Thursday, 28 December 2017

Sabine Devieilhe

Back in July, I was surprised to enjoy a CD of Véronique Gens singing arias from nineteenth century French operas. Apart from Carmen — said to be the world's most frequently performed opera — French opera gets few headlines, probably understandably so. It does, however, feature some highly attractive individual arias, as re-confirmed by a new CD "Mirages" from the superb French coloratura soprano, Sabine Devieilhe with her fresh, young soprano voice. Léo Delibes provides three of the arias (from his opera Lakmé) with others coming from André Messager, Debussy, Massenet and a few others – including Igor Stravinsky (Le Rossignol). The opera arias (19th and early 20th centuries) are interspersed with some songs with piano accompaniment (Koechlin, Debussy, Berlioz). In a couple of the pieces Devieilhe is augmented by Marianne Crebassa (mezzo) and Jodie Devos (soprano). The efficient little orchestra is conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Altogether a three-star CD of music, singing, playing, and recording. Sabine Devieilhe was already high in my esteem; with this CD she shoots even higher. A disc to keep in my “do not file away, yet” rack, and a lovely musical ending to 2017. Off now to France to eat oysters.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Sigiswald Kuijken's Bach Cantatas

I have 38 recordings of different cantatas by J.S. Bach directed by Sigiswald Kuijken and his Petite Bande. I am in the process of listening to them all. I also have major sets directed by Philippe Herreweghe, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki, plus sundry others. For the moment, it is Sigiswald, and his Belgian Bachists; others will follow in 2018.

Kuijken is “Bach-lite”, so you don't get a chorus, just the four soloists singing together. Which may have been what Bach expected, even though when he wrote the music he probably heard in his head a heavenly choir singing. “That is in my head”, Bach would have muttered. “Tomorrow morning it will be the same sorry crew singing.” In the chorus movements, I miss the chorus. In the chorales, the four soloists are acceptable. While it is true that recording technology can boost the sound of four voices, the choruses still sound weak, more madrigal than chorus. In the context of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, four voices would have sounded very weedy.

Bach's music varies from “cantate du jour”, to remarkable music. The (many) remarkable cantatas possibly reflect the arrival of important visitors, or the boss's family, where Johann Sebastian needed to make a special effort, even above his exalted normal; BWV 144 is a case in point (Nimm, was dein ist). Kuijken's soloist line-up (typically Siri Thornhill, Petra Noskaiova, Christoph Genz, Jan van der Crabben, with many variations over the years) is variable, with some noticeably weak tenors on occasions. The alto, Petra Noskaiova, (female, thank heavens) seems to have been a favourite of Kuijken, and features often. The tenor, Christoph Genz, features in 21 of the cantatas; he was obviously more to Kuijken's taste than he is to mine.

The big advantage of the Kuijken performances is the clarity of texture (very important in Bach), the expertise of the orchestra, and the fine balance of the recordings. Plus Kuijken's feelings for Bach, and for Bach's rhythm, and tempo. None of that PDQ Bach here. I can never remember having to mutter “speed it up a bit” or “slow down!” when listening to these particular 38 cantata recordings which continue to give me a great deal of pleasure, despite the occasional weak soloist, and the lack of body in the choral movements. I have 30 Bach cantatas directed by Masaaki Suzuki with, as I recall, a small choir and a band of soloists who are usually superior to Kuijken's. Suzuki is probably now a project for 2018.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Magnificent Ten for 2017

2017 has been a good year for up-and-coming and new on the horizon artists (newish on my horizon, at least). I've picked ten artists for my vintage 2017, eschewing the old favourites such as Klemperer, Furtwängler, Kreisler, Heifetz, etc. where it goes without saying. As usual, order is random, since picking “1st” and “10th” in such a varied list is meaningless.

Nazrin Rashidova impressed me greatly for her violin playing in seven études-caprices of Emile Sauret. She also shows a healthy desire to escape the standard, rubber-stamped repertoire, with recordings devoted to the music of Moritz Moszkowski, and Leopold Godowsky, as well as the Sauret.

Vasily Petrenko is becoming a really first-rate conductor in his chosen repertoire. Following on from his remarkable Shostakovich symphonies came the two symphonies of Edward Elgar, superbly conducted, and played by the Liverpool Philharmonic.

Carolyn Sampson is hardly up-and-coming, but she produced a first-rate CD of songs to poems by Paul Verlaine, as well as a CD of Bach cantatas for soprano. Both three stars.

Beatrice Rana shot into my little world with her performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations. She has played other things — extremely well — but it is her Goldbergs that shoot her to fame in my eyes.

Boris Giltburg was a pretty new name for me. His Rachmaninov and Shostakovich recordings went straight to the top of the pile (though I responded less enthusiastically to his Beethoven).

Arabella Steinbacher is hardly up-and-coming, but she added to her attractive list of recordings with a first-class performance of the violin concerto of Benjamin Britten, highly competitive in what is now a somewhat crowded field of recordings of this work.

The Tetzlaff Quartett released a performance of Schubert's last string quartet that was truly remarkable. The CD also contains a superb Haydn quartet (Opus 20 No.3).

Arcadi Volodos released a CD of Brahms solo piano music that enthralled even me, normally no fan of Brahms' piano music.

Khatia Buniatishvili wowed me with my favourite performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. She can be a variable performer, but here she sounds completely in her element.

Maria João Pires is hardly up-and-coming; she was born 23rd July 1944, exactly three years after me. But the performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert played by her that I listened to throughout the year mean she has to have a place in this subjective list of remarkable artists for 2017.

Record company of the year has to be Naxos for its stream of remarkable violinists, year after year.

Monday, 11 December 2017

In Praise of Arthur Grumiaux

A friend who recently visited Japan bought a few CDs of recordings by Arthur Grumiaux, and sent me copies. Readers of this blog will know of my high opinion of Grumiaux (if they do not, there is a search box on the top left-hand corner of the blog page). Grumiaux and Adolf Busch were the two great string players in chamber music during the twentieth century, and both knew how to surround themselves with suitable partners of the same standard. Grumiaux's suave, elegant playing so representative of the Franco-Belgian school, has survived the decades, and hearing him play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert plus the French and Belgian classics is still a wonderful experience. (Of course, Grumiaux also played anything and everything – even the Berg concerto in 1967 – but it is in the classics, the French school, and in chamber music that his true greatness as a violinist is revealed). My good friend sent me Grumiaux playing Vivaldi concertos, Beethoven string trios, and Schubert violin and piano sonatas; a rare feast. Another feast comes in the Beethoven string trios and Schubert works in so far as recording quality is concerned. Nearly fifty years ago, Philips knew how to make excellent recordings with a perfect balance between instruments … and was also able to transfer the analogue recordings to digital media without the glassy sheen that afflicts so many transfers.

As a side note: why is it that the Japanese almost alone have always kept on sale recordings of great violinists of the past? The three Grumiaux CDs that my friend sent are not available here. Years ago, when I wanted a 10-CD set of the recordings of Gioconda de Vito, I had to get them from … Tokyo. And when I wanted a set of the Léner Quartet's complete Beethoven quartets, I had to get them from … Tokyo. I have many, many recordings of music played by Arthur Grumiaux. I will retain them until the day I die.

Keep-at-Hand Recordings

Picking a book from shelves of books is relatively easy. Picking a CD from shelves of CDs is not easy, particularly with slim-line CDRs like many of my recordings. I can (almost) always find a given recording, since my CD collection is organised. But serendipity is a tall order and very many recordings that I shelve are never thought of again, through no fault of theirs. Which is one reason why I keep a small toast-type rack near my CD player with 15 CDs that I can turn to when I want to listen to something congenial. For anyone interested, as 2017 nears its end, here are the current contents of the rack, in random order:

Emile Sauret — Caprices Op 64 Nos.1-7. Nazrin Rashidova.
J.S. Bach — Goldberg Variations. Beatrice Rana.
Chopin — Complete Etudes. Zlata Chochieva.
Rachmaninov — Etudes-tableaux Op 39, plus second piano concerto. Boris Giltburg.
A Verlaine Songbook — Carolyn Sampson.
Saint-Saëns — Works for violin & orchestra. Tianwa Yang.
Shostakovich — Piano Quintet, plus String Quartet No.8. Talich Quartet.
Mozart & Beethoven — violin & piano sonatas. Ji Young Lim.
J.S. Bach — Cantatas for soprano. Carolyn Sampson.
Julius Röntgen — Music for violin & piano. Atsuko Sahara.
Beethoven & Mozart — Grumiaux Trio.
Beethoven — String Trios Op 9. Grumiaux Trio.
Heinrich Ernst — The Virtuoso Violin. Thomas Christian.
Prokofiev — Violin & piano works. Lisa Oshima.
Paganini — 24 Capricci. Sueye Park.

And that is my line-up of the 15 keep-at-hand recordings for 2017. Interestingly, no orchestral music (apart from the orchestra in the second Rachmaninov concerto, and in the Saint-Saëns pieces). Why not this, and why not that? My rack only holds 15 discs.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Marianne Crebassa

I have always loved Maurice Ravel's Shéhérazade and was intrigued to see it included in a new CD recital by the French mezzo, Marianne Crebassa since here it is with a piano, and not the usual subtle orchestra. Does it work? Yes, for me it was a surprising success, helped by the piano accompaniment of Fazil Say. For the second song, la flûte enchantée, a flute is added to the piano; it works well. Ms Crebassa has a most attractive creamy voice; I have always been attracted to French mélodies, and this new CD is right on target although I have never managed to enjoy Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis. And I have never met Gabriel Fauré's four Mirages, though I cannot say I am too surprised at their lack of popularity. The first song, cygne sur l'eau, seems to have some affinities with rap music. Perhaps Mirages is an acquired taste. The three mélodies by Debussy here are more enjoyable, and Henri Duparc, with four mélodies, is always first class.

