Sunday, 27 March 2016

Otto Klemperer in Philadelphia: Volume II

I grew up with Beethoven's Pastoral symphony played by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler (a November 1952 recording happily re-transferred by Pristine Audio some months ago). Critics of the time did not like it, with most of the tempos being dubbed “slow”. Klemperer's Pastoral aroused similar doubts among many, with even Walter Legge showing distress over Klemperer's tempo for the Peasants' Merry Making. “You'll get used to it,” Otto Klemperer was said to have retorted. Well, I like Furtwängler and Klemperer in the Pastoral. Klemperer conducts the symphony in a very welcome 2-CD second volume of Klemperer in Philadelphia in 1962 conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (Pristine Audio). The sound on this CD is excellent, and the performance of the Pastoral in the Klemperer and Furtwängler tradition stemming from Germany during the later decades of the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth. What the tradition was – if any – in the first decades of the nineteenth century is anyone's guess. However I prefer Beethoven enjoying the country, the brook and the peasants' merry making as depicted by Klemperer and Furtwängler, to the Beethoven city dweller scampering to get back to Vienna as soon as possible as depicted by conductors such as Toscanini, Chailly, or Roger Norrington and his like.

The new Philadelphia set also contains a taut, passionate performance of Schumann's fourth symphony, beautifully played by the orchestra. I have never been a fan of Schumann's foray into the world of the symphony. Returning to more traditional Klemperer territory, we have Mozart's Jupiter symphony, and Beethoven's seventh. The Mozart symphony might even be called Mozart's Klemperer symphony since it suits Klemperer's stern and craggy sound, especially in the first and last movements. The performance here is magnificent, with typical forward woodwinds and transparent textures. The slow movement contains some of the most beautiful music Mozart penned, and it is here played with superb taste and affection. A classic Jupiter recording. The Beethoven seventh symphony is another classic Klemperer account, with a strict control over rhythm and a Furtwängler-like pointing of the bass line throughout. The emphasis on textual clarity is particularly pronounced.

Arguably the concert series would have been even more valuable had the repertoire been different. The Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1960s had a big, rich sound, thus my delight in its performance of Brahms' third symphony recorded in the first volume of the Pristine set. A big, rich sound comes into its own with music such as Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Bruckner; I feel that the Beethoven comes off even better with the sleeker sounds in the 1960s with orchestras such as the Philharmonia, Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, and the Concertgebouw orchestra. Fortunately, with Klemperer we have a choice: for example, for Beethoven's Eroica symphony, I have seven different recordings conducted by Klemperer, ranging from 1954 to 1963. Taken altogether, however, the four CDs from Pristine are a most welcome and valuable addition to the library of great performances from the past. I shall keep returning to them. If, following its welcome re-issues of so much Furtwängler material, Pristine Audio is going to turn to Klemperer, I'll be waiting. The recorded archives of Klemperer, particularly live, are vast.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Joseph Haydn Opus 50 and the Quatuor Zaïde

By this stage in my life, I am always interested to read other people's views on the performance of a piece of music, but I have learned not to be too swayed by either enthusiastic or negative critiques. Critics differ, and criticism is usually mainly a subjective matter. I made an exception for a review in the Gramophone magazine of a new recording by an unknown (to me) string quartet of four young French women playing the six quartets of Haydn's Opus 50. The critic compared this recording – by the Quatuor Zaïde – with a new release of the same works by a British quartet. The British players were judged to be admirable, playing with taste and refinement; the French players were judged to have plunged into this somewhat revolutionary music and to have displayed enthusiasm and a sense of exhilaration. I bought the French CD, because I value enthusiasm and am somewhat wary of just good taste.

