Friday, 31 January 2014

The Music of Edward Elgar

I first met Elgar's quintet for piano and string quartet during a concert many years ago at Boxgrove Priory in Sussex (flanked by three of my four sisters). For me, it was love at first hearing and I have always found the quintet to be special ever since that evening long ago. The work, written in 1918 after the devastating Great War, positively aches with nostalgia for a vanished age – a vanished age both musically and socially. The recording by the Goldner String Quartet with Piers Lane strikes me as well-nigh ideal, with excellent tempos, good recording quality and an admirable balance with the piano centred within the quartet. Maybe Elgar's finale is not quite up to the standard of the first two movements but, then, finales rarely are.

As an Englishman living only an hour or so from Elgar Country in Worcester and Malvern, I always have the impression Elgar's music speaks to me directly, though I am not an uncritical admirer of his output. I love the violin concerto and the cello concerto. In the right mood, I love both the symphonies. The Introduction & Allegro is superb, as are the Enigma Variations and many of the short pieces Elgar wrote, especially those for violin – his instrument – and piano. The music of the Dream of Gerontius is often terrific, but I really cannot stomach the words (poem by Cardinal Newman). All those Holy Marys and Holy Spirits get on my nerves; I'd probably enjoy the work sung in Finnish or Hebrew where the text would pass me by.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Lisa Batiashvili

For me, although there are many, many first class violin concertos, there are only three great ones: those of Beethoven, Brahms and the first concerto of Shostakovich. I have multiple recorded versions of all of them, of course, including 43 of the Shostakovich concerto. This evening I listened to a performance of the Shostakovich by Lisa Batiashvili; she achieves the remarkable feat of being my preferred violinist for modern recordings of all three great concertos: Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich.

Batiashvili is, of course, a superb violinist. She makes a lovely sound. She is intensely musical, and everything she does is dictated by the work she is playing, not by a desire to grand-stand or to impress. Her playing is marked by a very high degree of intellectual concentration. In a crowded field of exceptional modern violinists, she has always been my favourite, and this evening I was glued to every note of Shostakovich's familiar A minor concerto.

It's a shame that, even though of Georgian origin, she seems never to have played or recorded the almost unknown F minor violin concerto by Otar Taktakishvili -- a concerto seemingly only ever recorded by Liana Isakadze. If Batiashvili will not play it; who will? I love it.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Paganini, Kreisler, and Laurent Korcia

Niccolò Paganini revolutionised the technique of violin playing, and he also wrote a lot of agreeable music for the violin. Not as agreeable, however, as that of later great violinists such as Heinrich Ernst, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Sarasate and Kreisler. Fritz Kreisler re-wrote the first movement of Paganini's first violin concerto, and the resulting interesting pastiche is sometimes played and recorded (including a 1936 recording by Kreisler himself). I have just been listening to it played with molta bravura by Laurent Korcia, the somewhat abrasive French violinist who is, nevertheless, always interesting to listen to. Paganini-Kreisler in the D major concerto should be played more often; one does not have to be too fastidious about historical reconstruction, or letter of the score, when tackling Paganini's music. Korcia's new CD bears the title “Mr Paganini”; from the works on the welcome little disc, it could also have been called “.. and Mr Kreisler”.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

Too many composers died young: Purcell, Mozart, Bellini and Schubert in their mid-30s, Guillaume Lekeu when only 24, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi when only 26. I have just been listening to a new recording of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater; what a masterpiece, completed just before his death from tuberculosis. A new recording features Julia Lezhneva (my current favourite baroque soprano) and Philippe Jaroussky (one of the very few counter-tenors I find entirely acceptable). With I Barocchisti in the background (Pergolesi's orchestral band does not have a major part as it would have done with Bach or Handel) this recording should end up as a modern classic. And the music is sublime.

The Busch String Quartet in Brahms

When the Busch String Quartet was finally formed in 1919 in Berlin after the end of the war, Brahms had been dead only some 20 years -- Adolf Busch was six years old when Brahms died. Listening to the Busch Quartet playing Brahms string quartets, one does have a sense of authentic performance (as the modern passion mandates). Almost certainly, this would have been how Brahms' quartets would have sounded when the composer was alive. Pristine Audio has issued the Busch playing the three string quartets, plus the first piano quartet. Though not a convinced lover of Brahms' chamber music, I listened with both interest and enjoyment to all these works and, as always, marvelled at the sheer musicality of the Busch Quartet.

