Friday, 23 December 2016

David Nadien

Re-mastering a CD of violin music is a delicate task. All too often, cleaning up and brightening an "old" sound results in the higher reaches of the violin sounding over-bright, with a steely sheen to the sound. It was therefore greatly to my delight when sampling a re-mastering of David Nadien playing twelve encore pieces to discover that the violin sound was impeccable, despite the new CD being labelled "Stereo. Super Audio CD. SACD" and all the other buzzwords that too often portend something inferior to the original. Not having a SACD player, the advantages of that technology pass me by, but I do like a good violin sound, especially when David Nadien is playing.

Being a super-top violinist in America in most of the twentieth century was no automatic passport to a top career. For a start, to all intents and purposes there were only two companies making classical recordings: RCA and CBS. Both companies were conservative, and both frowned on duplicating key repertoire. For violinists, there was the Heifetz hurdle, then the Isaac Stern hurdle. Some American violinists such as Milstein (naturalised) or Menuhin escaped the RCA and CBS limitations by recording in Europe where there was a much wider choice of recording companies. Other American violinists such as Oscar Shumsky, Joseph Gingold and David Nadien dodged the problem by embarking on alternative careers. Nadien became big in the world of commercial recording for films, advertising, etc. Luckily his playing was preserved (mainly by friends) so we can still enjoy his suave, impeccable sound. I greatly enjoyed this recital CD, re-mastered by a good friend of mine.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Ginette Neveu

Baden-Baden in 1949. Ludwig van Beethoven's violin concerto played by Ginette Neveu, with Hans Rosbaud conducting the SWR Sinfonieorchester, and German engineers recording the event. The tapes re-mastered in Germany and the performance re-released on the SWR Music label. This is a high point of European civilisation; Neveu's performance is a classic, with total absorption in the music (especially the slow movement), a complete absence of showmanship or dumbing down of classical music (as is so prevalent today). If I could play the Beethoven violin concerto, this is how I would want to play it. I have three different transfers of this performance, but I have not compared them. Anyone desiring to listen to this all-time classic performance need not worry about the quality of the 68 year old sound in the SWR re-mastering from the original tapes.

The second CD in this pack contains a performance of the Brahms violin concerto (same Baden-Baden studio) in 1948. The Brahms concerto's combination of vivacity and lyricism suits Neveu's playing admirably, and this is the fourth recording of the work I have from her (1946 in London with Dobrowen, 1948 in Hamburg with Schmidt-Isserstedt, 1949 in The Hague with Dorati). It was obviously her kind of concerto. The performance here is with the French Radio orchestra under Roger Désormière; hardly first choice in 1948, one feels, and the orchestra is often somewhat somnolent, especially at the opening of the work. But Ginette livens things up. The recording quality – particularly of the violin – is really excellent for 1948.The twentieth century boasted many, many superb violinists, but only a few really great ones. In my opinion, Ginette Neveu was one of the great ones.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Breast Meat Recipe

Breast of guinea fowl, chopped small. Add shiitake mushrooms, one bell pepper, several small onions, chopped ginger, salt, pepper, a little soy sauce, and a little oil. Marinate for 12-24 hours. Cook in a wok for a few minutes. Completely and utterly delicious and a good way to re-purpose breast meat of chicken or guinea fowl (I am a wing and leg eater, only). I eat  half yesterday, the remaining half today. One of the world's tastiest dishes.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Franz Liszt with Daniil Trifonov

I have mentioned before my ambivalent history with the music of Franz Liszt. I enjoy his songs. I like his music for violin and piano. I like much of his piano music. I do not like his piano sonata, and I certainly do not like his orchestral music. Not much of a Liszt fan club here, I'm afraid. But I bought Daniil Trifonov's new double CD of Liszt's études to help solve my Liszt conundrum. Like most people, I know many of the études d'exécution transcendante; here we have all twelve played, on occasions, by a man who seemingly has 36 fingers. I am no piano expert (and far from being a Liszt expert), but it would surprise me to hear that anyone plays these pieces better than Trifonov. My only gripe is that DG has – quite unnecessarily – left only very brief pauses between the twelve pieces and, if you are not careful, the pieces all run into one. Adroit manipulation of the pause on the remote control is needed, a defect I have met with other recordings in the past (for example, Renaud Capuçon's recording of encore pieces).

The six Paganini études are great fun (for those who know the original pieces) with five études based on Paganini's caprices, and one on the La Campanella finale from the second violin concerto. Again, things are marred by minimal pauses between the pieces, a lamentable lack of attention to detail. Probably not a double disk set I'll return to too often, but nice to have for Trifonov's astonishing pianism, and for the Paganini études.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Bach Cantatas with Sigiswald Kuijken

With a somewhat vast collection of recordings to listen to, I tend to follow my nose (or, rather, my ears) when it comes to selecting something I want to hear. Returning home from three weeks away in France, Laos and Myanmar, I was thirsty for music. Fortunately, at some time in my life, I acquired eight CDs of Bach cantatas (Accent) conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken with his Petite Bande and an array of soloists. Each CD has around three cantatas each. The performances are sane, well played, well sung, and well recorded. The music is, of course, Bach. I am happy to sit back in my chair and listen to cantata after cantata. Kuijken uses soloists for the “choir”, a cost-cutting exercise that normally perturbs me, but it does not matter too much in the cantatas where the choral role is normally not too vital (it is a different matter, of course, when we come to the Mass in B minor, or the Passions). A happy event when these purchases from the past fill a necessary need. I often wonder why on earth I continue to buy recordings, when I have more excellent ones on my shelves than I can possibly listen to.

Thursday, 17 November 2016


Off on my holidays: France, Laos, Myanmar, France, home. Not much music where I am going, but plenty of good food. A pity about the wine, but wine and Asian countries do not go well together. However, there will be lots of good food, and interesting old villages and towns, and many temples, and very different and exotic cultures. Awaiting me on my return is a bottle of 2003 Moldovan wine; this will be the very first Moldovan wine I have ever tasted.

Before leaving, I have just enjoyed (again) Joyce DiDonato's latest CD (War and Peace). Ms DiDonato joins my (small) favourite band of current musicians.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

RIP Leonard Cohen

Over the past two centuries, a big gulf opened up between “classical” music, and “popular” music. Even the name popular, or “pop” has become derogatory by those who espouse so-called classical music. In this blog, I refer rarely to “non-classical” music (terminology is a real pain, here). Let us name the kind of popular music that appeals to me as “folk” music, which encompasses the wide variety of folk music, gypsy music, central and eastern European folk music, klezmer music, American folk music …. and on, and on, and on. I was sad today to learn of the death of Leonard Cohen, one of my esteemed musical companions for many decades. Leonard Cohen, like Gillian Welch, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and others, joins my love of gypsy music (whatever that is) and klezmer music in my musical pantheon.

To me, the essence of great music is sincerity. And it is sincerity that I have always found in the music of Leonard Cohen. I have CDs of his music. I love diving into YouTube and sampling Leonard Cohen over the decades. To my mind, he was a great musician – whatever label you put on him. Bird on the Wire, Famous Blue Raincoat, Suzanne, So Long Marianne, and many other songs are part of my favourite musical heritage. RIP, Mr Cohen. He was a sincere artist, rarely a showbiz type. And, let's face it, the poems of his songs were more interesting than those of most 18th century librettos! An essential of great music, in Beethoven's words, is that is goes from the heart, to the heart. The phrase sums up the best of Leonard Cohen's songs. We could also say the same of Edith Piaf.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Music for Winter Evenings

In Northern Europe, the evenings are dark and long. One needs something warming and cheering, which is why I have been listening to a new CD of Joyce DiDonato singing fifteen assorted arias from 17th and 18th century works (around half by Handel or Purcell). DiDonato is an intelligent and cultured singer. Like all sopranos, she can screech a bit at times, but not often during the 79 minutes of this disc. Her rendition of Purcell's “When I am laid” is moving, as is Handel's “Lascia ch'io pianga”. Around half the arias are in Italian, half in English. So In War and Peace (CD title) joins my shelf of much-favoured DiDonato recitals. The recording is good (Warner label). Il Pomo d'Oro provides the expert instrumental background. Handel's Augelletti, che cantate (from Rinaldo) comes off wonderfully. After the music was finished, I retired to a meal of lamb shank braised for over three hours in onions, carrots, herbs, parsnips, mushrooms, and various additions. Good winter evening food and music.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1944 Eroica

A critic recently opined that the recording of Beethoven's Eroica symphony made in late December 1944 in Vienna with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic was the greatest of all Eroica recordings. Late December 1944 with the Red Army rolling inexorably towards Vienna must have concentrated the minds, with Götterdämmerung just round the corner. I have just been re-listening to it in a new transfer (by Pristine Audio) and I have to say that, for once, a critic may be right. Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler were the two great conductors of this symphony; Furtwängler here even outshines Otto, with the funeral march sounding positively contemporary in its savagery and originality.

