Saturday, 26 December 2015

Christmas Music

Christmas is a special period, and demands special music. After a recent diet of Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Rachmaninov and Brahms, Bach's Goldberg Variations cleanse the auditory palate. And no one better to play them than Igor Levit. An hour or so of supreme music and masterly playing.

Bach's Mass in B minor is a core work of the classical world, well within the top half dozen musical works of all time. It has now been going strong for some 280 years and shows no sign of fading. For my ears, none better to conduct it than Otto Klemperer. His approach may not currently be fashionable, but Klemperer loved the music, he had a superb sense of form and structure, and his ability to ensure that all strands in the music are heard, pays heavy dividends in Bach. To ears accustomed to contemporary Bach performances, some of the music may appear slow – particularly the opening Kyrie. But Klemperer gives the music stature, greatness, and a nobility that escapes the current modernists. “Wunderbar!” Herr Bach would surely have exclaimed, listening to this performance. Klemperer assembled a first-class line-up of soloists: Agnes Giebel (the breach with Walter Legge spared us Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey and Franz Crass. Who could ask for better? Not a castrato, male alto, counter-tenor or boy soprano in sight. Great music in the hands of great musicians will long survive all the ex-choristers and harpsichordists who currently clutter the contemporary scene for “period performance”.

And that was my Christmas music making. After a short pause over the end of the year while I go off to France to eat as many oysters as I can; I'll be back in 2016.

2015 Prizewinners

2015 with me saw many, many new CDs and many, many hours of listening. If I have to pick just two CDs from all the 2015 vintage, they would be:

Alina Ibragimova for her recording of the six solo violin sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe. These sonatas have been much recorded, and choice is wide, competition fierce. Ibragimova has more than enough technique, but she also brings a wealth of fantasy and variety to these six sonatas; at times, it is almost as if she is improvising the works.

The second CD is Zlata Chochieva playing the complete Etudes of Chopin. Never a real Chopin fan, I was nevertheless completely seduced by Chochieva's playing here, even after I had compared her versions head-to-head with that of Alfred Cortot.

So two young Russian women get the 2015 prize. If I'd have allowed myself a third choice, it would have gone to Igor Levit; a real Russian trilogy!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Eight Prizewinning Violinists

If you reach the finals of a competition such as the Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow) or Queen Elisabeth Competition (Brussels), you cannot play it safe; to impress the jury and win a medal, you need to go for broke. Thus the great attraction of the four CD booklet from the Queen Elisabeth competition, featuring eight different violin concertos played by eight different prize winners. There was obviously a policy of not duplicating either violinists, or concertos, which is sometimes a pity when X's marvellous performance of a given work is not included, since Y's equally marvellous performance of the same work, is. There is also the drawback of having orchestras and conductors who are not always of the top class, and who will not have had much time for rehearsal of a given work with a given soloist. No real matter; the spotlight is on the soloists. The stiff cover booklet has poorly reproduced black and white photos, misspells Philippe Hirschhorn's name throughout, and does not contain much real information apart from puffs for the competition. Again: no real matter.

Vadim Repin won the top prize in 1989 with the Tchaikovsky concerto. A magnificent performance, with a virtuoso finale. Nervous vibrato. Akiko Suwanai came second that year (Paganini 1st violin concerto, not included here).

Nikolaj Znaider won the first prize in 1997 with a fluent, efficient Sibelius concerto with a good flowing adagio di molto.

Miriam Fried (Israel, 1st prize 1971) gives a fluent and fleet-of-foot recording of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, somewhat in the Heifetz mould. I think this is how it should be played; if milked for all it is worth, violinists soon reveal there is not too much milk to be had, whereas played exuberantly, as here, the concerto sounds fresh and ever-green. She is recorded a bit too close. Miriam Fried never went on to have much of a career, at least not in Europe.

Kristof Barati (1997) gives a thoroughly musical performance of the Beethoven violin concerto, ably supported by the Flanders Philharmonic under Marc Soustrot, presumably here on more familiar repertoire territory. This concerto – like those of Mozart – is perhaps not the best choice for a major competition, since it provides little scope for stunning an audience with technical display; the Beethoven concerto is difficult to play from a musical point of view, and here Barati is first class. Technically, of course, he is also first rate.

Like Miriam Fried, Yossif Ivanov (born in Belgium, despite his name) never went on to have much of a career after his success in Brussels in 2005. It is a pity that the desire not to duplicate concertos in this album means that the first Shostakovich concerto is given to Ivanov, as here, rather than presenting the coruscating 1963 performance by Alexei Michlin (first prize in that year).

I have blogged previously about the astonishing performance of Elgar's violin concerto by Gidon Kremer (1967). A pity about the contribution of the Belgian National Orchestra under René Defossez – the Elgar concerto, like that of Beethoven, needs a solid orchestral backing. It is a real shame that Kremer – never one of my favourite violinists – seems never to have recorded the Elgar again.

The same year saw the first prize go to Kremer's fellow Latvian, Philippe Hirschhorn, with an amazing performance of Paganini's first concerto. This is presumably why Akiko Suwanai's terrific performance in 1989 is not included in this 4-CD album. But it's good to have Hirschhorn in full flight, since he was a superb violinist.

The eighth concerto is the Bartok, given to Barnabas Kelemen (2001). Not one of my favourite concertos, but convincingly played here. This Queen Elisabeth set of four concertos is an essential acquisition for all lovers of fine violin playing.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Zlata Chochieva plays Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux

The Russians may not produce many first class economists, but for well over a century Russian music schools have produced a seemingly never ending stream of first-class conductors, pianists and violinists. And the stream continues with young Russians such as Alina Ibragimova, Igor Levit, Julia Lezhneva …. and Zlata Chochieva. Today the post girl brought Zlata Chochieva playing the complete études-tableaux by Rachmaninov. Superb !

Ms Chochieva has an uncanny sense of light and shade, of dynamics, of rhythm and rubato, of phrasing and of musical structure. Previously I had greatly admired her recording of Chopin's études. Now it is Rachmaninov's turn; I play her CD of Chopin often, and know the new CD will be another for my frequent listening rack. In every photo of the photogenic Ms Chochieva, she looks completely fed up. Maybe she is emulating Stravinsky's characterisation of Rachmaninov as “a six foot, six inch tall scowl”. If she ever plays Mozart, maybe she will smile. Anyway; anything she records, I shall buy.

Kristof Barati, and Reto Kuppel

I listened with great pleasure to a new CD from the immensely talented Kristof Barati on which he plays 13 well-known pieces for violin and piano by Sarasate, Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky, et al. In none of the pieces does he put a foot wrong, technically or musically. I might wonder a little at his rhythms in Sarasate's Romanza Andaluza, but that's about it.

My only reservations over the 70 minutes of excellent music, excellent violin playing, and excellent recording are personal: all the pieces Barati plays here are too well known (to me). I have 40 recordings of Wieniawski's Scherzo and Tarantella, and 45 of Sarasate's Romanza Andaluza ! I would never have purchased such a recording of popular gems had it not been Barati playing them.

My second reservation concerns the two pieces on this CD by Heinrich Ernst. Ernst wrote quite a bit of attractive music for his instrument, the violin. The two usual pieces trotted out by Barati are not among Ernst's best compositions: the “Last Rose of Summer” variations, and the “Erlkönig” caprice. Both these works have always seemed to me to be circus pieces, where one waits to hear when – and if – the violinist fails the test. Needless to say, Barati does not, but the events are technical tours de force rather than musical ones. Extended passages in harmonics, and double-stopped harmonics, are hell on earth to play for a violinist. But the interest is purely the technical challenge, not a musical one. I always find the last few minutes of the Last Rose faintly embarrassing and, after a first hearing, always press the “next track” button.

Barati's CD is a big contrast to 74 minutes of solo violin pieces by Henri Vieuxtemps, played by Reto Kuppel. If ever the violin has a patron saint, it will be St. Naxos who, year after year and decade after decade, gives us relatively unknown master violinists playing – often – relatively unknown music. I did not know any of the 19 pieces on this new CD; more's the pity. There are some real gems amongst them (and the étude de concert Op 16 No.1 deserves to become as hackneyed as Wieniawski's Légende as featured by Barati). Reto Kuppel (a new name to me) deserves honours for his playing here. Henri Vieuxtemps was a highly talented composer, as well as a violinist, and all his music is well worth listening to, these solo pieces for the music as well as for the (considerable) technical challenges. Unlike Ernst and Paganini, however, Vieuxtemps' technical challenges are musical, as well as purely technical. Bravo Herr Kuppel, Monsieur Vieuxtemps, and Naxos.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Beatrice Rana, and Yuja Wang (again)

I investigated Beatrice Rana, a new Italian piano “star” (on a CD with Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome). She is presented by the Warner company as a keyboard tiger, with the orchestra well in the background. The background orchestra does not matter too much in Prokofiev's second piano concerto, which must rival Chopin's piano concertos as one of the least rewarding for an orchestral player. Listening to the Prokofiev second piano concerto, I realised I have never really taken to Prokofiev's music; slick, clever, fashionable but, a bit like Stravinsky, lacking that Russian “soul” one finds in Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov or Shostakovich.

