Friday, 21 June 2013

Britten's Violin Concerto

For decades Benjamin Britten's violin concerto lurked in the musical shadows and was rarely heard. Partly I suspect this was due to a certain distaste surrounding Britten the man; partly critical scorn at someone daring to write a concerto in D minor with tunes, themes and melodies … in 1939. I came across the concerto relatively late in my life but I now own no less than fourteen versions played by a broad swathe of violinists: James Ehnes (x2), Bronislav Gimpel, Daniel Hope, Janine Jansen (x2), Mark Lubotsky (with Britten), Rebecca Hirsch, Lorraine McAslan, Anthony Marwood, Theo Olof (the original version in 1948 before Britten revised it) and Frank Peter Zimmermann (x3). On order is a version with Maxim Vengerov (for which I do not hold out great expectations, but it comes as part of a box).

I have just been listening to Frank Peter Zimmermann in this work (recorded in 2004 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck). Zimmermann is my kind of violinist, and the Britten work suits him down to the ground. He plays with passionate conviction (the kind of passion I missed with James Ehnes) and his sophisticated violin sound suits this multi-layered music. We do not need the rich, dark Juilliard / DeLay sound in this music (which is one reason I suspect Vengerov will prove a dud for me). Somewhat to my surprise, the Swedish Radio Orchestra makes a very real contribution, playing Britten's sweeping melodies as if it were their favourite work. A big hit, then, and Zimmermann may even trump Janine Jansen, the reigning favourite.

Also on the Zimmermann CD are the two violin concertos of Karol Szymanowski. I have struggled to like these concertos for decades; at one time I even bought the violin music so I could try it out myself (some hope). But both concertos, in the end, remain somewhat elusive, and while I can bask in the general orchestral wash, I cannot really get involved with Szymanowski's music. My loss, I suspect. I'll go on persevering (but not on my violin).

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Bach and Handel

From Eisenach, where Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685, to Halle where Georg Friedrich Händel (as he then was) was born in the same year, is only around 170 kilometres as the crow flies; when I drove from one to the other a couple of years ago, it took around two hours. Their music is as different as chalk and cheese, with Handel embracing the new, Italianate style of uncluttered melody and accompaniment and Bach looking backwards to a world of complex polyphony. I find it remarkable that two such people could have been born in the same area within six weeks of each other (Handel was the elder, and he and Bach had quite different adult lives and never met) and that, 328 years after their births, their music is still alive, well, popular and played regularly all over the world.

I grew up with the music of Bach and Handel and have a large collection of recordings (and violin music) of both. This evening I put on a 1990 recording (Philippe Herreweghe) of three Bach cantatas. It is music that is simply eternal, and completely satisfying. It is rich, it is varied, it announces from the very first notes that a great composer is at the helm. Both Bach and Handel were prolific composers (they had to be to earn money to make ends meet). We are all lucky to have such a treasure house of great music; I confidently predict that, in 328 years time, my successors will still be listening to Bach cantatas and Handel operas with enormous satisfaction.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mikhail Simonyan, and Catherine Manoukian

My generous friend Lee sent me a CD of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto as a birthday present. Very kind of him, and one must not look a birthday horse in the mouth, so I listened with interest. Violinist is Mikhail Simonyan (an Armenian) and this is his first commercial CD. Orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi and, from the sound of it, the orchestra does not have many Armenian members; very polite and accurate, very British, and a long way from the frenetic Romanian Radio Orchestra directed by a wild Niyazi (for Julian Sitkovetsky). I found the orchestra under Järvi a little too interventionist for my liking (in this particular concerto).

The Khachaturian is a young person's concerto and pays dividends to a player who throws himself or herself into the music, with gusto. Simonyan is just the man; right from the start, his staccato playing stands out as incredible – Heifetz's jaw would have dropped. Like too many young players, he spoils the first movement a little by stamping on the brakes hard whenever a nice lyrical tune appears. He commissioned a new cadenza for the first movement (what was wrong with the old one?) and it goes on and on and on, becoming almost a new movement in itself. Black mark; cadenzas should be spectacular – and brief. The slow movement (andante) is a bit slow, but superbly played by the violinist, with a real ability to hold a long, melodic line. The finale brings back the stunning staccato playing and confirms Simonyan as a truly spectacular violinist. A pity about that cadenza, which should have been on a separate track so it could be skipped on future hearings. Bizarre or inappropriate cadenzas appear to be all the rage nowadays, as violinists and pianists try desperately to differentiate themselves from the last player with a Unique Selling Point (usp).

In for a penny; in for a pound, so I immediately dived into an alternative version with an Armenian by origin, Canadian by birth – Catherine Manoukian – with the Armenian Philharmonic conducted by Eduard Topchjan. The Armenian Philharmonic sounds less British than the LSO; no bad thing in Khachaturian. Some enthusiastic cymbal playing throughout. Manoukian lacks Simonyan's go-for-broke enthusiasm, and her playing is far more meditative – a warm evening in Yerevan. And she does not have Simonyan's spectacular staccato (but who does?) Coming immediately after Simonyan, she sounds almost careful in her playing, but that is down in the end simply to a contrast in approaches. Her first movement cadenza ain't short, either. A lovely, meditative slow movement and a well-judged finale.

