Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Volker Reinhold plays Sarasate

A commenter on this blog mentioned a Sarasate recital CD by Volker Reinhold, accompanied by Ralph Zedler. Since the CD contains 74 minutes of music comprising six opera fantasies by Sarasate, I snapped up the CD. Herr Reinhold appears to be 50 years old, lives and works in north-east Germany, and has a love of playing the music of Kreisler and Sarasate. This is apparently his début CD (Dabringhaus & Grimm).

A pleasant surprise from this totally unknown violinist (unknown to me, that is). He plays with taste, accuracy and obvious enjoyment. He is well accompanied, well recorded and balanced. The music is highly enjoyable. How does he compare with Tianwa Yang, who up until now has been “Miss Sarasate” and has also recorded all six pieces on the Reinhold CD? Well, Miss Yang has a little more nonchalance, where needed, and a little more joie de vivre, where needed. Compared with her, Herr Reinhold can sometimes sound a little solemn and straight-laced. But this is quibbling a bit, since the Dabringhaus CD has given me a great deal of pleasure. Pablo de Sarasate is holding his own in the affections of violinists and listeners after 130 years or so. And Herr Reinhold proves you do not need to have a big name and powerful PR backing to be a superb violinist and well worth listening to.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Tianwa Yang plays Eugène Ysaÿe

It has always seemed to me that Yehudi Menuhin endorsed each new violinist presented to him as “the most wonderful I have ever heard”. So, I am conscious, I do with each and every new recording of Eugène Ysaÿe's much recorded six sonatas for solo violin. Only recently I was enthusing over complete sets from Kristof Barati and from Tai Murray. Today I am enthusing over a brand-new complete set from Tianwa Yang, the phenomenal Chinese violinist. Miss Yang transitions well from Sarasate (her recent 10-hour traversal) to Eugène Ysaÿe. Replying to a critic of Jascha Heifetz's speed in a certain work, Leopold Auer is said to have retorted: “Ah, yes. But you listened to every note, did you not?” When Tianwa Yang plays Ysaÿe, I listen to every note, since there is so much variety in the sound coming from her 1729 Petrus Guarneri violin. It reminds you just how great a range of colour a violin can come up with, in the right hands.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Nemanja Radulovic

Even now, after 200 years, much of the music of Niccolò Paganini is tough going, technically. Most top class violinists can play the notes accurately, but there are still visible challenges, like the melody in double stops in the finale of the first concerto, played in harmonics. I seem to have amassed 45 recordings of Paganini's first concerto, going alphabetically from Vasco Abadjiev to Ion Voicu. My principal heroes in the piece are Leonid Kogan, Viktoria Mullova, and Michael Rabin. The latest addition, number 45, is Nemanja Radulovic accompanied by the Italian Radio Orchestra.

From the many contemporary accounts of Paganini's playing, not only was he an incredible technician, but also a major showman and mesmeriser. This came to mind listening to Radulovic, whose playing swoons, wows, slows, speeds, whispers, shouts and generally indulges in a fair degree of rubato, tempo changes and very wide changes in dynamics. Paganini would probably have considered it “authentic”; most other performances sound somewhat staid and bland compared with Radulovic, and the Italian orchestra accompanies with the kind of enthusiastic gusto Paganini probably imagined from the sounds of early 19th century Italian opera orchestras.

Radulovic had me listening to every note (except some of the pianissimos, that were pretty inaudible to me). Someone who can have me hanging on to every note for 37 minutes in a piece of music I know inside out, gets my vote; this is a performance to which I shall return many times. The CD also contains three caprices, plus other Paganini numbers, all played with quite incredible technical aplomb. I suspect I might feel differently about Radulovic in Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. But for Paganini: he's my man.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bernard Haitink in Bruckner

During the 1950s when I was exploring music, I acquired Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Ferrier) and 4th Symphony (Kletzki), as well as Bruckner's 9th Symphony (Horenstein). I still have all three recordings. That was the start of my love affair with the music of Mahler and Bruckner. Both composers were late 19th century Austrians (though Mahler was a bit younger) and both wrote more or less nine symphonies. Actually, there the resemblance ends, and my enthusiasm for Mahler waned over the decades, but the love of Bruckner grew. There is a nobility and sincerity about Bruckner's music that makes it eternal and deeply satisfying.