Like her ancient pianistic ancestor, Vladimir Horowitz, Ms Rana can certainly play the piano and, with the up-front Warner recording, we hear every demi-semiquaver she plays. The orchestra is less fortunate and comes over, in so far as the recording engineers are concerned, as a necessary back-up group. There are four photos of the photogenic Ms Rana, and we are in the world of showbiz rather than serious music making. I followed Ms Rana's CD with Yuja Wang playing the Ravel piano concertos with the Zürich Tonhalle orchestra conducted by Lionel Bringuier. Ms Wang is also a star (at the moment, even bigger in the galaxy than Ms Rana) but, with Yuja, we are back in the land of music making rather than circus tricks. I am not a great fan of Ravel, nor of his piano concertos. However, I can recognise great performances when I hear them, and the constant dialogue between Yuja Wang and the Swiss orchestra is a welcome antidote to the “pianist plus one” recording by Beatrice Rana. It's not often that the sweeping Tchaikovskian melodies in his first piano concerto go for practically nothing; here they are just an interlude before Ms Rana thunders in again. The Italian recording engineers should be shown the door. And Ms Rana, incredible pianist though she may be, does not go on my “buy” list.

The CD of Yuja Wang playing the two Ravel piano concertos is in a demonstration class of how piano and orchestra should play together in a piano concerto, and how they should be balanced (DG). Yuja's opening of the second movement of the Ravel G major concerto will melt any heart. I am afraid, however, that Beatrice Rana's CD of Prokofiev's second piano, coupled with Tchaikovsky's first, is a demonstration of how not to do it. Antonio Pappano will probably put this CD at the bottom of his bottom draw. I just hope that Warner does not follow this with a duo recording featuring Ms Rana and Andrea Bocelli. Or a duo recording with Ms Rana and Lang Lang.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Two French Sopranos: Sabine Devieilhe, and Véronique Gens

The French seem to be doing well with top class musicians, at the moment. Not reflected too often in French orchestras, but singers, violinists, cellists, pianists …. Two CDs from France turned up this week to add to my collection: Sabine Devieilhe (soprano) sings Mozart. Véronique Gens (soprano) sings an excellent collection of 24 songs by Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc and Ernest Chausson.

Véronique Gens has a beautiful voice of real character, and she enunciates clearly. Whatever she is singing about – joy, love, sorrow – she always sounds as though she means it. She is expertly accompanied by the ever-talented Susan Manoff, a pianist who always sounds at home in French mélodies. 66 minutes with Gens and Manoff go very quickly. I was particularly happy to meet the songs of Reynaldo Hahn featured here; they are songs I had not come across before.

On to the more controversial CD of Sabine Devieilhe (accompanied very admirably by an instrumental group Pygmalion, directed by Raphaël Pichon; the group also plays some Mozart bits and pieces on the CD). Hers is a fresh, young, agile voice of very considerable dexterity and technical skill. Her voice, however, lacks the sheer character of the soprano voice of Véronique Gens. Character is important. Ms Devieilhe's CD is a bit of a hotch-potch of Mozart bits and pieces. The producers try to give it a “theme” or a “concept” – music written for the various three Weber sisters, one of whom, Constanze, Mozart married – but it does not really work. We have various arias for soprano. We have various pieces for orchestra. We have an eleven minute chunk of the C minor Mass (Et incarnatus est). We have the Queen of the Night aria (expertly sung). The whole 72 minutes of the CD is really a vehicle for Ms Devieilhe but, unlike Véronique Gens or Julia Lezhneva – to mention only two – Sabine does not yet have the ability to hold our interest always in what she is singing. We gasp, we marvel; but we are not moved. A friend of mine listening to Julia Lezhneva singing Handel was at a loss for words to describe the experience. Sabine Devieilhe is not in the same class. We clap and say “brilliantly executed”. Ms Gens goes into my “keep nearby” rack, as does Ms Lezhneva; both have recitals of music of real value. I am less sure about the bits and pieces of Mozart arias from Ms Devieilhe, which rarely seem to me to show Mozart at his best. She will not go into the “keep nearby” rack, and that is a bit unfair. It's just that, sitting in a prison cell, if I heard Maria Callas, or Julia Lezhneva, or Sandrine Piau, or Véronique Gens singing, I would recognise them. But if it were Sabine Devieilhe, I would reflect: “What a lovely voice, and what great singing. I wonder who it is?” Hopefully, in the near future she will come up with 60 minutes of music that make more musical sense than “The Weber Sisters”. Her Pygmalion friends are excellent in Mozart; the forward woodwind would have pleased Mozart (and Otto Klemperer).

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Ginette Neveu: Beethoven Violin Concerto

In 1935, the sixteen year old Ginette Neveu won the Wieniawski competition, beating all comers including David Oistrakh, who finished second. She was a wonderful violinist with an inner fire and a stupendous technique. Her career took off; then came the period 1939-45 when, for most of the time, she was confined to cycling round Paris during the German occupation. During the second half of 1945 her career re-started until she died in an air crash 28th October 1949. What a loss!

A friend and I were somewhat surprised when Gidon Kremer, after a personal analysis of a whole pile of recordings of the Beethoven violin concerto (the analysis lasted 44 pages) declared that, for him, the greatest of all the recordings was by … Ginette Neveu, recorded off-air in September 1949 with Hans Rosbaud conducting a somewhat second class German south-west radio orchestra. My friend and I rushed to unearth our copies of the recording; mine had been untouched for several decades and, with 86 different recordings of this concerto on my shelf, it might well have remained unheard for a few more decades.

The orchestral playing is a bit rustic at times, not too surprising in the Germany of 1949. However, in a perverse way this serves to emphasise the serenity of Ginette Neveu's playing, especially in the first two movements. Neveu was renowned as an often fiery player (witness her famous Ravel Tzigane, and her predilection for the Brahms violin concerto). The Beethoven concerto is not easy to bring off in performance, since the violin rarely challenges the orchestra or indulges in pyrotechnics. To my mind, Neveu's serenity (with character) and flowing tempi achieve a really great performance of this fragile concerto. In the cadenzas we glimpse the fiery Neveu from time to time (but, surely, that is what cadenzas are for). Rosbaud's part is strong and firm, pace the orchestra. This performance is admitted to my pantheon of great recordings of Beethoven's violin concerto. Fortunately, Ginette Neveu was recorded quite often during the period 1945-49, with a batch of recordings of shorter pieces during 1938-39.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

A Great Time for Young Artists

The first concert I attended was in the very early 1950s at St. Wilfrid's church at a place near where I grew up, called Rose Green. The evening was devoted to Bach's Mass in B minor. The audience (to my 12 or 13 year old eyes) consisted entirely of very old people, who looked at me gratefully and admiringly as a sign that "youth" liked classical music and that there was hope for the future.

In my year at secondary school, there were around 120 boys, streamed into four classes. I remember, at most only two or three who showed any interest in "classical" music. When I attended music concerts in the evening in the school hall (I remember the Allegri String Quartet) there were few, if any, pupils of the school present. The audiences always consisted of "old" people.

So when I read today (particularly in the press of Britain and America) that young people do not take to "classical" music, and that the future of such music is in doubt, I just shake my head in exasperation. Have they not looked at the age of so many players in so many orchestras? In so many string quartets and vocal groups? At so many soloists? My eyes are now much older, and most practising musicians today seem to me to be "young". When I compiled my list (below) of outstanding musicians who impressed me in 2015, I was surprised to find that all of them were "young" -- (to me, under 30 years old is young). I limited my list to five candidates, on the grounds that just one or two is unfair; 12 or 15 just becomes ridiculous. Of my five choices for 2015, one is Asiatic, four are Russian, four out of the five are women. So much for the rest of us. More importantly, the five musicians are all young. That was quite a surprise, to me.

It goes without saying that my list below is subjective, and represents what I, a veteran listener to musicians, found most impressive in 2015. No offence to "old" musicians, but it is true that I was most impressed this year by performances from "youth". So who are these impressive young people, (in alphabetical order)?

Zlata Chochieva for her Chopin études
Alina Ibragimova for Ysaÿe's six solo sonatas
Igor Levin for Bach and Beethoven
Julia Lezhneva for Handel arias
Yuja Wang for her Ravel concertos.

The incredible Tianwa Yang did not make this year's top five list, since her Ysaÿe solo sonatas came into my hands last year, not this, and this year's release by her of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Hollywoodiana concertos was a dead duck as far as I was concerned (because of the music, not because of the valiant Miss Yang).