The CD also has a coruscating performance (Berlin 1943) of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's Coriolan overture. Those doubtful of old sound can rest assured. Pristine Audio, taking a holiday from fooling around with second-rate American radio broadcasts and recordings, has produced a miraculous sound that could well date from the 1960s. This, surely, is what audio restoration is all about. Stars to everyone concerned. And commiserations to the able and talented conductors of today; what on earth are you to do faced with a 72 year old performances like this one? So three stars to Ludwig van Beethoven, and three stars to Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic (Coriolan) and Vienna Philharmonic (Eroica). Three stars to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for the transfers, and three stars to the German recording engineers of 1943 and 1944; if the battle of that time had been between Russian, Allied and German recording engineers (and orchestras), the Germans would have won hands down.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Lisa Batiashvili: Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky

For the past sixteen years, I have been a faithful admirer of the violinist Lisa (formerly Elisabeth) Batiashvili. I recounted recently how she was in my top echelons for recordings of the “big” violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, and Shostakovich. I greatly admire her poise, and her extraordinary powers of concentration, a concentration that means she can often get away with tempos slower than many of her fellow instrumentalists. She always has beautifully judged dynamics, perfect phrasing, all allied to an immaculate technique. Which is why I seized upon her new CD of the well-worn violin concertos of Sibelius and Tchaikovsky (DG, with the Berlin Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim).

I already have one excellent recording of Batiashvili in the Sibelius concerto, one she made in 2007 with Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio orchestra. This new recording is similar to that excellent old one, with the Finnish orchestra sounding perhaps more involved than the Germans (although the orchestra does not play a big part in Sibelius's concerto). In 2007, Batiashvili was slightly faster in the first movement, but pretty well the same tempo in the second and third movements. If I prefer the old orchestra, I slightly prefer the newer Batiashvili; even more poised, more serene and mature, and even more immaculate in dynamics, intonation and phrasing. In 2007 the playing was slightly more passionate; in 2016, more poised and elegant. And maybe her violin (now a del Gesù) sounds better here than in the 2007 recording.

Batiashvili was a known quantity in the Sibelius concerto (she won the Sibelius prize with it, long ago) but I was curious to hear her in the Tchaikovsky concerto, an unlikely choice for the Batiashvili treatment, I would have thought. She confesses that she avoided the Tchaikovsky concerto for many years, since “everyone plays it” and (I would guess) she suspected it did not really suit her style of playing. But: a pleasant surprise. After Radulovic's “slash and burn” approach (that I greatly admired recently), Lisa is warm and lyrical. There is a beautiful and fascinating account of the first movement cadenza; what intonation! And really lovely playing in the slow movement. The Tchaikovsky concerto gains immensely in stature when played like this. Radulovic and Batiashvili are chalk and cheese in this concerto but, in my heavenly tomb, I will take the Batiashvili version with me for its poetry and entrancing violin playing.

Damn it: the girl has scored two more bull's eyes! The violin on the DG disc is balanced a little more forward than is usual at the moment, and this is a good thing since I do not have to strain to hear the violin when it is played pianissimo, or with harmonics. I am running out of three stars. I really hope that one day Batiashvili will launch into the Elgar and Britten violin concertos (where she would almost certainly once again arrive at the front of the grid).

Friday, 4 November 2016

Tianwa Yang in the Symphonie Espagnole

Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Max Bruch, and Edouard Lalo have all survived as well-known composers mainly because of one famous work, without which their names would have faded. Lalo is now known almost solely through his popular Symphonie Espagnole, an attractive and melodious concerto for violin. I seem to have ended up with 38 different recordings of the work – evidence of its popularity – with the earliest dating from 1932 (Henry Merckel) with Yehudi Menuhin following in 1933. Latest acquisition, and in many ways one of the very finest, comes from the young Chinese violinist, Tianwa Yang, enthusiastically accompanied by the Barcelona orchestra. The work was written for Sarasate, and Ms Yang's playing invokes the poise, sophistication and delicacy of Sarasate's playing. I liked it enormously, and this is probably the recording I'll reach out for if ever I want to listen to the Symphonie Espagnole again. As a bonus, the recording is another must-have from the admirable Naxos company, truly the violin lovers' friend.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Alfred Brendel

Now in my later years, I tend to categorise performers of “great” music into two main camps: “Listen to me! Listen to me!” Or “Listen to Schubert! Listen to Beethoven!”

For some reason, the famous pianist Alfred Brendel escaped my ears and my experience. Determined to make up for my loss, I invested in six hours of Brendel playing Schubert, and Beethoven. A poor investment. To my ears, Brendel is a media creation, and very much a “Listen to me! Listen to me!” artist, posturing and constantly drawing attention to what he is doing (as opposed to what the music is relating). Definitely not my kind of pianist; his playing is very mannered. Anyone want some secondhand Brendel recordings?

Ray Chen. Virtuoso

In the right hands, the members of the woodwind family such as the oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon make lovely sounds. The piano and the organ, of course, have a far wider range of sound and a much bigger palette of colours. But the relatively limited range of nice sounds from the woodwind is part of the reason why so few solo or concertante works feature major parts for woodwind members; lovely though the oboe may sound, 79 minutes of lovely oboe playing tend to pall.

In the right hands, the violin has a wide range of colour, from relatively harsh sounds, to silky smooth. In the hands of a folk violinist (gypsy, folk, klezmer) in the old Central European lands, the violin could express rage, love, tenderness or belligerence. To some extent, the violin has now joined hands with the woodwind, with the modern emphasis on an all-over beautiful sound and smooth legato playing, with seamless bow strokes rivalling the breath control of clarinettists or oboe players.

This was my reaction to much of the 79 minutes of violin playing by the young violinist Ray Chen on a recital CD given the title “Virtuoso”. Mr Chen is certainly an impeccable technician, and a tasteful musician. Be it Tartini's “Devil's Trill” or Bach's chaconne from the second solo violin suite, the music sounds effortless and beautiful under Mr Chen's able fingers. What did I miss? The stream of lovely sound risked becoming boring, and works such as Wieniawski's Légende had me wishing for the individuality that an Elman, Heifetz, Busch, Neveu, Schneiderhan or Kulenkampff would have brought to the music. Mr Chen is an excellent modern violinist and probably plays in a way demanded by most modern audiences.

César Franck's sonata for violin and piano is not a virtuoso work; even I used to play it on either violin or viola, at one time, and the piano part is arguably more difficult than that of the violin. The performance here is not great. The piano partner (Noreen Polera) is relegated to second place, and the violin over-indulges in smooth legato and “beautiful” sound. As I have said before many times, in sonatas such as the Franck sonata, the playing of the violinist and the pianist should be of equal interest. Ms Polera does not have much hope.

Not a great performances of the Franck sonata, and far too much “listen to my beautiful violin sound”. Much more impressive is Mr Chen's rendition of the chaconne from the second solo violin suite by Bach. Although not technically a “virtuoso” work, the chaconne demands an extremely high level of violin technique (I never attempted it) and an immense variety of bowing, dynamics and sound production. It does not lend itself to sleek, smooth violin playing, nor to excessive legato. I enjoyed Ray Chen's performance here, so at least 15 minutes of the CD were salvaged for me for frequent future listening.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Haydn and the Goldmund Quartet

In England, a new Naxos CD costs little more than a good sirloin steak for one person; and it lasts a lot longer. Which means if the repertoire appeals, buying a Naxos CD is a low-risk venture, so I buy many Naxos CDs, particularly since the company greatly favours string players. My latest low-risk purchase is three Haydn string quartets – opus 1 no.1, opus 33 no.5, and opus 77 no.1, early, middle, and late. Performers are the Goldmund Quartet, four young men from Munich, and this is their first recording venture.

Nearly one hour of first-class music, with first-class playing and first-class recording. And even better for the body's digestive system than a sirloin steak. This is the kind of purchase that makes me happy to be around still in the modern age. The Goldmund's playing style is “informed modern”, with none of the imagined 18th century period affectations that detract from so many current performances of 18th century music. Roll on the Goldmund's next recording.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Handel's Italian Cantatas

I was pleasantly surprised looking at the index to my collection of recordings to find that I have no less than 193 recordings of the cantatas or duetti that Handel wrote in Italy, starting in 1706-7 when he was 21-22 years old – probably not old enough to order a gin & tonic in California. A goodly number of these works feature in a Glossa CD edition, of which I have the first seven CDs. These all feature Fabio Bonizzoni with La Risonanza, and a varying cast of Italian singers including the versatile Roberta Invernizzi (soprano).