I cannot remember hearing Ravel's Vocalise en forme de habenera sung (as it should be). It has only appeared (often) in my life in its arrangement for violin and piano, of which I have 29 examples on my shelves. Ms Crebassa sings it well, and Fazil Say's piano is exemplary thoughout this CD. The stars of this CD are, somewhat predictably: Henri Duparc, Maurice Ravel, Marianne Crebassa, Fazil Say, and Erato.


Quoted with approval from the ARG (American Record Guide):

We get a lot of publicity touting the "greatest" — violinist, pianist, whatever. In the age of mass culture "greatest" simply means "most famous", which in turn means "has the biggest publicity budget". And that means he attracts crowds of people who don't know any better, so he plays with every orchestra that can afford him (his fees climb very fast, so many cannot), which feeds his reputation, thus confirming his publicity. Often less famous people play better, but are viewed as "second tier".

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Messiah Cometh -- Yet Again

Listen to ten different performances of a symphony of Brahms and you will hear the same notes, in the same order. Tempi may vary. Dynamics may vary. But you will always be listening to the same work. In my distant youth, Handel's Messiah was a stack of fragile 78 rpm records (played by me on a wind-up gramophone). Main singers in my 78 pile were Isobel Baillie (soprano), and Gladys Ripley (contralto); conductor was Malcolm Sargent. Writing this, I am listening to my latest Messiah, with a mainly French ensemble directed by Hervé Niquet; soprano 1 is Sandrine Piau (hurrah!); soprano 2 is Katherine Watson; contralto is Anthea Pichanick; tenor is Rubert Charlesworth; bass-baritone is Andreas Wolf. All are extremely good (and not a castrato amongst them). I am often doubtful about tenors, but I make an exception for Rupert Charlesworth here; an excellent singer, with superb diction.

And what of language? English people tend to bristle when non-English singers tackle English words (but nod approvingly when English speakers sing in German, French or Italian). English disapproval also extends to American accents, even though in the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, American pronunciation is probably more “authentic”. But American accents bring memories of Popeye, Donald Trump, and the Lone Ranger; not a good thing to conjure up when listening to Handel or Purcell. Apart from a number of non-english “R”s, nothing ruffled me with the English language in this recording. The English “R” is certainly not an Italian R, nor a German R, nor a French R. It is some sort of Brexit R. (Not even the Thai “R”; a very fine hotel, the Royal River, in Bangkok came over when referred to by the locals as the Loyal Liver).

Compared with Gladys Ripley, Isobel Baillie and Malcolm Sargent in my youth, tempi are now swift. I was constantly reminded that Handel's feet and pedigree were anchored firmly in Italian opera and in the trios and duets that he wrote in Italy in his youth (some of which found their ways, many years later, re-cycled into the Messiah). Pitch is baroque pitch, which means the singers do not invoke tension when they are obliged to sing above the stave. Handel was careful about the range of his singers (one reason why there are so many versions of his works, including the Messiah, where Handel re-wrote and adapted to the raw singer material with which he was faced). The choir here is a reasonable size, as it should be for Handel; Handel would have had no truck with people like Joshua Rifkin and their minimalist econo-forces.

My father (a double bass player) always maintained that Handel wrote his Messiah in order to give musicians many money-earning concert opportunities around the Christmas period. He was probably wrong: Handel wrote music in order to make money for himself. He was the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of the early 18th century (albeit that Handel's music will last a lot longer than that of his English rival some 275 years later). Handel died a rich man, despite having rarely having a patron or salaried employment. He is often passed over as a “great” composer, even though Mozart and Beethoven fully appreciated his genius. Anyway, in 200 years time, I predict that Handel's music, including his Messiah, will still be delighting lovers of great music. And this latest offering, from Hervé Niquet and his forces? I love it! Some things in (musical) life do get better and better, and Handel's music, in particular, has benefited enormously from greater understanding and appreciation. Anyone who loves Handel anchored in Italian opera, rather than in the Church of England, will enjoy this recording with its excellent singers, superb choir, professional orchestra, and very expert recording and balance. Perhaps, somewhat arrogantly, I can suggest that we now know Handel a lot better compared with immediate previous generations. He is not just the composer of the Messiah, of the Water Music, and of the Fireworks music. He was a prolific composer, like his contemporaries Johann Sebastian Bach, and Antonio Vivaldi. He was one of the truly great composers of the Western World.

In Praise of Seventeen Year Old Girls

Of the many blessings that I can count, one is that I have never aspired to be a concert violinist in the modern world. It would have been bad for my amour propre, bad for my mental health, and disastrous for my personal finances. The competition out there is ferocious! I have just been listening (courtesy of YouTube) to 16 year old Lara Boschkor playing the first Wieniawski violin concerto, and the 17 year old Lara Boschkor playing Prokofiev's first violin concerto. Miss Boschkor appears — quite understandably — to have won every competition around since she was 10 years old. I can't compete with that. I give her Wieniawski and her Prokofiev three stars each. Most teenage wonders soon fade away. I hope she does not.

I commented recently on Vilde Frang and her highly distinguished CD of “homage” to pieces composed by, or arranged by, great violinists of the past. Ms Frang is now 31 years old, so hardly an up-and-coming young violinist. But she is certainly a force to be reckoned with (forgetting her unfortunate Mozart concerto CD with a band of costumed historical has-beens).

Even when I was young, I never even dared open the music to Paganini's 24 Capricci. But, then, I was never a 17 year old girl. Sueye Park, on a new BIS CD, is (just) 17 and plays the capricci extremely effectively. Technically, she is beyond reproach, and the accuracy of her double stops is quite outstanding. However, the capricci have lasted around 200 years because they are more than simply technical show-off pieces. Somewhat like 13 year old Tianwa Yang, many years ago, Ms Park also brings out the many sentimental and lyrical aspects of the 24 works (one reason why her CD lasts for an astonishing 82'41). For many violinists, the capricci are macho works, designed for showing off technique. Ms Park gives every single note its due; a difficult feat in technically challenging works, where it is often easier to flash through the difficulties at speed rather than to spell them out and play them accurately. As I am sure Paganini intended, the 24 capricci exhibit the full range and capabilities of the violin; listening to Sueye Park, I feel she has really thought through each capriccio and gives each its full measure as music, and as a technical example of what one violin with four strings and one bow can achieve. The older generation of violinists — Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Oistrakh, Kogan — never tackled the unaccompanied caprices on record, and it was left to violinists such as Ruggiero Ricci (1949) to open up the repertoire. Since then, I have much enjoyed Michael Rabin (1958), James Ehnes (2009), Leonidas Kavakos (1990) and Thomas Zehetmair (2007).

Beyond showing off a violinist's incredible technique, the 24 capricci are also about showing off the incredible range and variety of voices of the humble violin, and I suspect it is this latter aspect that would have had Signor Paganini nodding his head in approval had he been able to listen to Sueye Park. It certainly has my head nodding in approval. I listened to all 24 caprices one after another, a difficult feat unless the violinist — like here — has a broad range of colour and dynamics. In the end, a performance of Paganini's 24 capricci comes down to either: listen to what a wonderful violinist I am, or listen also to what a wonderful instrument the violin is. Three stars to Miss Park. And to Signor Paganini. And to BIS.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Furtwängler in Beethoven and Schumann

Of the symphonies of Beethoven, I now really only enjoy the third, sixth and seventh. And anyone who has the Eroica conducted by either Furtwängler or Klemperer, needs no other. The two conductors are chalk and cheese in this music, with Furtwängler sounding warm and romantic, Klemperer stark and brooding (especially in the funeral march). I have just been listening to a new original tape transfer of Furtwängler conducting the Eroica in Lucerne (26 August 1953); it's a superb version, with a very reasonable sound quality and wonderful orchestral playing.

The CD also contains Schumann; the Manfred Overture, and the fourth symphony. I can enjoy Schumann as a song writer, and also in quieter music (such as the second movement of the fourth symphony). But most Schumann, particularly when he is rumbustious, passes me by. However, I suspect one would find it difficult to hear better versions of these works than the performances on this Audite CD. All three works are from tapes of public performances, and Audite gives the recent ICA Klemperer transfers of London public performances 1955 and 1956 an object lesson in how to transfer broadcast tapes. None of the periods of coughing and spluttering that so marred the ICA recordings; with Audite, just the very occasional cough and end-of-work applause remind one that these are live, public performances. Why some companies insist on keeping applause puzzles me; are there really people who sit and listen to applause every time they hear that particular recording? Or, even worse, people at home who join in the applause each time?

So now, whenever I want to re-listen to Beethoven's Eroica symphony, I have choices to make: Furtwängler in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic -- more forceful and in reasonable sound (with Pristine Audio). Or Furtwängler in 1953 with, presumably, the Berlin Philharmonic -- more mellow and thoughtful (Audite). Or one of my seven Klemperer versions; perhaps the 1955 (mono) Philharmonia, or the 26th June 1957 version with the Royal Danish Orchestra. Choices, choices. But it's nice to have options.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Klemperer at his best. But ....

A CD release from ICA (International Concert Artists) sees four CDs of London concerts by Otto Klemperer in 1955 and 1956. So far I have just sampled the Mozart pieces; the performances are pretty outstanding. At that time, Klemperer was fleet of foot, and the Philharmonia at its peak. The sound quality is not bad at all, taken from the original BBC broadcast tapes.

