Saturday, 28 July 2012

Schuricht, Boult, Crab

A good evening. Sunny, but mercifully cooler. Superb crevettes (from Waitrose). Truly great crab (from New Wave Fish Shop, Cirencester). The crab was still warm from cooking when I bought it. I can have more, with 24 hours notice! My telephone will be busy, since I am a major admirer of fresh crab – difficult to buy in England, for some bizarre reason or other. And add to that unpasteurised Livarot and Pont l'Evêque cheeses from Normandy (Cirencester market) … All washed down with a good rosé wine. Finished with stewed apricots.

On to Gustav Holst's The Planets suite. Unusual choice, but I enjoyed it. Conducted by Adrian Boult when he was 89, if my mathematics are correct. Boult belonged to that immense, shadowy legion of musical performers who were not “media figures”. Few now know about Boult, Knappertsbusch, Horenstein, Sanderling, Wand, Monteux, Schuricht, et al. Or Kulenkampff, Röhn, Sammons, Thibaud, et al. Heard of Horowitz and Martha Argerich; but who were Cor de Groot, Samson François, Eduard Erdmann? It pays to have a recording contract with one of the (few) major recording companies of the past decades. Or a talented and expensive PR manager. The older I become, the more I question the conventionally perceived concept of “fame”. The evening ended serenely with Carl Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's 8th symphony (1963 recording). Another composer without a loyal publicity lobby.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Crab Soup

Very short posting this evening. The crab soup at The Sign of the Angel in Lacock is really something. For a start: full of crab! A price supplement on the main menu, but well worth it.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Juliusz Zarębski

Always good to find a new work. I am fascinated by the piano quintet of Juliusz Zarębski, a Ukrainian Pole who died in 1885 at the age of only 31. Yet another great loss to music. The piano quintet is a remarkable work; the solo instruments are all often heard in solo passages, as well as in the usual concerted sections. I had never heard of the composer – nor of this work – before this week.

It appears on a 3-CD set of Martha Argerich and friends at the 2011 Lugano Festival in Switzerland. Martha Argerich has never been one of my favourite pianists, too eager, in my view, to establish her reputation as a tigress of the keyboard. In the Zarębski work, I'd loved to have heard Alfred Cortot or Edwin Fischer (amongst others). But Argerich and her team (which includes Gautier Capuçon on the cello) make an excellent case for the quintet.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud

There must have been many great piano trio ensembles throughout recent history. But, in the much of the piano trio repertoire, none better – in my view – than Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals. A long friendship broken apart, alas, by the Second World War and the occupation of France by the Germans. The Swiss Cortot, the French Thibaud and the Catalan Casals became irreconcilable thereafter. Our great loss. Happily, for us, recordings remain pror to the 1939 cataclysm.

This evening I revelled in recordings by just two members of the trio: Cortot and Thibaud playing the Franck sonata in 1929, the first Fauré sonata (1927) and the Debussy sonata (1929). I was struck by: a) the music (they don't write violin and piano music like this any more) b) the pianism of Cortot and the violin playing of Thibaud c) the recording and recorded balance of the original recordings d) the transfers from 78s (Pristine Audio). Quite frankly, surveying over 80 years of recordings of these pieces, I cannot off-hand recall better versions of any three of these admirable sonatas. High praise for Cortot and Thibaud; an indictment of the years post-1940 where so much that was expert-class chamber music playing between friends became commercialised. And high praise for the recording industry of that time, not yet obsessed with pretty girls or macho males. When Cortot and Thibaud played together here, there is no question as to who is “the star”; this is music-making between world-class musicians and close friends.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Shostakovich and Britten for Viola

Benjamin Britten's Lachrymae, and Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, are both “difficult” works for the listener. A new recording from Champs Hill sees both works played by Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) and Katya Apekisheva. The CD also contains Schumann's Märchenbilder. This is my third recording of the Shostakovich “death bed” sonata, and fourth of Britten's piece. They don't get any easier, though – like much of his later work – I find the Shostakovich sonata riveting.

What is immediately laudatory about this new recording is the recorded balance, something that all too often is biased towards one or the other of the instruments. Here, one can set the desired volume level and this will be fine for both piano and viola. Congratulations to the two highly musical instrumentalists, and to the balance engineer. And also congratulations to Champs Hill on providing detailed and interesting liner notes that concentrate on the music.