This is young Handel Showing Off music, with music pouring out of him, memorable melody after memorable melody, imaginative accompaniments and instrumentation. Already in the first Glossa CD we have a virtuoso soprano in Tra le Fiamme. A virtuoso violin part in Un pensiero voli in ciel (Il Delirio Amoroso) – written for Arcangelo Corelli who headed the band in Rome. There is then a lovely solo cello part in Per te lasciai la luce (same cantata). And so on ….. One can understand Beethoven's recorded comment in 1823 that "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel on his grave."

Too often, for most people, Handel is now The Messiah, plus Water Music, plus Fireworks Music. But even when we have digested his 42 operas and 27 or so oratorios, it is a draft of fresh spring water to listen to his Italian cantatas and duetti. I, at least, have been able to bow my head at the site of Handel's grave in Westminster Abbey (as well as to visit his birthplace and early abode at Halle in Saxony). One day I'll even make it to 25 Brook Street in London to visit the house in which he lived for 36 years.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen

There are many music composers who died well before their time, and thus deprived us of volumes of great music. Mozart (35), Bellini (34), Schubert (31), Pergolesi (26), George Butterworth (31) and Guillaume Lekeu (24). One of the greatest losses was Henry Purcell (36). By coincidence, I have just listened to two performances of Purcell's “opera” The Fairy Queen; everyone sings excerpts and the best known numbers, but complete performances are a little less common – live performances probably even rarer since the work is part theatre (based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), part entertainment, part opera.

I started with a 1970 recording conducted by Benjamin Britten with an all-star English cast of the time including an excellent Jennifer Vyvyan and John Shirley-Quirk. Plus Peter Pears, inevitably. The work is played with affection, but has many cuts and the 1970 playing does sound idiosyncratic, even to my original-instrument prejudiced ears. Then on to William Christie (1989) with a mainly Franco-American cast including Nancy Agenta, Lynne Dawson, Véronique Gens and Sandrine Piau. This recording was made following a staging in Aix-en-Provence and sounds much more alive and theatrical compared with Britten in bleak Aldeburgh. Lynne Dawson's singing of the celebrated “Oh let me weep” is intensely moving in Christie's recording. Les Arts Florissants are well up to scratch. Two hours of first-class entertainment. There is not too much in common between the order of numbers on the two recordings: Christie has five acts, Britten four parts. The Chinese garden and Chinese men and women have vanished from Britten's version (maybe he, like me, could not work out what Chinese landscapes had to do with Shakespeare's play). This is not an opera with two or three principal roles; a strong overall cast is required. I much prefer Christie's tutti choir to Britten's more conventional Ambrosian Opera Chorus; a full-scale chorus in this work sounds just out of scale with the rest.

To check my impressions I have just ordered a third version of the work: the Accademia Bizantina directed by Ottavio Dantone, with an English cast. He seems to use the same five act version as Christie, and we also get the Chinese contingent. No doubt a report in due course, but no one can have too much Purcell.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Igor Levit at Tanglewood

Igor Levit sprang to instant fame and prominence some two-three years ago; he is still only 29 years old. His fame was achieved without the publicity of ultra-short skirts, ultra-long hair, or Gucci outfits, unlike some of his famous (and immensely talented) contemporaries. He has a style of pianism that is quickly recognisable, with the concentration of Sviatoslav Richter, and the clarity of phrasing and rhythm of Clara Haskil or Maria Pires. I caught him off-air playing at Tanglewood last August, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under David Afkham in Beethoven's third piano concerto. It's a wonderful, classical performance by a really great pianist. I had never met Afkham before, but he also impresses here.

Levit is currently winning fresh laurels in London with a series of Beethoven's piano sonatas. So far, everything Levit touches seems to turn to gold. Ever-suspicious of critical acclaim, I have to admit that this time the general critical opinion (including mine) seems to be right: at least in Bach and Beethoven, Levit is a real wonder. With Levit at the keyboard, Beethoven's third piano concerto really comes to life. Three stars.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Nemanja Radulovic

It is sometimes good to hear old warhorses flogged mercilessly into battle. Nemanja Radulovic is no shrinking violet, and his performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto I have just listened to (from an off-air Catalan radio broadcast) makes the sparks fly; I looked anxiously at my amplifier, at times. The orchestra – GIOrquestra under Marcel Sabaté – comes over well, in excellent sound. Radulovic must be the very devil to accompany, with his frequent almost spontaneous tempo and dynamic changes. He makes Mischa Elman sound positively straight-laced. There are a few fluffs in Radulovic's performance, but if you are going to play with this degree of intensity, it is only to be expected.

There are other ways of playing this concerto, apart from the warhorse route. I recently admired Vilde Frang's lyrical account, and also Georg Kulenkampff's old-world charm. I have also admired Julia Fischer, Vadim Repin and Mischa Elman in this concerto. Radulovic gets my three stars for his violin playing. It does not necessarily make me long to hear him in Mozart, but he certainly starred in Paganini recently, and his Tchaikovsky concerto gets the juices flowing. A must performance for lovers of virtuoso violin playing; but not necessarily a must for lovers of Tchaikovsky's music. For a good modern recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, Vilde Frang is hard to beat.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

George Frideric Handel had a remarkable life. Even as a teenager he was famous in Saxony in the region of his native town of Halle, with Georg Philipp Telemann making a journey to meet the famous teenager. The famous teenager then moved to Italy where in his early 20s he poured out music of astonishing quality (and quantity). In 1708 at the age of 23 he was found in Naples, presenting his cantata a tre Aci, Galatea e Polifemo which was, in effect, a mini-opera (a little like Purcell's Dido and Aeneas). The “cantata” is packed with marvellous music, much of which Handel, an inveterate cut-and-paste artist who wasted little, mined in later years for other works after he had moved to England for the third phase of his extraordinary life. Later in England he returned to the story to write Acis and Galatea which, however, used little of the music of the Neapolitan work.

As always with Handel, performances need first-class singers and a first-class band. The performance I have just listened to well meets all the requirements, with Sandrine Piau sounding like a Stradivari violin, Sara Mingardo like a Stradivari viola, and Laurent Naouri providing the villain's bass voice. The ever-reliable Emmanuelle Haïm directs Le Concert d'Astrée (2002). Arias such as Aci's Qui l'augel da pianta in pianta (with oboe and violin obbligato) must have left Neapolitan aficionados open-mouthed (Handel, of course, re-used the aria's music later in other works). A good Handel performance of a superb Handel work leaves me happy. It is now over 330 years since Handel's birth in Halle, but his music is still going strong as it undoubtedly will for another 330. Handel died a rich man, because he wrote music people liked and valued. Had he had the royalties from his music over the past 300 years, he would have been even richer, since his reputation is still going strong.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Handel's "Hercules"

Handel always comes up with an excellent way to fill two and a half hours with pleasant and attractive music. Today was the turn of Hercules, half music drama, half oratorio. I usually find the first hour somewhat suggestive of composing-by-numbers, but the second half of the work picks up with Handel's usual touches of genius. The recording I listened to today was early John Eliot Gardiner (1982) with an excellent English cast including two mezzo-sopranos (Sarah Walker and Catherine Denley), a first-class tenor (Anthony Rolfe Johnson) and a first-class soprano (Jennifer Smith). Not a castrato in sight, thank heavens. Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir is in good form, which is fortunate since Handel puts a lot of effort into his choruses in this work. Much eighteenth century music – Handel's especially – was written to show off vocal prowess. This version of Hercules fills the bill nicely. Thank you DGG's old Archiv division.

Monday, 12 September 2016

More Winterreise, and César Franck's Symphony

I first got to know Schubert's Die Winterreise cycle back in the 1950s (Hans Hotter, with either Gerald Moore or, later, the 1942 version with Michael Raucheisen when Hotter was in younger and fresher voice). I have listened to the work often since then; it's a wonderful song cycle with complex harmonies, melodies and modulations. My latest version sees Christian Gerhaher with Gerold Huber.

Winterreise is a gloomy, pessimistic work. It sounds even gloomier with this latest version that, right from the start and Gute Nacht, radiates an air of acute depression. Gerhaher is a superb singer with a most attractive light baritone. To my ears, Huber – usually a thoroughly reliable partner – does not make the most of Schubert's highly important piano part; in Die Krähe, for example. I find Brendel (for Matthias Goerne) or Helmut Deutsch (for Jonas Kaufman) preferable. The 24 songs have English translations; bad translations, that show the drawbacks with skimping overheads and employing what could almost be a teenage translator with a dictionary. Who else would translate Der Leiermann as “the Lyre Man”? Just listening to the piano, it's obviously about an organ-grinder, or a hurdy-gurdy man. Good though this version is, I think I'll stick to Hotter, Goerne or Kaufman for my Winterreise listening.