But …. and it's a big but. The transfers are just a straight tape dump, despite Paul Bailey being listed as “Remastering”. So you get audience noise and coughing even between movements; you get applause; you get a constant hum of concert hall reverberation and audience noise. Professional transfer artists such as Andrew Rose, Seth Winner or Mark Obert-Thorn have shown what can be done with removing background noise from old 78s or LPs, and I cannot believe it would not have been possible to remove much of it here. And as for leaving hall noise and coughing between movements …. The recordings are now way out of international copyright, despite the optimistic copyright notices plastered all over this set. Let us hope some real transfer artists take them over and convert very good concert hall performances into very good recorded performances. Mr Bailey should be hanging his head in shame. I may have to spend a lot of time re-transferring and cleaning up these recordings myself, since the performances are well worth having the best and merit a little tender loving care.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Gerhard Taschner - Part Two

A double CD pack from the French company Tahra brings us Taschner recordings from the period 1943-7, mostly in good sound and well transferred, although the Brahms sonata sounds a bit rough, with edgy violin tone in places. The recording of the Bach Chaconne made 23rd June 1943 in Berlin must have come from tape (radio broadcast) since there is no surface noise. A big sonic improvement over the 1941 version that was transferred from shellac disks. For my money, this is the best Bach chaconne in my entire collection. Three stars, no question; it was the piece that brought Taschner instant fame when he played it for Furtwängler in 1941. The Devil's Trills (27th March 1949) is up there in the top three or four, with superb trilling from Taschner. The 1943 Chaconne, along with the 1943 Zigeunerweisen, were among tapes captured by the Russians in 1945, and restored to Germany in March 1991. A little side-track of history.

Zigeunerweisen (Berlin, 4th December 1943) is as thrilling as ever with Taschner, but the vibrato in the slower passage still grates a little. Never mind; the left-hand pizzicato is still crisp and accurate. On 10th March 1947 in Berlin, Taschner and Walter Gieseking give a superb performance of César Franck's sonata; one of my three star choices. Taschner and Gieseking may be what the Americans, with their genius for marketing slogans, call a “dream team”. Anyway, the dream team goes on to play Brahms' third violin sonata (same date, and presumably same broadcast session, but sounding as if it comes from a different transfer source). The double CD pack ends with Taschner tackling Khatchaturian's violin concerto, with the Berlin Radio Orchestra conducted by Artur Rother. This is valuable for Taschner's remarkable violin playing, especially in the finale where the bow control is amazing. The slow movement lacks the intensity that Julian Sitkovetsky brought to the part (with Niyazi conducting), and the sound in general is not great; Khatchaturian needs colour, and the sound levels in this transfer (as maybe on the original tape) vary from time to time, with the violin sometimes close, sometimes too distant. Since the concerto was only completed in 1940, this 1947 performance must have been one of the first outside Russia.

For much of Taschner's earlier professional life in the 1930s and early 40s, performances of the Mendelssohn concerto would have been impossible. His 1953 performance with Fritz Lehmann has a freshness and a welcome absence of sentimentality. Tempi are brisk, technique and musicianship immaculate, and I liked it a lot. I thought I could never take even one more recording of this concerto, but I make an exception for Taschner's performance here. In the andante, taken as a true andante and not as an adagietto as so often, one notices that time and fashion have tamed Taschner's previously somewhat nervous vibrato. In the andante and finale, Taschner's timings at 7'41 and 6'09 are similar to those of Heifetz (7'07 and 5'57), though Heifetz is much faster than anybody in the first movement (11'00, versus 12'30 for Taschner). The Drabinghaus & Grimm transfer from the broadcast tapes gives a perfectly tolerable sound.

The sound in the Mendelssohn has Taschner balanced a little too far back, which is a shame since we buy these old recordings to listen to the violinist, not the orchestra – or even the concerto. In the Tchaikovsky concerto with Artur Rother conducting (1948) the violinist is balanced well forward, and we can admire the superb playing. For a 1948 live recording, the sound quality is astonishingly good. This MDG disc rounds off with an excellent transfer of Taschner's party piece, the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen recorded in 1943 with Michael Raucheisen at the piano. Incredible playing, but the vibrato of the 1940s still grates a little.

The Sibelius concerto dates from 1956 and the close up violin enables us to admire Taschner's peerless technique. The occasional minor fluff reminds us that pretty well all Taschner recordings are live and taken from broadcast tapes; no patching possible. Given the intensity of Taschner's playing, and his penchant for speedy tempi, it's a wonder there are not more fluffs. Taschner never plays it safe. The performance as a whole is one for lovers of violin playing, but is best avoided by lovers of the Sibelius violin concerto; there are too many odd changes of tempo in the first movement, and the orchestra (Cologne Radio Orchestra) often sounds all at sea. In the adagio di molto, we admire Taschner's ability to sustain a long melodic line, and we also notice that the nervous vibrato of 10-15 years before has now more or less vanished. In the finale, we admire the violinist's virtuosity and intensity; and no one plays fast passages faster than Gerhard Taschner !

This MDG disc continues with a second recording of the Khachaturian violin concerto (1955, with Schmidt-Isserstedt conducting the NDR orchestra). In the finale, we admire Taschner's superb sense of rhythm; in the andante sostenuto, his sense of the long line in the melody is superb. One feels Taschner is more at home in Khachaturian than in the concertos of Mozart (I know of no recording of Taschner playing anything by Mozart). All in all, however, I feel this performance lacks much of Taschner's much admired intensity, and parts of the work are a little too laid back for my liking. But perhaps, again, I am still bewitched by the performance by Julian Sitkovetsky, with Niyazi. This MDG CD ends with another Taschner party piece, Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy (1953, Fritz Lehmann and the Bamberger Symphoniker). Music that suits Taschner's virtuosity, sense of rhythm and sheer élan down to the ground.

Well, there are a few other Taschner recordings around: an EMI disc has the Bruch concerto, plus assorted concertos by Fortner, Pfizner and a Kammermusik by Hindemith. A Tahra CD has a few bits and pieces with piano not available elsewhere. But neither Tahra nor EMI exist any longer, so anyone wishing to investigate the recorded legacy of Gerhard Taschner has to seek out the CDs of Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG). Without MDG, Taschner would now be almost completely unknown. Thus the fickle nature of fame: it does not suffice to be a major virtuoso with an exceptional sense of musicality, of rhythm, and with fire and intensity. Without a good agent, an aggressive PR man and a solid home-team backing group, a name will fade into the history books. There are no violinists around today of the stature of Gerhard Taschner. All aspiring violinists would do well to listen to his recordings, alongside the recordings of Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. I am extremely happy to have my little Taschner collection.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tianwa Yang / Vilde Frang

Concert and recital programmes are becoming stupefyingly boring, with the same few works re-cycled over and over again, unless it be some contemporary piece, to be played once only and never again, and sandwiched carefully mid-programme to discourage non-fans from arriving late, or leaving early. Two recent CDs to tumble through my door reveal how recorded music is saving the day for the thousands of musical works rarely or never played in public. One new CD features seven shorter pieces for violin and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, with only the Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo capriccioso being at all familiar. And even those two pieces rarely show up in concert programmes today. Which is a great pity, since all the music here is attractive and pleasing to the ear. Expert performer is the highly talented Tianwa Yang, with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. I suspect people in Havana are more laid back than Ms Yang supposes, and her Havanaise goes by at a brisk trot. Still, delightful music, well played and well recorded. A CD from St Naxos, of course; what would lovers of violin music do without Naxos?

The other CD was a most enjoyable recital of 17 short pieces for violin and piano, played by Vilde Frang, with pianist José Gallardo. You won't find these pieces played in recital programmes, except as encores, more's the pity; the choice is excellent, based on homage to great violinists of the past as composers or arrangers. Thus, Heifetz, Kreisler, Wieniawski, Auer, Szigeti, Bazzini, et al. I was especially happy to re-encounter Szigeti's arrangement of an étude by Scriabin (étude in thirds). The playing is of the very best, the recording and balance just as they should be. Being a Warner product, the CD is liberally plastered with photos of young Ms Frang, of course. Naxos, quite rightly, gives us just one small black and white photo of Tianwa Yang, on the understandable grounds that we are buying the music of Saint-Saëns, not the performance of a young female.

I now rarely go to live concerts or recitals, more a question of geography and logistics rather than anything else. But looking at present day concert programmes, I guess I'd probably stick to recorded music even if I lived next door to a concert hall, since recorded music has such riches in terms of repertoire offered. Like the two CDs here.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Quatuor Mosaïques in Late Beethoven

My scepticism concerning “original instruments” and “period performances” is well documented in this blog. I can never really see the point, except it is currently fashionable. All those critics – most of them either pianists or choral scholars – who pretend they can discern immediately whether an instrument they are hearing has gut strings, metal strings, or plastic strings, can do nothing of the sort. I grew up with gut strings and they were a pain in the neck, always going out of tune, and snapping if you so much as looked at them. Instrument strings are one of the few things in the world that have become better over time (as well as computers, and cars). The strings I use in 2017 seem rarely to go out of tune, and very rarely break. And my playing does not sound any worse than it did when I had gut strings in my youth.

Well, all that as an introduction to the Quatuor Mosaïques playing the five late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven “on period instruments”. Of the sixteen strings used by the four instruments of the quartet, my sensitive ear can hear that three are non-gut. (Actually, it can't, but that just shows how silly the whole thing has become. I cannot even hear which of Heifetz's four violin strings was non-gut; he always used three gut strings, and one metal covered. I seem to remember it was the G that was metal covered). I bought the Mosaïques set because I have its Haydn quartet set, and like it very much indeed. Despite being “period”, the quartet has a warm, friendly sound, and does not scamper through the music at high speed like so many “period” performers. And unlike many period performers, the four players can actually play their respective instruments rather well; in this set, I would particularly pick out the cellist, the Frenchman Christophe Coin, who really makes the most of the cello part; it is as if Furtwängler were directing the ensemble, with emphasis on the bass part underpinning the music. More brownie points: for the B flat quartet opus 130, the Mosaïques go straight into the Grosse Fuge, after the Cavatina, a solution to Beethoven's controversial finales I much prefer, even though the Fuge does sound deranged in places, even to 21st century ears. To the ears of 1825, it must have sounded worse than the music of Luciano Berio.

