Thursday, 26 January 2017

Maria João Pires

Jascha Heifetz once claimed that he found Mozart “the most challenging” composer to play. It's true that Mozart's music is often somewhat chameleon, usually elegant and usually with strange twists in the harmonies that differentiate much of Mozart's music from the routine classics of the late eighteenth century. When it comes to Mozart's piano concertos, I feel that two supreme executants stand out: Clara Haskil, and Maria João Pires. I have just been listening to Pires in a handful of Mozart concertos that she recorded with Claudio Abbado over a period of some years, with various orchestras. In one word: Pires' performances are superb (as is the partnership with Abbado).

Pires, who is now in her early 70s and still playing superbly, has had a low-key career (deliberately, once suspects). She does not like solo recitals, and has expressed the view that what she enjoys most is “just making music with a few friends for a small audience”. Like Clara Haskil with Arthur Grumiaux, Pires enjoyed a long musical relationship with a violinist, Augustin Dumay, and the pair made many prized recordings of duo sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. I think Brahms is the most “contemporary” composer that Pires tackles; apart from Chopin, her predilection is for Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

“It is very important for me to know that it is possible to express something without doing too much”, Pires says. Her Mozart playing certainly reflects the same elegant simplicity and sincerity as that of Haskil. In Mozart, her elegant simplicity is matched by Abbado's elegance and sophistication and the results are enormously satisfying. Looking at my large collection of recordings of Mozart piano concertos, I really only need Haskil and Pires.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Bach's Mass in B Minor

As I have recounted before in this blog, the very first concert I attended at the age of 12 or 13 was at St Wilfrid's Church in Rose Green, Sussex … and the work in question was Bach's Mass in B minor. St. Wilfrid was not there, nor was Johann Sebastian Bach: but I was, and that was some 62 years ago and I remember the occasion clearly since no one stole my bicycle that I left outside the church during the concert. The Mass in B minor is, quite simply, wonderful music. For some reason or other, Bach poured the best of his art into the work.

There are performances that are fashionable; there are performances that are eternal. Amongst the latter the Busch Quartet recordings of the 1930s spring to mind, together with many of the Busch-Serkin duo recordings. Fastest, slowest, loudest, softest: are all quantifiable adjectives. Greatest, best, favourite: are subjective and non-quantifiable. So when I am told I can have only one musical work buried with me in the treasure chamber of my after-death pyramid, there is no sure and uncontroversial choice. For me, in my pyramid it has to be Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor. I have been listening to my latest acquisition; Karl Richter and his Munich forces (recorded extremely well and stereophonically in 1961 by the then- DGG team).

I have Bach's Mass in seven different recordings: John-Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe (two different recordings), René Jacobs, Otto Klemperer, Karl Richter, and Masaaki Suzuki. I used to have Joshua Rifkin's minimalist recording for many years, but I seem to have ditched it along the way (probably to a charity shop that may still be trying to sell it for 50p). Karl Richter ticks all the boxes: clear melodic lines, excellent orchestral players (especially the solo violin), good soloists (though I am less keen on the soprano, Maria Stadler). However, I (unusually) welcome the bass, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A vibrant, alert Mass in B minor that joins my top two. If I still prefer Otto Klemperer in this music, it's because of his stern gravitas and the sense of decades of thought-out tradition. Klemperer was – despite his erratic lifestyle – a thoroughly religious man (judaism, catholicism, finally back to judaism)

And where will you be able to find my final pyramid and resting place to which I will consign one copy of Bach's B minor mass? If I have to name a place at the moment, it will be Luang Prabang (Laos).

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Boris Giltburg in Beethoven

This would appear to be Boris Giltburg week in my home. Having commented on his Shostakovich CD, and earlier on his excellent Rachmaninov, I now have him playing Beethoven – Pathétique, Waldstein, and Op 111 (Naxos). On this latest CD, his Beethoven is somewhat in the sturdy Russian mould (I occasionally thought of the great Emil Gilels). The pianism is truly amazing and lovers of three star piano playing will have a field day.

