South American” -- attractive in themselves, but 19 with one after another .... And Ms Steinbacher does love to sentimentalise the music wherever possible, often adopting a leisurely tempo.

The recording (2005) does not help by balancing the pianist up with the violinist. We really do not pay good money to listen to an accompanist, however good he or she may be. Too often here we see Ms Steinbacher in the background, with the piano thumping away in the foreground. In duo sonatas, of course, violin and piano should be equal (and in many pre-1800 duo sonatas, the piano often had a primary role). But these 19 pieces are not duo sonatas, and the piano should be balanced further back so we can hear Ms Steinbacher more easily. I'll continue to like Arabella Steinbacher in the Shostakovich violin concertos. But, like pretty well all modern violinists, she is not a violinist for a recital of vignettes.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Melnikov plays Shostakovich

Purely on an impulse, I bought the new 2-CD set of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes & Fugues played by Alexander Melnikov. I have always enjoyed Melnikov's playing, and I find much of Shostakovich's music fascinating. I did not, however, expect to enjoy this music quite as much as I am (though I am only up to P&F number 12, so far). This really is enjoyable. Any collection of 24 preludes and fugues for keyboard will end up being a kind of homage to J.S.Bach, of course. But Shostakovich's homage really is something. A highly serendipitous choice by me, for a change.

Melnikov's playing here seems to me to be examplary, with a wide palette of sound and mood. I do not know the music well enough to compare Melnikov with others; but this is certainly playing I shall listen to over and over again. 20th century Russia, for all its political faults and tribulations, probably produced more world-class pianists and violinists than the rest of the world put together. And Melnikov is certainly a world-class pianist.

Difficult to understand why these preludes and fugues are not better known and played more often. Such magnificent music should be heard. The 1950s onwards was not, of course, a good period in which to write tonal music, with so many critics, movers and shakers pushing the likes of Berio, Boulez, Stockhausen, et al. And the political climate in the Western world was somewhat hostile to Russians (unless they were emigrés who abandoned their homeland). However, the barometer has been rising and rising for Dmitri Shostakovich – and hopefully it will go on rising, since he wrote much magnificent music. The Melnikov recording is superb, helped by my new Quad loudspeakers installed this morning, with new cables.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Melnikov, Faust and Shostakovich

Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin set a high standard for a duo partnership with a fiece musical integrity; both were, of course, also world-class instrumentalists. Listening again to Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov in the sonata for violin and piano by Shostakovich, I had the same impression of musical integrity. Nothing is played for effect; nothing is played to show off technique or virtuosity. Both players are of equal merit and interest, and put the music above all. Both players appear to be completely absorbed in the music they are making.

It has taken a long time for Shostakovich's sonata (opus 134) to enter my affections. However, it is a major work. Like sonatas such as those by Lekeu or Janacek, it has taken time to be unearthed by performers, and concert and recording managers still fall back lamely on works such as the Spring, Kreutzer, Franck or Ravel sonatas, ad nauseam. In this late work, Shostakovich speaks person-to-person without needing to look over his shoulder for official approval or popular success. I love the performance by Faust and Melnikov.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Exposition Repeats

“All exposition repeats are observed”, Mortimer Frank commented in a recent review (International Record Review) of the Wihan Quartet in two Schubert string quartets. He might have added: “alas”. It seems to be a point of honour with current critics to insist that the repeats “specified by the composer” be observed – without asking why the composer specified the repeats. Sometimes, of course, it was because the form of the work required the repetition of certain passages or sections. But more often, it was because composers before the middle of the nineteenth century were conscious that their work would be heard just once by practically everybody. It was therefore necessary to ensure that the one-time audience had a chance to absorb the principal thematic material before the material was developed further. Thus: an exposition repeat was specified.