Squid, and Normandy Cheeses

I do not know from whence came my empathy with the squid. Certainly not from my childhood, where my mother tried to make us eat everything on earth, from the sea, and from the sky .. except squid. Today's squid was provided by William's Market in Nailsworth, one of the world's great culinary establishments. The squid were not too small, and not too big; in fact, they were the ideal size. I cooked them with Cayenne pepper, black pepper, garlic, olive oil and salt. And they were exceptionally delicious. Well done William, and me.

Followed by superb non-pasteurised Livarot and Pont L'Evèque cheeses (Mark, Cirencester Market) and fresh peaches (The Market Garden, Cirencester). Wine from Vinotopia (Long Newnton); an excellent, powerful red from the Languedoc. I probably now need an afternoon siesta.

Back to Real Bach

It is no surprise that the plucking harpsichord suffered more or less instant death once the hammered pianoforte appeared. The emaciated sound of the harpsichord has never appealed to me, either, and I always think of Thomas Beecham's quip about “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”. Good fifth Brandenburg concerto recordings exist with Cortot or Serkin taking the keyboard part, and I was greatly pleased listening to Bach concerto recordings (three CDs) by the London Conchord Ensemble, and London Concertante which include four of the six Brandenburgs (omitting the first and the sixth). All the well-known violin concertos are played, with the D minor double violin concerto appearing from both groups. Not a harpsichord within earshot! And real violins and real flutes! It is a treat to have Bach taken out of the museum and to find his music is good for all eras, all ages, and all instruments. Both groups here are small, agile, technically proficient and appear to enjoy the music. One can appreciate the court at Cöthen enjoying listening to this music (played on instruments of its time) just as, hundreds of years later, we can enjoy the same music played on instruments of our time.

I bet the modern critics, and the BBC, had apoplexy if and when they heard these recordings. Musical dogma is strongly entrenched (though the dogma changes with the times). I love these three CDs, however.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Skate Wing - Aile de Raie

This evening, for the first time in my life, I bought, cooked and eat … a skate wing (aile de raie). Cooked in a court bouillon, then served with a sauce of salt, pepper, butter, wine vinegar and capers … it was quite superb. Maybe, for the rest of my life, I will eat l'aile de raie at least once a week (fish suppliers permitting … this one came from the Friday market in Cirencester).

Monday, 9 July 2012

Russians and Gergiev

Like painting, like ballet, music is a truly international art form. Put a page of music in front of a Chinese pianist, an American cellist or a European violinist, and music comes forth. So, truly international: but up to a point. Listening this evening to one of “my” repertoire works, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, I had to admit that when played by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra it sounded, well, more Russian than usual. The bass parts growled in a true Russian fashion. I loved it, even though I have umpteen Pathétiques played by all sorts of eminent orchestras and conductors.

So music is international. But when Russians play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, when the French play Debussy or Ravel, when the British play Elgar, when the Czechs play Dvorak or Janacek, when the Italians play Verdi or Puccini … the music can often sound with a more authentic note. Anyway; when it comes to Tchaikovsky's or Rachmaninov's orchestral music, give me emotional Russians any day.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Bach's Mass in B Minor. Herreweghe

Johann Sebastian Bach's music will take almost anything you can throw at it. Perform it with a string quartet, a full symphony orchestra, or a brass band; and the music still triumphs. The first recording of the Mass in B minor I owned was conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the full Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, with soloists including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Then came others, including Budget Bach with Joshua Rifkin with the three instrumentalists also singing all the vocal parts as they played, or whatever. Reigning favourite has been Otto Klemperer with a small Philharmonia and chorus. New strong contender now is my second recording directed by Philippe Herreweghe.

To really succeed Bach needs: i) clarity of texture ii) sensible dynamics iii) expert singers and instrumentalists iv) sensible tempi. He does not require fiery, dynamic conductors such as Toscanini, Bernstein, Kleiber, Furtwängler, et al. He does not require baroque hocus-pocus with timpani batons made from Saxon yew trees, or woodwind made from north Italian forests. Bach himself was not too particular about exactly how his music was performed, thus the many, many pieces re-arranged for organ, keyboard, violin, or whatever. “If that violinist is drunk again, use the flute player instead” Bach may have instructed his band. Thus my lack of sympathy with the “authentic Bach” brigade and their chinless, acidic violins and reedy soloists.

