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.