To lift the gloom engendered by listening to Winterreise, I next listened to César Franck's Symphony in D minor. This is a superb symphony, full of colour and melody, that seems to have gone quite out of fashion. Before around the 1960s it appeared regularly in concerts and recordings. In concerts now it has been superseded by wall-to-wall Mahler symphonies, and few new major recordings of Franck's work have appeared over the past few decades. It was an old warhorse of Thomas Beecham, and Giulini (1957 recording) and Pierre Monteux (recorded 1961). It seems to feature less and less in programmes and in catalogues and this is a great loss to music lovers everywhere. As always, I enjoyed it greatly.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Beethoven Symphonies

When I was a teenager in the 1950s and getting to know the canon of the Beethoven symphonies, the critics in Britain were all for Toscanini, closely followed by von Karajan. The craggier Klemperer was also admitted a little later. For political and current fashion reasons, Furtwängler's Beethoven was usually sidelined, even though it came from the British EMI company. So I grew up knowing little about Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Beethoven symphonies, apart from the Pastoral that I bought defiantly in the 1950s, and the ninth symphony. Furtwängler belonged to the older generation of German-culture conductors (as did Klemperer). The new order was sleeker and faster and applauded by the critics of the time.

Some 55 or 60 years later, a box of the nine Beethoven symphonies conducted by Furtwängler with the superb Vienna Philharmonic of the early 1950s gives me a belated chance to update my education. The transfers (apart from the execrable second symphony here) are excellent (all ex-EMI, now Warner). As was often the custom then, there are no automatic first movement exposition repeats – thank goodness; who wants to hear the exposition of such familiar music repeated, just when things were getting interesting? Fanatics who do, can always press the “back to the start” button on their remote command consoles. Beethoven and Furtwängler are the stars here, but one must not forget the wonderful sound world of the Vienna Philharmonic of the 1950s, with its plaintive Sellner oboes, gruff horns, and sleek string sound. We are back in old Germany (or Austria) in a world that no longer exists.

I used to have an old French 10 inch LP of Furtwängler conducting the 1st symphony. The sound is much improved here (1952 recording) and the performance is impressive. In the 2nd symphony, the sound (Albert Hall, live, 1948) is completely intolerable. It was presumably added to the box just to make a complete set of the nine symphonies in EMI recordings. I only listened to the first minute. 6th symphony; this has always been my favourite Pastoral (1952). As throughout these recordings, the Vienna Philharmonic of the early 1950s sounds terrific. 9th symphony; this is the 1951 Bayreuth recording with the wobbly horn in the slow movement. There are better Furtwängler ninths, notably the ferocious March 1942 recording, and the August 1954 Lucerne Festival recording (Furtwängler's last performance).

Eroica: I missed this entirely over the years (the first LP I ever bought was the Eroica conducted by von Karajan with the Philharmonia). This 1952 Eroica from Furtwängler is superb, and fully the equal of the Klemperer recordings of the same period (Klemperer being craggier and with harsher lines, Furtwängler revelling in Beethoven's harmonic transitions and in the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic). To my shame, I had never before heard Furtwängler conduct Beethoven's 5th (nor his 7th). The fifth symphony here (1954) is defiant rather than, as too often when played by others, merely manic and bombastic. One understands fully that Furtwängler was coming to this music after a lifetime of study, and that everything he did came from his understanding of the music; we feel in good, experienced hands. Double bass players must have loved Furtwängler because he always made sure they could be heard underpinning the harmony. The 7th symphony was recorded in 1950 and the sound is marginally inferior to the best sounds in this mono-only set. The period 1950-60 saw a major leap in the quality of high-art recording, and this 1950 7th missed out, a little. It was during this performance that I suddenly realised that, throughout this set of the nine symphonies, my principal focus of admiration was on Beethoven's music, and less on the performers. This, of course, is the trademark of all great performers and interpreters; they lead you into the music. The trio of the third movement is taken more slowly than I have ever heard it before; Walter Legge must have hopped from foot to foot with frustration, as he did at Klemperer's Peasants' Merrymaking in the Pastoral symphony. The finale is taken at a great pace and is quite exciting. Throughout these performances there are plenty of “unauthorised” accelerandos and rallentandos for which Furtwängler was famous (or infamous, in the climate of the 1950s where the metronome was deemed to govern all).

The 1948 recording of the 8th symphony is the only one in this set, apart from the 9th, that is not with the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic of that era. The Stockholm Philharmonic of the period was certainly not the Vienna Philharmonic. Does Furtwängler sound a little impatient in this live performance? He certainly zips through the symphony without showing too much affection. The recording is just passable, but certainly not as abysmal as that of the 2nd symphony.

At least in 2016 I can now make up my own mind about performances without being over-influenced by the likes and dislikes of Trevor Harvey, Alec Robertson, or Nicholas Kenyon, music critics who were influential in the Britain of the 1950s and 60s. The stars of Toscanini and von Karajan seem to have waned since the 1950s and 60s, whereas the stars of Klemperer and Furtwängler have waxed – greatly so, in the case of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Fashions change, but real quality endures – in performances, as well as in music. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this EMI / Warner set. This is great music making by a great orchestra and a great conductor in a world that is now long past. And I am especially happy that, at long last, I have repaired my early educational deficiencies and have heard Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th symphonies.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Tempo Giusto

Donald Vroon, writing in the current issue of the American Record Guide sounds off against a couple of violinists in Mozart concertos: “No one dares a true Adagio. Why not? It strikes me as downright dumb to play music according to rules instead of how you feel about it. What are violinists for? Concertos are not written for metronomes”.

On the question of tempos, I have vacillated like a weather vane over the years, swinging backwards and forwards. The Bach Brandenburg concertos seem to have become Formula One Brandenburgs, with every version trying to clip minutes and seconds off the previous versions, and a pity about the music. Tempos pre-1950 were usually slower than post- 1980, and conductors and instrumentalists now dare not slow down the music for fear of being accused of being boring. Fast is modern, and fast is currently fashionable. Slow sees you criticised, fast sees you praised (apart from by a few old codgers like Donald Vroon and me). I disliked most of the rapid tempos in Riccardo Chailly's set of the Beethoven symphonies – a set I have since given away. I love Furtwängler's languid Pastoral symphony where he sounds like a true country lover. Chailly sounded like a town boy who can't get out of the countryside fast enough. John Eliot Gardiner usually sounds too fast, to me but, there again, I am the only person to enjoy Otto Klemperer's majestic and awe-inspiring opening Kyrie in Bach's Mass in B minor. Much music cries out to be savoured, like a great wine. Savouring needs time; no one should down a bottle of a great wine in two minutes flat.

Music has tempo markings, but no one knows exactly what molto moderato meant to Schubert. One can expostulate what a given composer expected to hear; but one can never be sure what the composer hoped to hear, or would like to have heard. Bach may have expected to hear his sonatas and partitas for solo violin played rhythmically and in tune by a court violinist; but, given the option, would he have been more delighted listening to them played by Jascha Heifetz? The original composition is, of course, in the composer's head; the heavenly choirs he imagines when writing might jibe harshly with the small amateur choir he had to put up with for a hastily arranged performance.

There are tempos that are idiosyncratic; Benjamin Britten was driven to protest to Sviatoslav Richter about his tempo in the opening movement – molto moderato – of Schubert's last piano sonata. It is slow. Richter obviously felt it should be slow, and I agree with Richter (when it is played by him; the performer has to feel that that is the right tempo). Performers should play with sincerity, how they feel the music should go. I am reminded of Nathan Milstein's account of playing Glazunov's violin concerto conducted by a somewhat inebriated Glazunov. At a certain point, Glazunov stopped the rehearsal and said to Milstein: “I marked that passage piano”, to which Milstein says he replied: “I think it sounds better forte”. After a pause, Glazunov replied: “You may be right”.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside in Schubert Lieder

A kind friend sent me a CD of Roderick Williams (baritone) and Iain Burnside (piano) in a recital of 22 Schubert Lieder. I had never heard of either musician, but I have been very pleasantly surprised. Williams has a most attractive light baritone voice, making a pleasant change from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's occasional rasps and gusts. His German sounds excellent (to me) and his diction is immaculate; one hardly needs the libretto. The songs are intelligently chosen and contrasted, with seven of the songs coming from Rellstab texts in the Schwanengesang collection.

I usually hesitate about song recitals by non- native speakers. The French for French mélodies, the Germans for German Lieder, and the British for English language songs, is a fairly sure rule. But I make an exception for Mr Williams. Another pleasant surprise was Iain Burnside's highly participating accompaniments; a long way from the smiling and polite Gerald Moore of yesteryear. Burnside is a real contributor to these songs (as he should be). All in all, a very fine new CD from the Delphian label.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Augustin Dumay and Maria Pires in Beethoven

The ten sonatas Beethoven wrote for violin and piano are pretty well all of a high standard, with many lovely slow movements. They are also true duo sonatas, with neither violin nor piano in a star or dominant role. They demand two well matched (and well recorded) performers. I have no less than eleven complete sets of the sonatas, from artists as varied as Kristof Barati and Klara Würz, Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp … and a few others. The works are not particularly difficult to play technically, but for me the essential quality is balance; balance between the stature of the two artists involved, balance in the sound so that, even when the violin is playing pianissimo, it can be heard against the more dominant sound of the piano. Too many modern recordings give the piano undue prominence, which means one often struggles to hear what the poor violinist is playing.