Jascha Horenstein was a sure guide in Bruckner's 9th (I still find his reading of the demonic scherzo the most demonic of them all) but his 1952 recording was a bit thin and weedy. Later came many more, including van Beinum, Furtwängler, Jochum, Klemperer, Knappertsbusch, Schuricht and Wand, with Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1944 performance perhaps being the greatest of the great. Bruckner needs good sound -- the only conceivable drawback to Furtwängler and Horenstein. He needs a really good conductor, one who can control the ebb and flow of the music, retain a true pulse, shape the phrasing and sculpt the dynamics; and avoid Thomas Beecham's jibe against Bruckner that he heard seven pregnancies and six miscarriages.

There are conductors who achieve many column inches in the media -- Bernstein, Barenboim, von Karajan, Dudhamel, Rattle, et al. And conductors who achieve quiet reputations among cognoscenti and orchestral players: Boult, Klemperer, Horenstein, Knappertsbusch, Wand -- and Bernard Haitink. My father, an orchestral player for most of his life, thought the world of Pierre Monteux. A neighbour of mine who was a prominent player in the Philharmonia in the 1970s when I lived in London, when asked by me which of the present conductors the Philharmonia preferred, replied succinctly: “We don't mind who conducts us, as long as it isn't Menuhin”. Orchestral players have their own hierarchies and most, I suspect, regard most conductors as unnecessary and often expensive hangers-on. But not, I suspect, when it comes to Bruckner symphonies that really need an overall controller to sort out those questions of pulse, tempo and dynamics. A conductor-less orchestra would be hard-pressed in Bruckner.

Tellingly, Bruckner is rarely the pasture where media-celebrity conductors shine. I was gripped and enthralled all over again by Bruckner's ninth symphony in a new recording (2013, live) from Bernard Haitink and the LSO. I frequently smiled during this performance as Haitink so expertly negotiated Bruckner's many tempo changes, seams and joints. The performance is leisurely, as befits a conductor in his 80s and, I would argue, Bruckner's music of the late 19th century Austria where everyone was in less of a hurry than nowadays. The LSO plays superbly here, and the recording is really first rate. What more does one want? Well, Furtwängler in 1944 does provide that little something extra, but one has to weigh the something extra against the inferior sound. I give both Furtwängler and Haitink three stars in this work and am really pleased to have added 2013 Haitink to my collection.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Adolf Busch

Adolf Georg Wilhelm Busch's life was blighted by history and politics – like so many of his generation. Born in Germany in 1891, by the time he was ready to launch his professional career, the Great War broke out. After the war, defeated Germany suffered poverty, hyper-inflation, then a massive economic collapse. The rise of National Socialism saw Busch leaving for self-imposed exile in Switzerland in 1933. He then eked out a career in the 1930s with teaching, concerts and with recording in England. With the arrival of the second world war, Busch left for America where, again, he eked out a living with teaching and a few concerts. His health suffered, and he died in exile in America in 1952 at the age of sixty one in frail health.

A highly interesting double CD set from the Swiss company Guild Historical reveals what a major violinist Busch was, in his prime. Berlin recordings from 1921-2, and 1928-9 show Busch as a violinist of real stature. His recording début had to wait until he was 29 years old, but the 1921-2 recordings show a violinist with a characteristic slashing right arm, exact intonation, exhilarating trills and a superb sense of rhythm; he is particularly admirable in the Brahms Hungarian dances on the CDs. In Bach, Busch is noble and authoritative, but it is particularly interesting to hear him in music he never again recorded (or was allowed to record) such as short pieces by Corelli, Dvorak, Brahms, Gossec, Kreisler and Schumann.

Violin classes at music conservatories could well start with in-depth listening to violinists such as Kreisler, Busch and Enescu – in particular, the use of bow strokes to articulate phrasing and rhythm. Post-1950, smooth, seamless bowing became the accepted fashion (David Oistrakh remarked how Yehudi Menuhin used lots of bow strokes, and Menuhin's teachers included Enescu and Busch).

The sound on these recordings from the 1920s is surprisingly good, and few allowances need to be made. The string quartet excerpts from 1922 suffer most; good for listening to Busch, but the other three merge into a mush far from the horn. The jump in quality when we reach 1928 is very noticeable. I enjoyed everything on these two CDs except, perhaps, Busch's rendition of Schumann's Träumerei (arranged by Hüllweck) which is very slow and with lavish portamenti that distract. Busch's blighted solo violin career was tragic for him – but also for us.