Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Wishes for 2015

My three modest musical wishes for 2015:
  • Igor Levit – Bach: Goldberg Variations. Beethoven: Diabelli Variations. Schubert: late piano sonatas.
  • Tianwa Yang – Paganini, 24 capricci (she recorded them when she was 13 but, after her triumph in the Ysaÿe, sonatas, she should re-do a definitive version).
  • Pavel Haas Quartet – more late Schubert string quartets. Start on the late Beethoven string quartets with Op 130 with the Große Fuge as finale.

Handel's Messiah: Emmanuelle Haïm

During the immediate post-war period when he was a freelance musician, my father frequently declared that Handel wrote his Messiah so that orchestral musicians would never starve during the month of December. I thought of him this Christmas week when, quite by chance, a new recording of the Messiah arrived, a release conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, a conductor I have frequently admired in the past.

As a very young teenager, I was given six or so 78 rpm records of the Messiah featuring, as I recall it, excerpts from the first part. Haïm's Messiah is somewhat different from these old recordings from the 1940s, but I liked it very much. The orchestra is French, and well recorded. The chorus is British, some twenty singers in number, and gives a welcome clarity to Handel's choruses with sufficient weight and gravitas, in a recording, to do justice to Handel's great choral numbers. The vocal quartet is also British, with Lucy Crowe as the jewel in the crown; she really is one of my favourite baroque sopranos. Unfortunately Haïm opts for a dreaded counter-tenor rather than for a female alto or contralto; maybe she had little choice after pressure from the castratos' union but, I, for one, prefer the natural voices of soprano, tenor, alto and bass rather than this strange counter-tenor breed. An excellent recording and balance by a French team for Erato makes this a very strong version of Messiah. I never thought I'd be listening to the oratorio during Christmas week. Haïm is forceful and exuberant, as ever, but without going to the extreme lengths of some conductors of baroque music (though I could have done with a slightly more reticent drummer, on occasions; he does tend to thwack a bit). Anyway: three stars.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Schubert's String Quintet - Pavel Haas Quartet

There is a handful of timeless classical masterpieces (or perhaps, more accurately, a basketful). In the hand – or basket – is Schubert's C major string quintet, D 956, one of the very last works Schubert lived to write. With this work alone Schubert earns his place at the top table with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. It's a work I have loved since the 1950s; it's evergreen and one can never, ever become tired of listening to it.

I have eight recordings of the work, including with such luminaries as Casals, Heifetz, and the Amadeus Quartet (the version with which I grew up in the 1950s on an old LP). All older versions and rivals are, however, completely swept aside for me by the Pavel Haas Quartet (four Czechs, with a German-Japanese second cellist). The quartet plays the music with a passion a long way from Alt Wien, Gemütlichkeit and all that Viennese stuff. This is great music in the raw, a little like Beethoven's Große Fuge, with no holds barred and no prisoners taken. Recorded in Prague only last year, it is already one of the Great Recordings of the Century, in my book.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Furtwängler conducts Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

I have always liked the Große Fuge as a dramatic finale to Beethoven's Op 130 string quartet in B flat, and regret that pressure from “experts” persuaded him to substitute a lightweight “get you home” finale in its place. When I listen to the Op 130 quartet, I usually try to find a version that allows me to go back to Beethoven's original intention and end with the Fuge.

Would that those same “experts” had prevailed upon Beethoven to re-think the finale of his ninth symphony. After a superb and dramatic first movement, and a truly sublime slow movement, we plunge into an awkward mixture of banality and sublimity, with a chorus belting out Freude, schöner Götterfunken, a quartet of four solo voices occasionally contributing little, orchestral interludes that are often superb, and the occasional chorus that is really moving, such as Seid umschlungen, Millionen! For me, a bit of a let-down after the variations of the slow movement.

I rarely listen to the ninth, but heard it again yesterday, mostly with pleasure. The conductor was Wilhelm Furtwängler in a well re-mastered CD from Audite of the Swiss broadcast tapes of the 22nd August 1954 performance at the Lucerne Festival – Furtwängler's final performance of the ninth, after conducting it over 100 times. There are a number of recordings around of Furtwängler conducting this work, notably the truly demonic performance on 22nd March 1942 in Berlin, and the Bayreuth Festival 1951 recording (with the wobbly horn in the adagio). In some ways, Furtwängler was “Mr Ninth Symphony” with classic versions of the Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner 9s to his credit. This new re-mastering is good, given the mono 1954 origin of the broadcast tapes; like most such historical recordings, it is best listened to via very good loudspeakers, rather than through headphones. In 1954 the Philharmonia orchestra (that played in the Lucerne performance) was near the top of its form. A good version of Beethoven's ninth to have.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Jenö Hubay

This week has been something of a Jenö Hubay week, not a composer who is often talked about these days, outside of his well-known Hejre Kati for violin & piano (always called “Hairy Katy” by a friend of mine). But here I was listening to multiple versions of his four violin concertos, plus a CD of short pieces for violin & piano. And I was very happy to do so.