No performances of the last five string quartets of Beethoven are going to be definitive. Listening to the Mosaïques, I still recall passages as played by the Busch Quartet – in the Cavatina of opus 130, for example. And the Busch players let the music breathe more than do their rivals. However, in these wonderful string quartets, I'll happily settle for the Busch, the Mosaïques and the Talich Quartet, in any old order. In the words of a Bach cantata: Ich habe genug.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Gerhard Taschner - Part One

Gerhard Taschner was born in 1922 and died in 1976 at the age of 54. In 1941, at the age of 19, he was chosen by Furtwängler to be leader of the Berlin Philharmonic. In the early 1960s, health problems forced him to abandon his concert career. Like so many from Central Europe in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, his career was stunted and he never found the renown his playing merited. He was, apparently, also a difficult person, once walking out of a rehearsal with Herbert von Karajan in the late 1940s and never going back.

For some reason that escapes me, I find I have no less than twelve CDs of various recordings by Taschner, most of them from broadcast tapes, since he never had a major recording contract. A two CD set contains all of Taschner's 78 rpm recordings from the 1940s and reveals immediately a highly focused tone, impeccable intonation, and a wonderful bow arm. And what a technique! His recording here of the Bach Chaconne (1941) is one of the most interesting I can think of; a long way from “period style”, but enthralling playing by the 19 year old Taschner. I lapped it up, despite the crackly surface noise from the shellac discs. The sonata by César Franck with Cor de Groot in 1943 reveals Taschner to be a superb chamber music and duo player, despite, on occasions, a distracting fast, narrow vibrato, especially prominent in slower music. But this 21 year old player was certainly no mere virtuoso. Within a few years, the very fast vibrato appears to have been tamed and becomes less of a distraction.

I must confess that I had more or less forgotten about these old recordings on my shelves. Meaning to sample different tracks, I soon found that I always had to listen to the whole thing, since Taschner's playing is fascinating, and his musicianship so convincing. Pieces by Paganini and Sarasate (1942 and 44) reveal Taschner to be at least the equal of Heifetz or Kogan in these works (and more interesting than 95% of today's violinists), with a superb sense of rhythm and the best left-hand pizzicato in the business – hearing his Zigeunerweisen makes one realise just how many violinists cheat or smudge when it comes to the pizzicato passages. Some of the shellac disc sides have more crackle and pop than many breakfast cereals, but I am not au fait with the technical possibilities of removing surface noise without impacting the violin sound, and with violinists the sound is important. In April 1948, Taschner turns in an excellent performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, with an approach that makes one think of Jascha Heifetz: authoritative, sensitive, and with a refusal to linger over sentimental passages. The finale underlines Taschner's virtuoso credentials. Berlin in 1948 cannot have been the most pleasant place on earth in which to play music.

A remarkable four CD box from Dabringhaus und Grimm sees Taschner in the early to mid 1950s, with two CDs of short or encore pieces and two CDs of sonatas for violin and piano. Those were the days when musicians were permitted to programme or record short pieces and encore pieces. No more 78 rpms for the Dabringhaus set, but at least Taschner had a little luck in that in the 1940s and early 50s the Germans were probably top of the pile when it came to recording technology, with the Americans and Russians limping way behind during the same period. Holding listeners' interest through around 26 short pieces demands a violinist with an exceptional palette of sound, style and colouring. Heifetz could do it. Kreisler could do it. And on the D&G CDs, Taschner certainly could do it! I intended to sample, but I listened to everything, all through. None of today's highly talented violinists can get anywhere near Taschner's playing of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasia (November 1954, with Martin Krause). You are glued to your speakers or headsets. And out of my 81 (!) recordings of Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, I cannot think of any more thrilling than Taschner's (6th October 1952, with Hubert Giesen). His 1952 recording of Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin may be the best of the 45 recordings of this short piece I possess, since, chameleon-like, Taschner always adapts his sound and his bowing to the different music he plays. Like Laurence Olivier on the stage, or Maria Callas in the opera house, Taschner adapts his sound and his playing to the music at hand. Particularly when listening to a recital of short pieces, one discovers there are many Taschners at work. The style and sound of the Taschner who plays Beethoven sonatas (7th November 1955) is, quite rightly, very different from the sound of the Taschner who plays Brahms' G major sonata (26th November 1955).

The third and fourth CDs in this truly excellent Dabringhaus und Grimm set feature sonatas for violin and piano by Dvorak, Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Othmar Schoeck, and Maurice Ravel. All the recordings on all four CDs seem to come from German radio archives, and sound quality ranges from not bad, to pretty good. Pianists in the sonatas here are Edith Farnadi and Martin Krause, with Hubert Giesen in the Dvorak. We find Taschner to be a truly first class player of chamber music and duo sonatas. Indeed, of the 34 pieces of music presented on these four CDs, a very high proportion indeed would feature in my three best recordings of the music concerned. You can almost certainly find almost all the 34 pieces played by contemporary players such as Joshua Bell or Nikolaj Znaider. But you will find no playing of the standard set by Taschner. And I know of no one else who has recorded the fascinating “Mosquitos” by the American Blair Fairchild.

The connection between talent and fame is a fragile one. A violinist such as Isaac Stern was ten times more famous than Gerhard Taschner; Gerhard Taschner was ten times a better and more interesting violinist than Isaac Stern. Gerhard Taschner was a major violinist who is now pretty well unknown. In this he resembles the violinist David Nadien who is also pretty well unknown (but for different career reasons from Taschner). Come to think of it, the playing styles of Taschner and Nadien have much in common, including completely fluent techniques and an aversion to lingering and slow tempi, although there is more fire and tension in Taschner's playing. Violinists for violinists. I am happy to possess my Taschner collection. When people ask who are the great violinists of the past century, you can reply “Heifetz, and Kreisler” and they will nod. If you add “Joseph Hassid, David Nadien, and Gerhard Taschner” they will look at you oddly.

This is part one of my return to Taschner. Awaiting me are two CDs of concertos from EMI, two CDs of Tahra's Art of Gerhard Taschner, two CDs of Tahra's Portrait of Gerhard Taschner, and one CD of the Gieseking-Taschner-Hoelscher trio in Brahms. From the EMI, I'll probably gloss over the concertos by Fortner, Pfitzner and Hindemith (Kammermusik). And one of the Tahra CDs duplicates material I have already considered. To be continued ….

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Arabella Steinbacher, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten

The violin concertos of Paul Hindemith and of Benjamin Britten were both finished in 1939. Somewhat remarkably, until now I had no recording of Hindemith's work, and to the best of my knowledge I have never heard it before in my entire life. Today I heard it for the first time and I have to confess that I feel I have not been missing much. Hindemith's concerto is well-crafted in a highly Germanic post- Brahms and post- Bruch idiom. I suspect it is not much played, and I cannot say I am surprised.

The highly capable soloist (I imagine) is the glamorous Arabella Steinbacher. The usual excellent recording comes from Pentatone. I cannot see the CD spinning too often chez moi. But also on the CD is Britten's (suddenly) ever popular violin concerto. At this rate, the concerto will outpace that of Tchaikovsky in recordings and popularity! I commented recently (re Julia Fischer) how so many top violinists have suddenly discovered the work. Now Arabella has added it to her recorded repertoire and it is an excellent version. The Britten work is permeated with sadness; the Hindemith work admits to no emotions. The Britten is also one of those rare works where I do not feel that the finale is a bit of a let-down, and I am happy that it is at last enjoying a well-deserved popularity, after being sniffed at by critics for so long, and ignored by so many soloists of previous generations, with the honourable exception of Theo Olof (1948) and Bronislaw Gimpel (1961).

Arabella is never a girl in a hurry, and this Britten takes its time, particularly in the final passacaglia. Vladimir Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra sound excellent and idiomatic, and Pentatone's recording makes this a highly useful three star addition to the catalogue of excellent recordings. It is really good to hear so much orchestral detail; in Britten's concerto, the orchestral part is extremely important; on a par with that of the soloist. As for Herr Hindemith and his violin concerto … Oh well, you can't win them all.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Mischa Elman, Violinist

Listening to Mischa Elman with the “New Symphony Orchestra” playing a Vivaldi concerto (1931) prompts the thought that they do not play Vivaldi like that, any more. To which an ascetic academic would probably comment “thank goodness” and many others would say “more's the pity”. Elman came from a background where the fiddler's role was to enchant the listener, and I suspect Vivaldi would have nodded his head in approval and said “to hell with period practice!”

Mischa Elman (born 1881) came from the Leopold Auer stable in Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, he signed an exclusive recording deal with RCA in America, and RCA did not believe in duplicating repertoire so gave all the prime repertoire slots to its favourite exclusive violinist, Jascha Heifetz. Elman had to pick up the crumbs, so his recorded legacy is mainly bits and pieces, often recorded when he was past his prime. The earliest recording I have of him is in 1906; the latest 1966. He died in 1967, aged 76. The later recordings he made when, presumably released from his RCA contract in the 1950s, show the old Elman, but much of the fire and virtuosity are missing. I have long been a fan of Elman's violin playing; he is a violinist for lovers of the old Russian and central European school of violin playing (his grandfather was a klezmer violinist).