Performance directors such as Philippe Herreweghe are ideal if they know their stuff. I listened to this new recording with great pleasure. No nonsense about having the great choruses sung by three people. I have rarely appreciated just how harmonically tortuous Bach's music could become. On the whole, this recording is an excellent rendition of what is one of the supreme summits of Western music, if not the summit. The soloists are all pretty good apart from the tenor, Thomas Hobbs, who sounds a bit weedy. The recording was made in a church, which gives a marvellous acoustic in the many choral passages, but texture and solo duets tend to blur a bit. The Agnus Dei is particularly successful. This recording now goes beside that by Klemperer as my one to keep.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Georg Kulenkampff in Tchaikovsky

Even after all my CD purges, I still appear to have 80 (!) versions of Tchaikovsky's omnipresent violin concerto (not always bought for the concerto, per se; sometimes it's just the other concerto on a CD I wanted at the time).

Actually, almost all the versions post 1960 sound pretty much alike. The piece is taught in every violin conservatoire and there is now a semi-consensus as to how it is to be played. Pre 1950, however, versions vary notably from each other and I enjoyed hearing Georg Kulenkampff playing the work (1939, Berlin). One notices immediately how the violin playing is more relaxed than it is today. The trills are cleaner and crisper. Being before the days of extensive tape editing and splicing, there are more minor fluffs; so what? I sat back and enjoyed the music and the playing, not something I do often nowadays with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto where every violinist plays in the current fashion whilst, conversely, striving to sound different from competitors.

The tranfer by Michael Dutton on the CD I listened to was perfectly adequate, though the different volume levels between some original 78 rpm sides should have been sorted out, as should have the rather clumsy transition between the end of the slow movement and the finale. Good to be reminded of Kulenkampff in fine form, however.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Carl Nielsen

Composers whose music is found all over the world tend to come from a handful of countries. Thus Germany and Austria, Central Europe, Russia, France and Italy have produced composers whose voice can be heard frequently and everywhere. Other countries can dig up one or two composers: the Spaniards have Manuel de Falla. The Finns have Sibelius. The English have Purcell and Elgar. The Norwegians have Grieg. Most other countries don't really have any international representatives – The Netherlands, America, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, etc.

The Danes would claim Carl Nielsen as a popular international composer. I have just spent many evenings listening to Nielsen – mainly his violin concerto, which I have played by Nikolaj Znaider, or Arve Tellefsen. I have persevered but, to my mind, Nielsen is an historical figure rather than a composer with a real message to impart. Think Max Reger, or the worthy compositions of Weingartner, Furtwängler or Bruno Walter. It really seems to be very difficult to write truly memorable themes, tunes or melodies and without these music can appear to meander in a scholarly and erudite sort of way.

Schuricht in Bruckner

I reflected yesterday evening that, out of all the concerts I had attended in excess of half a century, there were three that really stood out in my mind:

1. My first concert at the age of around 14. Bach's Mass in B minor at a nearby church (probably given with piano). The music I found amazing. I was also a little worried that my bicycle left outside the church might not be there when the concert ended.

2. A concert in Paris around 1956 at the Théâtre du Châtelet with Carl Schuricht conducting the Colonne Orchestra. It was Easter, so the programme contained Wagner's Good Friday music from Parsifal, as well as the adagio (only) from Bruckner's seventh symphony. My love of both Wagner and Bruckner dates from that time.

3. The third concert stuck firmly in my mind was in 1961 (I think) at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to Jascha Heifetz (with the Philharmonia conducted by John Pritchard) in the fifth Mozart violin concerto K.219, and Sibelius's violin concerto (yes, even in those days repertoire was stereotyped).

I was reminded of this yesterday evening listening to Carl Schuricht conducting Bruckner's eighth symphony. Solid, no-nonsense conducting, with the paragraphs and movements moulded into a logical and organic whole. Plus the Vienna Philharmonic, almost an essential in a real Bruckner performance; the music seems written for that orchestra's golden sound. Also in the double pack is Schuricht and the same forces in Bruckner's ninth; the re-jigged sound from 1961-3 is truly excellent (EMI). The ninth awaits a future listening.