Fast-forward a hundred and fifty years to someone who buys a recording of a work from the Classical period, and it is likely that the listener is going to hear Beethoven's fifth symphony, or Schubert's “Death and the Maiden” quartet, upteen times in a lifetime – particularly if he or she has bought a recording of it. The need to have the exposition material repeated is therefore no longer there. Fanatics who want to hear the exposition twice, can always press the “replay” button on their players just as, in the old days of 78s, you could simply move the needle back to the start and listen again. Perhaps critics could have less of a knee-jerk reaction to repeat marks and analyse which ones are there for good, logical reasons, and which ones were there for the benefit of one-time listeners in previous ages. Personally, I am not pleased when performers regularly “go back to the beginning” in works with which I am completely familiar.

Véronique Gens

I like singers with good diction. With some singers, it can be five minutes before you can even work out in what language they are performing. On a new CD, it is enjoyable to listen to Véronique Gens singing Berlioz, and Ravel. French vowels are difficult for non-native French speakers, and I love listening to Ms Gens. Berlioz's Herminie and Les Nuits d'été comme over as clear and fresh as a new day. Ravel's Shéhérazade has long been a favourite piece of mine and I wallowed happily in the singing here. Enchanting music sung by an enchanting singer. The Orchestre national des Pays de la Loire does not have a great role in these pieces, but performs well nevertheless. A new CD with which I am very happy.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Vivaldi and Roberta Invernizzi

In June 1712 you could have gone along to your local concert hall and have heard the very latest works from Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frederic Händel, or Antonio Vivaldi (in theory, at any rate). All the works would have been in a familiar musical idiom and you could have sat back in your padded seat and enjoyed the evening, marvelling that the ink was scarcely dry on the music you were hearing. Times have changed.

Roberta Invernizzi does not have the media charisma of Sandrine Piau, Simone Kermes, Natalie Dessay or Magdalena Kozena. But she is an excellent soprano on a new Vivaldi opera aria CD, superbly supported by Fabio Bonizzoni and La Risonanza. 77 minutes of pure pleasure. They don't write things like this, any more. Something to listen to again, and again, and again.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Khachatryan, and Steinbacher

It is not often I listen to two different performances of the same work, one after the other. But today was an exception, and I plugged into two different recordings of Shostakovich's enigmatic second violin concerto. The first was with Sergei Khachatryan, with Kurt Masur and the Orchestre national de France. The second was with Arabella Steinbacher, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons.

Both violinists are excellent, of course. But I much prefer the recording with Nelsons, since he and the Bavarians are full participants with Steinbacher, whereas Masur and the Parisians just play the orchestral part. And Steinbacher also gets the better recording (Orfeo).


Back this evening to Shostakovich. Music aside for the moment, like Gustav Mahler, Shostakovich really was a master of the orchestra, and of orchestration. I listened to the 15th symphony, and enjoyed it so much that I followed it with the – very different – 10th symphony. Both performances were from the admirable Vasily Petrenko with the equally admirable Liverpool Philharmonic. These two symphonies have entered my listening repertoire very late in life, but better late than never. I now love both of them and keep the CDs close to hand. Next time, however, I'll listen to the 10th first, then finish with the approach-of-death 15th. More emotionally logical.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Wihan Quartet

An interesting juxtaposition, listening to the Wihan Quartet playing a string quartet in E major by Paganini, followed immediately by Schubert's D minor quartet D 810 (“Death and the Maiden”). The Paganini quartet is well written and immensely enjoyable. Moving to the Schubert, one immediately sees the difference between enjoyable music, and great music. By any measure, the Schubert quartet is one of the world's greatest pieces of music.

I was so impressed with the Wihan Quartet in the Schubert that I immediately ordered the Wihan's new re-make of the work (coupled this time with the “Rosamunde” quartet). I never thought anyone would equal the Busch Quartet in the Schubert work; but the Wihan manages it.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Gidon Kremer plays Elgar

Gidon Kremer has never been a violinist who appealed to me, for some reason or other. A friend sent me his 1967 Queen Elisabeth recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto about a year ago, and it sat on my table awaiting a listening. So he sent me a second copy, demanding I hear it. Frankly, the performance of the violin part is superb. The twenty year old Kremer plays with passion and ease, in this long and difficult concerto. Tempi are mercifully fluid; nothing causes Elgar to sag more than languid tempi and frequent ritardandi. The slow movement lacks tenderness, but is beautifully played (the orchestra isn't much help). The young man fully deserves the rapturous applause from the audience at the end of the piece.

