Monday, 30 September 2013

György Ligeti

Why is it so difficult to create a memorable theme, tune, motive or melody? Give Franz Schubert a few notes and a few manuscript bars and he could create highly memorable themes at the drop of a hat (think of the simplicity of the opening theme of the Notturno in E flat for piano, violin & cello D 897). Or think of the opening theme of Beethoven's Eroica symphony; simple, but effective. Why do so many contemporary composers find themes such a difficult concept? Ever the determined explorer, I gave György Ligeti a second chance, and started to re-listen to his violin concerto. My two thoughts after around five minutes? The first was: “codswallop”. The second was from the old days of television, when the picture would temporarily go haywire and a message would appear on your screen: “Do not adjust your set. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible”. Mr Ligeti is now filed on the furthest filing shelf I can find. Life is far too short, and attractive music far too plentiful, to persevere with this kind of stuff.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tianwa Yang's penultimate Sarasate Volume

The postgirl brought the penultimate volume (the seventh) of the complete works of Sarasate played by the wonderful Tianwa Yang. This fourth volume of music for violin and orchestra joins the three volumes of violin and piano pieces. Of Ms Yang's playing, I cannot do better than quote a Gramophone reviewer who is quoted on the Naxos CD: “ ... Splendidly equipped as a Sarasate violinist, with her clear tone, pure intonation, impressive dexterity and light touch ... startingly beautiful”. Well, that's it, in a nutshell. If you like Sarasate's music -- and who couldn't? -- and like beautiful violin playing, this set of seven CDs is the set for you. The latest volume contains the same selection of enjoyable music; in the “Fantaisie sur Der Freischütz de Weber”, it is easy to understand why 19th century audiences loved Sarasate (and made him a very rich man from his earnings). Naxos, being a serious recording company, gives us a photo of a warm, smiling Chinese girl (Ms Yang) rather than some sultry bimbo. A warm thank you to Naxos, and a very warm thank you to Tianwa Yang for having brought eight hours of Sarasate's music very much to life. The final volume -- violin and piano -- is due out next year. I'll be waiting.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Decca, Walter, Ferrier, Mahler

The British publication The Gramophone published this month its annual awards for “the best” in various categories (excluding the all-important category of historical transfers). Improbable Artist of the Year was a blond, female trumpeter (British, of course). What raised my eyebrows was the accolade of Record Label of the Year going to ... Decca (British, in origin, of course).

There are myriad record labels out there, some doing great things in rare repertoire and with first-class artists. I was reflecting on this when, this evening, I made another small step in eliminating duplications in my collection: I have two transfers of the classic 1952 recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter, Katheen Ferrier, Julius Patzak and the Vienna Philharmonic. One transfer is Naxos (Mark Obert-Thorn). The other is from the original company Decca (96KHz 24-bit Super Digital Transfer). I listened to a one minute sample of each. One minute was enough.

The Decca sounded like a hi-tech machine transfer; the Naxos sounded like an audio craftman's transfer. Naxos won hands down -- so much so that I had to stay and listen to every note of the final Abschied as rendered by Ferrier, Walter and the VPO. Very moving, and in quite acceptable (Naxos) sound. Record Label of the Year. My foot.

Clara Haskil in Mozart

I am not old enough to have heard Mozart play his piano concertos. But I think that Clara Haskil is a good substitute for Wolfgang Amadeus, particularly in the D minor concerto K 466 which she played at the Lucerne Festival in September 1959 with the Philharmonia conducted by Otto Klemperer. Despite the 1959 recording (and the poor balance, with the piano grossly favoured over the orchestra) one can see why Haskil regarded it (in a letter to a friend) as an exceptional concert. She and Klemperer work together as in a perfect musical marriage; the somewhat grim music of K 466 seems to suit both admirably. A performance in a thousand, happily recorded and issued for posterity by Audite. Clara Haskil, like Klemperer, favours clarity, balance and note values. Such a pity the partnership never survived the dictats of the recording companies of that era.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Josef Spacek

Along with neighbouring Hungary and Romania, the Czech-Slovakian lands have produced generation after generation of fine violinists. The latest one to come to my attention is Josef Spacek who first appeared when I heard his very fine CD of pieces by Ernst where he revealed himself as an extremely musical virtuoso. A new CD from him -- with Miroslav Sekera at the piano -- features two of my favourite violin and piano sonatas: the sonata by Janacek, and Prokofiev's first sonata. A lovely CD; Spacek has an immaculate technique and a breathtaking pianissimo. The Janacek sonata comes over as more melancholy and less passionate than usual, featuring a more leisurely approach to the first movement which Janacek marked simply con moto (whatever that may mean. How can music be senza moto?)

So yet another fine duo disc; in addition to the Janacek and Prokofiev works, there are Smetana's two Z Domoviny pieces, plus the Prokofiev solo violin sonata. A word of praise for the Supraphon engineers who have achieved the difficult feat of balancing violin and piano beautifully, with plenty of space round the sound so that even Spacek's examplary pianissimo playing can be enjoyed to the full. Three stars.

