Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Good Weekend

Rather a good weekend, with Handel arias (Sandrine Piau) and mixed songs and lieder (same singer), plus Sarasate, plus Diana Damrau singing songs and lieder, all rounded off with Bernard Haitink conducting Bruckner (a magnificent 9th Symphony with the LSO). I love Sandrine Piau's voice; it is mellow and well-rounded, with none of the over-brightness or tendency to hardness that one finds in some sopranos. Food was veal escalope, asparagus, smelly French cheeses, apricot purée, fresh fruit salad (mainly peaches), lamb Rogan Josh, avocado pear, excellent 2010 Saint-Emilion wine. All together, not a bad weekend musically or gastronomically.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Smetana Trio and Shostakovich

There is a long list of first class French composers, from the nineteenth century onwards: Berlioz. Bizet. Saint-Saëns. Fauré. Ravel. Debussy. Franck (by adoption). Duparc. Chausson. The question is sometimes asked: “Who is the greatest French composer?” The answer, I suppose, is there really isn't one, in the sense of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, and so on. Listening this evening to Ravel's well-known and well-written Piano Trio in A minor, I chafed a little at so much compositional skill being applied to something that was, well, just extremely well-written. It reminded me a bit of the music of William Walton; very clever, but somehow divorced from human emotions. Moving on after a pause to Shostakovitch's Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, we enter an entirely different world, a world where the music speaks to us. We don't admire Shostakovitch's piano trio. We feel the emotions behind the music, and we live the music.

Superb executants of both trios (and including Shostakovitch's early first trio) was the Smetana Trio, recorded in Prague by entirely admirable Czech recording engineers at Supraphon. Piano trios are difficult to balance. But if you want to record a piano trio; go to Prague. And for a really great piano trio: Shostakovitch's E minor trio should be near the top of your list.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Busch Quartet and the late Beethoven Quartets: Pristine Audio

Pristine Audio (Andrew Rose) has brought out a 3-CD set of most of the late Beethoven string quartets (nos. 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16) along with the first Rasumovsky, number 7; played by the Busch String Quartet. I've had these recordings for over 30 years, originally on LP, then on CD. The GROC transfers from EMI were not bad, but Andrew Rose's are better, with more “air” around the slightly warmer sound. It is excellent to have these really great performances from the 1930s (with a couple of early 1940s) in the best possible transfers. The Busch late Beethoven quartet performances are legendary, with an intensity that is especially noticeable in the slow movements (for example, the long 17 minute adagio of the E flat quartet, Op 127). The refurbished sound on these transfers is so good, and the performances so authoritative that I have to wonder why I keep shelves full of alternative versions; when it comes to the late Beethoven quartets, why would I listen to anyone other than the Busch? The transfers from the European recordings of the earlier 1930s sound better than the two transfers from the American recordings of the earlier 1940s, for some reason. And, oh, why did the Busch Quartet never record the Grosse Fuge!

For me, the late Beethoven quartets occupy the very pinnacle of classical music (along with some of Bach's major works). I cannot imagine better performances of this great music. Now on to Busch's Bach, Mr Rose! The Brandenburg concertos, in particular, have a joy in music making that communicates itself over the 80 years or so since the recordings were made. Unfashionable Busch's Bach may be at the present time; but it is still great, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Magdalena Kozena / Deirdre Moynihan

It is not too often I buy compilation CDs (as opposed to recitals). However, as a long-term admirer of Magdalena Kozena I bought a two-CD set of her singing various music from Monteverdi to Ravel, via Czech folk songs. As befits this singer, everything is superb (though I wince a bit a some her singing in French). Over two hours of enjoyment.

When I was in my teens, Schubert's piano and string quartet music had been re-discovered. Mahler and Bruckner were emerging from oblivion. Handel was still considered mainly as the composer of The Messiah, Water Music, Fireworks Music and “Handel's Largo” (as if he only wrote one piece of music with that tempo indication). Antonio Vivaldi was an Italian who wrote The Four Seasons; and that was pretty much all. Vivaldi is now re-emerging as a composer of operas and cantatas, so I snapped up a new Naxos CD where, for 55 minutes, Deirdre Moynihan sings four highly interesting Vivaldi cantatas, with backing provided by the Ensemble Nota Velata (two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord).

The music is three star, but I really cannot take Ms Moynihan as recorded here. Her voice is bright, and recorded near the microphone where she sings at a relentless mezzo-forte. There is no “space” around the voice as recorded here, and after a few minutes it really gets on my nerves. The Ensemble Nota Velata has been warned that, to sound “authentic”, the strings have to eschew all vibrato, so they produce a dry, acidic backing. Senza vibrato may well have been how people played in those far-off days, but there is no need to avert one's gaze from advances in instrumental sound and technique that have occurred since. Violins played senza vibrato simply do not sound as attractive as violin playing warmed by a little vibrato. And if one wants to be historically correct, there was no question back in 1720 or whenever, of recording a concert and then playing it back twenty years or so later in one's own living room. We have, thank goodness, seen off “authentic” boy trebles as substitutes for sopranos. We have seen off sopranos singing with a “white”, vibrato-less sound. We have seen off harpsichords or forte-pianos thunking away at all keyboard music prior to around 1830. Hopefully, soon, the wind of fashion will change again and the acid baroque violin sound will be confined to the corridors of institutes of historical performance studies. On this Vivalidi CD, the band sounds like an econo-band beloved of music financial controllers (the same people who love eight part choruses sung “authentically” by four soloists). Agreed that Vivaldi did not envisage the Vienna Philharmonic as instrumental players for his cantatas. But give me any day something like the Venice Baroque Orchestra that accompanies Magdalena Kozena in many of the eighteenth century pieces in her compilation.