Sunday, 30 November 2014

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little has never been a violinist who has featured high in my Pantheon of violinists. I bought a CD of hers years ago, featuring short bits and pieces for violin (the sort of music I love). Such pieces are difficult to play so as to hold the listener's attention, since they demand the kind of variety of bow strokes, dynamics, rubato and vibrato that modern violinists all too often lack. So Tasmin went into the “OK” bin after one hearing.

I bought a new Chandos recording featuring her and Martin Roscoe (piano) because it contained two of my very favourite sonatas for violin and piano: the sonata by Guillaume Lekeu, and the first sonata by Gabriel Fauré. Lovely to have these two favourite works on one CD, and I have to say, I was impressed by the playing of both artists, and by the Chandos recording; too few recording companies balance violin and piano to my satisfaction. Ms Little plays with real passion, with real tenderness, and often with real bravura. She and Mr Roscoe get my three stars.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Renaud Capuçon, Khatia Buniatishvili, and César Franck

The sonata for violin and piano in A major by César Franck was written in 1886 as a wedding present for Eugène Ysaÿe. My groaning shelves currently contain no less than 55 different recordings of the work, the oldest (and perhaps greatest) being by Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot in 1923 (the pair re-recorded the work post-electric recording in 1929). Every violinist plays the work; even I, in my youth, played both the violin and the viola versions. Technically the violin part is not too virtuosic, though the piano part is often tricky.

It is important to remember the work's Franco-Belgian origins, since all too often this music of the high-Romantic era is beefed up by violinists and pianists so that it sounds almost Russian, Italian or German. Ysaÿe was a sophisticated violinist, and I immediately took to the suave, sophisticated sound of Renaud Capuçon on a brand new Erato CD. This, surely, is how Franck's violin part is meant to sound. I cannot fault Capuçon's sound or playing in this work, where he seems to be following in the august footsteps of the great Belgian Arthur Grumiaux, another suave and sophisticated player.

A big attraction of this CD for me, however, was to re-hear Khatia Buniatishvili in the piano part. The Franck sonata is very much a duo sonata (even if the violin part is somewhat the more important) and it benefits from a pianist of at least similar stature to the violinist (thus the historic success of Cortot and Thibaud, and Ferras and Barbizet). Buniatishvili did not disappoint; she has an extraordinary touch on the piano keyboard and I have mentally nicknamed her “velvet paws” for the sleek, purring sound she often obtains from her piano – not that she is reticent or limp-wristed, quite the contrary – but her sound is so distinctive (and she is also an excellent musician and partner, here). All in all, this makes for a truly memorable and enjoyable account of César Franck's somewhat over-played sonata. I'll come back to it with pleasure. And, a plus, Erato has balanced the violin and piano parts as they should be balanced (for these works).

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Mozart's K. 516

A surprisingly large number of musical works that are still very special to me date from my teenage years. These include: Sibelius' 6th symphony, Mahler's 4th, Beethoven's 6th, Tchaikovsky's 6th, Brahms' 4th, Bruckner's 9th, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, Schubert's last B flat major piano sonata, Schubert's Die Winterreise, Elgar's violin concerto, Bach's Mass in B minor ... and Mozart's string quintet in G minor K. 516.

The Mozart quintet has always seemed to me to be a very personal demonstration of why Mozart was a genius. The quintet is not written to impress; it is personal and written by someone who could just pour out really great music. In my early youth the work was on an old Pye-Nixa LP played by the Amadeus Quartet, with Cecil Aronowitz. Listening yesterday, it was played by the Grumiaux Trio, augmented by an additional violinist and viola player. The Grumiaux version was recorded by Philips in 1973 and, after the first two notes, I am basking in a meeting with an old, old friend. I am also enjoying finding the old friend being introduced by Arthur Grumiaux; who needs alternative versions?

It is sad that, in much of the Western world, young people and teenagers are no longer exposed to any significant quantities of “classical” music. Music you get to love when you are young stays with you for life. After 60 years, Mozart's K. 516 still enthrals me.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Stravinsky, and Yevgeny Kutik

Over the past 60 years of my music listening, Stravinsky's music seems to have faded slowly in popularity, no longer frequently programmed, no longer frequently recorded. In the 1950s and 60s I lapped up Firebird, Petrouchka, Rite, Symphony of Psalms, Soldier's Tale … and even the more obscure ballets of Agon and Threni. Nowadays Firebird and Petrouchka still get aired; but not much else from Igor with his instinct for commercially acceptable, fashionable avant-garde music. I greatly enjoyed a disc of wayside music for violin and piano played by one Yevgeny Kutik (very ably accompanied by Timoth Bozarth, and well recorded by the Marquis label). Kutik has a ripe sound and style reminiscent often of the wailing Jewish and gypsy sounds from eastern Europe (in fact, Kutik's sound often reminded my of the late, great Mischa Elman). On a new CD, Kutik treats us to ephemeral pieces by Eshpai, Prokofiev, Anton Rubinstein, Stravinsky, Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and a couple of east European locals. The CD is doubly welcome for avoiding the usual hackneyed short pieces. Stravinsky's Divertimento (cobbled together by Stravinsky and Samuel Dushkin from the ballet Baiser de la Fée in order to raise a few dollars) does not impress; OK, it's “Russian”, in the sense that Stravinsky was ever any particular nationality. But the acerbic Divertimento sounds thin beside the Russian lushness of Tchaikovsky, Eshpai, Rubinstein, et al. Could Kutik not have found some more congenial Russian morceaux that suited his playing better?

Anyway, this is an enjoyable CD, and the Stravinsky can always be skipped by the choosey (like me).