Sunday, 28 April 2013

Pheasant Quartet

Today sees the last of the quartet of pheasants I bought from the local butcher for £9.99 the four. Casseroled in a strong vegetable court-bouillon, with a couple of glasses of red wine, a few cloves, lots of thyme and bay leaves, salt, pepper, mushrooms, bacon. Pretty delicious. And that is the end of pheasants for six months or so, until they come back into season. Some of the world's cheapest food; four pheasants provide the meat for at least 12 meals.

Two Baroque Sopranos

Into my postbox came Anna Prohaska singing airs and arias by Vivaldi, Purcell, Handel and a couple of others. And Dorothee Mields singing Telemann arias. Two German sopranos, repertoire from a similar time period (late 17th century, early 18th – an excellent era in music). Prohaska is with a “baroque” orchestra directed by Jonathan Cohen; Mields with a similar group led by Michi Gaigg. One on Archiv Produktion. The other on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

Georg Philipp Telemann rose in my esteem once I discovered his vocal music (cantatas, and operas). Until recently, I had him pigeon-holed as old Herr Tafelmusik, but his arias are a different kettle of fish, and most attractive music. Ms Mields has a gentle, very feminine voice that fits the pieces on this CD like a glove. She also has splendid diction; if you lose your place in the texts in the booklet, it is easy to pick it up again. The Austrian band under Michi Gaigg makes a positive, thoroughly professional contribution. Listening to this CD is an excellent way to spend a Sunday morning.

Then on to Anna Prohaska. The Mields CD has two photos of the soprano; Ms Prohaska's has at least ten photos of its soprano, most in the guise of a wanton woodland nymph (for some reason or another, the disc is billed as “Enchanted Forest”). The vocal music of Handel and Purcell is always a sure-fire winner with me, though I am less keen on the two early verbose Italians tacked on to the end of the CD – Cavalli, and Monteverdi. My musical garden begins around the end of the 17th century with Purcell, and ends around 250 years later with Britten and Shostakovich. I have yards of Monteverdi's music in my collection, and it all sounds pretty much the same to my ears. Ms Prohaska's voice is more brilliant than Ms Mields and, recorded well forward as here, it can often sound rather strident. Playing the music at a volume where the soprano does not blow your socks off has the unfortunate effect of reducing much of the instrumental contribution to the background; the many violin solos by the ever-talented Stéphanie-Marie Degand (who leads the band) are very distant, a great pity in Purcell's “Oh let me weep”. I am also occasionally uneasy about Ms Prohaska's intonation, and her diction is not in the class of Dorothee Mields; lose your place in the text when Ms Prohaska is singing, and you are lost until the next aria.

So Dorothee goes on the “keep to hand” pile; Anna is filed on the shelf in the vocal compilation section.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Deborah Nemtanu

I recently enthused over the music of Camille Saint-Saëns (disc by Fanny Clamagirand). Suddenly I am faced with more Saint-Saëns, played this time by the unknown (to me) Deborah Nemtanu (with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris conducted by Thomas Zehetmair, another fine violinist).

Nemtanu plays the well-known Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, the first violin concerto, and an enchanting Romance, Opus 48. She also throws in Fauré's familiar Berceuse. The orchestra under Zehetmair plays the suite from Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande. A lovely CD. Ms Nemtanu plays with intelligence, clarity and impeccable technique and has a real feeling for this music that is never vulgar, never trite, always tasteful. The violin is well recorded, the orchestra a little on the dim side. Another CD to keep near at hand for dipping into when I feel like a little dose of civilisation. We live in good (violinistic) times.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst

The 1930s, 50s and 60s were marvellous years for recording; for a few top artists, and for mainstream repertoire. Not so great if you were looking for Handel operas, or for the violin music of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. The music of Ernst is little known and has been much neglected. But he wrote large quantities of tuneful and enjoyable salon music for the violin – much like Pablo Sarasate in a later period – and I have enjoyed catching up with him, at last. Josef Spacek (who?) plays a thoroughly listenable selection of Ernst on a recent CD (Naxos, of course; what would lovers of the violin do without St Naxos?) Spacek is just right for this music, and is well recorded -- in Monmouth, like the recent Naxos CD of Fanny Clamagirand.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Julia Lezhneva

Reflecting recently on listening to Handel's Alessandro, I commented: “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”.

Well, today the postgirl brought a new solo CD sung by Lezhneva, the 23 year old Russian from Sakhalin Island. What a voice! Few musicians in their early 20s, especially singers, can have had such an inpact. Ms Lezhneva goes on to my “auto-buy” list for the future, a list inhabited by few 23-year olds apart from Tianwa Yang.