Kremer came away with just the third prize (Philippe Hirschhorn won first prize that year, which made two Latvians in the first three). As usual with these kinds of concerts, the Belgian orchestra and conductor sound as if they are sight reading, and the recording – understandably given the competition focus – features the violinist, with the orchestra somewhat recessed. A real pity that Kremer did not immediately record the Elgar concerto with someone like Boult or Barbirolli conducting a decent orchestra. As it is, however, we still have an extraordinarily convincing performance of the violin part of the concerto.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Menuhin and Furtwängler

I bought Menuhin and Furtwängler in the Brahms violin concerto (Lucerne, 1949) on LP some decades ago and threw it away because of the disagreeable “boppy” sound. I then bought it again later on CD, and threw that away, too, since the “bopples” remained. I bought the recording again yesterday (Pristine Audio) and was highly relieved to note that Andrew Rose had managed to massage out the more annoying background (due, apparently, to EMI's early attempts at using a tape recorder).

In the old days, artists such as Cortot, Fisher, Szigeti, Busch or Schnabel were allowed to be great musicians without necessarily being tip-top technicians. For the vioin world, Heifetz changed that, and violinists increasingly were expected to be razor-sharp and mechanically perfect. In this 1949 Brahms concerto, we have an excellent concerto, a supreme conductor in his element; and a soloist who is intensely musical (listen to the adagio) and technically perfectly adequate. No one is going to buy this recording to listen to great violin playing. But it should be bought to listen to how two great musicans – Furtwängler and Menuhin – play this concerto as we will never hear it played today. What struck me particularly was how, with Furtwängler at the helm, the orchestra is an entirely equal protagonist in the work (the same was true when Furtwängler conducted Erich Röhn in the Beethoven concerto). The sound is still not great, and Menuhin is somewhat shrunk into the orchestra. But it's a great performance; you can't have it all.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Shostakovich, and Pork

Shostakovich's 15th and final symphony fascinates me. It is a pot pourri of music, ideas, emotions …. As so often on my Shostakovich (belated) pilgrimage, I plugged into Vasily Petronko and the Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos). Well played, well recorded. A work to listen to again and again (I am about to re-start, having eaten dinner).

Dinner was another (unexpected) triumph. On Saturday I had discovered a lump of pork nearing two kilos priced at slightly more than £4. I carried it home in triumph. Sunday I had it hot (with excellent crackling). Monday lunchtime I had it cold. This evening, I had it twice-cooked, slowly, with an Arrabiata sauce. Magnificent! The jews, moslems and vegetarians have no idea what they are missing. All the more for the rest of us.

Anton Bruckner

The symphonies of Anton Bruckner are a major challenge for any conductor. Which is probably why so few maestri succeed in convincing us. Bruckner's symphonies have dynamic textures that rise and fall; the time signatures and tempi within movements change frequently. The individual movements are often long. A great conductor can sweep us along and convince us we are moving towards a logical and inevitable point; a conductor who is less than great risks losing us amongst the seductive by-ways. Above all, the Bruckner symphonies need a strong, underlying pulse.

By any reckoning, Bruckner's 9th symphony is a great work. There are great recordings of it by Furtwängler, Horenstein and Klemperer, with Furtwängler's 1944 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic being particularly incandescent and one that keeps you riveted to every note until the final long-held chord of the great concluding adagio. Yesterday I listened to Günter Wand conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (1996) in excellent sound and with a superb orchestra (all the best Bruckner seems to come from either the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic orchestras). Under Wand, the adagio comes off marvellously. The scherzo is less “evil” than with Horenstein. The first movement seems longer than with the other three great conductors. In other words: I have three great recordings (Furtwängler, Klemperer and Horenstein) plus one truly excellent one (Wand).