The music really is pretty extraordinary for 1787; the quality of the six quartets in very high. They make for happy listening, each quartet lasting for around 20 minutes for the four movements; just under two hours for the six. And, yes, I have taken to the zest with which the Zaïde launch into this music; young people can often bring a welcome enthusiasm to a musical performance, an enthusiasm that can escape older groups playing a piece for the 200th time. I'll keep this CD close to hand – for the music, as well as for the performances.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Pictures at an Exhibition: Khatia Buniatishvili

I have always liked the piano playing of Khatia Buniatishvili; her latest CD featuring Mussorgsky's familiar Pictures at an Exhibition, Ravel's La Valse, plus three movements from Stravinsky's Petrushka, proves no exception. I have no idea how her rendition of Pictures compares with others — including Richter's famous 1958 recording from Sofia. All I know is that I love sitting back and listening to this music under Buniatishvili's fingers. The Mussorgsky is particularly good; I much prefer Petrushka in its orchestral original, but if anyone is going to please me with the piano version of the dances, it is Khatia. A CD for frequent replays. The liner notes are pretty bad: a bizarre mixture of pseudo-philosophy and psycho-babble. Well you can't have it all, all the time.

In between listening to Mussorgsky, I have to find a way to eat the 1.6 kilo ox tongue I have just cooked and pressed. It looks pretty daunting sitting waiting on its plate.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Otto Klemperer in Philadelphia: Volume I

Occasionally when delving deep into the archives of recorded music, archivists come up with some real gold. This, in my view, is the case with a double CD issue by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio of Otto Klemperer conducting Bach, Brahms and Beethoven in Philadelphia in the Autumn of 1962. As far as I know, these superb performances are here made publicly available for the first time since then (when I was a second-year student at Oxford University).

It is good to hear the Philadelphia orchestra under the baton of a great conductor, for a change. The sound as massaged by Pristine Audio is thoroughly acceptable; better listened to through good headphones rather than loudspeakers, I found – particularly where the Bach was concerned, where the various strands of the music need to be heard clearly.

Klemperer, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Bruno Walter, Günter Wand were traditional and authoritative in the mainstream German symphonic repertoire and dominated much of the twentieth century. Bach's first Brandenburg concerto with Klemperer and a (slimmed-down) Philadelphia orchestra may sound a little strange to 21st century ears (as well as to 18th century ears, I would imagine). But, famously, you can play Bach almost any way you like – even with a brass band – as long as there is rhythmic integrity and the counterpoint is clearly delineated. No problem with Otto here; it is one of those performances where you start listening to just a sample, and then find yourself being drawn in and listening to the whole work. I loved it. Klemperer loved Bach's music and knew more about it than a whole slew of period performance experts and harpsichordists put together.

The performance of Brahms' third symphony here is an all-time classic. The sound of the Philadelphians comes into its own. Not too many conductors get this symphony right, apart from Klemperer, Furtwängler, Günter Wand, Bruno Walter and maybe a handful of others. But, to my ears, Klemperer gets it 100% right. Of the Brahms symphonies, my personal favourites are the third and the fourth, and I loved this performance of the third.

Beethoven's Egmont overture could have been written for Klemperer; the performance here does not disappoint and has probably never been surpassed. I have been listening to Beethoven's third symphony since around 1953 (by now, my favourite Beethoven symphonies are numbers three, six and seven). My reaction on listening to this current performance was to forget about Andrew Rose, the Philadelphia orchestra, and Otto Klemperer and to marvel at how incredible is Beethoven's third symphony. I am sure that Klemperer would be happy with this epitaph to this performance. Prima la musica. No one has ever equalled Klemperer in the Eroica.

This is billed by Pristine Audio as Volume 1 of Klemperer in Philadelphia. I'll be first in line for Volume 2 with my €18 ready in my hand. Beethoven's seventh symphony? Brahms' fourth? Here is hoping.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Renaud Capuçon, and Pablo de Sarasate

Along with Joseph Joachim, Pablo de Sarasate was probably the most influential violinist of the second half of the nineteenth century. Edouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole was dedicated to him, as was Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy (and Sarasate also played the Bruch G minor concerto). From accounts – and from the handful of recordings he made towards the end of his life – his playing was suave and sophisticated and a long way from what I term the modern Russian-Israeli-Juilliard style of playing, with its emphasis on power and heft. Sarasate was an elegant player.