Mendelssohn's charming violin concerto plumbs no great musical or emotional depths and because of complete over-familiarity, it is no longer a work that holds my attention for the music alone. It can, however, hold my attention because of the violin playing, as it does in a 1947 recording of Elman with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Elman's violin sings! (Another recording of the work that I still enjoy is Yehudi Menuhin in 1938, with George Enescu conducting, one of Menuhin's last truly spontaneous recordings before the onset of the periods of fallibility). My Elman recordings are ones I shall never part with during my lifetime; he is always a tonic for lovers of violin playing.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Jascha Heifetz plays Bach

The three sonatas and three partitas that Bach wrote for solo violin are extraordinary works. Apart from anything else, they are extremely difficult to play since the violin is not at home with chords, accompaniments to melodies, and fugues. One boggles to imagine what violinists made of it in Bach's time since, even now and post- Paganini, the pieces pose real challenges; above all, the challenge to play them well so that the violin makes agreeable sounds.

I have been re-listening to the six works as played by Jascha Heifetz in 1952. For those for whom such things matter, no one can accuse Heifetz of not playing on a “period instrument”, since he would have been using either his del Gesù or Stradivari violins, with his usual three gut strings. As well as being a supreme violinist, Heifetz was always an extremely tasteful player, and these works suit him down to the ground. Everyone and his dog has recorded the works over the decades, but Heifetz (and Milstein) still stand out as top violinists and musicians in these works, be it the chaconne of the second suite, the fugues of the three sonatas, the adagios, or the rapidissimo movements. I listened to Heifetz as re-incarnated by Pristine Audio in extremely good ambient stereo; for the first time in these recordings, Heifetz's unique silky tone comes over with impressive results. A three star version of these works, and thank you Pristine for the impressive restoration of Heifetz in his prime.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Fine Wine

When it comes to wine, I tend to drink good quality table wine pretty well every day. 95% of my wine will be French (because that is the wine I know best, and because France is the nearest wine-producing country to England). About 85% will be red wine, and the rest mainly rosé wine. Just in case anyone is interested.

Today, for a particularly good stew of steak and kidney (plus dumplings), I dug out an old bottle of Aloxe-Corton, Grand Vin de Bourgogne 2005. A wine from the Côte d'Or; I have no idea when or where I bought it. In one word: super! Unlike most old wines I unearth, it had improved with age and had not passed its sell-by date. Like most old wines still in good condition, it improved with being open for some time, and being drunk. It has now been drunk. Sad.

Three All-Time Classics for All Time

Given the long track record of music recordings, and the very large number of first-class musicians past and present, it is improbable that there are performances that can never be surpassed. Three sprang to my notice recently, however: Jascha Heifetz playing Spohr's 8th violin concerto (1954 recording) and Joseph Hassid's recordings of Sarasate's Playera, and Zapateado (1940).

I cannot imagine any of these three performances ever being equalled, let alone bettered. In all three cases, the violins seem to be singing, rather than being played. Very appropriate in the case of the Spohr Gesangsszene concerto ("in modo di scena cantante").

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Mozart's String Quartets dedicated to Haydn

A great deal of music has been written for sponsors, or employers, or has been commissioned. For practically the whole of J.S. Bach's life, he wrote music for his employers, be it church or court. Most of Haydn's music was written when he was a liveried servant of an aristocratic employer. Handel was an exception in the 18th century, and Mozart had no patron (though a good proportion of his music was commissioned). Even by Mozart's high standards, the six string quartets he dedicated to Joseph Haydn are among his very best works. One has a real sense of Mozart taking extra care to give of his best in these works he dedicated to Haydn. The level of invention is high and constant, so no matter how often one listens to these quartets, there is always something new. One never tires of listening.

This time round I heard them played by the Hagen Quartett, in recordings from the late 1990s. Well played and well balanced, with Mozart's favoured viola parts (that he himself probably played when the quartets were first performed for Haydn) coming over well. Mozart really put the viola back into play, after decades when it was mainly just a filling-in instrument. However, I certainly still prefer to listen to these works as recorded by the Quartetto Italiano. Music does not get much greater than Wolfgang Amadeus in top form, in a music format (the string quartet) that is among the very highest for the higher levels of music making.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Language, and Music Marketing

And now even Alfredo Campoli is being billed as “Milestones of a Legend”. Classical music promotion goes resolutely dumbing-down; almost everyone from more than twenty years ago is now a “legend”. That is, those who are not “icons”. No matter that an icon is a graphic or pictorial representation (thus the Eiffel Tower for Paris, or the Statue of Liberty for New York). Suddenly Bronislaw Huberman or Glenn Gould become “icons”; representing what? We are all waiting for someone to be deemed an iconic legend. The time cannot now be far off. And no matter that the common definition of a legend is something like: “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated”.

Sloppy language; sloppy marketing. Classical music (for want of a more accurate term) has always been a minority interest, and an interest that often intensifies with age. Comparatively few young people love classical music (even though most orchestras are full of excellent young players). Just as those who grow older tend to gravitate towards fine wines, so people who like music tend to gravitate towards the classics. From my distant youth, I recall very, very few of my contemporaries who took any interest in classical music. It is therefore difficult to comprehend why classical music marketing is increasingly targeting the young, with half-clad young women on CD covers vying with semi-shaven scowling young men. Popular music, and classical music, appeal to different sectors of the population, with popular music, quite logically, being far more popular than classical music. It always has been so, and always will be. Sell me a pianist, singer, violinist, or whatever because he or she is a superb musician. Not because she has pretty legs and a short skirt, or because he is a legendary icon.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bach's Goldberg Variations

I have twelve versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Ten are piano, none are harpsichord. I came to the Goldberg's relatively late in my life (as opposed to the Diabelli Variations, which I have known well since my teens). The first person to introduce me to the Goldberg's was Tatiana Nikolayeva (1970 recording) followed by Maria Judina (1968). I then, of course, bought Glen Gould (1955 and 1981). The very latest purchase has been Dong Hyek Lim (2006).

Not knowing the Goldberg's intimately over many years, I am no expert judge when it comes to top performances. One can only really judge knowledgeably if the music is entirely familiar in the way that, for example, Beethoven's violin concerto is all too well known to my ears. My ears tell me that Gould's recordings are far too Bach-Gould for my tolerance. My ears are similarly sceptical with Andrei Gavrilov (1992), Angela Hewitt (1999), Johanna MacGregor (2007). Which leaves me with Tatiana Nikolayeva, Igor Levit, Beatrice Rana, and Dong Hyek Lim, any of whom will do me for my desert island.

In playing of a long set of variations, I look for virtuosity, taste, affection, and musicality. “Profundity”, admired by many critics, seems to me to have little place in performances of the Goldberg's. My four desert island choices all have something to offer, with Beatrice Rana being perhaps the most personal interpretation of the four, Levit and Lim the most “classical”.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Violin and Piano Balance

Balancing a violin and a piano is a tricky business for recording engineers. A lot of experience is needed, and that is rare in the current environment of roving recording teams doing everything from grand opera, to star-based popular music, to general chamber and orchestral music. Julia Hwang is a young violinist, and a very fine one. On a new Signum CD, she is well recorded, at a suitable distance, and with suitable dynamics. The problem is the piano, which is recorded far too close; when one winces every time the piano strikes up, something is wrong. And one does not turn to Wieniawski's Faust Fantaisie, nor Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending, in order to listen intently to the piano part. I longed to get up on the recording stage and push the piano back ten metres or so. Greatly admiring Miss Hwang's playing, I did not admire the playing of the over-prominent pianist, Charles Matthews. Choppy, with minimal legato and too loud. This is my only recording of Vaughan Williams' Lark, with piano (as originally written) and I prefer this version since the solo violin played piano or pianissimo does not merge too often with the orchestral violins, as can happen when an orchestra is substituted for the piano.

Hopefully next time round will see Julia Hwang partnered by Khatia Buniatishvili or Dong Hyek Lim or some such sympathetic pianist with a sense of style. And all recorded by engineers with lots of experience in balancing a piano with a violin. Poor Miss Hwang goes on my back shelf. Not her fault.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

I seldom listen to rival versions of the same work one after another, but I made an exception after feeling slightly disappointed this time round with Emmanuelle Haïm's version of Handel's Serenata – Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a work composed in Naples in 1708 by the 23 year old Handel. I followed Haïm's version with one from Marco Vitale with his mixed cast of Canadian, Chilean-Swedish, and American with a band mainly from the Netherlands. Emmanuelle Haïm lines up an all-star cast of Sandrine Piau, Sara Mingardo (alto), and Laurent Naouri (baritone). Marco Vitale's singers are Stefane True, Luciana Mancini (mezzo), and Mitchell Sandler (bass).

Haïm's direction is a bit fussy, at times. Vitale is more “operatic”; although the work is designated by Handel as a “serenata”, the music is always thoroughly operatic and shows all the watermarks of Handel's later operatic works. A major advantage of Vitale's version is the diction of his singers. With basic Italian, you can follow the libretto just by listening. With the Haïm version, however, the words are something of a blur, especially with Sandrine Piau, a singer I much admire for her voice and intelligence, though often expressing discontent with the lack of clarity with her diction.

Having an alto for Galatea does help differentiate the two female voices; Luciana Mancini's mezzo-soprano voices does merge often with the fresh soprano of Stefanie True, something that never happens with Piau and Mingardo. I first heard Aci at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in the 1980s. The cast then included David Thomas and Emma Kirby; I have a recording from 1986 that probably was a result of that Oxford performance; the lower female voice on that recording is Carolyn Watkinson. It's a long time since I listened to it, but it is unlikely to replace my new-found enthusiasm for Marco Vitale and his international forces. Handel's music deserves the best!

