Thursday, 28 February 2013

Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote ten sonatas for violin and piano, most of them during the earlier period of his life. As a set, they contain many genial movements and provide well over three hours of happy listening. They are chamber works, written mainly around 1800 and were designed for performances in palace rooms, rather than Carnegie Hall. They succeed best when played as chamber works by a violinist and a pianist of equal artistic stature. In the main, the piano part leads and predominates, thus the importance of the pianist. Sets that really succeed musically include Joseph Szigeti with Claudio Arrau, Arthur Grumiaux with Clara Haskil and, nearer our own time, Isabelle Faust with Alexander Melnikov, and Alina Ibragimova with Cédric Tiberghien. During the 1930s EMI wanted to record the set with Kreisler and Rachmaninov – that would really have been something – but because of cost, opted for the gifted Franz Rupp instead of the expensive Rachmaninov.

To my mind, the prime prerequisites of a satisfactory set are a) a first class violinist with a first class pianist and b) an ideal recorded balance between piano and violin. Often, particularly in the past, the violinist was over-favoured. Sometimes, the piano is so loud and so dominant that the music becomes unbalanced. This is chamber music, not virtuoso music, and it is the chamber music approach by Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley that is giving me so much pleasure on my most recent acquisition. For most of the movements, 55% of the importance goes to the pianist, and 45% to the violin; that is how it sounds here (and how it certainly does not sound with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Bay). Capuçon and Braley play as a chamber music team; they do not over-inflate this mainly genial music and give it a French-style clarity as the parts move to and fro. For a change, the recording engineers sound clued up and neither instrument is over-favoured compared with the other. 55% of the time I am marvelling at Frank Braley; 45% at Renaud Capuçon. Highly enjoyable.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Soyoung Yoon

The “right speed” for a piece of music is a complex matter. Comparative tempi come into it, as do a composer's markings. The right speed also depends on overall context. I remarked recently (Adrian Boult in Brahms) that over the 16 movements of the four symphonies, I never once found an instance where I was unhappy with his tempi. In the end, if it sounds too slow, it is too slow. And if it sounds too fast, it is too fast.

This complex question re-surfaced listening to the remarkable young violinist Soyoung Yoon in Sibelius's violin concerto. The second and third movements sounded fine, to me. But the first movement was a bit of a disaster, with Yoon seemingly seeking to convert Sibelius's allegro moderato into andante tranquillo; at times, it sounds as if everyone is falling asleep. Timings are indicative (though not, of course, the final verdict). In the first movement of the Sibelius, the classic Heifetz-Beecham recording comes in at 14.26. Miss Yoon and her team come in at 17:35 for the same piece of music, the difference being not so much the basic tempo, but the new recording's willingness to dally by the wayside the moment the music becomes tender and lyrical. As an unfortunate result, in the hands of Miss Yoon and her conductor (Piotr Borkowski) the first movement degenerates into a series of episodes that go on too long.

For the rest of the work, and for the following Tchaikovsky violin concerto, things go less controversially, though the artists still show longings to linger whenever the music suggests it could be possible. The violin playing of Soyoung Yoon reminds me of Nathan Milstein: fluent and flawless, and as a master class on how to play the violin, the current CD is excellent. Miss Yoon has won every major competition anyone could possibly want to win. What I miss is the kind of personal involvement and passionate commitment one gets with violinists such as Janine Jansen, Patricia Kopatchinskaja or Leila Josefowicz – to mention just three younger female violinists around at the moment. And I love performances of the hackneyed classics that I have heard too often, that make me sit up and enjoy an over-familiar work all over again, as a couple of years ago I enjoyed Christian Tetzlaff in the Sibelius violin concerto.

The orchestra here, the Gorzow Philharmonic in Poland, confirms my impression that young artists are often better off with enthusiastic players in less well known bands than they are with the big name orchestras where enthusiasm is often lacking, and where a band heavily laced with substitutes goes through the motions on a Wednesday morning to earn a few more euros or dollars. I enjoyed much of the playing by the Gorzow orchestra. I was recently highly impressed with the début CD of the Korean Soo-Hyun Park. Her fellow Korean, Soyoung Yoon, is no less talented as a violinist, but perhaps to make an impression one needs to choose concertos other than the hackneyed dozen where competition and comparisons are so fierce.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Adolf Busch in Beethoven

The omens were not good, and I half regretted ordering the Guild issue of Adolf Busch's March 1949 performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Statsradiofoniens Symfoniorkester conducted by one Launy Grøndahl. Busch was born in 1891 and died in 1952, so this performance was just three years before his life and career ended. The Danish radio station did not have a tape machine, so the radio recordings were made on a turntable, of which the station only had one, necessitating gaps in the recordings when one disk was full and the next one was made ready. Conductor and orchestra were unknowns (to me). I ordered the CD because of Adolf Busch who, especially when playing Bach, Beethoven or Schubert has always seemed to me to be without equal.