As Andrew Rose notes on the Pristine website, these performances are also striking for what they tell us about advances in recording technology. 1925 was, of course, the first major technological breakthrough, with the advent of the microphone and electrical recording. The four works on the current CDs were recorded in 1932, 1947 and 1949 and the sound improves with each step (by 1949, HMV was recording using tape rather than the old shellac masters). Transfers, as we have come to expect from Pristine, are excellent. Busch and Serkin, the Busch String Quartet, and the Busch Chamber Players recorded extensively during the 1930s -- Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. I sincerely hope that, before long, all Busch recordings will be available in good, modern transfers. Meanwhile: thanks, Andrew Rose!

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Tianwa Yang and the Final Sarasate Volume

The eighth and final CD of Naxos's traversal of all Sarasate's music for violin has now appeared and completes this excellent series in a fine fashion. Apart from one work (Sarasate's Souvenir de Faust de Gounod) all the pieces on this CD are arrangements by Sarasate. Though there is some evidence of barrel scraping – Sarasate's arrangements of Bach's Air on the G string, or Handel's “Largo” are hardly essential listening – well over an hour of the over 79 minutes of music here are well worth hearing, in particular Sarasate's Chopin arrangements (waltzes and nocturnes). Bravo Naxos, and bravo Pablo de Sarasate.

And a big bravo to Tianwa Yang, the violinist on all eight CDs. Sarasate's music, and his playing, were characterised by elegance and sophistication; Pablo was no barnstormer, as we can hear (distantly) from his playing on a few pieces of his own music captured in 1903. His playing was supremely elegant and, commentators affirmed, devastatingly accurate. As a player of mainly salon music during the later decades of nineteenth century France, he became extremely rich. Tianwa Yang is able to enter the sound world of Sarasate and to emulate his elegance. It makes one hope she will go on to explore the violin music of Vieuxtemps and Saint-Saëns. The extremely talented Julia Fischer has a Sarasate CD coming out shortly, and I have it on order since I can't resist Sarasate's music. I'll be surprised if Julia Fischer is able to equal the playing and interpretation of this remarkable young Chinese woman.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Igor Stravinsky

Some people, particularly younger people, love lists of “the best” or “the greatest”. This can become ridiculous; whilst it is not too difficult to suggest the three greatest composers, it is much more controversial to pinpoint the five greatest. Or the greatest French composer (there are many truly excellent French composers, but “the greatest”?) And so with “the greatest composer of the 20th century”. I happen to think there was not a greatest, just very many extremely good composers.

One (young) musical journalist once nominated Igor Stravinsky for this title; a puzzling choice. Since my teens I have enjoyed the Firebird, Petrouchka, Rite of Spring, Symphony of Psalms, Soldier's Tale, Agon, Threni and a few other pieces of the carefully controversial but carefully commercial Russian professional emigré with a constant desire to make money in France, Switzerland or America. His violin concerto -- like his piano concerto -- has never really made the big time. I have thoroughly enjoyed his violin concerto recently played by Patricia Kopatchinskaja (henceforward: PK. The girl's name simply has too many finger-twisting syllables). PK recorded it with Vladimir Jurowski, and also played it on-air conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, and PK is probably the ideal soloist for this semi-baroque, semi-modern, semi-important violin concerto. She is technically brilliant (of course) but also brings a spirit of adventure and freshness to the music. PK is firmly in my pantheon of superb modern women of the violin (which includes Alina Ibragimova, Vilde Frang, Tianwa Yang and Lisa Batiasvili). But even PK at her finest cannot convince me that old Igor was a “great” composer -- let alone the 20th century's greatest.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Two Great Piano Trio Recordings

Four major string players playing together do not make for a great performance of a string quartet. However, piano trios often bloom when three major players get together. I have just been listening with enormous pleasure to the famous 1926 recording of Schubert's B flat piano trio played by Cortot, Thibaud and Casals, a legendary recording of the past very well restored by Ward Marston (for Naxos). These three played together regularly, and all three lived in Paris and had similar musical strengths. A recording to enjoy until the end of time, with a sound that still holds up well some 88 (!) years later. The primary adjective for this kind of playing is: elegant (also in the G major Haydn trio on the same Naxos CD).

A similar great historical success was the Tchaikovsky A minor piano trio recorded in 1952 by Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich. The three musicians all lived in Moscow and played together regularly (until, like the Parisian three, politics broke them up). The Tchaikovsky still awaits satisfactory audio restoration -- Russian recording techniques were not great in the 1950s -- though the DoReMi transfers are not too bad. Perhaps Pristine Audio will come forward one day. But Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich playing Tchaikovsky is really very, very special.