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.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

My Top Dozen Current Musicians

My current dozen favourite musicians (who are still active):

Alina Ibragimova (violin), James Ehnes (violin), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Igor Levit (piano), Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Sandrine Piau (soprano), Maria Pires (piano), Akiko Suwanai (violin), Valery Gergiev (conductor), Vasily Petrenko (conductor), Tianwa Yang (violin), Xiayin Wang (piano).

These are all almost always auto-buys. There are many more, but I wanted to keep the list to one dozen. And as runners-up: Lise de la Salle (piano), Julia Lezhneva (soprano), Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Leonidas Kavakos (violin).

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Mravinsky on Praga Digitals

I have noticed recently that the Czech company, Supraphon, now has excellent recording quality. I have also noticed that Praga Digitals, another Czech company, does some very high quality transfer and restoration work. The latest evidence of this is Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1961 (live recording) of Shostakovich's 8th Symphony. Only the somewhat recessed major climaxes reveal the age and limitations of the recording. Magnificent!

And is it my imagination, or have the orchestral strings of the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler and the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky not been equalled since? I certainly basked in the Leningraders in this performance.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Busch Chamber Players: Bach Brandenburg Concertos

I do not consider my tastes in musical performance to be old-fashioned; but I certainly recognise they are currently unfashionable, especially among opinion-makers and media gurus. Down from the shelves – after a long rest – came Adolf Busch and friends playing the Bach Brandenburg concertos (mid- 1930s recordings). By Jove, I enjoyed these performances! There is a palpable sense of musicians enjoying themselves, much as they may have done at Cöthen some 300 years ago, and the line-up of the star musicians of the mid-1930s makes a welcome change from the often somewhat stereotyped “authentic” performers on other sets. So the horns, trumpet, harpsichord (!) etc. are not exactly what Bach would have expected to hear. But I think that he, essentially a highly practical musician who cared more for texture than exact timbre, would have muttered something like: “Whatever sounds best, this evening”. A man who could re-cast a Prelude for solo violin (E major partita) for solo organ in the opening Sinfonia of the cantata BWV 29 was not one to worry about vibrato, which kind of keyboard instrument, which wood the oboe was made from, etc. There are creative artists, writers and thinkers who are anchored firmly in their epoques: for example, John Le Carré, Karl Marx, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. There are others who espouse eternal values: for example, Johann Sebastian Bach, or William Shakespeare (amongst many, many others).

With Adolf Busch at the helm you get balance, dedication, enjoyment, “correct” tempos (whatever that might mean). The EMI transfers from circa 1990 are not the best, with digital glare in the treble, and the sense you are at least two stages removed from the original recorded sound. During that period, transfers to CD were production-line stuff, with little individual care. However, the sound on the CDs is not that bad and, again, the balance is a model of how things should be done with the sonically difficult Brandenburgs (with their miscellaneous mixtures of solo instruments). Compared with some of today's Formula One tempi, Busch and friends can often sound leisurely; I would prefer to call them relaxed.

Hopefully in some attic or other there exists a mint condition set of the original 78s that will find themselves to the workbenches of transfer artists such as Praga Digital or Pristine Audio. In the meantime, the EMI CD set will have to suffice; it gives me a lot of pleasure just sitting back and listening to it.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Kavakos and Gergiev in Shostakovich

Vadim Repin is quoted as saying that Shostakovich's first violin concerto is “the perfect musical score” and the words came back to me listening to my latest acquisition of this work, played by Leonidas Kavakos with the Mariiinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. I really appreciated Shostakovich's scoring as fully revealed in this recording; the orchestral violins have little prominence, and the orchestral part concentrates on double basses, cellos, brass and the deeper wind instruments, thus allowing the violin to be heard in contrast without having to make superhuman efforts to overcome the orchestral background.

Gergiev and the orchestra play superbly (with Gergiev singing in tune from time to time in this live performance). Like the violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms and Elgar, the first Shostakovich violin concerto really needs a good orchestra and conductor and cannot rely on just a good soloist. With all that, Kavakos is superb in this performance, and with his entry in the Passacaglia, and his fire in the finale, he tops them all, so I have to record yet another top version of this very lucky concerto on disc. Tempi are fine for me – movement without being frantic or exaggerated, particularly important in the long first movement.

And Russian recording (Mariiinsky) has come on a long way since the 1950s and 60s, with an excellent balance for the SACD disc (which I can only play as a CD on my equipment, alas). I now have 45 different recordings of this concerto, many of them with three stars. A lucky concerto, indeed, and a very fine one, to boot; it fully deserves its dramatic latter-day success in the concert hall and on record.