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.