Friday, 30 August 2013

Ysaÿe - Murray, and Barati

The six sonatas for solo violin written by Eugène Ysaÿe nearly a hundred years ago are popular with violinists and with lovers of violin playing – much as the semi-contemporaneous pieces by Alexander Scriabin are popular with pianists. The music of both composers is probably less popular with audiences; although Ysaÿe was born in 1858, his six solo sonatas breathe a somewhat modernistic air, and extended works for a solo violin can become monotonous, unless the violinist has a full quiver of sophisticated sonic arrows.

I do not usually do head-to-head comparisons of different artists, but having the six Ysaÿe sonatas played by Kristof Barati and by Tai Murray out for listening, I decided to listen to each sonata twice, played alternately by the two artists. It was an interesting experience, and brought to mind the now-ancient rivalry between fans of the Sibelius violin concerto with Jascha Heifetz (1935) and Ginette Neveu (1945). Both Heifetz and Neveu gave great performances, albeit of a very different character, and this came to my mind listening to Barati and to Murray. Barati is Hungarian and Murray American; both, on their respective CDs, prove to be technically completely competent in these difficult sonatas that contain many chords and many passages in double stopping. Barati is the Heifetz in this instance, with slightly faster tempi than Murray and with an overall elegance that holds the attention. He has superb double stops, an excellent range of dynamics and a myriad of different colours in his palette, holding my attention fully through each sonata.

I did not think Murray would be able to compete with this: but she does. Equally impressive dynamics, and an equally rich palette of colours. She is the Neveu of the two, bringing a sense of affection and passion to what she is playing – one suspects the sonatas are even closer to her heart than they are to the heart of Barati.

Which interpretation will I keep, alongside a few others, including the excellent Thomas Zehetmair? As so often in these cases, I'll keep Heifetz and Neveu in the Sibelius; and Barati and Murray in the Ysaÿe sonatas. Both the newcomers are well recorded -- no easy task with a solo violin -- though perhaps Murray is a shade too close to the microphone. Both violins sound fine, though Barati's 1703 Strad sounds a whisker better in the higher reaches than does Murray's 1690 Tononi. Kristof Barati sounds more masculine; Tai Murray sounds more feminine, and you never lose track of which one you are listening to. We live in great times for lovers of fine violin playing.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Klemperer in Wagner

It was moving this evening listening to the 85 year old Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia and Norman Bailey in Wotan's Farewell (to his daugher) from Act III of Die Walküre. It was almost the last music Klemperer recorded, and “Leb wohl, du kühness, herrliches Kind” has never sounded so sorrowful. It is slow (Klemperer, 1970) but in other words: it is authoritative, magisterial. Georg Solti, in the same passage, sounds almost as if he were in a hurry to get rid of his favourite daughter. Not Otto.

Wagner's music is music to bask in, and I am infinitely happy that amongst all the things I did as a teenager, absorbtion in Wagner's world of themes and motifs was one of the better activities. Composers come and composers go. And conductors come and conductors go. Among my preferred conductors of the German classics (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Richard Strauss) are: Furtwängler, Knapperstbusch, Klemperer, Böhm, and a few others. In some ways, the art of classical conducting from the first decades of the 20th century died with them. Fortunately, there are recordings -- as in the case of Klemperer going on into the very early 1970s. Klemperer in Wagner is really something to hear. They don't play it like that, now.


Just so I remember: today's lunch with smoked salmon followed by squid was excellent. The squid were cooked in ginger and chives, with salt, pepper and olive oil. Truly superb. Followed by cheeses. Fish accompanied by white wine; cheeses with red wine -- both from Le Marche (Italy). Awaiting me this evening: two sea bream.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado

As I've commented before, Beethoven's violin concerto is a difficult work to bring off successfully – particularly the long first movement. It does require a top-class Beethoven conductor, which it certainly gets in the performance with Claudio Abbado conducting his Orchestra Mozart. Good to hear the orchestral part in good, firm hands. Soloist is the entirely admirable Isabelle Faust; the work does not need some supercharged star virtuoso, but it does need someone who is intensely musical – a quality Ms Faust has in abundance, along with some lovely violin playing (including some super-soft pianissimo playing). I like the zippy finale in this recording; rondos can never be too fast for me. An excellent modern classical recording. It cannot supplant for me Röhn, Kulenkampff, Schneiderhan or Busch, but those classics are now well over 60 years old, so a new classic is much to be welcomed.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Khachatryan, Faust and a Musical Flood

A few years ago I was at a concert (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop) where the soloist was the teenage Sergey Khachatryan. I was very impressed with his playing (and also by the fact that the young Sergey had obviously grown since his jacket and trousers were bought for him, and both were too short on arms and legs; up and coming artists don't have money for constant new wardrobes). I bought Khachatryan's latest CD – the three Brahms sonatas – even though I really have no need whatsoever for yet another set of the three Brahms sonatas; this really has to be the last set. The performances, with his sister Lusine as the pianist, are expert and thoroughly musical. If only I didn't have so many competitors (including the superb set by Boris Goldstein).