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Dong Hyek Lim

My apologies to Dong Hyek Lim in my previous post for saying he was unknown (to me). I do, in fact, possess a much-admired CD of him playing the music of Chopin, including the 24 preludes. Which does make my point, however, as to how Korean names embed themselves with difficulty into Western minds. Known or unknown, he is a very fine pianist.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Ji Young and Dong Hyek

At this stage of my life, I rarely pay too much attention to commercial reviews where there is often too much commerce, too much fashion, and not enough music. However I was attracted to a new CD by two unknown (to me) artists playing Mozart and Beethoven violin and piano sonatas: Ji Young Lim (violin) and Dong Hyek Lim (piano). The reviewer praised the performances for being “period 2016” and found that the two artists played in a thoroughly modern style. What a welcome change! Many things have improved since the 1780s, including the sounds made by violins and pianos. “Period performances” are fine for those embarking on a degree course in the history of playing styles and mannerisms. For listening to the music of Mozart and Beethoven, give me 2016 sound any day.

Both Lims are young, and embark on the music of young Mozart and young Beethoven with freshness and enthusiasm. They are both Korean (but not related, it seems); it is strange how, in the last few decades, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese have taken to Western music with such success. Historically, it is hardly “their” music, and they certainly have music of their own. But so do Indians, Arabs and Africans, but Indians, Arabs and Africans are hardly famous as violinists or pianists in Western music.

It appears that, in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2015 (where Ji Young won first prize) her name was confused with a fellow Korean competitor, Lee Ji Yoon, who bounded onto the stage to claim the prize. One of the handicaps of being a famous Korean: no one will distinguish or remember your name thereafter. Maybe the highly talented Ji Young and Dong Hyek should adopt stage names.

Anyway, what we have here is two young people making music with skill, taste and enthusiasm. I enjoyed all four works immensely (K 301, K 302, K 378, and Beethoven Op 12 No.1). As with all violin and piano recordings, the balance depends quite a lot on how you listen – headphones, or speakers. I found the recording and balance satisfactory, and the playing of both musicians really first class. My money is ready for more from them. Often the playing of young musicians, with everything still to prove, is more refreshing and exhilarating than the playing of famous names who are playing a piece for the 200th time. Here I admire the playing of Ji Young. Equally, I admire the playing of Dong Hyek. More !

Friday, 15 September 2017

Two Hours of Russian Gloom

There are composers with whose music I seem to have an immediate rapport: Handel, Schubert, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich, for example. We are on the same wavelength. So it was a good day when two new CDs arrived in my mailbox this week: Shostakovich's piano quintet, and eighth string quartet. And Rachmaninov's second piano concerto, plus the opus 33 études-tableaux.

All praise to Dmitry Shostakovich. He wrote music that is very much of the twentieth century, avoiding the post-romantic language of Medtner or Rachmaninov, whilst retaining themes, melody, and folk elements, but avoiding the tuneless meanderings of so many twentieth century composers. I have always loved his piano quintet (along with the second piano trio). The performance recorded in Prague in 2001 and featuring the Talich Quartet with a pianist named Yakov Kasman seems to me to be well nigh ideal for its playing, interpretation, balance, and recording. I sat back and enjoyed the ride. The performance on the same CD of the eighth string quartet is also excellent; I enjoy the sound of the Talich, and the spaciousness of the recording. I have never quite understood why the eighth quartet, fine as it is, is promoted above so many of the other string quartets of Shostakovich. A bit like Beethoven's “Moonlight” sonata being over exposed.

Then on to Boris Giltburg playing Rachmaninov, to fill my week of musical gloom and angst (there is nothing like the Russians to express the dark side of life). I like Boris Giltburg, particularly when he plays the music of Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, and he does not disappoint here. He is not a pianist to over-egg the pudding, but he has the technique and the musical intelligence to turn in excellent performances. This is yet another excellent performance of Rachmaninov's ever-popular second piano concerto, and an excellent rendition of the nine études-tableaux of Opus 33. As “encores”, Giltburg gives us Rachmaninov's arrangement of Kreisler's Liebesleid, and of Franz Behr's “Polka de W.R.” Both highly enjoyable.

A good two hours of the Russians, then. I now need some Handel to cheer me up after all that gloom and angst.

Monday, 11 September 2017

In Praise of Bach and Handel

1685. Georg Friedrich Händel was born in Halle (23rd February). Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach (21st March). Between Halle and Eisenach (as the bird flies) is 150 kilometres, or less. Both composers became famous, but neither met the other. Their music, like their subsequent careers, is chalk and cheese. 330 years after the birth of both of them, here I am listening with pleasure and admiration to their very different music. A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Eisenach (Bach's first house) and to Halle (Handel's first house). I stood before the church where Bach was baptised. I listened to the organ in Halle on which Handel first learned to play. I doubt whether 2017's Rap artists will still be listened to in 330 years time.

Bach, Handel and I go back a long way – to the very early 1950s when I began to listen to music, encouraged by my mother, father and elder sisters. More than 60 years later, I am still immersed regularly in the music of Handel and Bach. They must have had a secret formula to have enabled them to write music that has lasted such a long, long time. And music that can be played – and enjoyed – in so many different ways and with so many different musical forces and performing styles.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Beethoven String Quartets with the Talich Quartet

If my personal musical Pantheon were arbitrarily limited to six musical works, it would contain the Mass in B minor, and St Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. I came to the last Beethoven quartets somewhat late, after acquiring around 1979 an LP of the 14th quartet played by the Busch Quartet. For the past 35 years or so, I have found these quartets to be infinitely satisfying and somewhat intriguing, as Beethoven abandons thoughts of sponsors, publishers, audiences and players in pursuit of the celestial music that was whirring around inside his head. “What do I care for your wretched fiddles when the Spirit comes over me?” he is said to have remarked to the unfortunate Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Having somewhat over-praised the recordings by the Juilliard Quartet very recently, I embarked on a comparative listening of the sixteen with the Talich Quartet. A big contrast; where the Juilliard projected a dynamic and boisterous Beethoven, the Talich favours more meditation and less extreme tempi. In retrospect, the Juilliard projects a Beethoven from New York in the 1960s; the Talich brings Beethoven back to Central Europe.

For the thirteenth quartet, opus 130, I patched the CD so that the quartet ended with the Große Fuge as Beethoven originally intended, and as I much prefer. As is well known, a combination of the distraught Schuppanzigh Quartet (“we cannot play it”) and Beethoven's publisher (“I cannot sell it with that ending”) persuaded Beethoven to agree to having the Fuge published separately, and he wrote an amiable “get you home safe” finale in its place. Preceding the Große Fuge is the sublime Cavatina that, Beethoven claimed, caused him to shed tears while composing it. The whole performance of opus 130 – including the Fuge – by the Talich Quartet is of the very highest class of Beethoven quartet playing, as is the playing in my favourite 14th quartet. It is a relaxed style of playing, in the era before the pseudo- "authentic" evangelists began to preach dry sound and swift tempi. Deo gratias.

The Talich quartets were recorded at the very end of the 1970s and the very beginning of the 1980s and had the advantage of late analogue sound before the advent of early digital sound. The set originally appeared on LPs (I had two of them) and the recordings were later transferred (very well) to CD by Calliope. The sound throughout the set is warm, with a moderate distance between the listener and the players, and this makes a welcome change from the in-your-face balance of many string quartet recordings. I have to admit, however, that the recorded sound comes over as different, depending on whether I listen via my speakers or my wireless headphones. Here, I much prefer the headphones since, as usual, the speakers over-emphasise the cello and viola at the expense of the violins. The Talich was never a big-name quartet, and Calliope was never a major label, so the Beethoven set never really achieved the critical acclaim it so richly deserves. I am extremely happy at having re-discovered it on my shelves and, along with the Busch Quartet recordings from the 1930s, it has become my benchmark for these sixteen string quartets. The Juilliard box has gone into my discarded bin and will end up in some charity shop.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Translation of the month

Translation of the month from a website:

"Tchaikovsky: Souvenir of an expensive place, Opus 42".
[Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Op. 42].

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Re-Listening to the Beethoven String Quartets

I have always had a fondness for the music of string quartets (I once, long ago, played the viola in an amateur string quartet). In some ways, the combination of two violins, a viola and a cello, is an ideal platform for music. Throughout my life I have had a great affection for the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert … and lately, Shostakovich. By chance, I have just discovered on my shelves that I have no less than four complete sets of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets; there used to be five, but I ditched the set by the Hungarian String Quartet some years ago.

The remaining maestri are the Léner Quartet (recorded circa 1928), the Vegh Quartet (circa 1952), the Talich Quartet (1980s) and the Juilliard Quartet (1964-70). I cannot now remember why I invested in the Talich or the Juilliard sets, but I bought the Léner set (from Japan) because I liked the olde worlde sound of the quartet, with its distinctive Hungarian style and large doses of portamenti. I bought the Vegh, since the Vegh recordings of opus 59 no.1 and opus 95 were the first Beethoven quartet recordings I acquired (on an old French LP, when I was around fifteen years old). I replaced the LP with the complete set by the Vegh, many years ago.

So I seized the Juilliard set off the shelves, and have embarked on a retrospect of all sixteen Beethoven string quartets. I know the late quartets extremely well, and the middle opus 59 quartets quite well. But it has been interesting and rewarding over the past few days becoming re-acquainted with the six opus 18 quartets, that I know less well. Interesting, enjoyable, and with a recorded sound and style of playing that I find greatly pleasing, even though there is evidence of a certain American brashness in some of the playing. I still greatly regret that the Busch Quartet never recorded the complete Beethoven string quartets; Adolf Busch, in particular, always brought a remarkable authority to the first violin part. Still, the Juilliard players are worthy stand-ins for the absent Buschs, and I am enjoying my listening marathon. One day, I'll have to get out the old set led by Jenö Léner, with his distinctive old world style and sound.

