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.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Leonidas Kavakos: Virtuoso

The geographical distribution of major violinists has been pretty uneven. By “major”, I mean violinists who have achieved significant international recognition. Many major violinists from France and Belgium, from Germany and Austria, from Central Europe, from Russia and the old Russian lands, from Scandinavia, from China, from South Korea, from Japan, from Canada, from America. None I can think of from South America or the whole of Africa. And from Spain: nothing since Pablo de Sarasate. From Italy: nothing since Paganini. And from Greece: nothing since Leonidas Kavakos, whose latest CD had just been entertaining me for an hour or so.

The CD – fifteen well-known short violin pieces – is titled Virtuoso. Kavakos, one of my favourite violinists, reveals himself as very much the Gentle Virtuoso. There is no showing off, no grand-standing, no exaggerated effects, even in this showing-off music. It is difficult to play these fifteen pieces and still be memorable when compared with the enormous number of competitors. Something that helps maintain interest throughout this recital of short encore pieces is the way Kavakos varies the dynamics, both between different pieces, and within pieces. No hesitation: Kavakos is a true virtuoso, but he is also a thinking virtuoso, much as Pablo de Sarasate must have been. Not too much bravura and milking the audience here; Kavakos starts with an immaculate Danse Russe from Petrouchka, and ends with a tender Humoresque from Dvorak. The CD also includes his familiar party-piece, the Recuerdos de l'Alhambra by Tarrega as arranged by Ruggiero Ricci (and played here a lot better than Ricci played it in a 1978 recording I have by him). I have been a Kavakos fan since the late 1980s, and he has very rarely if ever disappointed. Even the over-familiar pieces on this CD come up almost shining new — Sarasate's Caprice Basque and Romanza Andaluza, for example. A very fine CD.