Finally, a plea from a friend to anyone who has, or who knows of, a video recording of Henryk Szeryng playing Paganini's third violin concerto (London, 1971, with Alexander Gibson conducting). Anyone able to locate this or offer a copy; please send me a message.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Two Georgian Girls

Thanks to an urgent recommendation from an American friend, I plugged into Lisa Batiashvili and Khatia Buniatishvili playing Schubert and César Franck at Verbier this year (22 July). In one word: truly magnificent, and thank you MediciTV for filming the concert and making it available. The film should be shown in every music conservatory as a prime example of true duo playing. Lisa and Khatia listened to each other, and responded to each other's music, creating a real musical dialogue. For over a decade now, Lisa Batiashvili has been my top favourite of the new wave (viz, tidal wave) of brilliant new violinists; not only does she make a beautiful sound, have a superb technique and have incredible poise; but she is also a real musician whose powers of concentration shape the forms of the music she plays.

Her dialogue with Khatia Buniatishvili was riveting in the Schubert Rondo Brilliant and the Duo Sonata, and in the César Franck sonata. The encore, Heifetz's arrangement of Debussy's Beau Soir, was deeply moving as played by the two Georgians. In true duo playing of violin and piano music, one hesitates between admiring the violinist or the pianist, trying to decide which to admire more. So it was with this concert. Khatia Buniatishvili is a real pleasure to listen to, as is always, Lisa Batiashvili. It is sad that since both Georgians are “exclusive artists” with different record companies, the chance of hearing them together outside the concert stage will probably be limited. Anyway, for this 65 minute concert: thank you Lisa and Khatia. And thank you Verbier Festival and MediciTV (as well as César Franck and Franz Schubert). Proof that in a world where so much art is now thoroughly commercialised, oases of civilisation still exist.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Liverpool Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko

The Liverpool Philharmonic is hardly the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic, but in Shostakovich conducted by Vasily Petrenko the Liverpudlians sound first class. As I've remarked before, a second-echelon orchestra playing its heart out is often more enjoyable than a top orchestra going through the motions. Jascha Horenstein was another conductor who could draw first class results from second-echelon orchestras. My latest sampling of Petrenko is with Shostakovich's eighth symphony, a work of which I am becoming very fond. Easy to lose one's tracks amidst 15 symphonies that I have only recently discovered – but I do recall having a special spot for numbers 8, 10 and 15 (plus one other, that I cannot remember). An aspect of Shostakovich's music that greatly appeals to me is its frequent mood changes – from sombre to merry, from savage to tender, from soft to (very) loud indeed. In the symphonies, Petrenko and his Liverpudlians come away as excellent guides. And the Naxos prices (and recording quality) also appeal. Listening demands either good quality headphones, or a manor on a secluded estate; the music can become very loud.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Klemperer in Mozart

Listening to two very enjoyable symphonies by Friedrich Ernst Fesca written around 1815, highlighted for me the gulf between great talent, and genius. Fesca was an immensely talented composer (with an early death at 37 years old). But turn to Mozart, or Beethoven or Schubert from the same approximate period, and the contrast is stark; we are in a different musical league all together. Unfortunately for Fesca, I am in the middle of a “Mozart period”, having taken delivery of not only an 11 CD box of Mozart operas, but also an 8 CD box of Mozart symphonies and serenades. Highly enjoyable; I have neglected Mozart for quite a while to wander in the pastures of Bach, Wagner, Shostakovich, et al. But Wolfgang Amadeus is welcome back into my life.

Conductor of these mammoth boxes is ... Otto Klemperer, one of the side benefits of the EMI sale to Warner being the fire-sale of the great recordings from the EMI back catalogue. Klemperer lived a long time (dying at the ripe old age of 88 and active almost until the very end). Of him, the EMI liner note says: “ ... last of a generation of great conductors who had been nurtured within the late nineteenth century European culture where music was central to the intellectual and spiritual life of the civilisation it served”. I revel in Klemperer's Mozart conducting. All his many virtues are to the fore: care with note values; strict attention to balance and clarity; rhythmic integrity; balance between first and second violins; forward woodwind; avoidance of any suspicion of showmanship or playing to the gallery; attention to dynamics; complete integrity. Added to this, in these recordings, is the playing of the Philharmonia during the 1950s and 60s, plus the professionalism and care of detail by the EMI recording team nurtured by Walter Legge. All topped by the incredible fire-sale prices of the EMI back catalogue.

And tempi? In the main, I have few problems with Klemperer's tempi. For me, the secret of a “correct” tempo is that the interpreter must feel it, and believe in it. Thus slower tempi that can be found with artists such as Furtwängler or Klemperer can sound right, just as faster tempi with an artist such as Jascha Heifetz can sound right. Tempi sound wrong when they are chosen for extraneous reasons, such as “if I play it slowly, it will sound more profound” or “I will play it fast because that is what the composer's metronome specification says”. Tempi need to be generated internally, not from external factors.

There are -- for the moment -- Klemperer boxes of pretty well the whole Austro-German eighteenth and nineteenth century concert hall repertoire: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler. And, unlike his colleagues such as Bruno Walter, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, et al, Klemperer lived just long enough to be in pretty decent recorded sound. Anyone wanting core recordings of the Austro-German repertoire should invest in all these Klemperer boxes, immediately (the sale is unlikely to last too long).

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Fanny Clamagirand, and Camille Saint-Saëns

A sunny Saturday afternoon, and a new CD of the French violinist Fanny Clamagirand (with Vanya Cohen) playing violin and piano music of Camille Saint-Saëns. This is the third CD I have of Clamagirand playing Saint-Saëns; probably almost no one plays it better, with her French elegance and good taste. Saint-Saëns's music does not need pumping up; it just needs a sense of style. A lovely way to pass an hour or so, listening to highly agreeable music beautifully played in an entirely appropriate style. Naxos, of course.