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

A Tasty Dish

For the record: my culinary creation of a couple of days ago was a real success (though I may have overdosed on the chilli-peppers somewhat). For the record, and for future generations, I give the essential ingredients below.

Normandy chicken meat (shredded). Green, yellow and red bell peppers. Flat field mushrooms. Cayenne pepper. Chilli-peppers. Salt, black pepper, onions, herbes de Provence, bay leaves, olive oil. Cooked, then left to marinade for 24 hours.

The dish goes well with Ravel's spicy piano concerto, played incredibly by the superb Yuja Wang. Even the Zürich orchestra sounds well spiced up with chilli, inspired no doubt by Ms Wang's pianism. To my mind, Yuja beats all-comers, including Michelangeli and Martha Argerich. Some achievement. The girl will go far.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky

There is no cheddar cheese the equal of a good, aged, unpasteurised farmhouse cheddar from Somerset. And there are no performances of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies equal to those recorded in 1960 by the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky. I took them down off my shelf recently and was once again bowled over by the sheer Russian-ness of these recordings, complete with the old Russian style woodwind and brass. If you are an “authenticity” fanatic, then the sound of the Leningrad orchestra in 1960 is just up your street, since it almost certainly equates to what Tchaikovsky would have heard back in the 1880s. It certainly suits me, and I mourn for the days when Russian orchestras sounded Russian, and French orchestras sounded French. Now, all orchestras have been more or less homogenised, and it is difficult to tell one nationality from another.

I've never much taken to Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony, but I like the fifth very much, and really love the Pathétique. It certainly sounds as if the Leningraders, like all good Russians, really love this music, and they play it from the heart. A top orchestra playing music it knows and loves under a conductor who is supreme in that music, has no equal. There are several dozen real “Recordings of the Century” around; and this is one of them. Over 55 years later, it still sounds superb, a tribute to the DGG engineers of that period, and to the old Leningrad Philharmonic.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Wolfgang Schneiderhan

As a sort-of violinist, since the age of twelve, I've always loved the violin. The first violinist to leave his mark on me was Yehudi Menuhin (probably inevitably in the England of the 1950s). Now, over sixty years later, my preferred listening gravitates increasingly to a handful of violinists of the past, including Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Adolf Busch, and Jozef Suk. These three, to coin a phrase from Tully Potter's biography of Adolf Busch, were all “honest musicians”. They probably never appeared on television; they probably never died particularly rich. But, over sixty years on, it's still a joy to listen to their “old-world” classical style of playing.

This thought was sparked by a (rare) recital disc from the admirable Australian Eloquence label featuring Wolfgang Schneiderhan playing 17 pieces of salon or encore music. All 17 pieces feature different styles of bowing, fingering and attack from Schneiderhan. The six Romanian Folk Dances by Bartok could almost be being played by six different violinists, when one listens to this CD. Schneiderhan is not generally thought of as a player of short pieces, but this recital disc from 1957 makes one regret he did not record much more of such music. Frankly, 17 short pieces of music for violin and piano can end up being somewhat monotonous for the listener. But not when Wolfgang Schneiderhan is playing! A real treat to sit back and listen to the CD, and many thanks to Eloquence. More !

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Aimez-vous Brahms?

Mentioned in the current issue of The Gramophone is an interesting remark by Johannes Brahms after hearing Pierre Monteux and the Geloso String Quartet in Vienna play one of his string quartets: "It takes the French to understand my music. The Germans play it too heavily". I thought of this today when re-listening to Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang playing Brahms' three duo sonatas for violin and piano. The first movement of the G major sonata strays into the red in my timing chart (11 minutes and 11 seconds) but it does not sound too slow, because the two players keep the rhythm flowing and the pulse constant. This Greek-Chinese duo may be some way from a “French approach”, but it really works as far as I am concerned. We are a long way from the beefy Brahms of much of the Russian / Israeli / Juilliard school which can invoke images of the Brahms of north Germany and Eisbein mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffeln (a culinary dish, incidentally, that I really like).

Kavakos comes over here as a gentle soul, for most of the time; Wang as mercurial. As a duo, they fulfil my requirement of dividing my interest and admiration between the violin playing and the piano, with neither out-classing the other (a factor that almost always rules out the great Jascha Heifetz as a contender in duo sonatas). They also fulfil my requirement of violinist and pianist being equals (in duo sonatas such as these) and both being first-rate instrumentalists. I have been an admirer of Kavakos for many, many years; an admirer of young Yuja Wang for a much shorter time. But I sincerely hope they do more duo sonatas together. For a start, they so obviously listen to each other when playing. When the music gives the piano the floor, Ms Wang takes it. When the music gives the violin the floor, Leonidas takes it.

Brahms knew what he was doing when he wrote three first-rate sonatas for violin and piano that would fit comfortably on one CD. There are many, many competing versions of the three on record. But Kavakos and Yuja are certainly easily within my top three or four. With many versions of these works, I sit back and let the music wash over me. With Kavakos and Yuja, however, I find myself listening intently to both instruments as they duet together. Bravo.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Young Handel, Young Lezhneva

One of my best memories was a few years ago visiting Halle in Saxony and wandering round the “Händel-Haus” where Georg Fridiric Händel was born and lived until he was an advanced teenager. I was in the church in the Marktplatz where Handel learned to play the organ (and I attended a midday recital on that same organ). What a man! At 21 years old, already an established composer and musician, he was to be found in Italy, where he stayed for a few years absorbing everything that mattered musically of that period. On a new CD, the wonderful Julia Lezhneva sings music Handel composed during that Italian period when he was in his early 20s. Lezhneva is 25, so it's a meeting of two young musicians of top quality. I love her new Handel disc! The music is exuberant and challenging to perform (the many violin solos were probably written for Arcangelo Corelli, whom Handel met many times). Lezhneva surmounts 99% of the obstacles (no living mortal could score 100% in this show-off music of youth without a Walter Legge demanding 120 re-takes). Her long notes in Per dar pregio all'amor mio are something to be heard; she must have the lungs of a whale. For an hour or so, one has the impression of two young people – composer and singer – revelling in their youthful powers to impress and astound.

Not to forget a mention for Il Giardino Armonico, led by Giovanni Antonini. As a frequent sour critic of many “period” instrument bands, I can at least admire the better ones. A day or so before I had listened to the admirable Lucy Crowe in much of the same Handel in Italy music. Alas, her accompanying band, The English Consort, sounds very much full of Inglesi when compared with Antonini's enthusiastic Italiani. For the “Corelli” violin accompaniment on this disc, we have Dmitry Sinkovsky. A rare treat. Straight into my “keep to hand” rack. I could happily ascend to Heaven (or somewhere lower, in all probability) listening to Julia Lezhneva singing the music of Handel's Italian period.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Loudspeakers, and Headphones

I listened to my new CD of Albéric Magnard's sprawling but enjoyable piano trio. I was annoyed; piano, cello and violin are notoriously difficult to balance, especially in a recording. But here, Magnard was all cello and piano, with poor Geneviève Laurenceau's violin squeaking in the background in a sea of bass-derived mud. I was about to denounce the recording and the CPO recording engineers, but when I switched later to listening to the work via (good) headphones, the sound was fine, and the mud had dissipated.

The problem would seem to be the modern world's obsession with bass sound from loudspeakers. Salesmen and advertisers alike extol the virtues of the “enhanced bass sound” from their speakers. Enhanced bass sound is not good for trios for cello, piano and violin. My loudspeakers are far from cheap models, but I suspect that even buying speakers for £40,000 a pair, or whatever, would only give me … enhanced bass. Why the current population is so fixated on the bass line is something of a mystery. My late father, a professional double-bass player all his life, would be happy. It's a shame since, especially if more than one person is listening to a piece of music, loudspeakers are so much more convenient and user-friendly than sealing off the ears with headphones. For lovers of piano trios, or violin and piano duos, however, headphones are becoming de rigueur

The same CD also sees Geneviève Laurenceau playing Magnard's equally sprawling, but equally enjoyable, 41 minute sonata for violin and piano. Headphones on, again. It's a lovely performance.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Alina Ibragimova in Bach Concertos

Nearly 70 minutes of five Bach violin concertos on one CD is quite a treat, especially when the violinist in Alina Ibragimova, one of today's very finest violinists. Three of the concertos are transcriptions or arrangements or re-arrangements, and nothing wrong with that; Johann Sebastian himself was a dab hand at arrangements for different instruments, which is why the “authentic” fashion is somewhat perplexing with its diktats over no vibrato, gut strings from black cats but not from white, bow hair from horses but not from unicorns, etc. If Bach was not fussed about exact sounds and timbres, why are we (or some of us)? Miss Ibragimova does her best here to sound like a 300 year old violinist; fortunately, she is so good – unlike most “authentic” instrumentalists – that it does not matter too much except, perhaps, in the slow movements where a little warming vibrato would have enhanced the sound. James Ehnes, in his recent recording of Vivaldi's more-or-less contemporaneous Four Seasons, shows that a modern violin played “properly” can fit perfectly well with the music of the eighteenth century.

