Saturday, 29 December 2012

Adrian Boult in Brahms

I would never have believed it: listening (for pleasure) to four Brahms symphonies in one day? It came about because I sampled the first symphony (conducted by Adrian Boult, in the 11-CD monster box I acquired recently). I enjoyed it so much that I went on the the second symphony ... and the third … and the fourth.

It all shows the value of serendipity when one buys these incredible bargains. Boult has never really figured in my pantheon of major conductors. I enjoyed his traversal of the Bach Brandenburgs (in this box) immensely. His Brahms is sane: organic, free-range, no added ingredients, no conductors' whims or follies. Brahms, the whole Brahms, and nothing but the Brahms. The recorded sound (1970-2) is rich and really well done; during that period, EMI had some of the best recording engineers around. The orchestral playing is good (London Philharmonic in all but the third symphony, where the LSO takes over. The sound of the LSO is noticeably less full and less rich than the LPO of that period). All in all, an excellent set of the Brahms symphonies. Boult has risen rapidly in my esteem. He was never an international figure and, in so far as I am aware, never conducted outside England. There again, many major musicians chose not to join the international circuit and remained admired figures in their native lands. Adrian Boult was born in 1889 in Chester, so by the time these recordings were made he was well into his 80s. Remarkably, he shows no signs whatsoever of the elderly conductors' disease of slowing down (e.g., Klemperer) or speeding up (e.g., Toscanini). Over the 16 movements of these four symphonies I found not one movement where I had doubts concerning Boult's chosen tempo. Remarkable.

Keep to Hand

As I once mentioned, once I have listened to a new CD, it is filed away for future listening. An exception is with recordings into which I like to dip on frequent occasions, and these are kept in a (limited space) rack next to my CD player. At the very end of 2012, the “keep close at hand” selection looks like the following:

* Beethoven: Late string quartets (Busch Quartet)
* Shostakovich: Complete string quartets (Fitzwilliam Quartet)
* Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues (Nikolayeva)
* Bach: 48 Preludes & Fugues (Edwin Fischer)
* Bruckner: Symphonies 8 and 9 (Carl Schuricht)
* Telemann: Operatic arias (Nuria Real)
* Berlioz and Ravel: Songs with orchestra (Véronique Gens)
* Claire-Marie Le Guay: Recital of Russian piano music
* Vivaldi: Operatic arias (Roberta Invernizzi)
* Rachmaninov: Piano music (Xiayin Wang)
* Liszt: Lieder (Diana Damrau)
* Bach: Solo violin sonatas and partitas (Alina Ibragimova /
__Gregory Fulkerson)
* Bach: Solo cello suites (Pablo Casals / Pierre Fournier)
* Thibaud & Cortot: Sonatas by Franck, Fauré and Debussy
* Schubert: Late piano sonatas (Leif Ove Andsnes)
* Yuja Wang: Piano recital

No particular rhyme or reason to this selection except that almost all the works are here because of the music, and not because of the playing. If I'm still around, I'll re-list the pile as at the end of 2013. Meanwhile, I'm off to Vietnam for a couple of weeks, so this blog will (probably) be somewhat silent for a while.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Sherban plays Ernst

Volume III of the music of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst provides more evidence that Ernst wrote agreeable and enjoyable music. In particular, he loved a good tune and playing lovable melodies. The new CD (Toccata Classics) also provides evidence that modern recording producers are all at sea when it comes to balancing violin and piano in these kinds of salon works. The piano's role is normally to provide background harmonies and to support the lone violin (most of the time, but in some places the piano has a prominent melodic role, with the violin accompanying). Sherban Lupu plays valiantly, but all too often his sweet melody is severely impacted by plonking chords on a piano that is given more than equal prominence to the violin. This is wrong. We wish to listen to Mr Lupu playing Ernst's music; we do not want to listen to Ian Hobson playing supporting chords. Come back Emanuel Bay; all is forgiven. It's probably not Hobson's fault that he often dominates the violin part. We need to blame the producer for detracting from our listening pleasure.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich did not have an easy life. During the 1930s and 40s in the Soviet Union he ducked and weaved during the purges in order to survive. His music was banned, then re-instated. He wrote private music, and public music. Outside the Soviet Union, his reputation did not have an easier passage. He was denounced by the Western musical avant-garde for by-passing serialism and atonality and for writing music in A minor, and C major. When he stayed in New York there was an organised demonstration outside his hotel demanding that the “Commie Musician” return home forthwith.

Between all the ducking and weaving, demonstrations and denunciations, he was – in my view – the greatest composer of the twentieth century. I spent this evening listening to his first violin concerto (composed in 1947, but not published until after Stalin's death) and to his tenth symphony. Searing music that goes straight to the heart. The violinist in the concerto was Lisa Batiashvili in a quite incredible performance; the conductor of the tenth symphony was Vasily Petrenko. Plain to see that the heirs of the old USSR have taken Shostakovich's music to their hearts – as have I. Lined up for later listening are Shostakovich's fifthteen string quartets, music I just have to get to know. I recall being somewhat outraged in the mid- 1950s listening to the British premiere of the first violin concerto (played by David Oistrakh) when the BBC announcer half-apologised for the fact that this was not really “modern” music, but was the kind of thing Soviet composers had to write. I listened to the concerto for the first time and found it superb, despite the denunciations of the BBC, the musical cognoscenti and the Cold War warriors. In my view, now, the first violin concerto (in A minor, no less) of Shostakovich is the greatest of all violin concertos.

