Saturday, 20 September 2014

Kristof Barati and Klara Würtz in Brahms

Pretty well every violinist has played the three violin and piano sonatas of Johannes Brahms; and seemingly hundreds have also recorded them (since the three fit nicely on to one CD). Success (for me) means: good, classic tempi for all ten movements; a good-sounding violin (there are many lyrical and romantic passages); a true duo partnership with an equal-status pianist; a well-balanced recording; a sense of style. All of these attributes are met, for me, in a new recording by the duo of Kristof Barati and Klara Würtz. I would characterise the approach as “classic Central European” in the tradition of violinists such as Adolf Busch, Josef Suk and Wolfgang Schneiderhan. Some way away from the post-1950s tradition of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern or Pinchas Zukerman.

I will not be throwing away my pile of alternative versions (of which I have far too many, including the excellent recent Leonidas Kavakos with Yuja Wang). But the Barati-Würtz duo continues its superb track record that began with the complete violin and piano sonatas of Beethoven. Three stars for 64 minutes of happy and agreeable listening (Brilliant Classics).

Friday, 19 September 2014

Ariodante, and Handel Opera

Following eye surgery, I have been having a break from reading books or looking at screens, and have indulged myself in listening to long stretches of music. Over the past couple of days it has been Handel operas and, mainly at random, I picked Ariodante off the shelf. Three hours of truly first class music. Not only was Handel a superb melodist, he also – unlike most of his rivals – wrote “accompaniments” to the arias that show just what can be done with a few strings, an oboe, a couple of horns and bassoons. Listening without a libretto, I discovered what I have always suspected: pace the critics, one can enjoy 18th century opera perfectly well just listening to the music and with no idea whatsoever of a “plot” (that is usually perfectly ridiculous). Listening to Ariodante, entranced by the music, I had no idea of the story line and it was only when Ariodante sang “io, tradito” that I realised Ariodante was a man, despite being sung here by a mezzo soprano. The king could do his nut, and someone else could be weeping some loss or another; but I just listened on regardless. With me, it is a case of prima la musica, e poi … not much else. Either Handel, or Nicholas McGegan in the performance I listened to, had cut out much of the recitative. Critics fulminate against cuts in recitative in 18th century opera “because it renders much of the story unclear”. I welcome a few recitatives as a means of breaking up the procession of arias and ariosos, and that is all. After nearly 300 years, people are not still listening with pleasure to operas by the likes of Scarlatti, Vivaldi or Handel because of the libretti.

The recording I listened to was made at the time of the 1993 Göttingen Handel Festival and was conducted by Nicolas McGegan. Orchestra was the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and soloists – good, in the main – included Lorraine Hunt and Lisa Saffer. Lorraine Hunt's singing of “Scherza infida” moved me greatly thanks to her singing, the melody, and Handel's miraculous accompaniment; this is one of Handel's -- and thus the music world's -- really great arias. A most satisfactory three hours.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Joyce DiDonato, and vocal music post 1900

Joyce DiDonato's new CD (“Stella di Napoli”) reminds us just how much music is still pretty well unknown. We hear attractive arias from the likes of Giovanni Pacini, Michele Carafa, Saverio Mercadante and Carlo Valentini along with music from the more familiar Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini. To entrance us, a good aria needs a fine librettist (to write the words), a talented composer (to compose music for the words) and a superb singer (to sing the words and the music). Joyce DiDonato is a singer who really enters into what she is singing, and is able to convey the feelings behind the words being sung even if you don't follow the language. A very fine CD indeed; entrancing music, expertly sung.

Listening to the 10 arias on the CD, one cannot help but wonder what has happened to operatic music post-1900. From Italy from the very beginning of the eighteenth century onwards, vocal music poured out from a multitude of talented composer, from Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Porpora onwards until Verdi and Puccini and then: nothing of note. It was a similar tale in Germany, where vocal music poured forth from the end of the seventeenth century onwards and then: Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler and afterwards very little, with the honourable exception of Richard Strauss.

In 50 years time, will one of DiDonato's grandchildren give us a CD of moving vocal music by Dallapicolla, Nono, Schönberg and Stockhausen? I somewhat doubt it. Twentieth century composers whose music looks like surviving long term include Sibelius, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten (maybe). Not many Italians or Germans. However, a new Great Age might dawn, one day.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Christian Tetzlaff in Shostakovich

David Oistrakh remarked that Shostakovich's two violin concertos are completely and utterly different from each other. The first – that has become extremely popular – has heavy doses of pessimism and raw emotion. The second, a very late work, has a mainly meditative quality that only gets through to listeners after many hearings. I have loved the first concerto for many decades and currently have no less than 44 different recordings of it. I have nine recordings of the less often recorded second concerto. There are few unsatisfactory recordings amongst my 44 of the first concerto (maybe only Michael Erxleben because of some wildly slow tempi) but Lisa Batiashvili, Vadim Repin, James Ehnes, Leila Josefowicz, Alexei Michlin and Maxim Vengerov all stand out and received three stars from me.

As an admirer of Christian Tetzlaff I snapped up his new Ondine CD of the two Shostakovich violin concertos. It is a magnificent CD and I am very happy. I like Tetzlaff's playing; slightly less emotional than some, and more akin to James Ehnes in the first concerto. I like the sound of Tetzlaff's marvellous violin (Peter Greiner, a modern German maker) with its even temperament over all four strings with equal strength of sound from lowest G to highest E; the sound of this violin matches Tetzlaff's playing ideally, and it is difficult to imagine him with a different fiddle under his chin. The orchestra (Helsinki Philharmonic) makes a major contribution, and confirms my feeling that many less well-known orchestras play better in concerto recordings than do their more famous colleagues (often packed with substitutes for concerto accompaniments). The Ondine recording is superbly balanced and recorded, with an ideal relationship between violin and orchestra. Tetzlaff's playing in the scherzo of the first concerto is less demonic than some, but he and the orchestra handle the great passacaglia third movement very movingly, and Tetzlaff's silences during the cadenza of the first concerto are extremely effective. I think that Tetzlaff judges the tempo of the long first movement (Notturno) of the first concerto ideally; taken too slowly, it can drag. Throughout both works, his pianissimi are a pleasure to hear (and well captured by the recording, at least when listening through good headphones).

This performances of the first concerto joins others at the top of my list, with the second concerto going right to the top in a less competitive line-up. Bravo Tetzlaff, Helsinki Philharmonic, John Storgards (the conductor) and the Ondine recording team.