Simon Rattle has just recorded Bruckner's 9th with a “completed” finale, making it a four-movement work. The reason for doing this escapes me. All symphonies in the nineteenth century had to have four movements, so adding a finale was often a necessary formality rather than something demanded by the musical logic. Bruckner – like many others – rarely wrote finales that were inevitably and intrinsically a culmination of his symphony. I think the long-held chord at the end of the Adagio of the ninth symphony is a superb ending to a superb work; like a fantastic, high-level dinner, we just do not need an extra course!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Furtwängler, and Mischa Elman

Yesterday was a good Friday for Pristine Audio's new releases, with two of my favourite musicians from the past: Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Mischa Elman.

Furtwängler features in an all-Brahms disc, with the Vienna Philharmonic at a public concert in Vienna in January 1952 with a truly superb performance of Brahms' first symphony and the St Anthony Choral Variations. The first Brahms symphony is not one of my favourites – I find it over long and often a bit noisy – but here it has a tremendous performance, with Furtwängler at his best (as often when it was a live performance) and the Vienna Philharmonic at its best. The German Romantics were prime Furtwängler territory, and in Brahms he is truly in his element. To cap it all, the recording from 60 years ago comes up nearly as good as new. Certainly, the sound has not been bettered before now since January 1952. Well worth €9 !

Then on to Mischa Elman, a violinist for whom I have always had a soft spot. Excellent transfers (by Mark Obert-Thorn) of a Vivaldi violin concerto, the two Beethoven Romances, the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and a 13.5 minute “arrangement” by Elman of the Paganini 24th caprice – with a few extra variations thrown in. Listening to Elman's plaintive violin, one realises that all these works were written primarily to demonstrate the prowess of the performing violinist, a fact so often forgotten by the current fad for historico-authentic performances. Rachel Podger may be historically more correct than Elman and symphony orchestra in a Vivaldi concerto (not difficult). But Elman attracts and holds the attention in a way no “authentic” violin playing with no vibrato, little colour, and bulging long notes, can do. Put to the vote, I am sure Vivaldi, Beethoven and Mendelssohn would have chosen Elman over any “authentic” modern fiddle player. I sat back and enjoyed this CD. The sound is perfectly acceptable for recordings from 1931, 1932 and 1947. We live in a good age for re-discovering old performances and old performance styles.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Noted with sadness today the death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at the age of nearly 87 years old. For pretty well all my musical life he has been a constant presence. Not always my favourite singer. But a singer who make an immense contribution to the second half of the last century. RIP.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Paganini String Quartets

Only very recently did I discover that Paganini wrote string quartets. Well, they are not so much string quartets as 4-movement works for solo violin, with string trio accompaniment (second violin, viola and cello). Excellent, undemanding listening after a good lunch. Classical entertainment music at its best. My ultra-cheap recording (Brilliant Classics) is seemingly well played by the Amati Ensemble String Quartet, and is well recorded. There are three quartets on the CD (are there more around?) and I cannot recall ever seeing any of them programmed in a concert. Shame. Despite the 'Paganini' label, there does not seem to be anything in the instrumental writing beyond the technical powers of a good amateur string quartet.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

A big advantage of companies such as Naxos is that one can sample hitherto unknown music without the risk of wasting too much money. I enjoyed yesterday two works by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, hardly a household name. His 6th Symphony makes for very pleasant listening, and I also enjoyed the 13 minute Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, parts of which remind me of a Klezmer folk recording disc from New York in the 1920s that I have somewhere or other.

In earlier times, Naxos performers and recording could be a bit basic, but this has not been so for many years, and the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra (whatever that is) sounds fine on this new Naxos. Thank goodness for companies such as Naxos, while DG, EMI et al are still churning out Moonlight Sonatas and Bruch G minor violin concertos, year after year.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Yuja Wang, and Claire-Marie Le Guay

A deluge of twelve new CDs brought by the postgirl, with one other on the way. Interestingly, not one of the [13] is a violin CD; maybe I have them all, or maybe so few new violin recordings add anything appreciable to the vast legacy of violinists over the past half century or so.