James Ehnes had another advantage; his accompaniment of a small string band, with a cello continuo and no conductor, allowed the music to flow agreeably. I criticised Jonathan Cohen and his Arcangelo group recently for being over-interventionist, and opined that Vilde Frang's Mozart would have benefited from just a small orchestra, without conductor. In this new CD, the problem for me is the continuo, which consists of plucking harpsichords and lutes that constantly disrupt the flow of the music, particularly in Bach's lovely slow movements. Nothing wrong with harpsichords and lutes, of course, as long as they are relegated to the distant background to just fill in the harmonies. The slow movement of the G minor concerto ends up almost as a duet for violin and lute, and this cannot be right. “Was ist das?” Bach might well have asked, irritably. The lovely ostinato string playing in the slow movements of both the A minor and E major concertos is similarly disrupted by determined continuo plucking. Lucky James Ehnes did not have to fight off wild continuo players.

However, thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach and Alina Ibragimova, the day is saved. Some of the violin writing is pretty tough going (for example, in the faster movements of the D minor concerto) but Alina dazzles us all – and sees off both harpsichord and lute.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

James Ehnes Baroque Violin Works

It is good to hear James Ehnes, a violinist of real stature, in a new CD devoted to music of the baroque era. Music of that time is at the moment all too often played by dry, rasping sounding violinists trying to sound 300 years old and “authentic”, even though most of the music of that era was composed simply to delight and impress listeners. I suspect that Antonio Vivaldi, a violinist and music lover, would have been happier listening to Ehnes in his ubiquitous Four Seasons, rather than some “authentic” scraper with thin tone and no vibrato. Ehnes, a very “classical” player is accompanied here by the “Sydney Symphony Orchestra” that turns out to be an efficient and agreeable string band. Also on the CD, as Ehnes re-claims the violin heartland for proper violinists playing proper violins, are Tartini's Devil's Trill (with the Kreisler cadenza, thank goodness) and Jean-Marie Leclair's Tambourin sonata. And, quite properly, in the two sonatas Andrew Armstrong plays a good piano rather than a jangling harpsichord.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Igor Levit in Bach, Beethoven ... and Frederic Rzewski

Igor Levit is on record as saying that variations have always been his favourite musical form, since he loves the constant changes of mood and scenarios. This love certainly shows in his latest CD comprising Bach's Goldberg variations with Beethoven's Diabelli – the two summits of the variation world. Levit seems to have complete empathy with the kaleidoscopic changes of mood in both sets of variations. I greatly admired his Bach partitas, and greatly admired his late Beethoven sonatas. I can now extend my admiration to the sets of variations here. Bach's Goldberg variations I know less well, but from the first few notes I knew that this was going to be my benchmark version from now on.

I know Beethoven's Diabelli variations backwards, forwards, sideways and inside out, having enjoyed an LP by Wilhelm Backhaus since my teenage years. Levit is up against stiff competition, but he comes in first, in my view. This is now my preferred version of these fascinating variations in which Beethoven seems to sum up the musical worlds of the 18th, 19th – and even 20th – centuries.

I resent the fact that Sony has departed from its previous double CD packs for Levit to tack on a third CD for Bach and Beethoven – in a giant plastic shelf-filling box – comprising a set of variations by an American, Frederic Rzewski. Possibly Mr Rzewski's legions of admirers will resent having to pay for the two Bach and Beethoven CDs in addition to Mr Rzewski's work, and no doubt the legions of admirers who want the Bach and Beethoven variations played by Igor Levit will resent having to pay for a CD featuring Mr Rzewski's work; I know I do. Mr Rzewski's variations should have been issued on a separate CD, and this forced purchase is reminiscent of concerts where the unpopular contemporary medicine is sandwiched between two popular works, rendering late arrival or early departure somewhat difficult. Allegedly, Mr Rzewski's variations on “The people united will never be defeated” refers to the popular election of Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s in which case it's baffling, since the people's choice was murdered by an unholy alliance of the American CIA and a section of the Chilean army headed by the brutal Augusto Pinochet. The people united were defeated by a military junta, and years of bloodshed followed.

Having said all that, Rzewski's variations are worth playing and worth listening to. The theme is jaunty and memorable. Most of the variations are clever and interesting. Being “modern” there are various bangings and shouts (in C minor), reminiscent of elderly conductors during concert performances, and 36 variations are probably too many: 30 were good enough for Bach, and 33 for Beethoven, so it's not too clear why Rzewski needed 36. I would have cut around 10 of them. I meant just to sample the piece, but ended up listening to all of it. Like Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk with Bach's variations, I fell asleep towards the end of Rzewski's (but back-tracked and heard the end after a refreshing doze).

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Christian Gerhaher singing Schubert Lieder

Once again, thank you Sony Classical (Germany). The CD of Schubert lieder sung by Christian Gerhaher with Gerold Huber is a benchmark as to how such things should be done. The texts of all 24 songs are given in German and English (tough on the French and the Italians, but space is limited). In addition, after each song we have an interesting analysis and commentary (German and English) so we can listen to each song with a little knowledge and, thanks to Gerhaher's excellent diction, we can follow the words. No space is taken up with multiple photos of the two musicians, nor do we have hyperbolic puffs about the artists or the music. This is a CD for serious lovers of German lieder and I enjoyed my evening basking in the gloom, traumas and occasional happiness of the 19th century Romantics. Gerhaher has a fine voice, and the pianist is expert. As a final pat: the balance and recording are demonstration class. Well done everyone concerned, including Sony Classical.

More Bronislaw Gimpel

I often lament the number of recordings I possess, usually only listened to a couple of times. On occasions when I am overcome by an enthusiasm, however, it is good to have an extensive collection to fall back on. I have some 60 pieces of music recorded by the Polish violinist Bronislaw Gimpel and I have been diving into the archives. Some time ago I jettisoned the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas recorded by Gimpel, since I really have too many recordings of these works, and it never seemed to me that Bach suited Gimpel's style of playing.

His recorded legacy features a roll call of minor conductors and orchestras, mainly German, often echoing the recording career of Aaron Rosand – Pro Musica Orchestra Stuttgart, Sudwestfunk Orchestra Baden-Baden, Hamburg Radio Orchestra, Radio Luxembourg Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic, with conductors Arthur Grüber, Franz Paul Decker, Rolf Reinhardt, Curt Cremer, Hakan von Eichwald, Henri Pensis, Martin Walter, Fritz Rieger, Roberto Benzi, Johannes Schüler, Arnold Rezler …

The violin concertos of Tchaikovsky and Lalo (Symphonie Espagnole) seem to suit Gimpel down to the ground, and the grotesque Wilhelmj rewrite of the first movement of Paganini's first violin concerto shows what an immaculate technique Gimpel had. Glazunov's violin concerto suffers from an absurd balance in his recording of it with Hakan von Eichwald; if the violin volume is fine, the orchestra then fades into the middle distance. Brahms violin concerto provides proof of Gimpel's credentials in the Romantic repertoire, but it is Karl Goldmark's lovable concerto from Gimpel's heartland, Jewish Central Europe, that reveals the violinist at his finest. He obviously liked the concerto, since there are at least two recordings of it: a 1951 broadcast in December 1951 with the Luxembourg Radio Symphony Orchestra (never to be mistaken here for the Berlin Philharmonic), and a superior circa 1956 recording for Vox with Rolf Reinhardt in Baden-Baden with whom Gimpel also made studio recordings of the first Bruch concerto, plus the Dvorak and the Paganini-Wilhelmj. And, true to his roots, he also recorded much Wieniawski and Szymanowski, as well as Kreisler. His name has faded from the lists of available recordings but, hopefully, someone one day will resurrect the memory of this genial virtuoso of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Born in 1911 in Lvov, he died in 1979 in Los Angeles on his return from a tour of South America, still playing, with a concert scheduled with his brother Jakob the week after his death.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Bronislaw Gimpel, and an Old Friend

In 1956, with money from my 15th birthday, I bought Vox PL 9340, an LP containing Beethoven's violin concerto and two Romances played by Bronislaw Gimpel with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser. Being an impecunious teenager with few records in my collection, I played the LP almost to death (60 years later I still have it, in whatever the opposite of mint condition may be). The initial attraction of the Vox was the price and the fact that, unlike its competitors, you had the two Romances thrown in for free.

I noticed the recording on Presto Classical (download only). Out of nostalgia, I downloaded the Flac files. I must say, the mono recording of around 1954 now sounds a lot better than it did on my Pye Black Box with Monarch autochanger, and sapphire styli that I could not afford to change too often. In fact, the recording is pretty good, and the performance is a most engaging classical, relaxed performance with perfectly judged tempi. After 60 years, I still enjoy it very much indeed.

