Monday, 30 November 2015

Two French Sopranos: Sabine Devieilhe, and Véronique Gens

The French seem to be doing well with top class musicians, at the moment. Not reflected too often in French orchestras, but singers, violinists, cellists, pianists …. Two CDs from France turned up this week to add to my collection: Sabine Devieilhe (soprano) sings Mozart. Véronique Gens (soprano) sings an excellent collection of 24 songs by Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc and Ernest Chausson.

Véronique Gens has a beautiful voice of real character, and she enunciates clearly. Whatever she is singing about – joy, love, sorrow – she always sounds as though she means it. She is expertly accompanied by the ever-talented Susan Manoff, a pianist who always sounds at home in French mélodies. 66 minutes with Gens and Manoff go very quickly. I was particularly happy to meet the songs of Reynaldo Hahn featured here; they are songs I had not come across before.

On to the more controversial CD of Sabine Devieilhe (accompanied very admirably by an instrumental group Pygmalion, directed by Raphaël Pichon; the group also plays some Mozart bits and pieces on the CD). Hers is a fresh, young, agile voice of very considerable dexterity and technical skill. Her voice, however, lacks the sheer character of the soprano voice of Véronique Gens. Character is important. Ms Devieilhe's CD is a bit of a hotch-potch of Mozart bits and pieces. The producers try to give it a “theme” or a “concept” – music written for the various three Weber sisters, one of whom, Constanze, Mozart married – but it does not really work. We have various arias for soprano. We have various pieces for orchestra. We have an eleven minute chunk of the C minor Mass (Et incarnatus est). We have the Queen of the Night aria (expertly sung). The whole 72 minutes of the CD is really a vehicle for Ms Devieilhe but, unlike Véronique Gens or Julia Lezhneva – to mention only two – Sabine does not yet have the ability to hold our interest always in what she is singing. We gasp, we marvel; but we are not moved. A friend of mine listening to Julia Lezhneva singing Handel was at a loss for words to describe the experience. Sabine Devieilhe is not in the same class. We clap and say “brilliantly executed”. Ms Gens goes into my “keep nearby” rack, as does Ms Lezhneva; both have recitals of music of real value. I am less sure about the bits and pieces of Mozart arias from Ms Devieilhe, which rarely seem to me to show Mozart at his best. She will not go into the “keep nearby” rack, and that is a bit unfair. It's just that, sitting in a prison cell, if I heard Maria Callas, or Julia Lezhneva, or Sandrine Piau, or Véronique Gens singing, I would recognise them. But if it were Sabine Devieilhe, I would reflect: “What a lovely voice, and what great singing. I wonder who it is?” Hopefully, in the near future she will come up with 60 minutes of music that make more musical sense than “The Weber Sisters”. Her Pygmalion friends are excellent in Mozart; the forward woodwind would have pleased Mozart (and Otto Klemperer).

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Ginette Neveu: Beethoven Violin Concerto

In 1935, the sixteen year old Ginette Neveu won the Wieniawski competition, beating all comers including David Oistrakh, who finished second. She was a wonderful violinist with an inner fire and a stupendous technique. Her career took off; then came the period 1939-45 when, for most of the time, she was confined to cycling round Paris during the German occupation. During the second half of 1945 her career re-started until she died in an air crash 28th October 1949. What a loss!

A friend and I were somewhat surprised when Gidon Kremer, after a personal analysis of a whole pile of recordings of the Beethoven violin concerto (the analysis lasted 44 pages) declared that, for him, the greatest of all the recordings was by … Ginette Neveu, recorded off-air in September 1949 with Hans Rosbaud conducting a somewhat second class German south-west radio orchestra. My friend and I rushed to unearth our copies of the recording; mine had been untouched for several decades and, with 86 different recordings of this concerto on my shelf, it might well have remained unheard for a few more decades.

The orchestral playing is a bit rustic at times, not too surprising in the Germany of 1949. However, in a perverse way this serves to emphasise the serenity of Ginette Neveu's playing, especially in the first two movements. Neveu was renowned as an often fiery player (witness her famous Ravel Tzigane, and her predilection for the Brahms violin concerto). The Beethoven concerto is not easy to bring off in performance, since the violin rarely challenges the orchestra or indulges in pyrotechnics. To my mind, Neveu's serenity (with character) and flowing tempi achieve a really great performance of this fragile concerto. In the cadenzas we glimpse the fiery Neveu from time to time (but, surely, that is what cadenzas are for). Rosbaud's part is strong and firm, pace the orchestra. This performance is admitted to my pantheon of great recordings of Beethoven's violin concerto. Fortunately, Ginette Neveu was recorded quite often during the period 1945-49, with a batch of recordings of shorter pieces during 1938-39.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

A Great Time for Young Artists

The first concert I attended was in the very early 1950s at St. Wilfrid's church at a place near where I grew up, called Rose Green. The evening was devoted to Bach's Mass in B minor. The audience (to my 12 or 13 year old eyes) consisted entirely of very old people, who looked at me gratefully and admiringly as a sign that "youth" liked classical music and that there was hope for the future.