By serendipity, the performance proved to be a major acquisition. In my opinion, for performances of the Beethoven concerto that are truly great (amongst the many hundreds of violinists who have played the work), one has to concentrate on Busch, Erich Röhn, Kulenkampff and Schneiderhan. This 1949 Busch performance is a triumph of digital rescue. The remastering engineer, Peter Reynolds, has done absolute wonders with the sound, which is more enjoyable and natural than many modern digital recordings. The five gaps in recording have been expertly patched by Anthony Hodgson with bits from Busch's 1942 recordings, and few will notice many of the gaps. The performance is Busch's Beethoven at its best and greatest, with especially superb repose in the central larghetto. This recording receives one of my very rare “AAA” accolades; even the orchestra and the conductor come out with flying colours.

We live in a remarkable age of audio restoration, with the return of great artists of former years such as Busch and Furtwängler. For me, almost everything recorded by Busch and his string quartet in the music of Beethoven and Schubert deserves re-issue on golden discs – and his Bach performances can follow swiftly on. Audio restoration is a job for dedicated craftsmen, not for those working to a budget or earnings target. Thus the highly limited success of the mass digitisation programmes undertaken by companies such as EMI and RCA in the 1980s and 90s (not to mention the mangling of the Russian tapes in the 1990s by the likes of Bertelsman and Russian Disc). EMI Classics has now been sold to Warner, so do not expect much from the treasure vaults of EMI's unrivalled horde from the early 1900s to 1990; I suspect that Warner engineers are more accustomed to p/e ratios and Return on Investment (ROI) than they are to spending hours and days on restoring a 1949 classical recording to pristine audio condition (no pun on any audio recording company intended!)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Karl Goldmark's Violin Concerto

Karl Goldmark wrote two violin concertos, though only one has been published [where's the other one?] The Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor of 1877 is a highly agreeable work, with gentle melodies and superb writing for the violin (Goldmark was a violinist). It was championed for some time by Nathan Milstein but, on the whole, it is a concerto that is mysteriously neglected by concert promoters, recording producers, and violinists. The classic recording is by Nathan Milstein with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1957 and, in many respects, this recording still stands at the head of the (fairly short) list of competitors, even after over half a century. Out of curiosity, I listened to three would-be runners-up: Nai-Yuan Hu with the Seattle Symphony orchestra under Gerard Schwarz; Vera Tsu with the “Razumovsky Sinfonia” under Yu Long; and Benjamin Schmid with the “Witold Lutoslawski Philharmonic, Wroclaw” under Daniel Raiskin.

At the start, it has to be noted that all three competitors are well worth hearing, but none can replace the 1957 Milstein. Both Hu and Schmid suffer from fairly indifferent orchestral backing; one senses that both the Poles and the Americans were not familiar with the work, and not too enthusiastic about playing it. Tsu with her Slovakian orchestra is much better served, with the orchestra having a good rhythmic swing when required. Hu has a truly lovely violin sound and is a fine player, but he is apt to slam on the brakes whenever the music becomes sentimental, and he also plays the last movement's extended cadenza without a cut (everyone else, wisely, makes a cut); it seems to go on for ever. Hu is also a bit deficient about allowing much dynamic range to his magnificent del Gesù violin. The always admirable Benjamin Schmid gains full marks for keeping things moving; his timings are roughly the same as Milstein's (though Milstein makes cuts in the finale that brings his overall timing down).