Personally, I will not give this CD three stars. My preference in music of the classical period is for simplicity, and for artists such as Igor Levit, Maria Pires or Clara Haskil who give a sense almost of improvising as they play. No thought of improvisation with Giltburg; all is carefully planned and thought out (and then brilliantly executed). I recently had the same qualms about Alfred Brendel playing Schubert and Beethoven: all worked out far too carefully in advance, with little sense of spontaneity. I am being subjective here; lovers of fine piano playing and dynamic Beethoven need not hesitate, but when I wish to listen to Beethoven's last piano sonata, I'll gravitate to Igor Levit.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Boris Giltburg in Shostakovich

Igor, Boris, Yevgeny .. why are there no pianists called Harry, Eric, or Fred? But I suppose some are also called Yuja or Xiayin. An inferiority feeling listening to Boris Giltburg playing Shostakovich (accompanied by Vasily .. not Harry, Eric, or Fred, Petrenko). It appears that, for more than a century, if you wish to be taken seriously as a pianist or a violinist, you have to get yourself a Russian name. And especially a Russian background and heritage.

Moscow-born Boris Giltburg dominates a new (Naxos) CD of Shostakovich's music. With the Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko, he plays Shostakovich's two piano concertos and the results are splendid. A really interesting aspect of the new CD, however, is Giltburg's own arrangements for piano only of Shostakovich's eighth string quartet (and of the waltz movement from the second). Piano arrangements of the self-sufficient world of the string quartet are something of an oddity. I love the Shostakovich string quartets; and I also loved listening to Giltburg's playing. The arrangements are best regarded as new Shostakovich works, rather than renditions of the string quartets, but none the worse for that. The piano concertos are lighter fare in Shostakovich's oeuvre; the string quartets more complex, and this comes over on this CD, even with the solo piano arrangements. The concertos feature Shostakovich the famous artist, and the popular entertainer. The string quartets show us Shostakovich the private, and often haunted, person. Bravo Mr Giltburg for highlighting the two sides of the composer on this very welcome CD.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Vier Letzte Lieder

There are some musical works that really get under your skin, and stay there. I have never been a great fan of Richard Strauss (a bit of an old windbag, for much of the time, in my opinion). But Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder have always been one of my “under the skin” works. Strangely enough, his sonata for violin and piano has always been another.

For something written in 1948, the Lieder have become extremely popular, and quite rightly so. A recent arrival in my collection occasioned a re-evaluation of what I liked. The recent arrival was Diana Damrau singing in September last year with the Bavarian State Orchestra conducted by Kirill Petrenko (an off-air recording). As a quick-check version, I also acquired Renée Fleming singing with the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann (2008). Somewhat remarkably for these works, the two Bavarian versions feature pretty well identical timings for the four songs – even for the fourth song whose timings can stretch from a languorous 9 minutes and 54 seconds (Jessye Norman, with Kurt Masur) to a rapidissimo 6 minutes and 23 seconds (Martina Arroyo, with Günter Wand). Miss Arroyo was not going to miss that last bus back to her hotel.

I listened to Damrau; I listened to Fleming. Immediately into my re-cycling bin went Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (with Szell), Jessye Norman (with Masur) and Soile Isokoski (with Marek Janowski). Lisa della Casa stays on my shelves for sentimental reasons. For me, the Lieder are, above all, a glorious outpouring of a soprano voice. The glorious soprano outpouring needs to be matched by a golden outpouring from the orchestra. The whole needs to be well recorded so we can bask in a golden musical Götterdämmerung. Damrau / Petrenko fill the bill. Fleming / Thielemann fill the bill. In the final run-off, however, it is Diana Damrau who gets the gold medal, since I have a strange problem with Renée Fleming's German diction. I, who am always castigating singers for not enunciating clearly, find that Fleming's clear and meticulous enunciation in several passages detracts from the impression of a glorious outpouring and leaves the music, on occasions, sounding cautious and calculated. So Damrau and Petrenko run off with the top prize. I don't expect them to be toppled for some considerable time.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Gustav Mahler, and Kirill Petrenko

I first came across the music of Gustav Mahler when I was in my early teens, acquiring recordings of the Kindertotenlieder, then of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, then of the fourth symphony (Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia, that I acquired in 1958 on a Columbia LP). Subsequently I dived regularly into Mahler's music – in 1959 I was in the Albert Hall (while my father was in the orchestra) listening to Mahler's eighth symphony. In the 1970s I was in one of the London halls listening to Mahler's fifth symphony. Between around 1956 and 2017, I decided that the only Mahler works I really enjoyed were the Kindertotenlieder, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Das Lied von der Erde … and the fourth symphony. If I have time and patience, I might re-visit the second symphony, that seems to have promise, for me. But the rest I leave to my great-grandchildren.

