Sunday, 30 March 2014

Shostakovich's Symphony No.14

When Shostakovich's 14th symphony saw the light of day in 1969, my three children were already present and smiling. So, for me, it's a somewhat recent work -- possibly the most “modern” work to have entered my listening repertoire. To my great shame, it's a work I had never heard until 30th March 2014; sad neglect on my part.

I bought the CD because I like Shostakovich, I like late Shostakovich, I like Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic, and I like Naxos's recordings and prices. No disappointment. I cannot judge the performance on the basis of only one known version (to me), but Petrenko, Gal James and Alexander Vinogradov seem to be thoroughly satisfactory in the eleven linked songs that constitute the 14th symphony. The Liverpool Phil, minus woodwind and brass, sounds very professional. Pretty gloomy music, and it would not really be appropriate for a Home for the Aged and Dying. But much Russian music is gloomy, as is much of the music of Dmitry Shostakovich. Tough. I enjoy the 14th symphony immensely and I like Petrenko, James and Vinogradov.

Fritz Kreisler and Jack Liebeck

It is said that Fritz Kreisler was the only violinist Jascha Heifetz admitted to admiring, and a photo of Kreisler always hung in Heifetz's house in California. Probably in recognition of Kreisler's unique tone and style, Heifetz seems to have avoided recording most of Kreisler's compositions, probably realising his performances would never be compared favourably with those of Kreisler himself.

Fritz Kreisler was born in Vienna in February 1875 and most of his compositions for violin date from the end of the nineteenth century and the very beginning of the twentieth. His earliest recordings date from 1904, when he was already 29 years old and in his violinistic prime. For over 100 years, Kreisler's compositions and arrangements have delighted violinists and listeners alike; they are all short, melodious, well written for violin and piano accompaniment, and reflect the fin de siécle world of late nineteenth century Vienna and Berlin. Technically, the pieces are usually not too challenging to play -- even I played most of them, in my time. But they were written to show off Kreisler's unique technique and tonal palette and it is notoriously difficult to approach, let alone equal, Kreisler's own recordings, the earliest of which, Caprice Viennois, dates from 1910.

I usually buy new recordings of the music of Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps and Sarasate -- and of Kreisler, though recordings of Kreisler pieces are often a disappointment. Not so a brand new CD from Jack Liebeck where, appropriately accompanied by Katya Apekisheva, he plays some 17 Kreisler compositions and arrangements over a period of nearly 69 minutes. Liebeck's style is not Kreisler's, but he is convincing in his 69 minute traversal, and he has an excellent feeling for rhythm and tempo, so important in this music. He ends with Kreisler's arrangement of Giuseppe Tartini's “Devil's Trill” sonata, thankfully played in true 20th century style without the museum approach advocated by modern fashion; I have always found Kreisler's cadenza in this work exemplary, and a moment I always anticipate with pleasure (as long as I do not have to play it myself). For Liebeck and partner, Hyperion provides a good, well-balanced recording, with neither instrument too forward. A rare treat.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Paganini's 24 Capricci

It takes a great violinist to hold a listener's attention through 60 minutes of solo violin playing. Although the violin has a wide palette of dynamics and effects, it takes a great violinist to manipulate all the levers. Paganini's 24 caprices are now, technically, almost bread and butter to conservatoire-trained violinists. To master their intricate technicalities is one thing; but a really good performance only comes when the violinist can brush aside the technical challenges and concentrate on the music and on exploring the various voices and colours of the violin.

This blog is becoming (temporarily) a bit of a James Ehnes fan club, but I have just been listening to him in Paga's 24 and was kept gripped until the end. I enjoyed Ehnes's rendition of the finger-twisting sixth caprice. And with Ehnes at the helm, the somewhat weird harmonies of the 8th caprice were just that, and not some violinist encountering intonation problems. And, pace many of the critics --- most of whom turn out to be pianists or choristers -- the 24 capricci are really well written and are attractive music in their own right, not just exercises to show off violin technique. They come into their own when played as music, not as exercises and it was this that so endeared James Ehnes's performance to me. Bravo.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Elgar's Violin Concerto

Much of the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Elgar and Mahler is filled with Angst; it was that period in musical history 1880-1920 when many things were in a turmoil. To my taste, there are two convincing ways of playing angst-rich music: either play it straight, on the grounds all the emotion is already written into the music. Or play it with heart-on-sleeve for all it is worth. In Mahler, take your choice between someone like like Haitink or Klemperer; or someone like Bernstein. In Rachmaninov, take your pick between someone like Rachmaninov himself, or extroverts such as Martha Argerich or Yuja Wang. In Tchaikovsky, the Pathétique Symphony used to please me when played fast and straight by Cantelli or Toscanini, but nowadays I go for heart-on-sleeve Pletnev or Gergiev.

