Thursday, 11 February 2016

My Haydn Symphony Marathon

My Joseph Haydn symphony marathon is over: twelve symphonies in three different sets by three different orchestras and conductors add up to over 36 listenings (over, since some of the recordings I listened to twice). All in all, a most enjoyable experience. Haydn (like Handel, Bach, and Mozart) always knew never to go on for too long. Unlike some, we could mention.

My listening was to Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic (1958), Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (early 1960s) and Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (1970s). Sonically, all three recordings are perfectly satisfactory, even with the event of time. Musically, all three have something to offer, and I will part with none of them. However, the clear winner for me is Thomas Beecham's set with the RPO. There is a love of the music with Beecham, a lifetime's experience of tempo and phrasing, an élan and joie de vivre, a positive swagger in some of the minuets, a devil-may-care polishing off of the finales.

Sadly, record producers and concert managers have discovered that ensembles such as RPO/Beecham, Philharmonia/Klemperer or Concertgebouw/Davis are expensive. Better to promote the period instrument band of 25 players of the Esterhazy Promenade Baroque Players conducted by Jules Clavecin. One quarter of the price to hire, and you can tell critics, sponsors, advertisers, promoters and opinion-makers that Jules and his mixed professional and amateur players are “what Haydn would have expected”. Which may be true, but I can assure you that Haydn preferred the professional orchestras of Paris and London and would have picked Beecham and the RPO in preference to the pseudo- baroque lot. Music is for listening to. And in Haydn Beecham is the best listening.

And a pause for music for a while as I head off to Bangkok and Luang Prabang to re-charge my batteries and prepare for more listening marathons to come.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Beethoven Violin Concerto with Arthur Grumiaux

Arthur Grumiaux was not the most charismatic of the great violinists of the last century; but he was certainly one of the most musical. Back in distant 1974, if you had wished to make a great recording of Beethoven's violin concerto, the assembly of the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Colin Davis conducting, Arthur Grumiaux playing the solo part, and the Philips team recording, would have been all you needed. With Grumiaux, you put away the Beckmesser slate; technically and musically he does not put a foot wrong, his tempi are completely uncontroversial, his choice of cadenzas (Kreisler's) avoids all Lang Lang type attention drawing. In all lists of “the best” or “the top” recommendations, Grumiaux is more often than not forgotten in preference to more high profile violinists. But for pretty well all the violin repertoire, Grumiaux should always be in the top three choices; you always get the music, the whole music, and nothing but the music. No histrionics, no attention seeking. I really enjoyed his 1974 performance of the Beethoven concerto this afternoon, and marvelled at the truly excellent original recording and later CD transfers by Philips. Three stars all round.

Dmitri Levkovich in Rachmaninov

Over the decades, I have built up a good sense of which violinists I consider to be of major importance. I have never really paid too much attention to pianists, though recently my tastes have taken me into the pianist domains of Rachmaninov, Liszt and Chopin. The “old greats” such as Cortot, Kempff, Richter, etc. remain the old greats. But there is an interesting large army of first class “new” pianists, many of whom I judge to be “new greats” in their chosen repertoire. Foremost among my new greats are: Xiayin Wang, Yuja Wang, Maria Pires (not so new, but still going strong), Igor Levit, Zlata Chochieva, Katja Buniatishvili, Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin, and Yevgeny Sudbin.

All criticisms as regards music performances are bound to be mainly subjective, rather than objective and factual. Like an elderly Colonel growling after dinner with a glass of port: “I know what I like, by G'ad”. I invested in a new CD by an unknown (to me) pianist: Dmitri Levkovich. Variously billed as “Ukrainian”, “Canadian” and “living in New York”, his playing of Rachmaninov's Preludes Opus 23 and Opus 32 did not find favour with me, maybe because by this time his connection with Russia and Rachmaninov is probably as nebulous as is mine. Strands of thematic material are not played clearly; Pravda's famous Shostakovich denunciation of “Muddle instead of Music” came to mind. Mr Levkovich reveals limited dynamic shading – the playing is anchored between mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte, with a preference for the forte. The sound is muddy, unlike the clarity of Rachmaninov playing by the likes of Xiayin Wang, Yuja Wang or Zlata Chochieva. Great conductors ensure that, in orchestral music, the texture of the music is clear to listeners; mediocre conductors produce a mushy sound, with little sense of who is playing what. I had the same impression with Mr Levkovich, and his CD of Rachmaninov will be filed on my shelves under “R” for Rachmaninov and that probably will be it. A shame, because the Rachmaninov preludes contain some first class music. Step forward Yuja, Xiayin and Zlata; we need a new set of the Preludes.