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.