Bronislaw Gimpel was another of those unfortunates born at the wrong time and the wrong place. Hurriedly emigrating from Europe in 1937 to the USA, he headed back to Europe after the end of the war, then back to America, then back to Europe. The world was full of talented violinists and pianists and he and his pianist brother, Jakob, had a hard job making a name for themselves. Too much extraordinary talent around, and too few openings. Bronislaw did, however, manage to make a relatively large number of recordings (even of the Britten violin concerto) and they are good to have, if no longer easy to locate. He was a splendid violinist of the old school. Thanks to Cambria for this excellent transfer to digital.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Volker Reinhold Plays Sarasate: Volume 2

When it comes to great works in classical music, the German nations are pre-eminent. The Russians and the Slavonic nations, the Italians, and the French all have rich histories with many important works to their credit. Somehow, the Spanish and the Spanish-speaking nations rarely figure in major works or composers, with just a handful of names such as de Falla or Granados, as well as having few major orchestras or international soloists (not forgetting Casals, however). My favourite Spanish composer by far is Pablo de Sarasate, and I have written often in this blog concerning my love for his music. He wrote his music to play himself, of course, and he was a major virtuoso of the violin. Unlike Paganini or Ernst, however, his music is frequently virtuosic without driving violin technique to its very limits (and sometimes beyond). Sarasate's music reflects his elegant and sophisticated style of playing, and an hour spent listening to Sarasate's music is an hour well spent, so I usually seize upon any new recording of Sarasate's music that comes along; not much use dreaming about hearing his music live in a modern concert hall, alas. My latest seizure is the second volume in Volker Reinhold's traversal of all Sarasate's opera fantasies, a popular formula in the nineteenth century with ten minutes or so spent improvising on the themes from major operas of the time.

Once again, Herr Reinhold is a pleasure to listen to as he plays music he so evidently enjoys and he is well partnered by Ralph Zedler; one can also admire Sarasate's writing in the piano accompaniments which are far from the routine plunking chords so often found in salon musical accompaniments. I passed an enjoyable 77 minutes with Reinhold and Zedler. A cross-reference to Tianwa Yang was interesting, however. Her eight CDs of Sarasate's music also contain all the pieces on Herr Reinhold's two CDs of opera fantasies. In every piece I looked at, Reinhold was appreciably slower than Miss Yang; Tianwa is more mercurial, Reinhold more deliberate. The Chinese has a superb sense of rhythm and of rubato, and beside her and her pianist (Markus Hadulla) the Germans can sound a little four-square at times. And Tianwa's Vuillaume violin sounds better than Reinhold's in the higher registers (as recorded here). No matter with comparisons; Sarasate's evergreen music is always a pleasure to listen to and I will continue to seize every opportunity to hear it played by expert violinists with a sense of style.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Otto Klemperer, and Mozart

I've mentioned my musical “phases” before. At the moment I seem to have entered a new Mozart phase, and he is the composer whose music is played often chez moi. My favourite Mozart symphony is the 40th in G minor, and Mozart symphonies on disc pose a bit of a problem for me: I don't like orchestral music in less than good sound (unless there are very special reasons). I don't like big-band Mozart, 19th century style. I don't like “authentic” Mozart played by augmented “period” chamber groups conducted by faceless figures, and all this limits my choices somewhat. So I have fallen back happily on an eight CD box of Mozart's symphonies, overtures and serenades with Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia, the box being part of EMI's swan song before it was taken over by the Americans.

As I've mentioned before, Klemperer is my kind of conductor, particularly in Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner and Mahler; and Mozart. He was keen on lean choirs and orchestras in 18th century music even before they became fashionable. His predilection for forward woodwind suits Mozart's music down the ground, as does his insistence on clarity of texture, divided first and second violins, and overall musical structure. And, as always with Klemperer, there is an avoidance of personal interpretive interjections. I am happy with Klemperer's Mozart, and happy he left us so many first class recordings post the early 1950s. Especially good are the three CDs re-mastered in "Hybrid SACD" sound of the last six symphonies, another swan song from EMI.

I only saw him once in person conducting in London. A tall, gaunt somewhat forbidding figure, conducting while seated (at that late stage of his tempestuous career). But if ever there were a survivor, it was Otto Klemperer. Suffering all his life from bi-polar moods, his story and fate were like that of so many in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Born in 1885 in the German city of Breslau, his birth city was given permanently to the Poles after 1945. Building a highly successful career in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s – with good help from Gustav Mahler – Klemperer as a Jew had to flee Germany in the mid- 1930s. He ended up in America, like many others at the same time, but there he had a difficult life given his uncompromising character (and difficult medical history, including a botched brain operation that left him partly paralysed thereafter). His American period ended with the US authorities refusing to renew his passport since, during the McCarthy era, he was regarded as being far too far left wing to be safe. Ironically, the Germans then came to the rescue and gave Otto a new German passport. Returning to Europe in the early 1950s, he found life hard until he was “discovered” by Walter Legge and given a whole new career as a star conductor and conductor of the Philharmonia orchestra of the time. “Remarkable, since Legge was not a German, nor even Jewish”, Klemperer remarked caustically. He died in Zürich in 1973 at the grand old age of 88, still conducting right until the end. Happily, for us, his recorded legacy is enormous and much of it is in perfectly acceptable sound since the EMI recording team of that era was top-notch. For me, the two greatest conductors of the 20th century in the mainstream German repertoire were Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer. There is no one the equal of those two around at the moment.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Mozart's Gran Partita

Vienna in November 1947 was probably not the best of places to be. The city, with much still destroyed, was under post-war Russian military occupation and money, morale and comfort must have been low. Nevertheless, the indefatigable Walter Legge was there, with the superb balance engineer Douglas Larter and they met up with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the wind players of the Vienna Philharmonic to record Mozart's Gran Partita for 13 wind instruments, K 361. The result, to my ears, has always been one of the golden classics of recording. Mozart played in the style of old Vienna with much love and affection from players and from Furtwängler, whom they had requested to direct them. Expertly recorded back in 1947 and well transferred to CD by the highly talented Keith Hardwick, it remains one of the jewels of my collection of recordings. They don't play this music like that any more!

Monday, 31 August 2015

Schubert's Last Three Piano Sonatas

Today I listened to the last three piano sonatas of Franz Schubert; strange to think that they were relatively unknown and unplayed until the 20th century. They would have fascinated composers such as Bach, Handel and Mozart because of their semi-familiar musical language, but with exotic departures and additions. I love their kaleidoscopic modulations of mood, of key, and of harmony; from one minute to the next, you never know what world you are going to be in.

The outburst of rage / frustration / despair during the andantino of the A major sonata never fails to astonish; what Schubert's friends and contemporaries made of it, I cannot imagine. And I love the frequent resigned sadness and ambiguities of the final B flat major sonata. It is incredible that the C minor, A major and B flat major sonatas were written in the same place and within a very few years of Beethoven's last string quartets; what a period of musical gold!

These sonatas are best listened to played by “simple” great pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter, Clara Haskil, Wilhelm Kempff, Leif Ove Andsnes or Maria Pires since there is little need or cause for showing off, bravura, or personal point-making. I listened to all three played by the superb Leif Ove Andsnes, recorded over the years 2001-4. A real classic recording that I always keep by me for when I feel like some sophisticated listening.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Musical Vignettes

I seem to go through listening phases. Some months ago, it was mainly big orchestral works by the likes of Shostakovich, Sibelius, Bruckner and Elgar. My current phase is for recitals of short works; maybe a result of the metabolism of my attention span. So I have delighted again in hearing the phenomenal Zlata Chochieva playing Chopin études – I, who have never been a keen Chopin fan. I am delighted again in making my way through Tianwa Yang's eight CDs of Sarasate works. And I recovered from my archives David Frühwirth's recital of 17 mainly unhackneyed vignettes for violin and piano.

It's sad there are not many Chochieva recordings around yet. I am completely captivated by her Chopin études and love her pianism. Just as astonishing is Tianwa Yang in Sarasate; I love Sarasate's music and marvel at how idiomatic Yang sounds in this Spanish music. Her sense of style, rhythm and rubato are really extraordinary; she could even have been Sarasate's favourite pupil, listening to her. And I do revel in Sarasate's music. I recall a puffed-up British critic a few years back screeching with outrage because a professional orchestral musician had told him that Sarasate's music was worth 20 or so of Boulez, or Nono, or Stockhausen (I forget which). Well, the professional musician was quite right, and Sarasate's music is eternal.