As usual, it's swings and roundabouts. With Simonyan you get some really exciting violin playing with a staccato to die for. But you also get a somewhat unidiomatic orchestra and conductor, and that long first movement cadenza. With Manoukian you get some lovely playing and an orchestra that obviously knows and relishes the music. With Simonyan, you come away full of admiration for the violin playing. With Manoukian, you come away with admiration for Aram Khachaturian. Obviously, I'll have to keep both versions near to hand. Life is never simple.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seven Violin Concertos. And James Ehnes

The nine years 1938-47 witnessed the birth of no fewer than seven violin concertos that are still – 70 years on – being played and recorded. Quite a phenomenon for a turbulent period. The seven concertos are by Nikolai Myaskovsky (1938), Béla Bartok (1938), Benjamin Britten (1939), William Walton (1939), Aram Khachaturian (1940), Erich Korngold (1945) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1947). Seven concertos in nine years!

Not that they all swept to instant fame, of course. At that period, the world was somewhat busy with everyone fighting each other. And music with themes, tunes and melodies attracted ugly scowls from the musical establishment, still advocating serialism and atonality. Seventy years on, however, the seven have gained a fair degree of acceptance. The lovely Myaskovsky concerto is still something of a rarity, despite it having been championed by Vadim Repin, amongst others (Repin's recording of the work with Valery Gergiev is a real classic). The first Shostakovich concerto has entered the ranks of much-played and much-recorded works. Personally, I am not too interested in the Walton concerto, which seems to me to be clever rather than deeply felt. I can get through the Bartok, but he is not my kind of composer.

The Britten concerto has sprung into prominence over the past few years; I have just acquired a new recording of the work by James Ehnes (who has often performed it) and tomorrow will see the delivery of yet another new recording, this time from Frank Peter Zimmermann (who has also performed it frequently). The Ehnes is coupled with the first Shostakovich concerto; the Zimmermann will feature the two violin concertos by Szymanowski – another non-serial composer from the 1930s.

The new Ehnes CD is superb; the orchestra is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits. Ehnes tackles both the Britten and Shostakovich with aplomb, with breath-taking accuracy and immaculate taste. For anyone who likes these two not dissimilar concertos, this CD is a perfect gift. If I have to confess to a slight hesitation when faced with well-near perfection, it is that Ehnes rarely shows much personal or emotional involvement (a quality extremely difficult to define). But Janine Jansen in the Britten, and Leila Josefowicz in the Shostakovich, to take just two examples, reveal in their playing that they really feel this music. Ehnes is a marvellous violin player and a perfect musician; my minor doubts are for the same reason I often react with some hesitation to much of the playing of David Oistrakh or Nathan Milstein – both supreme violinists, but without that extra 5% one gets from deep, emotional commitment. Anyway; enough of nit-picking. Ehnes gets my three stars in both works.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Khachaturian's Violin Concerto

Aram Khachaturian chose a bad time to write a violin concerto in D minor. Post-1940 after the concerto was written, music coming from the USSR was derided as propaganda music to please Russian factory workers. And to write music with a key signature, and with tunes, was asking for opprobrium from the Western musical establishment. I recall in the 1960s/70s a BBC music commentator almost apologising for the music [the Khachaturian concerto] that a violinist had just played: “Of course, it's not modern music as we understand it, but the violinist played very well …. “

To this day, the musical establishment still tends to sniff at Aram Khachaturian and its members – unlike musicians or audiences – would rather some tuneless meandering by Alban Berg, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen or Arnold Schönberg were programmed instead. Or yet another Mendelssohn or Bruch. Certainly not Aram Khachaturian!

Well, being musically incorrect, I really like Khachaturian's colourful and tuneful concerto that is well written and should be one of the most popular works for violin and orchestra. The great classic recordings, in my view, were by Julian Sitkovetsky with the Romanian Radio Orchestra and Niyazi in 1954 – a wild and mesmeric performance – and Leonid Kogan with Pierre Monteux in Boston in 1958. Today I listened to two modern recordings: Julia Fischer with Yakov Kreizberg (2004) and Sergey Khachatryan with Emmanuel Krivine (2003). Both Fischer and Khachatryan are truly top violinists. Maybe Khachatryan has a slight edge in authenticity when playing music by a fellow Armenian, but he does suffer from a “correct” recording positioning between soloist and orchestra, whereas I think the soloist in this particular concerto should be allowed to stand out more, a bit like a Primas in a gypsy band. I think Khachaturian's concerto is one of the best of the twentieth century and hope that, like the violin concerto of Benjamin Britten (pretty well exactly the same date of composition) the musical establishment will permit it to be programmed – frequently.