Saturday, 31 March 2012

Leila Josefowicz

11th January 2006, Birmingham (of all places). Leila Josefowicz played the first Shostakovich violin concerto with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. The event was captured and the CD issued coupled with Josefowicz (this time with John Novacek) playing Shostakovich's violin & piano sonata. By any estimation, a Great Recording of the Century (which means, being issued by the American Warner group, it is probably now deleted). I have 42 versions of my favourite violin concerto (including several by Oistrakh, Kogan and Repin ... and even one other by Josefowicz). But this, to my mind, will always remain the greatest.

Why did not Josefowicz go on to make other truly great recordings? No answer. But at least we have here the two Shostakovich works in hors concours performances.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Telemann, and Nuria Rial

In some ways, the first half of the twentieth century was a golden age for recorded music. Great singers, pianists, string players and conductors bestrode the turntable. However, in other ways, today is a new golden age; we may not have Heifetz, Schnabel or Furtwängler, but we do have access to thousands of hours of recorded music that almost never existed in previous decades. Where, for example, would someone interested in exploring the 50 or so operas by Georg Telemann have started in 1935? Telemann wrote some 3500 works, most of them never available in recorded form (or featuring in concerts).

A new CD by the enchanting Catalan soprano Nuria Rial introduces us to arias from Telemann's operas – greatly admired by contempories including Handel and J.S. Bach. One of those CDs that is unalloyed pleasure from start to finish with the music, the singer, the conductor / violinist (Julia Schröder) and the band (Kammerorchester Basel) all creating a happy hour of music. Even the un-Germanic “Rrrs” of Ms Rial bring a smile to the face. A CD to keep near the record player. And thank goodness for the second Golden Age; you would never have found someone such as Nuria Rial singing Telemann operatic arias back in 1935. Come to that, neither would you have found the indispensable Harmonia Mundi label.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Czech Sonatas

An enjoyable evening having dug out a CD sent to me by Carlos many moons ago. Violin and piano sonatas by Vitezslav Novak, Oskar Nedbal and Jozef Foerster; not names you see on many recital programmes nowadays. Expert performers were Josef Suk and Jan Panenka. The Novak sonata is a bit heavy – beetroot, bison and dumplings – but the other two are well worth hearing from time to time in place of the inevitable Beethoven Kreutzer or Ravel Sonata. I frequently deride myself for having so many CDs I almost never listen to; but sometimes it does pay off. And, even though a bit of a late convert to the Josef Suk fan club, I now find he is a violinist to whom I really enjoy listening.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Handel: Magdalena Kozena, Lucy Crowe

Handel had an incredible gift for melody, and a CD by Magdalena Kozena might well be entitled "Handel's Golden Hits". The music is remarkable and lovable; Kozena is one of my favourite singers, since she is able to "live" each song and communicate her identification with the feelings being expressed. Almost all the music here suits her mezzo-soprano voice perfectly; and Andrea Marcon and his Venice band make a thoroughly satisfactory contribution and it is glory all round -- especially to Georg Frederic.

I then re-sampled Lucy Crowe in her Handel CD. She certainly has a lovely voice but, as many violinists could well learn, a constant stream of golden beauty can pall; unlike Ms Crowe, Magdalena Kozena isn't afraid of breaking the flow and using a different voice to emphasise more violent emotions. A big disadvantage of the Crowe disc, however, is that she is balanced forward and Harry Bicket and the English Concert relegated to the background, not helped by somewhat anaemic playing from the band. A bit more zest and energy all round would not have come amiss, and most speeds in the slower music could have gone up a couple of notches.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Grumiaux and Suk

Started another weed-out of unwanted, or duplicated, recordings. After digesting all the various versions of X, one is usually left with two or three recordings that will be good for the next ten years, or whatever. I had just finished listening to Joseph Suk playing all the Mozart violin concertos, kindly sent to me by Ronald. Quite frankly, with all the Mozart violin concertos played by Arthur Grumiaux or Joseph Suk, there is no real need for alternative versions.

Whatever the “experts” may say, my ears tell me quite unequivocally that the so-called 6th and 7th concertos are not by Wolfgang Amadeus. They are gifted works in his style, written no doubt during his lifetime. But not by him, say my ears.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Klemperer & Mahler

I have embarked on a re-read of Peter Heyworth's two-volume biography of Otto Klemperer. What a long, interesting and turbulent life he had! I was particularly interested in Heyworth's information that Klemperer -- who knew and worked with Gustav Mahler and admired him enormously -- only really took enthusiastically to Mahler's second, fourth and ninth symphonies, and to Das Lied von der Erde, all of which he programmed and recorded often. After fifty years acquaintance with Mahler's major works, this is also my impression. Good to have Otto as an ally; I sometimes thought there must be something deficient in my musical make-up.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Mr Händel

For late night listening, Handel takes a lot of beating. His is probably amongst the least neurotic or angst-ridden music of the great musicans. I settled back happily this evening to 64 minutes of Duetti Amorosi sung by Lawrence Zazzo and the always admirable Nuria Rial. I felt quite sad when the 64 minutes were up. The conductor, Laurence Cummings, impresses less; Handel's music needs to flow, and Cummings seems to have too heavy a foot on the brake. Still, we are left with Zazzo, Rial and Handel which, in the end, is all one needs apart from a glass of J&B scotch.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Suk, and Petrenko

Dvorak's third and fourth piano trios played by the Suk Trio are highly enjoyable. As the saying goes: they don't play like this any more. The playing has a sense of intimacy and enjoyment.