Saturday, 19 August 2017


I very much enjoyed a CD from the super-talented Nazrin Rashidova accompanied on the guitar by Stanislav Hvartchilkov; believe it or not, I come somewhat new to the sound of the classical guitar. Spurred on by my discovery, I invested in a Naxos disc of prize-winning Xianji Liu playing a selection of solo guitar pieces. I did not enjoy it much. No fault of Mr Liu, I suspect; it is just that 60 minutes of solo guitar becomes extremely monotonous, with the guitar's limited range of colour. A bit like listening to 60 minutes of violin music, all played pizzicato.

Guitars, I have decided, are excellent accompanying instruments, whether vocal or instrumental. But not instruments for dedicated listening to for long periods.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Nazrin Rashidova, and Emile Sauret

I knew little of Emile Sauret (1852-1920) apart from the fact he wrote a famous cadenza for the first movement of Paganini's first violin concerto, so I was most grateful when a good friend gave me a birthday present of the first seven of Sauret's 24 études-caprices. How would he stand up against similar works by Paganini, Ernst, Rode, and others?

The short answer is: very well. Sauret's works on this CD are really tough on the violinist, but tough in demanding every variety of bowing, and every possible combination of fingering. Unlike others, Sauret does not demand chimpanzee-like dexterity with melodies in harmonics, or double stopped in harmonics; Sauret's pyrotechnics are subtle and violinistic, not attempts at showmanship. The 61 minutes on this CD pass by very agreeably – probably more so for lovers of violin playing rather than general music lovers. But lovers of fine violin playing will have a veritable feast.

Thanks to Monsieur Sauret, but also thanks to the CD's violinist, Nazrin Rashidova. She copes with the fiendish bowing demands, she copes with swooping from the bottom of the G string to the highest echelons of the E string, she ensures that the music always sounds good, with a highly admirable variation of dynamics. Frankly, it is difficult to think of these pieces being better played. Or sounding better; I imagined Ms Rashidova was playing on some ancient, multi-million dollar Italian violin. But it transpires that her violin is one made by David Rattray, London, in 2009. So well done Emile Sauret, Ms Rashidova's right arm, Ms Rashidova's left hand, Mr Rattray's violin, and Joseph Lamy's bow (1890). This CD (from St Naxos, patron saint of lovers of violin music and playing) is labelled as Volume 1. I await the following volumes with impatience. The excellent and informative liner notes were written by: Ms Rashidova. Obviously a young woman of talent.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Corey Cerovsek: Beethoven

Eight of Beethoven's ten sonatas for violin and piano were written when he was in his late 20s or very early thirties. The Kreutzer Op 47 was an exception, as was the late, lonely sonata in G major Op 96. Being first-class Beethoven, the music is sophisticated but not especially profound at this early age. All ten works are first class, though I am not a fan of the Kreutzer, finding it over-long and somewhat belligerent at times.

A generous friend presented me with a box of the ten sonatas recorded in 2006 by the Canadian Corey Cerovsek and the Finn Paavali Jumppanen. This joins numerous complete sets on my shelves, including Grumiaux-Haskil, Barati-Würtz, Kreisler-Rupp, Faust-Melnikov, Dumay-Pires, Capuçon-Braley, Ferras-Barbizet, Ibragimova-Tiberghien, Kavakos-Pace, Suk-Panenka, Tetzlaff-Longuich. A few sets, including Pamela Frank, and Joseph Szigeti, are long gone. No lack of first-class choices when it comes to the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas.

Cerovsek and Jumppanen were around the age when Beethoven wrote these sonatas when they made the recording in 2006. Cerovsek reveals himself as a pupil of Joseph Gingold – who was a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe. Many of Gingold's pupils seem to have learned a sweet tone, viz also Nai-Yuan Hu, also a Gingold pupil. Cerovsek here reminds me of Arthur Grumiaux, and maybe Renaud Capuçon. It's a nice set of the sonatas, with the two young men forming an excellent duo partnership, with constant attention to dynamics and detail. Balance is OK, though balancing a violin and a piano must rival balancing a duet for trumpet and flute, for difficulty. After a marathon listening, it is probably the piano playing that stays foremost in my mind, though that may also be down to Beethoven's intentions. If I ever record the ten Beethoven violin and piano sonatas, I will contact Paavali Jumppanen. Forced to grab a set of the Beethoven sonatas before exile to a desert island, I am not sure what set I would grasp, though it would be no great loss if it turned out to be Cerovsek-Jumppanen.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Véronique Gens: Visions

There is music one listens to because of the music itself. There is music one listens to because of the performers. Ideal listening is great music with great performers; which happens, sometimes. I still enjoy listening to Arkadi Volodos playing Brahms' solo piano music, even though I am not a lover of Brahms' solo piano music. Seeing that Véronique Gens had a new CD recording (Visions), I hastily bought it, being a great fan of Ms Gens. I also like French song (mélodies) and noted the twelve French tracks.

I forgot, however, that I do not really like 19th century opera (except Wagner, whose works are not really “operas” as such). I especially do not like 19th century French opera, and that is what Véronique Gens offered me, to my consternation. Opera arias from Alfred Bruneau, Louis Niedermeyer, Félicien David, Henry Février, Fromental Halévy and a few other even better known names.

Gritting my teeth, I have now listened to the CD with increasing pleasure. Much of the music is of a muzak nature, and none of it particularly profound or earth-shaking. But Véronique Gens is a truly superb singer in this repertoire (the Arkadi Volodos of French song). The Munich Radio Orchestra plays really well, even though almost all the music must have been sight-read, and Hervé Niquet gives Ms Gens the best backing she could ever desire. The recording from Alpha-Classics is excellent; why is it that these small labels consistently create exceptional recordings of interesting repertoire, whilst the Warner Music / Universal / Sony Classical labels either churn out 12th re-issues of old recordings, or new recordings by half-naked young females (or unshaven young males)? Anyway, with each listening to this CD, I have gone from despondent to highly positive. 55 minutes of enjoyable listening; well done, Véronique Gens, Fromental Halévy, et al.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Julia Fischer

I listened recently to Julia Fischer playing the Beethoven violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti and was not too impressed. The first movement in particular sounded somewhat brusque, though whether this was down to the violinist, Muti or Chicago it is hard to say. However, in my eyes Ms Fischer fully redeemed herself this week when I listened to her off-air in the violin concertos of Béla Bartok and of Benjamin Britten.

The Bartok came from Zürich, with the Tonhalle Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit. The Bartok is on the fringe of my violin concerto listening, along with Shostakovich's second concerto and the concerto of William Walton. However, Ms Fischer seemed to be doing all the right things and making the right sounds, and the result was convincing.

The solitary violin concerto by Benjamin Britten dates from 1938-9 and is a comparatively early work of the composer. It is also one of the very few Britten works that I enjoy unreservedly. It has seen a marked renaissance in popularity recently, being performed and recorded by violinists of the stature of James Ehnes, Vilde Frang, Janine Jansen, and Frank Peter Zimmermann. To my ears, Julia Fischer has the measure of the work, and I greatly enjoyed her performance. Juanjo Mena conducted the BBC Philharmonic, making an effective contribution. I am happy to have Ms Fischer back on my listening list; she has always been a fine, no-nonsense violinist.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Box of Mozart Chamber Music

The French music magazine Diapason has published a few volumes of historical music recordings. I bought the Mozart chamber music box for the incredible sale price of £12.50 (Presto Classical). For ten CDs of great music and interesting performances, that is not at all bad!

The compilers of the recordings have, of necessity, limited themselves to works out of copyright (i.e., recorded more than 50 years ago). They also claim to have deliberately avoided picking recordings easily available elsewhere to avoid over-duplication. I am happy that the box has introduced me to music of Mozart that I simply did not know before: mainly the piano trios, and the piano quartets. Recordings range from 1937 to 1962, with most being in the 1950s, an age that still had the “old” sound and approach, somewhat different from the young-star macho performances of chamber music that one often hears today. There are ten of the sonatas for violin and piano; in truth, here they are more of interest for the piano parts than for the violinists (probably how Mozart envisaged things, as well). Five of the ten are played by Joseph Szigeti who, by the mid 1950s, was over 60 years old and well past his prime. His pianists, mainly Mieczslaw Horszowski, are impressive and I particularly liked George Szell in Mozart's K 481; I've never much liked Szell as a conductor, but he certainly impresses as a Mozart pianist! Missed his vocation. Another heavily featured pianist is Lili Kraus who plays with Szymon Goldberg in two of the sonatas, and with Willi Boskovsky and Nikolaus Hübner in the piano trios. Lili Kraus's playing pleases me immensely. Szymon Goldberg is recorded far too distantly in the 1930s and cannot make much impression, but his two sonatas are well worth hearing to listen to Ms Kraus.

The quartets for piano and strings are divided up, with the Amadeus Quartet featuring in one of the two, with Clifford Curzon. The six string quartets dedicated to Haydn are all given to the Juilliard Quartet (1962); wonderful performances, recordings and transfers of these six jewels of the string quartet world. I liked them very much indeed. The string quintets feature the (augmented) Budapest Quartet, the Griller Quartet, and the Amadeus Quartet (who also play the quartets K 575 and K 590). The Divertimento K 563 is present in an excellent transfer of the famous 1941 recording by the trio of Heifetz, Primrose and Feuermann. A man cannot have too many copies of that one.

The tenth CD moves on to Mozart's chamber music with wind instruments, which is not really my cup of tea. For me, however, the set is well worth it for the performances of the six “Haydn” quartets, for the five string quintets … and for the playing of Lili Kraus. There are, of course, no real liner notes (at this price) and the works are all listed in French, so you have to work out what si bémol majeur means (it is B flat major, believe it, or not).