Finally, I sat back and listened to David Frühwirth playing pieces by Zimbalist, Kurt Weill, Hans Sitt, Hubay and many others. Frühwirth has an engaging warm, relaxed Austrian tone which at times reminds me of his fellow Austrian of long ago, Fritz Kreisler. And he has a gift for selecting enjoyable music that is not readily featured in compilations by others. My short pieces phase is still very much with me; fortunately I have many CDs of short pieces to fall back on – doubly fortunately, since they do not often turn up in concerts or recitals nowadays except as four minute encores.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Lisa Batiashvili

Three major violin concertos – by Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich's first – have no shortage of excellent contenders for three star status, in my hierarchy. Probably the only violinist to achieve three stars in all three concertos, is Lisa Batiashvili and I had a mini- Lisa festival yesterday, listening to the three concertos played by her.

Her strengths are well known: Nobility of tone and utterance; a sense of the long line, and an exceptional feeling for phrasing (viz Rachmaninov's Vocalise). She seems to have an uncanny ability to find the right tempo, for her and for the music. She has an excellent range of dynamics. She concentrates on the music, not on highlighting her playing. She has a complete mastery of her instrument (a Strad). And she is an intensely serious player; no Lang-Lang type antics. Finally, she has her pick of good collaborators: Hélène Grimaud, Alice Sara Ott, Khatia Buniatishvili, Stephen Osborne, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Christian Thielemann, Charles Dutoit, Sakari Oramo, Osmo Vänskä ...

Her first Shostakovich violin concerto is truly superb, getting right to the bones of this complex work. Her Beethoven (no conductor on her Sony release) is surprisingly good, despite the absence of a conductor, and the recording is excellent. She has speeded up in this work after a re-think, compared with past off-air recordings. In the Beethoven, she uses the Kreisler cadenza; in the Brahms concerto (with Christian Thielemann) she uses the Busoni cadenza, and her long line creates a superb effect in the adagio. The Brahms concerto is not quite as well recorded as are the Beethoven and Shostakovich concertos; the violin is a little too integrated within the orchestral sound.

To my taste, she is not so good in Bach, and I have the impression that her long line and nobility of tone are perhaps not really ideal for Bach's music. There seem to be a lot of things she does not play, and I cannot find any reference to her playing Kreisler, Wieniawski or Sarasate. It's a shame that she appears not to play the Elgar violin concerto, a work that would suit her well, I sense. Anyway, pretty well everything she does play, she plays superbly and I hope for many more recordings from her whilst she is in her prime.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Albert Hermann Dietrich, and Joseph Joachim

It is sometimes dispiriting to discover that, after over 60 years of listening to music, there is so much more to discover. The 17th, 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries saw composers of all nationalities scribbling away at top speed, and most of the resulting music is unknown and unperformed; personally I have little interest in the kilos of music written after the deaths of Shostakovich or Britten (just as contemporary composers appear to have little interest in pleasing me).

Today, I was listening to the violin concerto of Albert Hermann Dietrich (who?), a close friend of Brahms, Schumann and Joseph Joachim. I then went on to listen to Joachim's Notturno for Violin & Orchestra, ending up with the more familiar Variations in E minor "In Ungarischer Weise" by Joachim. The excellent violinist in all three works was Hans Maile (who?) and the very good recording made in Berlin in 1983. OK; none of the three works bore the stamp of genius that one would have found in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc. But all three works were expertly crafted and made highly enjoyable listening and a pleasant change from many over-familiar works. I have a lot of listening to catch up on.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Mozart, and the Germans

Finding a really good recording of any given Mozart violin concerto is surprisingly difficult. Technically, the concertos pose no problems to modern violinists (even I used to play them, long ago). But the violinist needs to capture the youth and elegance of Mozart's writing; the orchestra needs to participate with the soloist and exchange musical thoughts; the recording needs to balance soloist and orchestra satisfactorily; and both orchestra and soloist need to capture the spirit and elegance of the 18th century (though preferably not try to emulate what might have been the exact sound world of the music of nearly 250 years ago).

Arthur Grumiaux has been the Mozart concerto best stand-by for nearly 50 years now and, of more recent recordings, I have enjoyed Arabella Steinbacher and Katrin Scholz. Latest arrival on my player is Frank Peter Zimmerman, with the chamber orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Radoslaw Szulc. And very good it is, too, providing really all I want for modern performances of these concertos (Zimmerman plays the 1st, 3rd and 4th on the new CD, with the rest scheduled to follow). Stylish violin playing. Excellent orchestral partnership. Good recording (Hänssler Classic) with expert balance. My kind of Mozart (and not an “original instrument” within sound or sight, thank heavens).

Somewhat coincidentally, I have recently had a minor deluge of fine violin and piano recordings, with Thomas Christian in Ernst, and Kirill Troussov and Alexandra Troussova in a recital of Russian short pieces (Dabringhaus und Grimm). Good music and playing and, commendably, excellent recorded sound with expert balance between piano and violin. All the recordings (including the new Zimmermann) come from Germany, and I sense that the German investment in Tonmeister training has really paid off. Scandinavia and the Czech lands also produce excellent modern recordings, but I sense that in too many other countries roving bands of all-purpose recording technicians are often tackling things too unrelated to their normal sound worlds of rock, pop and beat music. Classical music recording is different from recording electronically-amplified “stars” with “backing groups”. Well done the Germans. And maybe not entirely coincidental that my modern trio of fine Mozart concerto players – Zimmermann, Steinbacher and Scholz – are all Germans, resident in Germany.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Eugen Jochum in Bruckner

At the present time, there are four main pillars in my musical world: Bach, Handel, Schubert and Bruckner. This evening it was Bruckner's turn; the seventh symphony recorded in 1976 by Eugen Jochum conducting the Staatskapelle in Dresden. It is always dangerous to generalise as to who plays what, best. If you want Elgar, you have to have English players (what about Vasily Petrenko?) If you want Debussy, it needs to be French players. For Gershwin, you need Americans. For Rachmaninov, you have to have Russians. Etc. Generalisations are dangerous, and inaccurate more often than not. But I do wonder about Anton Bruckner. The great Bruckner interpreters all seem to be Germanic (starting with Furtwängler, the greatest Brucknerian of them all, in my opinion). And then, listening to the Dresden Staatskapelle, or the Berlin Philharmonic, or the Vienna Philharmonic, or the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Bruckner; can you really imagine any other of that interpretive standard, speaking with their native language, as it were?

Bruckner seems to need a conductor steeped in the Germanic tradition. Furtwängler. Schuricht. Knappertsbusch. Jochum. Wand. Klemperer. Böhm, Kabasta, plus a few outsiders such as Haitink or Horenstein. He needs an orchestra steeped in the old German sound world. He needs a good, rich recording (which, alas, mitigates against many great Bruckner recordings of the past, including those by Furtwängler). I am happy usually to fall back on my Eugen Jochum recordings with the Dresden orchestra, despite many, many alternatives on my shelves. Headphones on, volume up.

BIS, and Franz Liszt Again

Three stars to the Swedish record company, BIS, for my newest CD, an assortment of violin and piano music by Franz Liszt whose non-piano music seems to have been a recent discovery. With this BIS CD, we get an exemplary recording and, miraculously, a completely ideal balance between violin and piano; a rare event. As a surprising bonus, we are also offered some interesting liner notes by the violinist, Ulf Wallin and a booklet with a big picture of Liszt, a half page photo of the violinist and pianist Roland Pöntinen; companies such as DGG and Warner take note. We really do not need multiple pages of semi-clad artists.

Liszt's works for violin and piano are fascinating; the Lugubre Gondola that plays for over nine minutes really grips the attention. Both violinist and pianist give admirable performances. Bravo BIS – and let us not forget that BIS stayed with Masaaki Suzuki throughout his long and admirable decades-long odyssey of Bach's cantatas; a company that takes the long view, and care over repertoire, liner notes and recording.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Thomas Christian plays Ernst

The music of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst is best known – when it is known at all – for his Erlkönig and Last Rose of Summer fantasies. Both these works have always appeared to me to be unwise in that they go slightly beyond the technical limits of what is advisable on a violin. On a whim, I bought a two-CD set of Ernst's music played by Thomas Christian, an Austrian violinist now in his mid-60s. Not an Earl-King or a Last Rose in sight; this is well over two and half hours of pleasant salon music played around half the time with a pianist, half the time with a small chamber group. The first CD also features a string quartet by Ernst – played a little unrelentingly, I feel; more contrast in dynamics would have helped. And in music like this, the violin is of primary interest and the sound needs to be 60/40 in favour of the violin. Here, it's more like 60/40 in favour of the piano, so that we hear every note the pianist plays, but cannot always easily hear the violin. Probably not the fault of the pianist (Evgeny Sinayskiy) but more likely of the CPO recording team. Or of my loudspeakers.

