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.