Saturday, 27 July 2013

Leisurely Arabella

Arabella Steinbacher has an immaculate technique, and she makes a beautiful sound on her violin. For sound and technique she scores 10/10, but there are often little problems when it comes to tempos.

Tempo is a difficult concept. In one sense, it is objective: allegro molto vivace means fast. Adagio molto tranquillo means slow. In another sense, it is subjective; if a piece of music sounds as if it is being played too fast, or too slow, that is usually the case. The final element between composer and listener is the performer, who should be feeling the correct tempo for him or for her. In earlier entries on this blog, I recorded feeling that Adrian Boult in the Brahms symphonies, and Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley in the Beethoven violin & piano sonatas, had found the “right” tempo for every movement. In other words, it would appear that composer, listener and performer all agreed.

I usually have no problems with the tempos chosen by Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fritz Kreisler or Jascha Heifetz – to take four eminent examples. I often have problems with the tempos of equally eminent exponents such as Toscanini, Cantelli, Celidabache or Riccardo Chailly. And I often have problems with the tempos chosen by Arabella Steinbacher: she is often too damned slow! On her latest CD, she sounds so lovely in Chausson's Poème that the often languid tempos can be (almost) forgiven. Ditto the Bruch G minor concerto. But poor old Erich Korngold's attractive little concerto suffers greatly from languid tempos; in the lovely slow movement, one is almost tempted to go and make a cup of tea while waiting for something to happen and for the music to move on. Please can someone explain to the lovely Ms Steinbacher that andante does not mean “fall asleep and move only imperceptibly”? Slower and slower (in sentimental music) is a modern disease and is detrimental to the music.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Kristof Barati plays Bach

Technically, the six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach are not too difficult to play for the modern generation of professional players. Every violinist has a go at them – even I, in my youth, though missing out the fugues and the chaconne which are a bit hairy for amateur players. As usual with Bach performances, the music does not take kindly to layers of “interpretation”, added schmaltz or exaggerated swooning. The music needs technical accuracy, it needs rhythmic stability, it needs sensible tempi with no violent vivaces nor lachrymose andantes. It needs subtle variations in colour and dynamics to avoid monotony; it needs an appreciation of baroque style. Get all that together, and the sonatas and partitas are a pleasure to listen to.

Frequent stumbling blocks from players are lack of violinistic colour, sluggish tempi, lack of contrast. The music does not take kindly to what I term the “Juilliard / DeLay” sound with its emphasis on even tone production and seamless bow strokes. Eminent violinists such as Perlman, Julia Fischer and Johanna Martzy fall by the wayside through lack of tonal variety. The worst performance I ever heard was one Sunday in Blenheim Palace near Oxford where Alfredo Campoli took over from an indisposed Yehudi Menuhin. Beautiful playing, but stupifying after ten minutes.

Latest candidate on my turntable to tackle the six works is the youngish Hungarian, Kristof Barati, playing an attractive sounding Strad. Mr Barati gets my thumbs up. He may not be a well-known player (I had never heard of him until recently) but he is technically superb, stylistically aware, and plays with attractive variations of tone and dynamics and tempi that are fleet of foot (without being too fleet). And no pseudo-museum playing, just playing that is stylistically aware. A pleasure to listen to, and highly recommended.