The latest set of the ten sonatas (33 movements in all) to hit my shelves features Augustin Dumay and Maria Pires, recorded sometime in the 1990s and, from the sound, on a number of different occasions in different venues. The sound quality varies between good, and very good, but you can always hear what the violin is playing, even against a strong piano background.

Opus 30 No.3 finds the pair in a somewhat more aggressive mood, with some strong accents – particularly in the first movement. Was this Beethoven having a bad-mood day, or Pires and Dumay? The variation slow movement of the Kreutzer sonata finds the pair at their most typical and most impressive; true duo playing by two friends both of whom are first class musicians. No one does it better than this. Opus 96, the lone violin and piano sonata of later Beethoven, gets a lovely performance here. This set goes right into my top three (the other two depend on my current mood and taste). Compared with the competitive violinists listed above, Dumay is well up with the best, with an appealing sweet tone. Pires, however, is equalled only by Haskil, both of whom take to Beethoven (as also to Mozart) like ducks to water.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Confessions of a Dilettante

After around 60 years of listening to music, there is a long list of works and composers that I love. There is a shorter list of composers whom I qualify with “maybe, sometimes”. The latter list includes Mahler, Brahms, Britten, Elgar, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, and Robert Schumann.

With Robert Schumann, I hum and ha. His songs and song cycles get three stars from me, both for the vocal line and the piano parts. His solo piano music (that I do not know very well) rarely appeals, since it always seems so muddy. His orchestral music is usually even muddier, though I will confess to a long-standing liking for his fourth symphony that I began to know as a teenager, in a recording conducted by Furtwängler. I never took to his piano concerto, let alone his cello concerto; and certainly not his violin concerto. The Dichterliebe and Liederkreis song cycles were part of my youth and are still very much with me. I warmed to Schumann again yesterday listening to the entirely admirable Christian Gerhaher singing Schumann lieder, including the Dichterliebe.

In general, I spend little time with the “keyboard” composers such as Schumann, Chopin and Liszt (always excepting Rachmaninov, of course). Still some time left for re-evaluation but, in the meantime, there is most of the music of Purcell, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Bruckner, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Duparc, Fauré, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov …. and many, many others. In classical music, there really is an embarras de choix. As a string quartet lover, who has only recently discovered the quartets of Haydn and Shostakovich, I find no need to try to plunge into the string quartets of Bela Bartok, a composer who almost always leaves me feeling somewhat chilled.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Happy at last

I have been listening to Bach's evergreen Brandenburg Concertos on and off for the past 60 years. Orchestral versions, small groups, chamber groups, pseudo-authentic, modern …. Somewhat by happy chance last week I came across a version of the six that really pleases me; a small, expert chamber orchestra, immaculately played modern instruments, a warm, well balanced 1968 recording, a harpsichord, when used, banished to the shadows; what more could I ask for?

The Brandenburgs do not relate well to a modern symphony orchestra, since – as always with Johann Sebastian – it is important to hear the individual strands of the music. I do not like Brandenburg-lite performances, with a handful of players dictated by a financial controller. I do not like Formula One Brandenburgs (also often dictated by a financial controller, 'get them all over in 59 minutes, please, so that we save money'). I am not a fan of recorders, harpsichords and vibrato-less strings. So the recording I picked up very cheaply with Benjamin Britten directing the English Chamber Orchestra and recorded at the the Maltings, Snape, was just up my street. After all six Brandenburgs, I could not find one tempo with which I was not happy. A harpsichord is listed for the fourth Brandenburg (but is happily inaudible) and also for the fifth where it is one of the solo instruments, with a massive cadenza in the first movement. I suspect that Britten, like me, was not a fan of harpsichords and probably agreed with Thomas Beecham's quip about “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”. The playing throughout by the small orchestra is first class, with players of the stature of Emanuel Hurwitz, Peter Graeme, Ifor James and Richard Adeney playing the solo bits. Britten's direction is sane, musical and supremely well judged.

The Decca set is one of many double-CD recordings available at ridiculously low prices, which probably means these classics of the 1950s, 60s and 70s will probably be out-of-print for future generations. I snapped up six packs (12 CDs) in one order, and will probably go back for more before the whole lot vanish into a musical black hole.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Handel's Ariodante, again

I currently have around forty complete Handel operas and oratorios, a horde of duplicates, many kilos of excerpts, plus innumerable cantatas. I have embarked on listening to the forty or so, starting with the “A”s (and Handel wrote an extraordinary number of operas whose main character begins with “A”). First off the shelf was a return to Ariondante, in two versions: a 1995 recording made in Germany with Nicolas McGegan conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester and with a vocal cast that was mainly American (Harmonia Mundi USA); and a 2010 recording from Italy with a mixed international cast and the mainly Italian Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis (Virgin Classics). Competing in the principal role of Ariondante were two Americans: Lorraine Hunt, and Joyce DiDonato.

I heard Alan Curtis conduct much the same group of players and singers in the Théâtre de Poissy circa 2007, where the opera was Alcina, with DiDonato again in the title role. He was an entirely professional conductor of the baroque repertoire, with a great sense of opera, of orchestral participation, and of inspiring his singers. In these two Ariodante recordings, Curtis and his crew win hands down. Curtis's singers are a better group, and their Italian is more idiomatic than in McGegan's American-German version, the Curtis's singers act with their voices, the Virgin recording is better, the orchestra more alive and more present. Unfortunately, the printed booklet libretto is badly made and soon began falling to bits.

The two principals, Lorraine Hunt, and Joyce DiDonato, make a good contrast. Hunt sings superbly, with a haunting scherza infida; but DiDonato, with better orchestral backing, is even more moving. Hunt gives a superb oratorio performance. DiDonato, the better actress, is far more operatic, and Handel would have been pleased with her. I'll keep the McGegan version on my shelves to listen to Lorraine Hunt occasionally. But my Ariodante is now the Alan Curtis version.

Curtis's cast is: Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Sabina Puértolas, Marie Nicole Lemieux, Topi Lehtipuu, Matthew Brook. All of them superb.

McGegan's cast is: Lorraine Hunt, Juliana Gondek, Lisa Saffer, Jennifer Lane, Rufus Müller, Nicolas Cavallier. A mixed bunch, often with highly unidiomatic Italian.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Nikolai Lugansky, and Sergei Rachmaninov

A recent passion in my musical life has been the solo piano works of Sergei Rachmaninov. Today's acquisition was the opus 23 Preludes, plus the opus 16 Moments Musicaux. Pianist this time round is Nikolai Lugansky, one of my preferred modern Russian pianists (along with Yevgeny Sudbin). I sit back and bask in lovely music, and superb playing; all 65 minutes of it.

A recent big disappointment, however, was getting down off the shelves a CD of Rachmaninov himself playing a selection of his solo piano pieces. Extraordinary pianism, of course (Rachmaninov was one of the 20th century's very greatest pianists). But to me, Rachmaninov always sounds brusque and angry in his playing of these pieces. Maybe he had a right to be angry; the exclusive recording contract he signed with (an American) company meant that whole swathes of his solo piano compositions were never recorded by Rachmaninov: (“No market, I'm afraid, Mr Rachmaninov. We would never show a profit over the next two years”). However, his fellow Russians, not to mention a smattering of highly gifted Chinese, have made up for his thin catalogue of solo piano recordings of his own music, many of which are in somewhat ancient sound. Sergei Rachmaninov's music lives on!

Monday, 18 July 2016

Beethoven's String Quartet Op 130

Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of the string quartet. This evening it was a return to Beethoven's B flat major quartet, Opus 130; this time played by the Hagen Quartett in 2001. Such incredible music. I love the Hagen Quartett's rendition, although at times it brought to mind Carl Flesch's critique of Bronisław Huberman: 'He either whispers, or he shouts'. The Hagens often whisper, and sometimes shout. Headphones are needed for listening, otherwise some things are lost.