Christian plays with a honeyed,Viennese tone, with lots of charm. Wisely, perhaps given his age, the pieces selected here mainly avoid hyper-virtuoso passages, so we get well over two hours of music that fit beautifully into a summer evening's listening and can be safely offered to anyone's elderly mother-in-law. Sad that Ernst's music is not better known and is seldom played. Instead of yet another Ravel or Debussy sonata recording, we could do with more of Ernst's thoroughly enjoyable and tuneful salon music; the only piece on these two CDs that is played from time to time is the Fantaisie Brillante on a theme from Rossini's Otello.  It all sounds nice and, despite the CDs' title of “The Virtuoso Violin”, there is not much purely technical virtuosity needed in most of the pieces on these CDs.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Purcell's "When I am laid to Earth"

Henry Purcell's aria “when I am laid to earth” from Dido and Aeneas is, quite rightly, considered one of the greatest arias in all music. Almost everyone sings it (and I once transcribed it for violin and viola so I could play it myself). This evening I listened to it sung by Patricia Petibon, on a recital CD. It was intensely moving, since Petibon has a superb voice and is very much a singer-actor who communicates words and feelings from the heart. Terrific!

A minute criticism is that someone should teach the French how to pronounce “earth” (as in “When I am laid to earth”). It is not pronounced how it looks, and 98% of French get it wrong … somewhat understandably: who would think that “earth” should be pronounced “urth”?

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Nightingales and Sopranos

Like Richard Strauss, I have an on-going love affair with the soprano voice (which perhaps fits with my love of the violin). Recently I put on a CD of songs sung by … a tenor! … and had to exit the disc after a few of the songs. For song and aria recitals, I favour Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Carolyn Sampson, Julia Lezhneva, Diana Damrau, Simone Kermes, Joyce DiDonato, Patricia Petibon … and a few others. A good friend has just given me a CD of Carolyn Sampson singing a multilingual collection of songs (with piano) and it really is a major treat. I like Ms Sampson's voice, I like the fact I can hear the words she is singing, I like the fact that her French (especially) and German dictions are extremely acceptable, and I like her intelligence applied to what she is singing.

The other nightingale I acquired recently was the Russian Julia Lezhneva, with her first CD that featured Rossini operatic arias. Some have commented that, at 21 years old when this CD was recorded, she was just too young for some of this music, and I suspect that is true (I am no Rossini expert). Others have commented that her intonation goes astray on occasions; I am blessed with imperfect pitch, and a dozen false notes in an hour of singing or playing never particularly bother me; I find it acceptable to wince on a few occasions. What does matter to me is that I like Ms Lezhneva's voice, and the music she sings and can sit back and enjoy the programme. Just as I like Carolyn Sampson's voice. But, no, I am not a fan of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; I don't just love every soprano who comes along.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Conus

Two CDs I keep close to hand both feature lesser known violinists in lesser known works. On one, the Korean violinist Soo-Hyun Park plays the first Wieniawski violin concerto, the Conus concerto, and Vieuxtemps' Fantasia Appassionata. On the second, Canadian violinist Corey Cerovsek plays Vieuxtemps' fifth concerto, Wieniawski's second, and Wieniawski's Faust Fantasia.

Hardly exotic and unknown repertoire – I have 23 versions of the Wieniawski Fantasia, and 17 of Vieuxtemps' fifth concerto, for example – but rare to have them assembled on two convenient CDs (Claves and Onyx), well played and well recorded. Mainline companies and mainstream violinists stick either to endless recordings of the twelve evergreen classics, or to scrapings of “new music” concertos, once played, forever forgotten. My two CDs of Wieniawski et al are well worn, and kept where I can pick them out easily whenever I feel like it – which is surprisingly often.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Georg Kulenkampff

A friend sent me five CDRs of the violin playing of Georg Kulenkampff and I listened with pleasure to the first two, with over two hours of Kulenkampff in the late 1920s and the 1930s playing short encore pieces with a variety of accompaniments and a variety of recorded sound. This is highly civilised classical violin playing, with lots of colouring and lots of articulation using the bow in the right hand. Two hours passed happily, no mean feat with a violinist playing short pieces.

Most of the pieces recorded in the 1930s with Franz Rupp as accompanist go well. Some of the “arrangements” of popular pieces show that the Germans of the time were willing to venture into the world of schmaltz and kitsch with the best of them, and some of the pieces – such as “Silent Night” – would make even Andre Rieu blush. In the main, however, the playing is refreshing and interesting, the music good, the recordings quite passable, and the transfers as good as can be. Tough for an international reputation being a German violinist in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, but it is excellent news that Kulenkampff's reputation lives on into the twenty-first century.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley in Beethoven

On an impulse, I reached up to one of my CD shelves and recovered the set of the ten violin and piano sonatas by Beethoven, as recorded by Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley. Well over three and a half hours of enjoyment; thank you Beethoven, Renaud and Frank.

I wrote about this set a couple of years ago, so I will try not to repeat myself. The two artists are well matched; their performances are highly elegant (except where Beethoven calls for a bit of beef). The recording is well balanced – essential in duo music such as this. No nonsense about period violins or fortepianos; nothing but the best modern sound for Ludwig van Beethoven. Sensible tempi throughout the ten sonatas. Many duos have recorded this set over the decades, some of them playing very well indeed. But when I want to listen to the set again, Capuçon and Braley will be an obvious choice.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Liza Ferschtman

For a small country with a population of just under 17 million people, the Netherlands produces an astonishing number of first class violinists including Simone Lamsma, Isabelle van Keulen, Janine Jansen and Liza Ferschtman; just the ones whose playing I have often heard. The latest Dutch girl on my CD player is Liza Ferschtman, who plays Biber's Passagalia, Bartok's solo sonata, a piece by Berio, and Bach's D minor partita for solo violin.

Nice to hear Biber and Bach played by a “proper” violinist on a proper violin. The piece by Luciano Berio is perfectly horrible, and so typical of the iconoclasts in 1976; what on earth happened to Italian instrumental music after the death of Paganini, seemingly its last exponent? In the 18th century, Italian instrumental music was first class. Ferschtman is not a “beautiful” player and is not afraid of the occasional harsh or ugly sound, where called for. This probably suits the Berio piece (I did not get beyond the first 60 seconds) and also suits the Bartok solo sonata, a work I've known for nearly 60 years, but can't say I actually love (or Bartok's music in general, come to that). A CD to treasure for the Bach and Biber, played by a first class Dutch violinist (of Russian parentage). I was particularly taken with Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's “Guardian Angel” Passagalia, a major discovery for me. Hopefully, a few more “proper” violinists will give us more Biber sonatas.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Beethoven's Violin Concerto

Looking at the 81 (!) recordings of Beethoven's violin concerto on my shelves, it would appear that it is a difficult concerto to get right. The first movement is long (typically around 24 minutes). The second movement is a divine rhapsody of 9-10 minutes. The third movement is a traditional 18th century rondo – usually a bit of a cop-out, in my opinion, a bit like a movement of variations which rarely impress as great music. Looking at my 81 recordings, it is the old ones that come off best, and all are by German (or Austro-German) violinists, perhaps for the same reason that performances of a composer such as Rachmaninov are usually best when performed by echt-Russians.

The five “best” violinists in the Beethoven concerto, for me, are Fritz Kreisler (1926 and 1936), Georg Kulenkampff (1936), Erich Röhn (1944), Adolf Busch (1942 and 1949) and Wolfgang Schneiderhan (1952, 1953, 1954 and 1964). Kreisler was in his prime at 51 years old for his first recording, but the Berlin Opera Orchestra under Leo Blech in 1926 were not great partners. I have a great affection for Georg Kulenkampff in this work, with the Berlin Philharmonic during its prime years and good transfers by both Michael Dutton and Pristine Audio. Kulenkampff plays with an endearing simplicity, letting the violin and the music do the talking without over-visible intervention from the “interpreter”. Kulenkampff like most of the older players with the exception of Schneiderhan, plays conventional cadenzas rather than the wanna-be-different ones concocted by too many modern violinists.

Mischa Elman and Maxim Vengerov both win wooden spoons for their performances (with Vengerov extending the first movement to nearly half and hour). A difficult concerto to bring off, but I am happy with my five violinists recorded between 1926 and 1964.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Ox Tongue and Nikon

A slight diversion. Today I began to cut my current ox tongue, cooked by me yesterday. So good, I had it for lunch and for dinner. At just under two kilos before cooking, it will last me a while. I hope. In England, for some bizarre reason, ox tongues can usually only be acquired around Christmas time. This current one was bought by me in December and promptly frozen until cooking time came around last weekend.

