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.