In some ways, Vera Tsu with her Slovakian players is my favourite of the three contestants. She has an excellent dynamic range and makes a lovely sound, which is important in this gentle, genial concerto. She captures well the wistful melancholy that lies at the heart of much of the music, and she is also an excellent violinist (as are the other two). Her main weak point is the familiar one with many post-war musicians: the belief that playing sentimental music very slowly makes it sound deeper and more profound. Wrong. Music needs to keep moving. When Goldmark says his slow movement should be played “andante” he knew that andante was connected with the Italian verb andare [to go], and that andante means strolling along. Miss Tsu does not stroll; she crawls, and ends up taking 7:40 against Milstein's 5:57. She is even worse in the Korngold concerto that is also on her CD, where the andante movement takes forever and a day at 8:27, sometimes not seeming to move at all. These things should have been corrected in music school. Musicians as diverse as Toscanini and Beecham knew that the more fragile the music, the more the need to keep it moving and not to drag. Vera Tsu plays very slowly very beautifully, and with admirable concentration. But the tempo in slower passages is just wrong for this kind of music.

Of the older generation of violinists apart from Milstein, Peter Rybar and Bronislav Gimpel played and recorded the work. Of the younger generation, there are Joshua Bell and Sarah Chang (who is just as slow as Tsu in the andante, and whose EMI recording is not of the best). Until another really well played, well accompanied and well recorded version comes along, I am happy with the 1957 Nathan Milstein and 1995 Vera Tsu (Naxos).

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Miss DiDonato, and Miss Ly

I was perhaps a little curmudgeonly in my reaction to Joyce DiDonato's new Drama Queens CD of baroque opera arias. In truth, it is a magnificent compilation of magnificent arias, sung with the greatest artistry and technique by a soprano equal to any in the current constellation. And heard through wireless headphones, the sound is not as shrill as I first thought. Perhaps I am becoming allergic to the rasping sound of “authentic” violins. Anyway: a plug for Sennheiser's RS 170 wireless headphones; I began my music listening 60 years ago via a wind-up “portable” gramophone player with steel needles, and the Sennheisers give perhaps the most authentic sound yet.

A reader chides me for the current absence of anything to do with gastronomy. In truth, my current menus at home have not been terribly exciting. However, from recent adventures I can mention: the restaurant at the Whatley Manor Hotel (near Malmesbury). Superb French-type cuisine and highly enjoyable as long as someone else is paying the bill. And Miss Ly's restaurant at 22 Nguyen Hue, Hoi An in Vietnam if you ever feel in need of real food in an authentic local environment. The food comes from the Central Market that is around 75 metres down the street. Superb.

Soo-Hyun Park

The recorded performances by Michael Rabin of Wieniawski's first violin concerto are rightly famous, and Jascha Heifetz's recording of the genial violin concerto by Julius Conus is another classic. No need for rival versions, in that case? Well, actually, yes there is. There was a strange habit in the middle of the last century of hacking large chunks of music from violin concertos by composers such as Paganini, Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps, usually leaving the violin part more or less intact, but excising many orchestral passages. A bit odd, since I do not recall piano concertos by the likes of Liszt, Grieg or Rachmaninov suffering the same indignities. Added to this, it was the fashion post-war, particularly for American artists or American recordings, to give violinists solo spotlight treatment so that, even when playing pianissimo, they could eclipse a full orchestra.

The Rabin Wieniawski recordings suffer both cuts, and outlandish balance. Heifetz in the Conus concerto may or not have made cuts (I do not have a score) but, again, the balance is unnatural. I therefore bought a début CD by 23 year old Soo-Hyun Park since not only does it contain both the Wieniawski first concerto and the Conus concerto, but also the concerto in all but name by Vieuxtemps, the 19 minute Fantasia Appassionata in G minor. A happy purchase. Ms Park does not, needless to say, have the outsize personalities of Rabin or Heifetz. But, like all modern violinists, she can play this music standing on her head with one arm tied behind her back, even the fiendishly exposed theme in tenths in the first movement of the Wieniawski. She demonstrates an excellent empathy with all three pieces, none of which demands a molto bravura approach and all of which respond well to Ms Park's playing. And there are no cuts, which gives the Wieniawski concerto a whole new stature, plus the violin is accorded a natural balance with the orchestra. The result is three highly enjoyable concerto performances, and 69 minutes of enjoyable violin playing.