But the diversion: last week I went to the municipal “tip” and threw away my old Yashica camera, plus four or five lenses. The Yashica I bought in New York around 35 years ago. It was a wrench to toss it into the trash container, but who really can cope with film cameras, and film, and developing, and printing, and enlarging, in 2015? My cameras started around the age of 14 – some 60 years ago – and subsequently embraced numerous film and then digital cameras. My latest, bought around a month or so ago, is another Nikon: a P610. I have no shares in Nikon, nor incentive to praise Mr Nikon's products. But, after 60 years, I have found a camera that fully and completely satisfies my modest photographic talents (and bank account limitations). The 60x zoom is, of course, revolutionary. But it is the camera's capacity to understand complex lighting scenes (shadow, light, bright light) and to make sense of them that enthrals me. And there is the capacity to take 180 degree panoramic shots (a facility I have yet to test) that is a first for me. Alas, in the modern world there are not too many things that get better and better (outside computers). But cameras are the exception. My Nikon P610 is far and away the best I have ever possessed, and its little on-board microprocessor works divine miracles.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Handel, Whisky, and Sandrine Piau

Ah, happiness is sitting back with a good whisky – such as a Laphroaig or J&B – and listening to Sandrine Piau singing arias from Handel oratorios (in English). Handel knew just how to tug the heart strings, and also knew that his upper-class English audience had a limited attention span, so that no one aria should last longer than around five minutes. Start with Handel's music, and throw in Sandrine Piau's clear soprano voice with a dash of honey; and life is good.

There is a YouTube interview with Ms Piau about this CD (the CD being titled “Between Heaven and Earth”). The French pretty-woman interviewer, full of herself, translates this as “Between 'eaven and ''arth” (entre le ciel et le coeur). The pretty TV woman then carries on to expound her concept of the meaning of “between 'eaven and 'eart”. Ms Piau knows her place, and knows who is the star of this TV interview, so does not dare contradict; you can almost see her holding her tongue. This is a CD I play often, and it never fails to put me in a good mood. With or without Laphroaig or J&B or, as this evening, sunshine in England.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Colin Davis in Sibelius, Pires in Beethoven

Music of youth this morning; my youth, that is. I grew up in my teens with Sibelius's 7th Symphony and with Beethoven's 4th piano concerto and listened to both again with much pleasure this morning. In my youth, it was von Karajan in the Sibelius, Claudio Arrau in the Beethoven (I still have both). This morning, however, it was Colin Davis and the LSO in Sibelius, Maria Pires and Daniel Harding in the Beethoven.

Sibelius's planet seems to be waning at the moment (apart from the violin concerto) and I can't really imagine why. Like Handel, Haydn or Bruckner, most of Sibelius's music does not have much emotional baggage with it, and it comes over like a clear, refreshing, cleansing mountain stream. His music was championed internationally in the past by conductors such as von Karajan, Beecham and Davis. I like the Colin Davis recording since the sound is good (important in Sibelius) and the conductor brings a lifetime of love and experience to the music. And the LSO knows the music well.

To complete my morning, Pires and Harding are first class in the Beethoven concerto. This kind of music does not need a show-off pianist, drawing attention to his or her incredible playing. There is music where the soloist is of prime importance (for example, in the music of Paganini or Liszt). But there is music, like Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, where simple but expert pianism is most of what is required. Pires is superb in her sublime simplicity, letting Beethoven's music unfold before us. If it was back to the 1950s for me, it was a very pleasant retrospective journey.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Alina Ibragimova, Tianwa Yang, Eugène Ysaÿe

I am uneasily aware that each new recording of Eugène Ysaÿe's six sonatas for solo violin that I come across, sees me reaching for superlatives. So I reach up yet again for more superlatives for the new recording by Alina Ibragimova (Hyperion). Incredible virtuosity, of course, but an attractive almost whimsical approach to these highly varied sonatas. The only time I heard Ibragimova live in a recital hall, I marvelled at the dynamic range she obtained from her violin, ranging from extreme pianissimos to ear-splitting fortissimos. And she can make her violin coo like a dove, or roar like a lion. A phenomenal violinist and musician, and at just under 68 minutes for the sonatas on this CD, she kept me enthralled throughout.

Her CD goes head-to-head with another phenomenal young woman, Tianwa Yang, whose recent CD of the six same works had me again reaching for superlatives a few months ago. One difference becomes immediately apparent: although both young women take pretty much the same time over the third sonata, the Russian's CD plays for just under 68 minutes, the Chinese for 74 and a half minutes; quite a difference. Where Ibragimova is whimsical and mercurial, Yang is steady; her style of precise and deliberate articulation was already established when she recorded the 24 Paganini caprices at the age of 13.

There is nothing to choose between recording quality with Hyperion, and Naxos. A small criticism of either Ibragimova or Hyperion is that the Russian's dynamic range is so extensive that her extreme pianissimos are sometimes almost inaudible, even listening over headphones as I had to, in the end; her ending of the first movement of the first sonata is hard to hear at any normal listening volume. Yang, or Naxos's engineers, judge things better. For once, I have no accompanist to moan about, and a choice between Ibragimova and Yang is pretty clear: the two are so different that you have to have both! As a bonus, you can probably throw away most of the older recordings of these six works.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dmitri Shostakovich and the String Quartets

Much of Dmitri Shostakovich's life was lived in thoroughly harrowing times: the chaos, upheaval and famine of the 1920s; the Terror and great purges of the 1930s in Russia; the horrors of the second world war in which over 20 million Russians died; the grim post-war Stalin régime of repression and suspicion, only partly alleviated in 1953 with the tyrant's death. And not the least attraction of Shostakovich's music is how it reflects much of his life, with wild rejoicing mixed with black nightmares, all sometimes overladen with a Russian gloom à la Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov.

Despite its adhesion to traditional tonality (thank heavens) Shostakovich's music is completely of the 20th century; there is no confusion about post-romantic, or whatever, and to me he was the greatest composer of the 20th century – not that the competitor list for great composers of that century is that long. I came to Shostakovich's music late in life, and am now struggling to catch up with, and digest, 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, 24 preludes and fugues, two piano trios, the string quintet, the sonatas for violin, for cello and for viola, two violin concertos, two cello concertos … For some reason I do not understand, I seem to have an innate empathy for Shostakovich's music and its kaleidoscopic mood changes, so my catching-up task is a pleasant one.

I have two complete collections of the string quartets where I feel that Shostakovich, like Beethoven or Schubert before him, poured much of his greatest and most personal music. But a collection of 15 string quartets turns out to be a difficult digestive task – I am still not sure to have digested the 16 string quartets and 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven, even after 60+ years of music listening. With digestive problems in mind, I invested in a CD by the young Anglo-Irish Carducci String Quartet on which the quartet embarks on Shostakovich's fourth, eighth and eleventh quartets. Three at-a-time are easier to get to know well rather than 15 in a big box. As far as I can tell, the Carducci players do well, though it is never easy to pronounce on the performance of music one does not know inside-out. Anyway, the Carducci players play in tune and with spirit and are well recorded, so this will do for some multiple listening before I go back to the Beethoven Quartet in the complete set.

And, as an aside, is not the string quartet with its two violins, viola and cello possibly the greatest medium that has ever evolved for the performance of great, personal music? Arising from the Phoenix of the consort of viols, the string quartet medium is probably the most expressive and personal musical medium of them all.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

James Ehnes in César Franck

I was a little concerned listening to my newly arrived CD of James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong playing César Franck's sonata for violin and piano; my interest kept wavering throughout all four movements. Was it my head, preoccupied with other matters? Or was it the playing? Surely it wasn't fatigue with Franck's sonata?

So I embarked on listening to the sonata four times in 24 hours. First: the Ehnes-Armstrong. Second, the classic Thibaud and Cortot from 1929 (excellent restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn for Pristine Audio). Third, from the new recording by Renaud Capuçon and Khatia Buniatishvili about which I enthused recently. Then, finally, back to Ehnes and Armstrong.

Tempi in all four movements by all three duos are pretty similar. I really enjoyed listening to Thibaud and Cortot again, and was equally enthusiastic with Capuçon and Buniatishvili; a real favourite, and perhaps the recording of the 55 (!) I have of this work that currently I most enjoy. Then, for my fourth listening, back to Ehnes and Armstrong. Ehnes is extremely good, as one might expect. The flaw is the pianist: Armstrong is just not in the same class as Cortot or Buniatishvili. He plays well, reminding me of Brooks Smith, Heifetz's long-term accompanist. But listen to Cortot, or listen to Buniatishvili, and the competitive bar is set very high indeed. Ehnes seems not to favour big-name partners in violin and piano sonatas; this matters less in the (excellent) account of the Strauss sonata also on the CD. But for the Franck, he would have been better advised to play with Yevgeny Sudbin, Hélène Grimaud, Xiayin Wang, Marc-André Hamelin, Lise de la Salle or a host of the other first class pianists of whom there is no lack at the present time. The recorded balance favours the piano; not a good thing in these two sonatas, where Ehnes often sounds like a voice off stage whilst the piano plonks away in front of our noses.