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.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Beecham in Mozart's Requiem

One advantage of living in the 21st century is that transfers of recordings of previous eras just become better and better. I have just listened with admiration to Andrew Rose's transfers (Pristine) of Thomas Beecham in 1954 with Mozart's Requiem, and in 1958 with Schubert's fifth symphony. Even with perfect LP pressings and the best possible turntable, I doubt whether these recordings over half a century old have ever sounded better.

I enjoyed the Schubert. I wish I could enjoy the Mozart, but I suspect the truth is that I just do not like choral music very much (neither do I enjoy organ music). This is especially true when the music is sung by the mammoth choirs that were so in vogue during the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth. Which is not to say I advocate the substitution of a minimalist vocal quartet as favoured by many modern extremists. I admire Otto Klemperer's slimmed-down choirs (around 60 voices) that he favoured in Bach. Beecham's BBC Chorus in the current Requiem reminds me somewhat of dancing elephants.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Lieder of Franz Liszt

Some weeks ago I ordered a CD of Liszt Lieder, sung by Diana Damrau accompanied by Helmut Deutsch. The disc lay beside my CD player for some time – too many other things to hear and somehow Liszt was always put back. A shame, it transpires. The songs are lovely. Diana Damrau is one of my favourite singers; intelligent, and with a beautiful voice and diction. And Liszt's piano “accompaniment”, as one might suspect, is quite as interesting as the songs. Nineteen highly enjoyable Lieder, a little to my surprise (I have always been ambivalent about Liszt's music). The CD goes in the "keep by the player" rack.

Spaghetti al ragù

The world's greatest “Spaghetti Bolognese” (as it is termed outside Italy) is found nella casa mia, in Malmesbury. Quite superb. A secret is to make a good quantity – enough for 4-6 generous helpings (that way all the ingredients blend together better). Use only first quality mixed steak. Use a good quantity of fresh tomatoes (puréed beforehand to form the basic sauce). Then olive oil, garlic, mushrooms, lots of pepper, salt, lots of herbs, especially fresh basil. Cook at least twice, leaving for 24 hours between heatings to allow the ingredients to marinate. The best.