This is the only Beethoven string quartet where I do not automatically gravitate towards the Busch Quartet's 1941 recording (why one earth did Busch leave it so late?) as my first choice, since the Busch did not finish with the Grosse Fuga, but with Beethoven's make-shift, get-you-home finale that friends, players and publishers persuaded him to substitute. The Fuga finishes this quartet superbly, after the magnificent Cavatina. 'That is where the rot set in' remarked Benjamin Britten perceptively, identifying the composer's divorce from sponsors, patrons, listeners and performers in Opus 133 (as the original finale later became). Beethoven was right, and sponsors, patrons, listeners and performers were wrong, but Beethoven's “poisonous fruit” was borne out around 100 years later by the transitory dodecaphonists, with their abandonment of harmony and melody, thus vindicating Britten's forebodings. If you want to write “pure” music and forget about everyone else, you have to be a really great composer.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Michèle Auclair

In the later 1950s, you could have found me playing any of the six sonatas for violin and keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach (not necessarily very well). I was later occasionally accompanied by a hit-and-miss pianist. But like all of Bach's music, it always sounds best if you play it yourself and can concentrate on the submerged rhythms and melodic fragments. There is no Bach like my Bach (so long as no one is listening).

Later, of course, I bought recordings of the six sonatas, played by ye olde violinists, modern violinists, thumping pianos or plucking harpsichords. The keyboard role here is often just to fill in the harmonies, and the violin is often supreme. Modern recordings were always carefully balanced to keep the essential violin in the background and yank the keyboard to the foreground. The recording by Viktoria Mullova was especially disappointing, with a whining non-vibrato by the violinist throughout, and a plucking harpsichord miring the sound picture. Her two CDs did not last long on my shelves.

Purely by chance, I have just found a 1956 recording of the six played by Michèle Auclair. This suits me! Ms Auclair was a very fine violinist indeed; she plays here with a modern vibrato sound, she is balanced well forward, and the keyboard part harmonises discreetly – on an organ, played by Marie-Claire Alain. The set was serendipitous, since the six sonatas were included in an eight CD box of recordings by Michèle Auclair.

The French were supremely unlucky with their post-war violinists. Ginette Neveu died in an air crash in 1949, Jacques Thibaud in an air crash in 1953. In the early 1960s Michèle Auclair had to give up her concert career following an accident. In 1982, after a long decline due to alcohol, Christian Ferras committed suicide. Michèle Auclair, as preserved here during her brief recording career mainly in the 1950s, was a violinistic force to be reckoned with, with a controlled intensity similar to that of Ginette Neveu. The recordings are mainly by a “B” team, the accompaniments as well (apart from Willem van Otterloo in the Brahms concerto). But Michèle Auclair's violin shines through it all, and I was particularly happy to listen to her 1956-style Bach sonatas, as well as to the violin playing of the first half of the 20th century with its liberal use of bow strokes and exemplary trills – after the middle of the century trills became somewhat perfunctory, and I always listen with pleasure to the old violinists and their tight trills. I think I still have my original copies of Bach's music somewhere, arranged for violin and piano by Debussy, if I remember rightly, although it is decades since I  last played it.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Julius Röntgen

Unfortunately, up until now Julius Röntgen has only flickered across my radar very occasionally. This is unjust, because he seems to have written some attractive music that is highly listener-friendly and should appeal to anyone who likes Brahms, Grieg or Dvorak. Almost alone of so many little-known composers, he knew how to write a memorable tune. I've just been listening to a violin and piano CD sent to me by a Dutch friend (the E major sonata Opus 40, the Phantasy Op 24, the Sonata Trilogica, and the suite of Seven Concert Pieces). All highly enjoyable – so much so that I have ordered a second, competitive version to compare with my current disc where the violinist is the unknown (to me) Christoph Schickedanze. All sounds OK, but the violin is balanced a little too far back; a situation rectified to some extent by listening through headphones. The music does not sound at all technically challenging, and should be ideal for concert violinists looking for something outside the usual inevitable 12 violin and piano sonatas. At any rate, it is music that concert attendees would immediately take to (as did I).

Monday, 27 June 2016

More Scarlatti from Yevgeny Sudbin

Domenico Scarlatti must be the king of Easy Listening music. He wrote over 500 keyboard sonatas – most lasting typically 3-6 minutes each. Years ago I bought a CD of 18 of his sonatas played by Yevgeny Sudbin, and the CD lasted well on each re-listening. So I have now bought his second CD, featuring 18 more sonatas. I love it! Others – including Clara Haskil – have recorded Scarlatti sonatas, but there is something about Sudbin's playing that sounds just right. Music, and playing, to keep close to hand.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Speedy Isabelle Faust

There is some truly wonderful violin playing on Isabelle Faust's 2009-11 recording of the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach. At times, one simply has to gasp in admiration, and I often regretted that, so far, Ms Faust does not seem to have recorded Paginini's Capricci. Her Strad here sounds beautiful, and Ms Faust does not miss a trick, or even a demi-semiquaver. The fast movements come off very well indeed – and the B minor partita that can often seem to go on for too long, gets a magnificent performance.

But, and it's a big but: some of the music is played simply too quickly. The fugues, the lovely andante of the A minor sonata, the largo of the C major sonata, as well as the Ciaccona – need to breathe. In practically every movement I looked at, Faust is faster even than Jascha Heifetz. The Ciaconna is dispatched in one long breath of 12'26; probably a world record. Make no mistake, there is some breathtaking violin playing on these two CDs; the well-known Preludio to the E major partita is full of fascinating light and shade. Ms Faust is no dumb high-speed virtuoso; she is a superb musician in all she does. It's just that some movements in this set are just too damn fast!

I have only once heard Isabelle Faust live, but I have many recordings by her, and practically everything she touches turns to gold. Two hours of wonderful violin playing here, and I sense I'll return to this set often; but I still need alternatives such as Heifetz, Milstein or Ibragimova for performances that allow the music to breathe and leave me admiring Bach, as well as the violinist.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Henry Purcell: Fantasias

There is music where one has a sense of a composer communicating with his muse, leaving aside all thoughts of patrons, public renown, reputation, or celebrity. Examples are found often with Bach (Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, the 48 preludes and fugues), with Beethoven (the late string quartets), Shostakovich (the string quartets, the preludes and fugues for piano) … and with Henry Purcell and his Fantasias for viols. By the time Purcell wrote his fantasias in 1680 when he was 21 years old, the consort of viols was already somewhat passé, and no one quite understands why Purcell wrote for what we would now call “period instruments”.

I came across the fantasies (“fantazias” as Purcell termed them) many decades ago, and they continue to fascinate me with their kaleidoscopic range of colour, tempo and harmony. The harmonies are often “post Schönbergian” in places, and this must have astounded any listeners – if there were any – in the 1680s. What a wealth of invention, and what a marvellous sense of a great composer revelling in his musical and contrapuntal skills. No challenge was left unopposed, viz the celebrated Fantazia upon one Note à 5.

Unfortunately, I now have only one recording of the fantasies, that by a viol ensemble that called itself Phantasm, recorded back in the early 1990s (I have just ordered a second version, with Jordi Savall). As far as I can judge, the Phantasm group is excellent, but it really will be good to have alternatives to compare; English groups can be somewhat prim and proper, and averse to throwing themselves into the music. Purcell's fantasias are rarely played today, probably because there are few viol consorts around, and players of later instruments (violins, violas, cellos) are terrified of being labelled musically incorrect. And the fantasias were not even published until 1927! But, ah, what magnificent music we find in the Purcell fantasias, the true musical ancestors of the late Beethoven and Shostakovich string quartets. We can think of the (paraphrased) remark attributed to Handel, when talking about Purcell: “Had he lived longer, we would all have been out of a job”.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov

I noticed the release of Boris Giltburg playing Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux Op 39, and the Moments Musicaux Op 16. Since I love both sets of pieces, I put the CD on my wishlist. After a time, I decided that, given I already had several recordings of both pieces, including those by Zlata Chochieva and Xiayin Wang, I would forgo Giltburg, so I took him off the wishlist. Then a highly laudatory review in the Gramophone magazine put him back on the wishlist. Then I noticed it was a Naxos CD, and thus only around the price of a good sirloin steak in the supermarket. So I bought the CD, happily for me.

Giltburg is a pianist on this CD with superb pianism, and a superlative range of sound and dynamics. Some pieces I found too slow for my taste, but it did not matter when Giltburg played them this way. Like Rachmaninov himself, the pianist concentrates on the music, eschewing showmanship. Zlata and Xiayin are still there in my must-listen pile. But so now is Giltburg. Strange to remember that Rachmaninov the composer was once somewhat looked down on by “those in the know”; it is dangerous to write music that music lovers really like!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Violinist Repertoire

It is difficult for fine musicians to achieve notice in the overcrowded modern world, where every man and his dog can commission a recording or post on YouTube. Some try the eccentric route; Nigel Kennedy and Gilles Apap come to mind, in the violin world. Many try the experimental modern contemporary composer-of-the-moment route, where competition and comparisons are limited; Patricia Kopatchinskaja comes to mind, obtaining press coverage with an enfant terrible image. Some violinists still try the well-trodden route of Tchaikovsky-Mendelssohn-Bruch-Sibelius, where they promptly come up against Heifetz, Kreisler, Milstein, Oistrakh, and 200 others.