Also interesting, faced with such a pile of new arrivals, to see which I listen to as a priority. In the current case, it was two different CDs of piano encore pieces played by Claire-Marie Le Guay, and Yuja Wang. The French pianist choses 18 pieces, all with a Russian theme; the Chinese, also 18, mostly with a showy virtuoso theme (leaning on Horowitz for two of the pieces). Both pianists play a lot of Scriabin and Rachmaninov, who seem to occupy the places in pianist hearts that Sarasate and Kreisler occupy for violinists.

Both recitals are immensely pleasing, and I'm glad I bought them both. Wang is amazing; Le Guay is moving. Both women are superb pianists and excellent musicians, and the choice of repertoire (with no over-lap) is always interesting.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Josef Suk and Jan Panenka

I have many complete recordings of the ten Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano – including Kriesler / Rupp, Ferras / Barbizet, Pamela & Claude Frank, Ibragimova / Tiberghien, Szigeti / Arrau, Faust / Melnikov, Grumiaux / Haskil. And so on. Impossible in such company to talk of “best” and “second best”. Having just listened to all ten sonatas recorded in the mid- 1960s by Josef Suk and Jan Panenka, I am conscious of having acquired yet another first-rate set.

Not the least virtue of the Suk-Panenka set is the fact that, in the thirty-three movements of the complete sonatas, I did not once query the tempi set by the duo. Adagio was never too slow, and allegro vivace was never too fast. Furthermore, here we have a true duo in these duo sonatas; both Suk and Panenka were superb chamber musicians, and it shows. Josef Suk is a known quantity, and a great violinist. I was pleasantly surprised by Jan Panenka, however; you do not need a world-famous name and a star billing to be a major pianist, and Panenka here is a true equal partner to the more famous Suk. A set of the complete sonatas for violin and piano by Beethoven to set among the best.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Busch, Schubert and Haddock

Recently, for £11.00 I had a (good) piece of fresh haddock in the local caff. I also, recently, acquired for £5.50 a Regis 3-CD set of Adolf Busch and friends playing Schubert (G major string quartet D.887, 'Death and the Maiden' quartet D.810, E flat piano trio D.929, the Fantasia D.924, and the early, superb B flat quartet D 112). I enjoyed the haddock, but it was soon forgotten. I have had hours of pleasure from the Busch Schubert recordings. Just a little homily on the values our current society places on things.

Franz Schubert is one of “my” composers, along with Purcell, Handel, Bach, Bruckner and Shostakovich; an odd selection of personal preferences. Composers I hold at arm's length include Haydn, Mahler, Bartok and Richard Strauss. Composers I actively avoid include the usual suspects: Schönberg, Berg, Stockhausen, et al.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sandrine Piau

I have long been an admirer of the singing and the voice of Sandrine Piau. Her new CD compilation is as well sung as ever, and enjoyable. Up to a point. The weakness lies in the music, operatic arias by the likes of Rameau, Grétry, Lully, Campra, Favart, et al. Almost all the music is contemporaneous with that of Vivaldi, Bach and Handel without, alas, reaching the standards of the Italian and the two Germans. In particular, the music for the accompanying band lacks the interesting complexity of J.S. Bach or the incredible imagination of Handel. All too often here the band simply accompanies (or flutes or recorders vaguely warble).

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Sibelius and von Karajan

Sibelius makes good late night listening. His music does not tug the deepest emotional heart strings, nor plumb the depths of human emotions. But it is stirring and attractive stuff that, as far as his symphonies are concerned, needs only a first class orchestra, a virtuoso conductor, and a first class recording.

I made a rare excursion into Herbert von Karajan listening with Sibelius's fifth symphony this evening, and didn't regret it. The Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s was a great orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon in the later 1960s produced superb recordings; and von Karajan was in his element in this kind of music. Rather like Tommy Beecham, to hear him at his best I find you have to listen to von Karajan in music that suited him. Anyway, I've loved Sibelius's fifth symphony ever since my teenage years, and still thrill to the sound of the cranes flying over the Northern landscape in the finale. Sends you to bed feeling happy and satisfied.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Adolf Busch and Schubert

By any standard of measurement, Schubert's G major string quartet D.887 is one of the great works of Western music (and also, in my view, one of the rare classical works where all four movements are equally desirable). The quartet's latest re-incarnation is on a molto, molto cheapo Regis 3-CD set that also includes the little D 112 quartet, the 'Death and the Maiden', the D 934 Fantasia, and the E flat piano trio. All played by Adolf Busch, with various colleagues.