A critical quibble with which to end? The dreaded graphic artist strikes again and deems that for a very pale grey CD centre label, pale white type colour is in order so that it cannot possibly be read. Daft. Anyway, all praise to Onyx, and all praise to Ms Park for a début disc with three excellent concertos that are not by Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn or Sibelius. Future rivals take note!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Yevgeny Sudbin

The Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin is my kind of pianist. I first came across him playing Scarlatti, then went on to hear him in Rachmaninov and Medtner, and now in a Liszt recital (also including Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit). Where thundering is required (as in Funerailles) Sudbin thunders. When virtuosity is required – as in most of this programme, including Gaspard and Liszt's arrangement of Saint-Saën's Danse Macabre – Sudbin becomes a super-virtuoso. Where tenderness is demanded, as in the Petrarch sonnets, Sudbin is tender. Above all, he is a superb musician (and also writes interesting liner notes that reveal that he actually thinks about the music he plays). Yet another superb piano recital CD to keep beside my player; space is getting tight. The BIS recording in excellent.

In the world of classical music, there are intelligent top musicians; there are also showmen for whom the classical arena becomes a branch of showbiz, and this has always been so. To my mind, major musicians as diverse as Lang Lang, Horowitz, von Karajan, Bernstein and Pavarotti crossed the line from intelligent musicians to showbiz personalities; the motive is almost always lodsa money, rather than artistic fulfilment. Not that there are not moments in most musicians' lives when money is not vital; I recall my father, as an unemployed musician during the period 1946-49 declaiming: “Art for art's sake; money for God's sake”. And many musicians were pretty poor during much of the 1920s and early 30s. But lodsa money beckons for musicians prepared to invest heavily in major PR and to ricochet round the world playing the same handful of well-known warhorses. It rarely enhances their reputations, since crossing invisible boundaries tends to be somewhat final; someone who crossed the other way was Alfredo Campoli – an excellent violinist – who went from café orchestra leader to a classical violin career without, however, gaining much respect from his fellow classical musicians. Musically, the worst performance of Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas I have ever heard was given by old Alfredo in Blenheim Palace, standing in for an indisposed Yehudi Menuhin.

Needless to say, there is nothing showbiz about Yevgeny Sudbin; like pretty well all my favourite classical artists, he is a real musician and always well worth listening to.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Tianwa Yang

I need another recording of Mendelssohn's violin concerto like I need a few extra kilos of weight. But I bought the new Naxos offering because the violinist was Tianwa Yang, a young violinist who has always impressed me. In an interview on the Naxos site, Yang claims that she learned her violin technique in China, and her musicianship in Europe. Interestingly, she claims that the recordings by Jascha Heifetz were a significant influence on her appreciation of the Mendelssohn concerto and I think it shows: the work flows without the violent braking and swooning that disfigure so many modern performances, and the andante, in particular, sounds like a true andante, as it did under Heifetz's bow. Yang's distinctive slender tone and fluent bow arm help give a welcome freshness and youthfulness to this unpretenious music that, in the hands of some performers, is grossly inflated. Not here.

The CD also contains Mendelssohn's youthful D minor concerto, and the early F minor sonata for violin and piano. 66 minutes of highly enjoyable violin playing; Tianwa Yang knows all about playing piano and pianissimo when required. Her technique, it goes without saying, sees off the technical aspects of Mendelssohn without problems, but it is her musicianship that impresses mightily with this CD. We live in a wonderful age for hearing first class young violinists.

Baroque Opera

Handel's opera Alessandro makes enjoyable listening, and the new recording from a Greek-based outfit conducted by George Petrou is excellent. No weak points in the singing, that I noticed. Of the two female rivals, Julia Lezhneva (Rossane) struck me as exceptional, with a voice that is attractive, accurate and that appears to mean what she is singing. Karina Gauvin is the other female; entirely reliable, but without the involvement of Lezhneva. As was the custom of the period, the two male roles, including Alexander the Great himself, are sung by modern castrati, not a voice to which I am partial. Alexander the Great hoots away in a high register and sounds very unmanly to modern ears.

The recording struck me as being exceptionally good, with excellent balance and a warm sound for the baroque band. Well done the sound engineers of Universal. Would they had been around for Joyce DiDonato's latest recital with Alan Curtis and his band. Built round the theme of “Drama Queens” we hear DiDonato in 13 different pieces, lamenting or raging. The music is attractive; the singing is full of conviction. The sound recording is over-bright and sounds a bit like 1980s early digital, with rasping violins and an unfortunate edge to the higher notes of both the soprano and the orchestra. The EMI engineers are no longer what they used to be in the 50s, 60s and 70s.