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!