The CD of short pieces was played by Ferenc Szecsödi with Istvan Kassai as pianist (Hungaroton) and is one of thirteen CDs recorded by the pair comprising Hubay's music for violin & piano. First surprise was the quality of the music; one hour of “best of Hubay” is probably of equal stature to one hour of “best of Kreisler”, but guess who has always had the greater fame and exposure? Hubay's Carmen Fantasy is as good as Sarasate's, and a lot better than the flashy piece by Franz Waxman, but guess again who gets the greater exposure?

Second surprise was the violin playing of Ferenc Szecsödi; my first reaction was: “the Léner String Quartet”, since the string sound is very similar to that 1930s sound. Jenö Léner and his violin and viola colleagues were all pupils of Hubay (the cellist was a David Popper pupil in Budapest). Szecsödi's sound, like that of the Léners, is intensely smooth, with low bow pressure and sparing vibrato, and is immediately identifiable as “school of Hubay”, though Hubay, who died in 1937, would not have taught Szecsödi, of course. Szecsödi's technique is impeccable in these pieces I listened to.

On to the four violin concertos by Hubay, very rarely played or recorded these days, for some inexplicable reason. Jenö Hubay was born in 1858, so his musical language is very much end of nineteenth century. The first concerto is excellent; the second and third highly enjoyable; I don't like the fourth much, since it was written “in the old style” and comes over as a kind of eighteenth century pastiche, coming from the head rather than the heart. Hubay's slow movements are strong points, with long singing lines, and he also had the important gift of being able to write memorable tunes, melodies or themes .... unlike so many of his twentieth century competitors. I find the last movement cadenza of the third concerto over-long (I don't like long cadenzas).

I listened to the first two concertos played by Chloë Hanslip, Vilmos Szabadi and by Hagai Shaham. All were excellent, but Hanslip disqualifies herself by taking the two slow movements far too slowly, a common defect by many modern players trying to squeeze maximum feeling out of slow music and ending up killing it. Hanslip's liner notes for the first concerto's slow movement term it adagio ma non tanto and she drags it out for 11' 33”. Szabadi's and Shaham's sleeve notes term it andante ma non tanto and they take 8' 26” and 8' 57” respectively; quite a difference. Similarly, in the second movement larghetto of the second concerto, Hanslip crawls along at 9' 13”, whilst the two competitors do 6' 49” and 7' 02” respectively. Stopwatches only tell part of the story, of course. But Hanslip needs to learn that playing too slowly induces boredom; music needs to flow like a stream, or it becomes stagnant.

Szabadi has the North Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, Shaham the BBC Scottish Orchestra, and Hanslip the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Both Szabadi and Shaham are good buys, though at a pinch I think the Hungarian team with Szabadi comes in just before the Israeli-Scottish team since the music seems to flow even more naturally with the Hungarians. High time there was a Hubay renaissance.

Friday, 5 December 2014

My Most Memorable Top Three of 2014

It is coming to the end of 2014 and everyone and his dog is making lists of the “best 10” or the “favourite 20”, or whatever. Since I listen to a lot of music, and buy far too many new CDs each month, I'd better get my list in, as well. I'll avoid the overkill of “best historical” (though Pristine Audio, in particular, has made a great improvement to many of my classic recordings). Or “best violin”, since it is difficult sorting through the many superb violinists who have come along, including Tianwa Yang, Kristof Barati and Josef Spacek. Or “best vocal CD” since there are hordes of them from the likes of Joyce DiDonato, Sandrine Piau, Diana Damrau, and many others. Let me just therefore pinpoint my Most Memorable Three CD sets of 2014. In order of composition of the music, they are:
  • Bach: Six keyboard partitas (Igor Levit)
  • Beethoven: Late piano sonatas (Igor Levit)
  • Schubert: Die Winterreise (Jonas Kaufman and Helmut Deutsch)
I have written about all these elsewhere in this blog. Remarkably, all three come from Sony Classical and were recorded in Germany. All three will stay near at hand and not be filed away with the hordes of others. I find all three truly superb and was particularly amazed at Die Winterreise, a work I have known intimately for over 60 years but have now been weaned well and truly from the classic older recordings by Hans Hotter or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. And it is truly extraordinary that Igor Levit has only issued two CD albums so far, and that both end up in my top three. It goes without saying that "top three" takes into account the music, as well as the performances.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Music for Violin & PIano by Franz Liszt

I was surprised to hear of a CD featuring music for violin and piano by a major composer, never having heard of the music before. But a new Naxos CD announces music for violin and piano by Franz Liszt, a composer beloved of pianists and known mainly for his piano music. But lo and behold, we have a Duo Sonata on Polish themes (a sort-of 22 minute variation in four movements on Chopin's Mazurka in C sharp minor Op 6 No.2); a nice 10 minute piece called The Three Gypsies and written for the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi; a 15 minute Grand duo concertant on Lafont's “Le marin”; and a few other shorter works. A total of 70 minutes of highly enjoyable and tuneful music, all entirely unknown to me until this week. Another reason to give thanks to companies such as Naxos.

The music is performed by Voytek Proniewicz and Wojciech Waleczek, hardly names that trip off the tongue. Difficult to judge how well they do, having no competition and playing music I did not know at all. But they make enjoyable sounds and are well balanced and well recorded. An excellent addition to repertoire of likeable music for violin and piano.