In my year at secondary school, there were around 120 boys, streamed into four classes. I remember, at most only two or three who showed any interest in "classical" music. When I attended music concerts in the evening in the school hall (I remember the Allegri String Quartet) there were few, if any, pupils of the school present. The audiences always consisted of "old" people.

So when I read today (particularly in the press of Britain and America) that young people do not take to "classical" music, and that the future of such music is in doubt, I just shake my head in exasperation. Have they not looked at the age of so many players in so many orchestras? In so many string quartets and vocal groups? At so many soloists? My eyes are now much older, and most practising musicians today seem to me to be "young". When I compiled my list (below) of outstanding musicians who impressed me in 2015, I was surprised to find that all of them were "young" -- (to me, under 30 years old is young). I limited my list to five candidates, on the grounds that just one or two is unfair; 12 or 15 just becomes ridiculous. Of my five choices for 2015, one is Asiatic, four are Russian, four out of the five are women. So much for the rest of us. More importantly, the five musicians are all young. That was quite a surprise, to me.

It goes without saying that my list below is subjective, and represents what I, a veteran listener to musicians, found most impressive in 2015. No offence to "old" musicians, but it is true that I was most impressed this year by performances from "youth". So who are these impressive young people, (in alphabetical order)?

Zlata Chochieva for her Chopin études
Alina Ibragimova for Ysaÿe's six solo sonatas
Igor Levin for Bach and Beethoven
Julia Lezhneva for Handel arias
Yuja Wang for her Ravel concertos.

The incredible Tianwa Yang did not make this year's top five list, since her Ysaÿe solo sonatas came into my hands last year, not this, and this year's release by her of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Hollywoodiana concertos was a dead duck as far as I was concerned (because of the music, not because of the valiant Miss Yang).

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

A Tasty Dish

For the record: my culinary creation of a couple of days ago was a real success (though I may have overdosed on the chilli-peppers somewhat). For the record, and for future generations, I give the essential ingredients below.

Normandy chicken meat (shredded). Green, yellow and red bell peppers. Flat field mushrooms. Cayenne pepper. Chilli-peppers. Salt, black pepper, onions, herbes de Provence, bay leaves, olive oil. Cooked, then left to marinade for 24 hours.

The dish goes well with Ravel's spicy piano concerto, played incredibly by the superb Yuja Wang. Even the Zürich orchestra sounds well spiced up with chilli, inspired no doubt by Ms Wang's pianism. To my mind, Yuja beats all-comers, including Michelangeli and Martha Argerich. Some achievement. The girl will go far.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky

There is no cheddar cheese the equal of a good, aged, unpasteurised farmhouse cheddar from Somerset. And there are no performances of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies equal to those recorded in 1960 by the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky. I took them down off my shelf recently and was once again bowled over by the sheer Russian-ness of these recordings, complete with the old Russian style woodwind and brass. If you are an “authenticity” fanatic, then the sound of the Leningrad orchestra in 1960 is just up your street, since it almost certainly equates to what Tchaikovsky would have heard back in the 1880s. It certainly suits me, and I mourn for the days when Russian orchestras sounded Russian, and French orchestras sounded French. Now, all orchestras have been more or less homogenised, and it is difficult to tell one nationality from another.

I've never much taken to Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony, but I like the fifth very much, and really love the Pathétique. It certainly sounds as if the Leningraders, like all good Russians, really love this music, and they play it from the heart. A top orchestra playing music it knows and loves under a conductor who is supreme in that music, has no equal. There are several dozen real “Recordings of the Century” around; and this is one of them. Over 55 years later, it still sounds superb, a tribute to the DGG engineers of that period, and to the old Leningrad Philharmonic.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Wolfgang Schneiderhan

As a sort-of violinist, since the age of twelve, I've always loved the violin. The first violinist to leave his mark on me was Yehudi Menuhin (probably inevitably in the England of the 1950s). Now, over sixty years later, my preferred listening gravitates increasingly to a handful of violinists of the past, including Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Adolf Busch, and Jozef Suk. These three, to coin a phrase from Tully Potter's biography of Adolf Busch, were all “honest musicians”. They probably never appeared on television; they probably never died particularly rich. But, over sixty years on, it's still a joy to listen to their “old-world” classical style of playing.

This thought was sparked by a (rare) recital disc from the admirable Australian Eloquence label featuring Wolfgang Schneiderhan playing 17 pieces of salon or encore music. All 17 pieces feature different styles of bowing, fingering and attack from Schneiderhan. The six Romanian Folk Dances by Bartok could almost be being played by six different violinists, when one listens to this CD. Schneiderhan is not generally thought of as a player of short pieces, but this recital disc from 1957 makes one regret he did not record much more of such music. Frankly, 17 short pieces of music for violin and piano can end up being somewhat monotonous for the listener. But not when Wolfgang Schneiderhan is playing! A real treat to sit back and listen to the CD, and many thanks to Eloquence. More !