I fully appreciate that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a mark in “standard” repertoire. But nearly three hours of recorded music for violin and orchestra that arrived chez moi yesterday show one does not need to resort to cacophonic experimental compositions in order to do something different. Two of yesterday's CDs contain three violin concertos of Christian Sinding, plus his better known Suite and a couple of shorter pieces. The third CD contains seven substantial pieces for violin and orchestra by Eugène Ysaÿe. Pretty well none of the three hours of music here is well known, yet all the works are worth getting to know. Violinists in the Ysaÿe are Amoury Coeytaux and Svetlin Roussev; the Sinding features Andrej Bielow.

Kristof Barati in Mozart Concertos

Kristof Barati is a very fine violinist, as he has proved many times since winning the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels in 1997. Being a Hungarian violinist living in Hungary, he is perhaps not as well known internationally as he ought to be. His recorded opus to date, however, is extensive – and enjoyable. The latest addition is two hours of Mozart violin concertos and a few pieces for orchestra, recorded live in Hungary last year and just issued by Brilliant Classics in a well recorded and low priced double CD album. I enjoyed it immensely.

Barati is a brisk player in Mozart, particularly in the first movements of the concertos. A little perturbed at first, I soon began to enjoy the image of a young Mozart flaunting his prowess on the violin. One does not always enjoy young Mozart for violin virtuosity, but one does here; Barati is always interesting. I also much approve of his brief cadenzas (Joachim's in the first movement of K.219); often violinists choose cadenzas that go on and on and thus interrupt the flow of the music. Not so here.

The Hungarian Chamber Orchestra (directed by Barati) contributes appropriately. Inevitably in two hours of live recording there are a few bits and pieces that would have been re-done and patched in a studio. Such things rarely worry me. I have recently enjoyed Mozart concertos played – very differently – by Arabella Steinbacher, and by Katrin Scholtz. There is room for everyone in Mozart interpretation, but I'll always enjoy coming back to Barati's brisk, virtuosic versions that hold my interest from the first bar onwards, even in this music I have known backwards for around six decades.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Symphony Orchestras

I am never over-fussy about orchestras. Modern orchestras are filled with – often younger – players who can cope with most technical challenges. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I have the impression that one and two star orchestras can often make for more rewarding listening, since they try harder than their three star cousins, who are sometimes content to rest on their laurels or past reputations. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to accompanying soloists, and one suspects that – particularly in the past – major orchestras here often fielded ranks of substitute players, rather than the principals. There are many reports of conductors in the past having been nonplussed to discover that the orchestral personnel they were conducting at the actual concert did not entirely correspond to the orchestral personnel with whom they had been rehearsing!

All too often, three star orchestras have become “brands”, in the modern parlance, so much so that, a few years ago, the “Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” was caught out playing two different concerts in two different places; on the same evening! Common sense tells us that the Berlin Philharmonic of the 1930s will not be the same Berlin Philharmonic of the 1960s, or 90s, or the present day. Players change, and retire. Orchestras go through good periods, viz the Philharmonia in the 1950s and 60s, and weak periods, viz the London Symphony Orchestra in the same period. Conductors known for their orchestral training prowess, such as Toscanini, von Karajan, Stokowski, and others, can make a big difference fairly quickly.

Nevertheless, orchestras are not all the same. Russia, Scandinavia, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and America have usually offered a range of fine orchestras whereas, for some reason, countries such as France, Spain, Italy or Greece struggle in any given period to offer even one orchestra of real international standard. France is particularly puzzling, since the country boasts a strong range of first-rate instrumentalists and numerous prestigious conservatoires. There are orchestras in Paris, Toulouse and Lille, but it is difficult to think of a famous French orchestra. As for Germany; the country bursts with fine orchestras, some with major “brand” images such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, not to mention the orchestras of Dresden and Leipzig, with superb orchestras all over the place in Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and elsewhere – Bremen is a recent fine contestant. I am very fond of the recordings by Günter Wand that he made mostly in Cologne and Hamburg with regional German radio orchestras; to my ears, the orchestras sound fine and I do not miss their three star cousins.

Having said that, however, orchestras can make a difference in certain respects; Russian orchestras appear to dive into the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich in a particularly heart-felt way, as do British orchestras in the music of Elgar – and the Vienna Philharmonic in the music of Anton Bruckner. I marvelled recently at the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's eighth and ninth symphonies (conducted by Carl Schuricht in the early 1960s); the sound was simply so right. In many respects, however, symphony orchestras are much like restaurants or wine: they have their good periods and their bad periods, good years and bad years, a change of chef can make a major difference as can a change of ownership or funding. Ah, the Concertgebouw orchestra of the 1970s vintage !

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Tristan & Isolde

Hans Knappertsbusch, Carl Schuricht, Bernard Haitink, Günter Wand, Adrian Boult, Jascha Horenstein, Pierre Monteux, Victor de Sabata, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Eugen Jochum, Eduard van Beinum ... there is a long list of highly admirable conductors who never managed to reach the "star" list, not because of lack of ability, but often because of lack of ambition, or lack of effective PR managers, or inability to gain three star recording contracts or media material posts with prestigious orchestras. Otto Klemperer nearly joined the list, but he was "rescued" by Walter Legge in the early 1950s and Legge, for all his chronicled faults, could recognise first-class musicians and do something for them, if he chose.

Carl Schuricht was one such "star, non-star". In its dying days, EMI issued a superb re-mastered SACD version of Schuricht conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1961 and 63 in Bruckner's eighth and ninth symphonies, and I have been listening again to this with much pleasure. I have an uneasy feeling that great performances of the music of Wagner and Bruckner died out during the later decades of the twentieth century, a feeling reinforced today listening to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, recorded by EMI in 1952 and conducted in a London studio by Wilhelm Furtwängler. This is a well-known great classic of the recording eras, but how incredible it is! The stature of this recording is due almost entirely to Furtwängler, who melds the massive 4-5 hour opera into one seamless, impassioned whole. Timings are slow, forward progress relentless. The stature is enhanced by the 1952 mono recording, produced by Walter Legge with the incomparable Douglas Larter as balance engineer. I found the recording quality (digital transfer by Christopher Parker) to be quite amazing, given the 64 years that have elapsed since the original was set down. They don't make great classics like that any more when it comes to Wagner or Bruckner, it seems; the old dinosaurs died with their secrets intact.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Music in Germany, and Katrin Scholz

One of those strange media articles (CNN, I think) recently featured “Seven Things the Germans do Best”. Cars were there, as were beer and sausages (I think). But nothing about music, even though the Germans obviously do music very well indeed, and have done for a few centuries now. Looking through a list of my favourite German-speaking violinists, I found:

Erich Röhn, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Frank Peter Zimmerman, Christian Tetzlaff, Katrin Scholz, Adolf Busch, Fritz Kreisler, Arabella Steinbacher, Georg Kulenkampff, Laurent Albrecht Breuninger, Isabelle Faust, Julia Fischer, David Frühwirth, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Benjamin Schmid, Gerhard Taschner, Thomas Zehetmair. Quite a list. And of major orchestras in the world, the orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart. Plus the plethora of opera houses in pretty well every German city, plus the music conservatoires. And when it comes to recording music, the Germans have been superb for getting on for a century now (with the Dutch and the British also often highly competitive). German music, played by Germans and recorded by Germans, is often a benchmark for first class quality.