What is it that sets these performances of 80 years ago on such an unrivalled plain? Listening to the Busch Quartet in the G major work, I noticed how my sole attention was focused on the music, not on the performance. I don't know whether the Quartet played beautifully; I don't know whether it underlined key moments; I don't know whether Adolf Busch had a beautiful old violin. All I know is that I was drawn into Schubert's music for 40 wonderful minutes, or so.

Interesting, in retrospect, that the Busch players never recorded the B flat major piano trio; probably it was felt that the 1926 Cortot-Thibaud-Casals recording was unassailable; and this was probably right. Great music making from those far-off days (the G major quartet was recorded in 1938) lives on and on and, at its greatest – as in this recording – it has never been beaten.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Jascha Heifetz

The latest Naxos Heifetz re-issue (Mark Obert-Thorn transfers) sees Jascha Heifetz playing 28 short pieces, recorded between 1946 and 1956. Nothing to say; with Heifetz in this kind of music you just sit back and marvel at the range of sound possible from one small violin. It's also good that, 60 years on and thanks to the 21st century technology, we can listen to this music again without having to make allowances for the age of the sound.

They don't play like this anymore, alas. Can you imagine listening to 28 short pieces played by Maxim Vengerov?

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Shostakovich's Violin & PIano Sonata

Shostakovich's late sonata for violin & piano is a strange but magnificent work, one that reveals its deepest secrets only over time, and in a first-class performance. I first began to warm to the work on hearing it played by Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek, but a new recording by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov has really made me consider this one of the great violin & piano sonatas, albeit one that will probably never be as popular as works such as the Franck or Ravel sonatas.

Melnikov really impresses, and he is in his Russian element in this music. Isabelle Faust is one of a long line of “classical” violinists from Central Europe that goes back at least to Schneiderhan, Suk and Kulenkampff and today boasts violinists such as Faust, Tetzlaff and Zehetmair – violinists who are at the opposite pole from their many media or commercialised colleagues. Neither Isabelle Faust nor Alexander Melnikov belongs to the “entertainment industry”. They are simply first-rate musicians. And their performance here of Shostakovich's opus 134 sonata goes right to the heart of this complex work.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Jascha Horenstein

I have a deep respect for Jascha Horenstein. A wandering figure, he never worked with any major recording company, and most of his available studio recordings come from Vox in the 1950s, or Reader's Digest in the 1960s. Horenstein went from Russia to Austria to Germany to the USA, to South America, back to Vienna, then England during the 1950s and 60s. Some of his better (sound-wise) recordings come from the archives of the BBC, but there must be other treasures lurking in the radio archives of Europe.

The Horenstein approach to music making I would characterise as: “right”. He had a special gift for taking minor orchestras and making them sound special. I have just been listening to his BBC recording (molto coughing from the restive audience) of Bruckner's fifth symphony, and it is “right”. I also have a special place for his recordings of Bruckner's 9th symphony, and also of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (BBC, again and, in my view, one of the best recorded performances ever of this work). Another special place for his 1959 performance in the Albert Hall in London of Mahler's eighth symphony; special because I was there in the audience, applauding away, and my father was on the platform with the London Symphony Orchestra. I don't much care for the work, but it was a special occasion, captured again by the valiant BBC.

And recently I listened to Earl Wild playing Rachmaninov's second piano concerto. The piano playing was fine, but it was the orchestral music that really caught my attention: the Royal Philharmonic was conducted by – Jascha Horenstein. Not often a conductor upstages a soloist in a Rachmaninov piano concerto!

A tragedy for us he wasn't captured in more recordings, with good sound. However the Horenstein recordings that are still available are almost all major examples of the art of a great conductor.