I was reminded of this listening to a new CD from Renaud Capuçon. Suave, sophisticated and elegant, yes; Capuçon is also a very fine violinist. On this new CD he plays the Lalo Symphonie, as well as Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, and Max Bruch's G minor violin concerto. I had expected to enjoy the Lalo and the Sarasate, since Capuçon's playing fits them like a glove. And I certainly did. I had a few less hopes of that old warhorse, the Bruch G minor, that is usually belted out with maxi-macho violin playing, soaring and swooning. Listening to Capuçon, I was reminded of the Sarasate connection, and also of Jascha Heifetz, who also had a supreme level of sophistication in his playing. I actually enjoyed Capuçon's elegant approach to the Bruch, and gave it three stars. A fine CD, helped by Capuçon's fleet tempi and refusal to wallow.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Franz Liszt's Piano Sonata

We all have our blind spots. One of mine has always been the piano sonata in B minor of Franz Liszt. Over the decades, I have listened to it advocated by Martha Argerich, Sviatoslav Richter, Georges Cziffra, Lazar Berman, Alfred Cortot, Vladimir Horowitz, and now, today, by my much-favoured Yuja Wang. It is a work that never does anything for me. I can listen with pleasure to works such as the sonatas and chamber works of Guillaume Lekeu, or Albéric Magnard. But Liszt's sonata (and most of Liszt's piano works, including the concertos), leave me cold. Liszt's works for violin and piano I can enjoy. Liszt's songs I can enjoy. But for the rest: we go our separate ways. For the piano sonata, given the advocates above, Herr Liszt cannot claim I have not given his work a fair hearing, over a long period of time.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Vilde Frang in Britten and Korngold Concertos

I was born in 1941, so my lifetime overlaps pretty well 100% with the violin concertos of Benjamin Britten and Erich Korngold. Neither concerto found much favour with the avant-garde critics of the time, but the then- protégés of the avant-garde have vanished and, little by little, the violin concertos of Britten and Korngold have advanced towards the front of the twentieth century violin repertoire. Korngold's concerto benefited from Jascha Heifetz including it in his repertoire. The Britten concerto was recorded as far back as 1948 (Theo Olof), with Mark Lubotsky and Britten in 1970 and Bronislaw Gimpel in 1961. Recorded performances began to pick up at the end of the 1990s and, since then, the Britten concerto seems to have entered the accepted violin concerto repertoire, as has the Korngold.

On a new CD, the superb Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang couples the Korngold and Britten concertos, with James Gaffigan conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, with a talented recording team in Frankfurt. Both concertos earn three stars from me in these recordings. I admire the purity of Vilde Frang's playing, and her obvious identification with both works. The Britten concerto has thrown up some really talented recordings by Frank Peter Zimmerman, Janine Jansen and James Ehnes, but I am not sure that Ms Frang does not trump them all – albeit helped by an excellent recording that enables us to hear the orchestral parts plus Ms Frang's violin even when she plays softly (as she does quite often). Does the Korngold concerto need a little more schmaltz? Arguably, however, there is enough schmaltz already in Korngold's Viennese-Hollywood score without more indulgence from the soloist (Heifetz, too, felt no need to add über-schmaltz to Korngold's score).

Vilde Frang is a superb violinist, and her love and understanding for both works here shines through her playing. I am not usually a fan of Britten's music, since all too often I find it calculated rather than passionate and spontaneous. The violin concerto, however, has become one of my favourites. In previous decades, spurred on by Heifetz's espousal, the violin concerto of William Walton made regular appearances; the Britten hardly ever. The tables now have turned, and Britten's concerto – like that of Korngold – seems to be taking its rightful place in the violin concerto repertoire. Vilde Frang's new CD is one I shall cherish for a long time.