My selectivity regarding Mahler seems to have been shared by others; Otto Klemperer, who as a young man was a Mahler acolyte and owed much to Mahler, played Mahler works all his life, but mainly the second and fourth symphonies (plus Das Lied, of course). To my knowledge, Klemperer never bothered to record the first, third, fifth, sixth and eighth symphonies of Mahler – but I have three recordings of the fourth symphony conducted by him. So I was interested to receive a Mahler recording by Kirill Petrenko … of the fourth symphony! I gather Mahler devotees regard the fourth symphony as a bit outside the canon, but it appears that Klemperer, Petrenko and I are fans of the fourth. The Petrenko (Kirill, not Vasily) performance dates from 2004 and comes with the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin, not an obvious Mahler orchestra at that date. Petrenko was only 32 at the time of this recording, having emigrated from Russia to Austria at the age of 18. Even so, the conducting is sure and the performance excellent if, one suspects, it will be even better and less episodic 30 years later when Petrenko takes a longer view of the music and the scherzo can become more fantastique, rather than burlesque. I have been listening to Kirill Petrenko (courtesy of a good friend) conducting Mahler, Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Elgar; all good late Romanic stuff in which Petrenko seems to excel. He has yet to be heard (by me) in Debussy, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Brahms, Beethoven, Sibelius and Mozart, of course. But as a lover of the late Romantics, I am grateful for a fellow aficionado.

Mahler's fourth symphony (Paul Kletzki conducting the Philharmonia, with Emmy Loose in the finale) is perhaps the only recording of my collection to have survived nearly 60 years in the Number One spot. One day, I suspect, Kirill Petrenko will finally dislodge it.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Karl Richter in Bach

When I was young, tomatoes and mushrooms had real flavour, politicians were principled and honest, journalists delved deeply to report the true facts, daytimes were never wet … and Bach's music sounded wonderful as performed in the 1960s. Probably everyone has an idealised memory of youth; however listening to Karl Richter's performances of Bach's Brandenburg concertos and orchestral suites recorded in the 1960s, there is something that rings true about the Bach memories, at least. Prior to the 1960s, “Big Bach” was in order, as played by conductors such as Furtwängler and von Karajan. After the 1960s, artists such as Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, followed by Kuijken and others, dragged Bach back to the museum, complete with periwig and boy sopranos. The “authentic” brigade reached its height with such absurdities as Joshua Rifin's Mass in B minor with just eight voices, with the imposition of boy trebles instead of better trained and more musical sopranos, and the arrival of hell-for-leather Italian bands out to show everyone they were the world's fastest Bach players. Recently, excesses have been modified and players and singers allowed to sound musical, as well as historically correct.

Playing Bach demands a good sense of rhythm, a love of the music, and a determination to ensure that all the many strands and counterpoint in Bach's music can be heard clearly (think of the third movement of the third Brandenburg concerto, for example). If you love Bach's music and use your commonsense, Bach will do the rest; his music does not need preening and pointing and manipulating. Karl Richter and his expert band of musicians based in Munich come over beautifully in these recordings from the 1960s. The pioneering “new Bach” of artists such as Richter and Busch (in the 1930s) was soon (temporarily) overshadowed by the novelty of Olde Bach from ancient times. I grew up after 1959 with Karl Richter's recording of the St. Matthew Passion, a recording I still enjoy albeit now on CD transfers. Such expert singing and playing, and such love and feeling for the music! To listen to Karl Richter directing Bach is to re-enter a familiar and eminently civilised musical world. The playing is expert, the recordings well balanced and well restored. Personally, I ask for nothing more, and if anyone knows of a better performance of the sixth Brandenburg compared with Richter's version, played here with skill, love and warmth, please let me know; the performance for me is ideal Bach playing.