Quibbles? I have the impression that the CD started with a concept: “we'll call it Alleluja, so we need four works for soprano ending with Alleluja”. Always bad to start with a concept, and then to hunt around to fill out the concept. The CD contains cantatas for solo soprano by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora and Mozart. Of the four, only the Vivaldi could be classed as first-class music. The other three works are somwhat second class, including the motet by the 16-year old Mozart. That is the problem with starting with a concept. Four first-class works for soprano by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora and Mozart present no great challenge; it's just when you stipulate they all have to end with Alleluja that the problems begin …

Almost certainly not Ms Lezhneva's fault; it's those loser modern marketing gurus again. Let me hope that next time Ms Lezhneva records, she gets to choose the music, and the marketing gurus just have to fit in with her choice

Fanny Clamagirand plays Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns had a long life (1835-1921) and wrote a great deal of music of all types. His music is melodic, well-crafted and highly agreeable to listen to. No great emotional depths are explored; but so what? It is a bit ridiculous that apart from his “organ” symphony and a few other bits and pieces, his music rarely sees the light of day in the concert hall. I have just spent 68 enjoyable minutes listening to a CD recital of some of his music for violin and piano, including the 23 minute long first sonata that was a favourite of Jascha Heifetz (and is also a great favourite of mine). The violinist of my new Naxos CD is Fanny Clamagirand, not yet 30 and a violinist I have always liked. The world is pulsating with first-class young violinists (many of them female).

Ms Clamagirand plays the first sonata, and also offers ten other shorter pieces by Saint-Saëns, all of them good to hear. She plays extremely well and with obvious feeling for the music, and does not even wilt in comparison with Heifetz in the sonata, partly due to her excellent pianist, Vanya Cohen, and partly to the entirely admirable recording by “Producer, Engineer & Editor” John Taylor; balancing violin and piano, particularly in louder music, is no easy task, as countless failures demonstrate. All praise to Mr Taylor. I spend much time in this blog criticising recording balance. Good to be able to express satisfaction, for a change.

Another good Naxos, then. What a remarkable company, particularly for lovers of violin music. I find it difficult to understand why Saint-Saëns' music is not programmed more often. Could we not at least have the refreshing first violin and piano sonata, rather than yet another rendition of the Franck sonata / Kreutzer / Brahms / Ravel sonata?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace in Bach

The set of six sonatas and partitas that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for solo violin are well known, much played and recorded, and in the repertoire of every violinist of stature. The six sonatas for violin and keyboard BWV 1014-19 are less well known and less often played.With the solo works, the violinist does not share the spotlight with a pianist or an orchestra. With the duo sonatas, he or she has to play with a keyboard player, and play second fiddle much of the time, since the keyboard part is dominant in these works. Similarly, a keyboard player here has to share the limelight with a violinist.

I was intrigued last week when the BBC programme “Building a Library” picked Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace as the top recommendation in the six duo sonatas; intrigued, since the BBC is usually ultra musically correct and follows fashions, and the Zimmermann-Pace set is with grand piano and non-baroque violin (a Stradivarius of roughly the same date as these sonatas).

I know these six sonatas pretty well, having played them often many decades ago when I lived in Germany (with an Australian pianist). I love the works, and really enjoyed the Zimmermann-Pace set. It is the only set I have without a harpsichord (an instrument to which I am not partial); to my ears, a harpsichord brings nothing to the works that one cannot have eight times more melodiously with a good pianist. There is music that is written for particular instruments, or instrumental combinations – most string quartets, for example, do not transfer to orchestral massed strings. Most of Bach's music outside the organ works does not seem to have been written with a particular instrumental colour or capability in mind; Bach rarely hesitated about borrowing his own, or other people's, works for different instrumental colours. Sitting back with J S Bach, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace, one is guaranteed an excellent 90 minutes or so of music. The recorded balance is correct for a change, with the piano being dominant, as the music requires. All the tempi sound fine to me, and the music has a strong element of dancing throughout.

It is regrettable that these duo sonatas are not better known. Within their 25 movements there are magnificent riches, and nothing is less than by a great composer. I love the solo violin works, but they do have their weaker sides: I have never felt that the three fugues are enjoyable and magnificent music (as opposed to major compositional and technical tours de force). The first partita can go on rather too long (especially as played a while ago by Lisa Batiashvili, who played deliberately and made every repeat it was possible to make – the piece lasted over half an hour. Milstein, when he played the first partita in public, wisely missed out all the repeats). And the final partita, after its brilliant prelude, can come over as everyday dance music of the early 18th century without too much originality.