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.