All of which came to mind as I listened to Katrin Scholz playing Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn with the Kammerorchester Berlin (Michael Sanderling conducting in the Beethoven). Ms Scholz plays the five concertos on her two CDs – the last three by Mozart, plus a Haydn concerto, plus the Beethoven – with a touching simplicity and playing that is “classical” in the best sense of the word, avoiding the heavy point-scoring in every bar in which some performers seem to indulge. The recording quality, dating from 1997-2004, is excellent, as is the balance between violin and orchestra. I cannot think why Music did not make CNN's list of things the Germans do best. And I cannot think why Katrin Scholz, who has made some fine recordings, is not better known.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Tempi in Mozart, and Arabella Steinbacher

My good friend Lee Cheng Hooi compiled an interesting chart showing the timings of Mozart violin concerto movements as played by Arabella Steinbacher, Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Arthur Grumiaux. Tempo is an interesting conundrum and, as is well known, stopwatch timings tell only half the story. In my view, a tempo usually feels too fast or too slow if it is chosen because:
  • “at this speed, everyone will think I am a great player”
  • “at this speed, everyone will think I feel deeply about this music”
  • “this is the speed I think (or, more arrogantly, I know) Mozart et al would have expected”.
A tempo usually seems right if it is the tempo the player feels suits the music best. Jascha Heifetz's rapid tempi usually suit me fine, since it is obviously the tempo Heifetz felt to be right at the time. Similarly, I am (usually) impressed with Arabella Steinbacher's tempi, even when, on average, she takes half a minute or more per Mozart movement compared with Zimmermann or Grumiaux. Coming back to Arabella, I find I really enjoy her performances of Mozart's 3rd, 4th and 5th violin concertos; I would characterise her playing as relaxed. She seems to be enjoying playing what she plays, and overall enjoyment is helped by the superb Pentatone recording, and the contribution of the Festival Strings Lucerne led by Daniel Dodds. An enjoyable experience. On order I have yet another CD of Mozart violin concertos, to be played this time by Kristof Barati; he'll have a job to do better than Arabella, who is a lovely violinist in all senses of the phrase.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Jean-Delphin Alard

I have just spent a little time with Jean-Delphin Alard (1815-88), listening to the third Duo from his opus 27 Duos brillants, and to his short salon piece Sevillana. Sevillana is most attractive, played here by Mela Tenenbaum. The duo, played by Ilya Gringolts and Alexandr Bulov, is a pretty substantial piece in three movements, lasting nearly 22 minutes. Easy and attractive listening, and well played and balanced on the BIS CD. I cannot understand why there is not more music by Alard available; it would make a pleasant change from yet another Ravel or Debussy sonata.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Mozart

The earliest recordings I possess are from the year 1900 (Arnold Rosé, and Pauline Viardot). As someone who spent much of his youth – including three years at Oxford – studying history, I am extremely interested in how things used to be, and how we have arrived at here, from there. Very interested to hear how a Mozart violin concerto was played in 1916 – or 1776. However, for music listening in 2016, give me 2016 sound and playing any day, all things being equal. In my earlier years, there was a battle of ownership between harpsichordists and pianists for keyboard music prior to the later years of the eighteenth century. The battle then switched to the mediocre “fortepiano”. Fortunately, the grand piano seems to have won the battle, and we can all sit back and enjoy Yevgeny Sudbin playing Scarlatti sonatas, or Igor Levin playing the Beethoven Diabelli variations, or Bach Goldberg variations – on a grand piano, albeit with a knowledge of the style and limitations of the earlier eighteenth century.

A similar battle occurred with boy trebles and male altos in the music of Bach, Handel and the like. Non-vibrato white tone was the order of the day in the 1970s and 80s if you wished to be politically correct. Happily, the boy trebles and male altos appear to have ceded the field, or at least agreed to share it. A sense of style and history is important, but it should not be carried to extremes. At the premier of Beethoven's violin concerto, the soloist is reputed to have played an improvisation of his own between the first and second movements; should we emulate that tradition? Nigel Kennedy probably would.

An appreciation of the age in which a piece of music was written – and why – is important. We know that 17th and 18th century orchestras would (usually) be small – even though Mozart exclaimed in delight at an orchestra with 60 violins playing one of his symphonies. He is lucky a current musicologist was not around at the time to admonish him. Music does not often transcend the medium for which it is written; string quartets do not translate happily into music for a string orchestra, although an exception might be made for Beethoven's Grosse Fuge that really strains – and perhaps at times over-strains – the string quartet medium. The recording by Otto Klemperer with the strings of the Philharmonia – presumably the Felix Weingartner transcription – is pretty convincing. Wilhelm Furtwängler and Adolf Busch also both recorded string orchestra versions.

A battle yet to be won is that of the anaemic sound produced by “period instrument” players, hailed to be a glorious return to what the composer may have envisaged prior to the later decades of the nineteenth century. Granted, this olde style gives valued employment to string players who would be all at sea trying to navigate Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in a major orchestra. But it does no favour to the more sophisticated and demanding ears of 2016. And as for “gut strings”, lauded as the new Holy Grail of olde musike; I started my violin playing with gut strings and they quickly went out of tune, or broke. Jascha Heifetz always used gut strings (except for the “E” string, which was always the first to break, in my day). I suspect that Fritz Kreisler also used gut strings – spun metal was in its infancy, in those days. I suspect most modern critics cannot tell what string fabrication anyone is using; I certainly cannot. Yet they continue to pontificate about “gut strings” as if their use makes a considerable audio difference.

All this as a long-winded introduction to my pleasure in listening to Frank Peter Zimmermann playing Mozart violin concertos (numbers 2 and 5, plus the Sinfonia Concertante) with the Chamber Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. A nice light touch from both orchestra and soloist, without any fake 18th century sounds that so plagued recent violin recordings by the marvellous Vilde Frang (Mozart) and equally marvellous Alina Ibragimova (Bach), where both recordings were spoilt for me by the ham-fisted accompaniment of Jonathan Cohen and a motley group that calls itself Arcangelo. Gurr! Zimmermann, Radoslaw Szulc and the Bavarians show how Mozart can sound appropriately fine in 2016 without resorting to stylistic gimmicks, tambourines, arch-lutes or sack-butts. The sound on this second CD from Hänssler is light, airy and never heavy and romantic, and Zimmermann's set of the Mozart concertos can take its place beside the Grumiaux set from the 1960s. In the Sinfonia Concertante, by which time Mozart was appreciably more mature in his instrumental writing, Zimmermann and Antoine Tamestit are perfectly matched and perfectly balanced and we are given a more-or-less ideal performance of this masterpiece. It is good to know that in this gimmick-crazed 21st century where everything has to be “new”, that a few good, solid classic values are still in evidence in musical performances. Tempos in eight of the nine movements on this CD are fine, with me, but I take exception to the second movement of K 219, marked adagio. This simply sounds wrong, to me, dispatched at this speed.

And that is all from me for a time, while I go off to France in search of seafood and the local cuisine of Provence.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016


Fame. Probably most highly gifted instrumentalists never become famous and remain pretty well unknown. And not all “famous” musicians are top, top, top rank. Fame, or lack of fame, depends on a number of factors. String players, in particular, are often denied a major soloist career because of nerves or stage fright. It is difficult to give of your best if your right hand is subject to trembling; Joseph Szigeti and Jacques Thibaud, to mention only two, often suffered severely from le trac. It does not matter whether or not a conductor suffers from nerves; but it certainly does to a string player. Another factor is backers, sponsors, family, supporters. To get up there and be seen costs either money or influence (usually both). Jascha Heifetz did not stand up in Carnegie Hall in 1917 thanks only to his violinistic prowess. A final factor is cultural milieu; being a genius pianist in somewhere like 1920s Australia would have meant a tough, tough road to stardom and recognition. And, in the end, there are many musicians who just do not want the hassle and strain of trying to build an international maestro career; the first class British violinist Albert Sammons was one such non-candidate for international stardom, as were violinists such as David Nadien, Oscar Shumsky or Joseph Gingold.

When he won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1963, Alexis Michlin was a truly superb violinist. Following that, he pretty well vanished, and even Mr Google has a hard job finding him now (he is rumoured to have become a happy and successful professor of the violin in Oviedo, Spain). Apart from Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh, most lovers of violin playing can list at least a dozen or so other top names. Three real “stars” of the second half of the twentieth century will often be missing from those lists: the names of Josef Suk, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and Arthur Grumiaux. All three were superb violinists and musicians and came to the fore in the period 1950-70. Suk's reputation was handicapped by being in Czechoslovakia, with limited opportunities for concertising or recording on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Schneiderhan's reputation suffered from being a German musician at a time when anything German was not too popular. Grumiaux's reputation suffered from his dislike of travel and concertising outside a narrow geographical area. None of the three were ever remotely “media figures”. However, anyone seeking out “the best” performance of, say, Beethoven's violin concerto (whatever “the best” might mean) will be safe with Suk, Schneiderhan and Grumiaux, plus a few others.

Many years ago on a visit to New York City in the days when there were still record stores, I was going through the racks of violin recordings when a man came up to me holding a CD. He explained he was buying a CD for someone in his family, and wanted the Paganini caprices. He showed me the CD he had picked; it was Itzhak Perlman's recording. I sorted through the racks and handed him Michael Rabin, telling him it was miles better, in my view. He looked dubious. Didn't recognise the name, but thanked me and took the Rabin CD. A little later, when I was elsewhere, I saw him carefully replace the Rabin CD and head off to the cash desk with: Perlman. Perlman was a known brand, and even appeared on American television. Rabin was an unknown. No one ever got fired for choosing IBM (in those days).

All of which explains why I am often doubtful about choosing a concert or recording by a Big Name. There have been many, many highly gifted musicians over the past 70 years or so, most of whom have always had to live in the shadows. So the press can enthuse over Miss X or Mr Y, but I always prefer to use my own judgement rather than follow the hype. And, no, I am not going to reveal my list of today's and yesterday's “stars” who, in my view, are simply good musicians over-hyped, for one reason or another. Many music lovers will know who they are, or will have their own views.