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Aimez-vous Brahms?

Mentioned in the current issue of The Gramophone is an interesting remark by Johannes Brahms after hearing Pierre Monteux and the Geloso String Quartet in Vienna play one of his string quartets: "It takes the French to understand my music. The Germans play it too heavily". I thought of this today when re-listening to Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang playing Brahms' three duo sonatas for violin and piano. The first movement of the G major sonata strays into the red in my timing chart (11 minutes and 11 seconds) but it does not sound too slow, because the two players keep the rhythm flowing and the pulse constant. This Greek-Chinese duo may be some way from a “French approach”, but it really works as far as I am concerned. We are a long way from the beefy Brahms of much of the Russian / Israeli / Juilliard school which can invoke images of the Brahms of north Germany and Eisbein mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffeln (a culinary dish, incidentally, that I really like).

Kavakos comes over here as a gentle soul, for most of the time; Wang as mercurial. As a duo, they fulfil my requirement of dividing my interest and admiration between the violin playing and the piano, with neither out-classing the other (a factor that almost always rules out the great Jascha Heifetz as a contender in duo sonatas). They also fulfil my requirement of violinist and pianist being equals (in duo sonatas such as these) and both being first-rate instrumentalists. I have been an admirer of Kavakos for many, many years; an admirer of young Yuja Wang for a much shorter time. But I sincerely hope they do more duo sonatas together. For a start, they so obviously listen to each other when playing. When the music gives the piano the floor, Ms Wang takes it. When the music gives the violin the floor, Leonidas takes it.

Brahms knew what he was doing when he wrote three first-rate sonatas for violin and piano that would fit comfortably on one CD. There are many, many competing versions of the three on record. But Kavakos and Yuja are certainly easily within my top three or four. With many versions of these works, I sit back and let the music wash over me. With Kavakos and Yuja, however, I find myself listening intently to both instruments as they duet together. Bravo.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Young Handel, Young Lezhneva

One of my best memories was a few years ago visiting Halle in Saxony and wandering round the “Händel-Haus” where Georg Fridiric Händel was born and lived until he was an advanced teenager. I was in the church in the Marktplatz where Handel learned to play the organ (and I attended a midday recital on that same organ). What a man! At 21 years old, already an established composer and musician, he was to be found in Italy, where he stayed for a few years absorbing everything that mattered musically of that period. On a new CD, the wonderful Julia Lezhneva sings music Handel composed during that Italian period when he was in his early 20s. Lezhneva is 25, so it's a meeting of two young musicians of top quality. I love her new Handel disc! The music is exuberant and challenging to perform (the many violin solos were probably written for Arcangelo Corelli, whom Handel met many times). Lezhneva surmounts 99% of the obstacles (no living mortal could score 100% in this show-off music of youth without a Walter Legge demanding 120 re-takes). Her long notes in Per dar pregio all'amor mio are something to be heard; she must have the lungs of a whale. For an hour or so, one has the impression of two young people – composer and singer – revelling in their youthful powers to impress and astound.

Not to forget a mention for Il Giardino Armonico, led by Giovanni Antonini. As a frequent sour critic of many “period” instrument bands, I can at least admire the better ones. A day or so before I had listened to the admirable Lucy Crowe in much of the same Handel in Italy music. Alas, her accompanying band, The English Consort, sounds very much full of Inglesi when compared with Antonini's enthusiastic Italiani. For the “Corelli” violin accompaniment on this disc, we have Dmitry Sinkovsky. A rare treat. Straight into my “keep to hand” rack. I could happily ascend to Heaven (or somewhere lower, in all probability) listening to Julia Lezhneva singing the music of Handel's Italian period.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Loudspeakers, and Headphones

I listened to my new CD of Albéric Magnard's sprawling but enjoyable piano trio. I was annoyed; piano, cello and violin are notoriously difficult to balance, especially in a recording. But here, Magnard was all cello and piano, with poor Geneviève Laurenceau's violin squeaking in the background in a sea of bass-derived mud. I was about to denounce the recording and the CPO recording engineers, but when I switched later to listening to the work via (good) headphones, the sound was fine, and the mud had dissipated.

The problem would seem to be the modern world's obsession with bass sound from loudspeakers. Salesmen and advertisers alike extol the virtues of the “enhanced bass sound” from their speakers. Enhanced bass sound is not good for trios for cello, piano and violin. My loudspeakers are far from cheap models, but I suspect that even buying speakers for £40,000 a pair, or whatever, would only give me … enhanced bass. Why the current population is so fixated on the bass line is something of a mystery. My late father, a professional double-bass player all his life, would be happy. It's a shame since, especially if more than one person is listening to a piece of music, loudspeakers are so much more convenient and user-friendly than sealing off the ears with headphones. For lovers of piano trios, or violin and piano duos, however, headphones are becoming de rigueur

The same CD also sees Geneviève Laurenceau playing Magnard's equally sprawling, but equally enjoyable, 41 minute sonata for violin and piano. Headphones on, again. It's a lovely performance.