At the same time, and for much the same reasons of loyalty, I bought Isabelle Faust playing the two Bartok concertos, though I am not fond of the two works, even if I find the second is marginally more interesting than the first. Both Bartok and Stravinsky seem to me to have written much de-humanised music (unlike their semi-contemporaries Rachmaninov or Shostakovich). But I really like Isabelle Faust's playing, just as I really like the playing of Kristof Barati and a few others. It is refreshing to listen to the more sober Central European style of artists such as Faust, Barati, Frank Peter Zimmermann and ChristianTetzlaff after the excesses of the Russian / American clones. Momentarily overwhelmed by a mammoth tide of things to listen to – I have just acquired Klemperer in four Mozart operas – I really must stop buying. Maybe there are Music Buyers Anonymous chapters?

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Masaaki Suzuki

Masaaki Suzuki has been labouring long over Bach's vocal works but has never received too much mention in this blog. An oversight for which I apologise. Suzuki and his Swedish record company (BIS) and his mainly Japanese Bach forces have reached Volume 53 of their Bach cantata recordings, and very good they are, too. Choirs and instrumental forces are not too minimalist (thank you, BIS accountants). Volume 53 has the quartet of faithful regular singers -- Hana Blazikova, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk and Peter Kooij -- plus the usual Bach Collegium Japan. Year after year, Masaaki Suzuki has been a "best buy" in the Bach cantata field. Many thanks, Mr Suzuki (and BIS). You are much appreciated.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Barati and Würz in Beethoven

Beethoven's ten sonatas for piano and violin do not demand a high level of virtuosity (at least as far as the violin parts are concerned; I can't speak for pianists). A set of the ten when recorded does however require a) an excellent pianist b) an excellent violinist and c) an excellent recording and balance engineer. Get all three together, and you have a classic set of the ten. The 33 sonata movements, in the main, are not “great” Beethoven as with some of his symphonies, piano sonatas or string quartets, but they are highly agreeable and well-crafted works that repay frequent playing and listening.

Balancing a violin and a piano – in performance, as well as in a recording – is tricky since the two instruments are not too compatible. The piano hammers its strings, can make a very loud noise indeed when required, and finds it difficult to play really pianissimo. The violin caresses its strings with a bow, cannot really play at a very high volume, and excels at pianissimo and cantabile passages. There are a fair number of excellent recordings of the Beethoven 10, among which I would list Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, Christian Ferras and Pierre Barbizet, Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp, Josef Suk and Jan Panenka, Christian Tetzlaff and Alexander Lonquich. To these I have now added Kristof Barati with Klara Würz (I also have Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace, but these await listening).

Barati and Würz are excellent; both are very high class instrumentalists, and they play as a true duo. Tempi are “spirited” -- no bad thing in these amiable and mainly agreeable works that do not set out to plumb vast emotional depths. [[So another potentially top-class set, let down as so often by the recording engineers. The piano is slightly too forward, the violin slightly too backward, meaning that when the violin is playing with the piano we often have to strain our ears. And the engineers have allowed an unpleasant over-bright sheen to many of the higher passages when played by Barati; a 1703 Stradivari does not sound like this on its higher strings! So only 7/10 for the recording technology, which is a great shame since Würz and Barati really deserve the best.]]

Post Scriptum: My opinions above concerning balance and violin sound were arrived at listening to the ten sonatas via my loudspeakers (Quad). Listening now to Op 96 through good quality wireless headphones (Sennheiser) suggests there is nothing wrong with the balance and the violin sound on these recordings. From 7/10, we should go at least to 9/10, if not a bit higher. It confirms my growing suspicion that my current loudspeakers over-favour the bass (and thus the piano) and neglect the treble (and thus the violin). Speaker change is called for. Meanwhile, my apologies to Brilliant Classics for underestimating its recorded sound here. And a chance to underline, once again, my admiration for Klara Würtz and Kristof Barati in these recordings; they may well end up as my favourite set of them all.