Schneiderhan and Furtwängler

The orchestral side of concertos can often sound routine. But with Wilhelm Furtwängler at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven's violin concerto, the orchestral contribution is anything but routine; Furtwängler always seemed to be at his best in this concerto, and the violin part in the latest release from the admirable Pristine Audio is played by Wolfgang Schneiderhan (live, May 1953). This is the fourth version I have with Schneiderhan in the solo part, and very good it is too.

It is difficult to understand why this superb performance did not receive better circulation. Part of the problem may have been the critical climate in the 1950s and 60s, when live recordings were somewhat disparaged and the accepted dogma – maybe propounded by the school of Walter Legge – was that recordings were “definitive documents for all time” and that every semiquaver had to be impeccable, something that did not happen with live recordings and performances. The Mark Obert-Thorn transfers for the present release are very good but cannot disguise the highly bronchial audience, nor the fact that the violin is recorded well forward of the orchestra. No real matter; this is a truly excellent performance from two people – Schneiderhan and Furtwängler – who excelled in this concerto, with the added frisson of a live performance with its feeling of tension and continuity. Many thanks to Andrew Rose and Pristine for bringing this performance back into circulation. The cadenzas here are by Joachim, and the tempi for all three movements flowing and acceptable -- something that is not always the case with the first movement of this concerto, which is too often over-expanded and dragged out.

Also on the Pristine release are Furtwängler and the Berliners in an orchestral arrangement of Beethoven's Große Fuge; I find it highly pleasing. Apparently Furtwängler considered the Fuge to be superior with an orchestra rather than with a string quartet; arguable, but pretty convincing in this 1952 public performance in Berlin. All in all, €9 well spent.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Gregory Fulkerson plays Bach

A good friend (Lee) kindly sent me a two CD set of someone called Gregory Fulkerson playing the Bach solo sonatas and partitas. In top position I already have many other sets, including Heifetz, Milstein, Lara St. John and Alina Ibragimova (the current favourites) not to mention Oscar Shumsky, Arthur Grumiaux and several others. Abandoned and given away were many other sets, including Rachel Podger, Johanna Martzy and Julia Fischer. So I approached Mr Fulkerson without too many hopes, nor too much enthusiasm.

But my affection mounted quickly. This is fine Bach playing. Fulkerson does not indulge in fashionable “authentic” antics. He hits what I consider to be the “right” tempo for each movement. He never dawdles. He varies his dynamics. He is technically fearless. He does not sound heavy and over-reverential (a frequent mistake by those who play these works). He does not milk his violin sound for all it is worth. So I like him very much, and the four favourites above become five. The B minor Partita is, for me, the weakest of the set of six works; it can often seem to be over-long, and any violinist who can sustain my interest for the full 30 minutes gets my accolade. Fulkerson manages it well, with swift tempi and varied dynamics.

Apparently Fulkerson was much liked by “the critics”, which really put me off, since I have learned over the decades that music critics are highly fallible beasts, subject to all kinds of bias: they rarely agree with each other; they are subject to editorial whims concerning favouring advertisers; they are invited to the entertainment circus by managers and PR people, given exclusive interviews with artists, plied with free tickets; they are subject to current fashions; they usually favour the “Home Town Boy, or Girl” and the performer who is “famous” in their neck of the woods. I have frequently been led astray by over-enthusiastic critics, the first time being when I was around 15 and a friend asked me for a recommendation for a set of the Brahms symphonies. I reported the ecstatic Gramophone review of the Adrian Boult set (Pye Nixa) without realising that the reviewer, Trevor Harvey, was a Boult acolyte and worshipped the conductor. My friend bought the set and was considerably put out to discover that the recorded sound was truly awful; my reputation sank on the spot. Of the current commercial reviews, I listen particularly to the American Record Guide, that does not accept advertising and has many reviewers who are not afraid to be unfashionable, nor to say exactly what they think. The Gramophone has probably the least reliable reviewers; highly parochial and with all kinds of bias towards advertisers and favourites such as Simon Rattle, Rachel Podger, Tasmin Little or John Eliot Gardiner.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Bach's Cello Suites

Twenty to thirty years ago, I used to enjoy playing the Bach cello suites (on my viola). Speciality was the fourth suite, the prelude to which I always thought of as “the killer”; pretty well every bar has accidentals – sharps, flats, naturals – and you never know what key you are in, from bar to bar, while no two sequential notes appear to be the same. You arrive pretty exhausted at the end, but it's invigorating to play.

I sampled the suites again in the classic recording by Pierre Fournier. Beautifully and smoothly played, but Pablo Casals and I (what a pair!) liked to dig into Bach's notes with more gusto, more personality – and almost certainly less authenticity. Those pedal notes on the C string should be savoured! This is above all music for playing. I never quite understand the fascination of Bach's music; he does not have the melodic genius of Handel, Mozart or Schubert, nor the emotional frissons of Mozart, Schubert et al. But he is indubitably and rightly in everyone and anyone's list of The Three Greatest -- my list included-- (whoever the other two happen to be).