Transfers throughout are excellent though, like most mono recordings of that era, they sound best through good loudspeakers rather than through headphones. The six “Haydn” quartets and three of the five string quintets are in stereo, however. I was pleasantly surprised at the warm sound of the 1941 recording of the G minor string quintet K 516 by the Budapest Quartet (a lovely performance of one of my favourite Mozart works). The piano quartet K 493 with William Kapell is a live performance, with applause. I never understand why applause is thought worth recording and retaining. I almost always regret buying large multi-CD boxes; it seems a good idea at the time, but after one pass, the box is shelved for the next couple of decades. Not this box, however. There are too many good things in it. And not a whiff of “period performance” in sight, to my great relief. I suspect that Mozart, a connoisseur of musical instruments, would also be delighted at the warm Viennese instrumental sounds on these CDs. Mozart loved playing the viola, and he also took to the new clarinet; obviously a lover of warm sound.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Ivry Gitlis

Recently, trying to squeeze a violin CD played by someone whose surname began with “G” on to my violinist shelving, I discovered the “G”s were pretty well full (thanks also to Arthur Grumiaux). It was then that I discovered I had no less than 13 CDs of recordings by Ivry Gitlis, the Israeli violinist born in 1922 (and still with us, living happily in Paris). Gitlis was always a somewhat idiosyncratic violinist, but with a wonderful sound and a pretty well flawless technique. I heard him play in London many years ago – when he must have been over 80 years old. He was still Gitlis (playing Saint-Saëns) but with the fabulous technique a little under strain; not surprisingly. A quick look in Wikipedia shows Gitlis having made many, many recordings over the decades, with a notable absence of much Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms. As part of Gitlis's highly individual sound, there is often odd choppy phrasing and rhythm, a kind of anti-legato – which almost sounds contrived. His use of on-off vibrato became a mannerism, and bars of “dead vibrato” often make me wince. However, he had a cast-iron violin technique and intonation, like a good Carl Flesch pupil and colleague with Flesch, with Bronislav Gimpel, Joseph Hassid, and Ginette Neveu.

On Le Violon Enchanté CD (Philips, Japan, 1994, 22 tracks) Gitlis is heard at his best in Bartok's Six Romanian Dances; at his least best in the Handel sonata (Op 1 No.15).

Extravaganza (EMI, Japan 1989, 14 tracks) confirms that I enjoy Gitlis most in fast music, where his on-off vibrato, choppy phrasing and exaggerated rubato can intrude least. He turns in a fine Devil's Trill sonata. Chopin's posthumous nocturne (arranged by Milstein) is well played, but does not have the “heart” of the recording by his fellow Flesch pupil, Ginette Neveu (arranged there by Rodionov).

Méditation de Thaïs (EMI, Japan, 1985, 19 tracks). For me, some of the pieces suffer from Gitlis's odd rubato, and his attempt to phrase so that the violin “speaks”, rather than sings. Dvorak's Songs my Mother Taught Me suffers from this, as do Bloch's Nigun, and Rachmaninov's Daisies. La fille aux cheveux de lin (Hartmann) comes off well. Gitlis seems to have an affection for Fritz Kreisler's pieces and arrangements, and both Liebesleid and Danny Boy come off well. The Méditation from Thaïs gets a very fine performance; Hora Staccato is good, but not in the Dinicu / Heifetz class. Excellent Zigeunerweisen (as expected).

A concert in Strasbourg in 1975, almost certainly an amateur recording, shows Gitlis in surprisingly good form for the Bach Chaconne, with little scope for weird on-off vibrato, or exaggerated rubato. A pity about the final unison chord, that does not need vibrato. The acoustic is cavernous, but the Bach work shows off Gitlis's fine technique and lovely violin tone. I enjoyed it. The rest of the recital, with Georges Pludermacher at the piano, suffers badly from the poor acoustic and very bad balance between piano (over-dominant) and violin. Probably a good concert if you were there, but highly forgettable if you were not. Paganini's 24th caprice is given in Leopold Auer's arrangement, with a quite unnecessary piano part.

An excellent off-air recording from 13th June 1972 confirms Gitlis as a first-class player of Paganini. The second concerto, with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stanisław Skrowaczewski, is really well worth listening to. Paganini suits extrovert violinists with big egos, and Gitlis is in his element and turns in one of the very best performances of Paganini 2 that I can think of.

I did not bother re-listening to a Vox CD of Berg's violin concerto (recorded 1953), Hindemith's concerto (1962) and Stravinsky's concerto (1955). Life is too short, and time should not be wasted. The twentieth century produced many fine violin concertos. These three were not among them. The respective esteemed conductors were William Strickland, Hubert Reichert, and Harold Byrns.

I never cared much for Gitlis with Martha Argerich in the Franck and Debussy duo sonatas (1977). A bit too much of two prima donnas slogging it out together, and Gitlis does not appear to be at his best. On a Via Classics CD (1968) Gitlis turns in a spirited performance of the Mendelssohn concerto (with the Monte-Carlo orchestra under David Josefowitz). Not great recorded sound (it would appear that Gitlis rarely was given the A team for his recordings) but good enough.

A Philips Duo set of CDs brings a Gitlis cornucopia from the period 1966-69. Paganini's first and second violin concertos, three Paganini caprices arranged for violin and piano (ugh!), the first and second Wieniawski violin concertos, Saint-Saën's second and unfinished fourth concerto. Most of the concertos are with truncated orchestral parts, as was lamentably common in those days. Orchestras for Paganini are Polish, and for Wieniawski, Monte-Carlo. A little illogical, mais c'est comme ça. In the first Paganini concerto, Gitlis is highly virtuosic but so are Kogan, Akiko Suwanai or Nemanja Radulovic, to mention just three. Like many analogue to digital transfers of that era, the treble sound is over-bright and somewhat steely. The 1972 off-air Paganini second concerto sounds better, from a recorded sound point of view. In the Philips transfer, for the cadenza (by Gitlis) in the second concerto, it sounds as if he is playing on a $10 tin violin. Alas, that is how things often were in 1994 (when this transfer was made) with many of the major companies as they scrambled to digitise their backlog of recordings.

On the second of the Philips Duo CDs, the first and last movements of Wieniawski's shamelessly neglected first concerto show Gitlis's virtuosity in full throttle. The work is heavily cut (the first movement is all over in less than ten and a half minutes, as compared with just under 16 minutes for the recording I admired by Soo-Hyun Park). The larghetto is too slow, and suffers from some of Gitlis's “sea-sick” rolling phrasing. I am all for musicians being different, but there is also the phenomenon of being different just for the sake of being different. In Wieniawski's second concerto, Gitlis is his fine virtuoso self in the first movement (again, heavily cut) but the Romance confirms my feeling that I often do not admire Gitlis so much when it comes to slower music. The melody of the Romance is chopped up into bits, with no real legato; if Gitlis were a singer, he would be taking a breath every five seconds. Once the Romance is over, Gitlis comes into his own in the Allegro “alla Zingara” that he zips through in a little over five minutes flat.

Finally, on the Philips Duo CDs, we come to Camille Saint-Saëns, and his neglected second violin concerto. Many violinists play the third, but the second rarely appears; it is a fine work, however, perfectly crafted as one would expect from Saint-Saëns. I used to have this Gitlis recording on LP (where it sounded better than the current digital transfer in the Philips box). The concerto has a lovely slow movement, but I don't like Gitlis playing it for me. Not enough legato, too much on-off vibrato, too much rubato. Give me Fanny Clamagirand in this movement, any day. The duo CDs end with Saint-Saëns' fourth concerto (11 minute fragment thereof, pretty much just the first movement; Saint-Saëns never finished it).

Predictably, Gitlis's 1976 recording of Paganini's 24 Capricci is up there with the best. The fantasy / virtuosity elements of this music suit Gitlis 100 per cent. The CD transfer I have from the original LP tapes (Philips) is not the best; when a Guarneri / Stradivari violin starts to sound cheap, you know that the recording / transfer is not good. However, one to keep and to air often, despite the ferocious competition. I just hope that, one day, someone will make a better digital transfer, although the copyright will not expire until 2026 by which time I may well not be here. I received my copy around ten years ago, from a friend. I gave it three stars, but I do not think I have listened to it since. Mea culpa. It is now fixed firmly in my firmament of really first-class Paganini recordings. Just how I would have liked to play the Paganini Capricci, had I practised the violin just a little more seriously in my youth.

I skip-sampled the Vox concerto recordings from the 1954 to 1957 (Double Vox CD), when Gitlis must have been in his technical prime. There are hundreds of recordings of the Tchaikovsky, Bruch G minor, Sibelius, Mendelssohn, and Bartok violin concertos, as there are of Bartok's sonata for solo violin. The conductor for the Bruch, Sibelius and Bartok concertos is no less than Jascha Horenstein, a good stand-by Vox conductor in 1950s Vienna. The transfers are better done than for the double Philips album and, in fact, the sound is perfectly acceptable in this Vox double box. Gitlis's playing reveals a fast vibrato throughout, and the on-off vibrato effect had not yet arrived in his technical repertoire, thank goodness. The six works on the two Vox CDs are given good, solid, classical accounts; I have neglected this box for too long. A “must” for all Gitlis fans, but also excellent performances of the works.

My final conclusion is that Ivry Gitlis deserves his high reputation among lovers of violin playing. I have thinned out my 13 Gitlis CDs, but the ones I am keeping I keep with pleasure and the knowledge that I'll listen to them all again. Gitlis is at his very best when the music is fast; in slow music, his sound and phrasing can be too idiosyncratic; even on the 1950s Vox recordings, his fast, nervous vibrato in the slow movements grates a little. My 13 Gitlis CDs are now down to six, but they are six CDs to which I will listen often.