In the Elgar violin concerto to which I have just been listening, those who like the music slobbered over can go with young Menuhin, or with Nigel Kennedy. Those who like the music left to speak for itself can go with Thomas Zehetmair or with James Ehnes, to whom I listened again with admiration yesterday evening.

I have 22 recordings of the Elgar concerto and none of them are bad; the only bad one I had, with Igor Oistrakh all at sea, was deleted from my collection long ago. Apart from the superb Zehetmair and Ehnes modern recordings, I also own recordings by Hugh Bean, Alfredo Campoli, Kyung-Wha Chung, Philippe Graffin, Ida Haendel, Hilary Hahn, Jascha Heifetz, Nai-Yuan Hu, Dong-Suk Kang, Nigel Kennedy, Isabelle van Keulen, Gidon Kremer, Simone Lamsma, Catherine Manoukian, Yehudi Menuhin, Albert Sammons, and Elena Urioste. Quite a line-up, and some surprises such as the impassioned performance by Gidon Kremer, or Kyung-Wha Chung expertly guided by Georg Solti who, for all his faults, was an exemplary no-nonsense Elgarian. My personal favourite reading of all time is Albert Sammons recorded in long-gone 1929; no slobbering there!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

James Ehnes and Khachaturian

Since 1996, I have been a fan of the playing of the Canadian violinist, James Ehnes. A rock solid technique, an avoidance of distracting mannerisms, good taste, high intelligence; any performance by James Ehnes almost always ticks the right boxes. His repertoire is wide, and I have especially enjoyed him in Bruch, Britten and Kreisler.

The only box Ehnes has rarely ticked in the past has been evidence of real emotional involvement. I bought his new recording (Khachaturian violin concerto) more on the strength of the other items on the CD (Shostakovich's 7th and 8th string quartets) than on expecting a dazzling performance of Khachaturian's vibrant, colourful and warm-hearted violin concerto. But I was pleasantly surprised; again, Ehnes ticks all the right boxes, but this time he lets himself go and gives us a performance of the concerto to rival my two all-time classics: Julian Sitkovetzky with Niyazi and the Romanian Radio Orchestra (1954), and Leonid Kogan with Monteux in Boston (1958). Melbourne is a long way from Armenia, but the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra players seem to be enjoying themselves. When musicians are having a good time, it shows, and Khachaturian must have made a welcome change for them from non-stop Brahms and Beethoven. England is nearer to Armenia than are Australia or Canada, but the conductor, Mark Wigglesworth enters into the spirit of things. And, to cap it all, Onyx has produced a well-recorded and well-balanced recording. To the groans of “expert” critics, Khachaturian's concerto has found a stable place in the repertoire of 20th century music -- I have 22 different recordings of the piece, and still new ones appear regularly and are usually snapped up by me. Ehnes breaks with tradition and plays Khachaturian's original first movement cadenza, not the Oistrakh one that is usually substituted. But anything is better than Mikhail Simonyan's cadenza that I criticised recently.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Chloë Hanslip plays Medtner

Chloë Hanslip has never featured among my favourite violinists, but I bought her new CD (Hyperion) of Medtner's first and third sonatas because I like the “Epica” sonata very much, and was happy to get to know the first sonata that is also on this disc. Ms Hanslip's playing here was a very pleasant surprise: committed, interesting, varied and subtle.

The violin is balanced too forward for my liking and, as recorded and played on my equipment, on occasions sounds somewhat strident and harsh. This becomes wearing in a long sonata such as the “Epica”. More annoyingly, the pianist -- Igor Tchetuev -- sounds a bit like a Russian Gerald Moore; agreeable, modest, faithful. But turn to Boris Berezovsky (with Vadim Repin, 1996) and the difference is immediately obvious. With Boris at the piano, the third sonata becomes a true duo sonata.

If Chloë Hanslip re-records the Medtner sonatas one day with a better balance and recording engineer and more suitable duo partner. I'll be the first to buy the new edition. The “Epica”, in particular, is a very fine sonata and well deserves to become better known and more often programmed.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Discreet Interpreters

Back from my travels – Luang Prabang in Laos was particularly fine – I quickly plugged back into music listening, something that had been missing for two weeks. First off the storage rack was Matthieu Arama playing (very well) a selection of pieces by Wieniawski, Brahms, Paganini, Sarasate, etc. He is a fine violinist, though I had never heard of him before buying this CD.

For that kind of music, one needs a performer of talent and individuality. Turning afterwards to late Beethoven piano sonatas, I again marvelled at the playing of Igor Levit; when Levit plays, you forget about Levit and his piano and immerse yourself in the late sonatas of Beethoven. Just as when Kempff, Pires or Andsnes play late Schubert, or Adolf Busch and friends play Bach, Schubert or Beethoven, or Philippe Herrewhege conducts Bach … it's the music that occupies centre stage, and the performers involved become almost transparent media.