Sunday, 26 February 2012

Julian Sitkovetsky

Julian Sitkovetsky shared a number of things with Michael Rabin: both were found at their peaks (for different reasons) during the 1950s. Both had highly individual violin voices, both seemed completely unfazed by any considerations of technqiue; both communicated an intense joy in playing the violin. Listening to Julian Sitkovetsky in a series of Russian pieces this evening, I marvelled again at his sound; his violin soars and dives effortlessly, always reminding me of a seagull in flight enjoying life and freedom. His violin voice is immediately recognisable, sounding more like a woodwind instrument than horse hair playing on cat gut. What he would have sounded like in person, without the distortions of the various East European recording technicians at that time, I cannot imagine. His early death of lung cancer at the age of 32 was a major tragedy for all lovers of great violin playing. I'll never become tired of listening to his recordings where he lives on despite his premature death in February 1958.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Great Violinists

The greatest test for a violinist? The Paganini caprices? Bach's Chaconne? The Beethoven or Brahms violin concertos? No. The greatest test is to hold the attention of a listener for 60 minutes or so of violin short pieces / vignettes / salon music. Few pass the test; few have the range of sound, variety of bowing, palette of colours, variation of dynamics, to hold our attention for more than 20 minutes or so in vignettes by Kreisler, De Falla, Sarasate, Achron, et al. So I was more than happy this weekend to sit back and listen to Fritz Kreisler, Tianwa Yang, and Michael Rabin -- all playing short vignettes. Jascha Heifetz was missing; another master of the vignette.

The third volume of Tianwa Yang in Sarasate's music for violin & piano (the sixth volume in a projected eight volume set) is like a good thriller; you read to the end of the chapter ... and then "just one chapter more before I stop". No problem in listening to Miss Yang (playing Sarastate, at least) for 60 minutes.

Michael Rabin aged 10 years old; Michael Rabin in 1961 in an EMI recital not released (for some reason or other); Michael Rabin in Bruch and Brahms at the end of his short life in 1971-2; playing that has you glued to every note, with a smile of recognition, even when he was only 10 years old.

And then on to Volume IV of Naxos's complete Fritz Kreisler recordings that covers the years 1916-17, and 1919. In 1916 Kreisler, just turned forty years old, was at his peak. It is difficult to think of better renditions of the pieces on this CD, even given the acoustic sound of the time. After America's belated entry into the 1914-18 war in November 1917, Kreisler became an "enemy" in American eyes and his way back in 1919 was via popular American showbiz-type recordings with a primitive orchestra conducted by such as Josef Pasternack, a forerunner of people like Donald Voorhees. No better, nor no worse, than popular "artists" such as André Rieu or Nicola Benedetti de nos jours. Fortunately, Kreisler returned later to Europe to record the classical repertoire in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Rabin, Kreisler and Heifetz ... and Ms Yang in Sarasate .. can hold a listener's attention for a good hour. This cannot be said of too many other violinists, alas.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Pijun Xu

The viola is not a large violin tuned a fifth lower, however much some moonlighting violinists try to pretend. In sound, it is more akin to the cello and demands a quite different playing technique from the violin. I like the sound of “true” viola players such as Tabea Zimmerman and Pierre Lénert and to these I can now add the Chinese viola player Pijun Xu; from the CD cover picture of her, she is either a small woman playing a normal size viola, or a normal woman playing a large viola. The sound is lovely – husky and sombre, with contrasting brightness on the 'A' string.

A nice programme, with three Schubert song arrangements, Vieuxtemps' Elégie, two Chopin Nocturnes – all the pieces mainly sentimental, but all played without slowing things down and dragging the music out. Ms Xu is not a “dig in” player, but makes a nice sound. Rebecca Clarke's sonata for viola and piano is also on the CD; I've another recording of it and must have heard it before, but I did not remember a note. First item on the CD is Bach's second partita for solo violin (arranged for viola – something Bach would no doubt have approved of wholeheartedly, but which will have baroque fundamentalists swallowing their quill pens). In her expert and enjoyable Bach playing, Ms Xu lacks the fantasy and wide sound palette that violinists such as Thomas Zehetmair, Alina Ibragimova and Lara St. John bring to their solo violin playing; the sound here reminded me of Joanna Martzy back in the 1950s. However, Pijun has technique to spare, and this is a highly enjoyable CD with an interesting and stimulating selection of works – all but the Clarke and the Vieuxtemps in arrangements for viola. She plays the Bach tuned down to “baroque pitch” which makes it sound all the more husky, attractive and “different”.

Having just taken delivery of a box of six CDs of Mahler symphonies conducted by Otto Klemperer and played by the Philharmonia (why?) I decided to re-venture into Mahler and returned to the ninth symphony. Alas, it did not hold my attention and I abandoned listening before the noisy third movement, which I dislike. Gustav and I just do not see eye to eye; I find him flashy and without depth.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Beethoven Violin Concerto

Beethoven's violin concerto is a difficult work to play, mainly because of its long first movement (22-24 minutes, on average). Of the many, many recordings of the work I have, my heart gravitates usually to three: Adolf Busch (live at Carnegie Hall, 8th February 1942), Erich Röhn (live 12th January 1944) and Georg Kulenkampff (studio 1936). All three have in common that they are played by classical German artists of the 1930s, with classical German conductors of the same period (Schmidt-Isserstedt, Furtwängler, Fritz Busch). In all cases the playing is simple and straightforward, with no attempt to push “my beautiful violin” or “my extraordinary technique” or “my new outlook on this work”. They are simply three recordings from a golden age of performances of the great German classics.

These thoughts were provoked by a new release from Pristine Audio of Kulenkampff's recording. As usual, Andrew Rose delivers a state-of-the-art transfer that enables the listener to sit back and forget about the 1936 date. Modern collectors of great recordings are heavily indebted to transfer artists such as Rose, Obert-Thorn, Ward Marston, Michael Dutton, et al – would they had been let loose on the Russian treasures that were mangled by the likes of the despised Russian Disc.

The same evening as I re-sampled with pleasure the Kulenkampff CD, I broke into the 10-CD box of Otto Klemperer recordings from the 1950s and 1960 for which I paid a glorious total of £7.90, including delivery. The box contains all the Beethoven symphonies, two of Brahms and three of Bruckner and I sampled Beethoven's fourth symphony that I so disliked when it was thoroughly shaken and stirred by Riccardo Chailly. Well, Klemperer's Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra is not on the level of Chailly's Gewandhaus Orchestra, nor is the live recording of 1954 for Klemperer up to Decca's modern capture. But there is a warmth and classical rightness to Klemperer's reading that puts Chailly to shame. Timings do not mean too much, since timing is as much felt as measured, but I sense Klemperer is even faster than Chailly in the third and fourth movements (the old man must have been in one of his “up” moods). I sense I am going to enjoy this 10-CD Klemperer box – all £7.90 of it.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Back home after two wonderful weeks in Northern Thailand, Laos, and Kuala Lumpur. 37 CDs await me for listening! A good part thanks to my friend Lee.

Started my North European change of diet with a superb rabbit with red wine and mushrooms, cooked by me from a recipe discovered by my friend Anne. Had I been able to follow the recipe exactly, the dish would have had five stars. But since there were things such as juniper berries I didn't have, and I did not have time to marinate the rabbit for six hours, the dish only gets four and a half stars. A great gastronomic achievement, however. Regular rabbit from now on to accompany my 37 new CDs.