Less pleased with Vasily Petrenko and the highly capable Liverpool Philharmonic in Rachmaninov's third symphony. I am not an uncritical admirer of Rachmaninov but can greatly enjoy the second and third piano concertos, the second symphony, and a few other bits and pieces. If I don't once again enjoy the third symphony very much, I think the fault probably lies more with Rachmaninov than with Petrenko. It is also unfortunate that, whereas Petrenko's superb Shostakovich recordings with the same orchestra were on Naxos, the Rachmaninov is on EMI. The price has doubled, the recording is not as good nor as vivid. You pays more and gets less. The EMI has two unwanted fill-ups: yet another Vocalise, and a somewhat forgettable Caprice bohémien. Not a CD I should have bought – especially at that price. I hope Petrenko and the Liverpool Phil return to Naxos.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Masaaki Suzuki

After a recent heavy diet of Rachmaninov, Bruch, Bruckner, Brahms and Achron, I reached serendipitously this evening for a disc of three Johann Sebastian Bach cantatas -- and alighted on Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan. The complex music was a breath of fresh air. Suzuki seemed to me admirable in these three works: tempi quite acceptable, balance between instrumentalists and vocalists absolutely fine, singing and playing of a high standard. I chanced upon Volume I and was so pleased I went online and ordered the latest issue - Volume 50. A Bach series that is sane, serious and avoids all the various extremists.

And the other good news is that I found a new and superior source of neck of lamb (a butcher in Cirencester). I slightly over-salted the lamb stew this time round (new and unfamiliar salt pot). But very high quality meat.

Klemperer in Bruckner

As a teenager, I treasured a recording of Bruckner's 9th symphony (Horenstein) and Mahler's 4th (Kletzki) – both somewhat exotic repertoire in the 1950s. Mahler has faded considerably in my esteem, whereas Bruckner has kept on growing. There is a nobility and sincerity in Bruckner's music that comes over powerfully in good performances.

Judging by current performances, however, it would seem that Bruckner's music is difficult to conduct. If it is not to become a series of linked episodes, it needs a conductor with an iron sense of architecture and a refusal to become side-tracked or to wander off down by-ways. Delving back into my recent 10-CD box of Otto Klemperer's public performances from the 1950s, I was much taken with Bruckner's 4th symphony from 1954 (Cologne Radio Orchestra). A variable conductor, Klemperer is here heard at his best; interestingly, he takes nearly six minutes less over the symphony here than with his Philharmonia studio recording in 1963. Cologne is better.

The secret of conducting Bruckner seems to have withered after the passing of the great German repertoire conductors of the period 1920-60: Furtwängler, Klemperer, Böhm, Mengelberg, Knappertsbusch and a few others. My already high opinion of Otto Klemperer has risen a few more notches after listening to this Bruckner 4th; thank goodness the various radio studios in Europe have faithfully preserved so many tapes of major artists caught on the wing – which is usually better than in the often sterile environment of the recording studio. And the 1954 mono recording can be listened to with few allowances for imperfect sound.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Joseph Achron

Since Paganini, there have been many virtuoso violinists who wrote attractive short pieces of music for their instrument: Ernst, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Ysaÿe, Sarasate and Kreisler spring to mind, though there are many others. After Kreisler, the spring mainly dries up, reflecting the decline in popularity (at least among critics) of encore pieces in favour of heavy sonata recitals. Heifetz (especially) and Milstein produced many excellent arrangements, but few original pieces. So I was curious when Hyperion released over two and a half hours of encore and salon pieces by Joseph Achron, born 1886 in Lithuania – same country as Heifetz. After living in Russia and Germany, he ended up in America in 1925 and gravitated to the Hollywood area (again, like Heifetz).

What is claimed to be all of Achron's music for violin and piano is played by Hagai Shaham, with a typical “Russian-American” warm, even sound and seamless bowing. Like so many of the current era, he takes sentimental pieces too slowly (he should have listened to Heifetz or Hassid in the Hebrew Melody; it drags along endlessly as played here by Shaham). However, the violin playing is up to Shaham's usual high standard. I wish I had found the two and a half hours of short pieces a revelation. But it appears that the much-recorded Hebrew Melody and Hebrew Lullaby are by far the best pieces; most of the other bits on these two CDs are somewhat mundane and nowhere near the standard of people such as Sarasate and Kreisler. So no great new discovery, alas.