Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Bach's Goldberg Variations, with Beatrice Rana

From my young years, I always knew Beethoven's Diabelli variations, but Bach's Goldberg variations were just a name to me until a lot later in life, when I heard a recording by Tatiana Nikolayeva (that an American friend found “too Romantic”). I still have that recording, plus many others. Glenn Gould never found favour with me: too much Gould, not enough Bach. Recently, I thought I had found my all-time favourite version with Igor Levit.

Levit comes across as superb, classical, and objective. Listening to Levit playing Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, it is difficult to imagine him playing Chopin, or Rachmaninov. Having greatly admired the young Italian Beatrice Rana in Tchaikovsky, I was curious to hear what she made of Bach's Goldberg variations. I bought the CD, and listened with interest. I confess to being completely enchanted and captivated by her playing of Bach's thirty variations. She makes no attempt to enter the sound world of a fusty cantor of early eighteenth century Saxony. Listening to her Bach, it is easy to imagine her playing Chopin or Rachmaninov. She revels in Bach's music and I once again had the heretical thought that there is music that is more suited to young players, rather than mature elderly practitioners. Beatrice Rana is only 23 years old (even Levit was not yet 30 when he recorded the Goldbergs). Yet another superb young pianist to listen to at every possible opportunity. The Diabelli variations, next? I know that her Goldberg variations will now always be my favourite version; poor, wonderful Igor Levit sounds somewhat dry in comparison.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Frederick Delius

Great bargains to be had nowadays. I bought triumphantly the new Warner box of Beecham conducting the music of Frederick Delius (seven CDs). I forget to check that I already had an EMI box of Beecham with five CDs of Beecham and Delius, including the same recordings as in the Warner box.

Delius's music needs someone like Beecham who was ultra- sophisticated and elegant, and who knew and loved the music. Delius does not take to lingering or point-making. In my teen years I liked much of the music of Delius; the short pieces, Sea Drift, Brigg Fair, Paris. I can never claim to have been a Delius fan, but much of his music was part of my repertoire over the decades. In my teens, I even made a pilgrimage (on bicycle via the N7) to Grez-sur-Loing and viewed the house where Delius passed his later years.

He seems to have fallen out of favour nowadays, perhaps because no conductors have Beecham's qualifications for Delius performances. The music is not particularly English (neither was Delius). More German neo-Romantic, mixed with Grieg. Come to think of it, poor old Edvard Grieg seems also to have fallen out of favour, together with musical co-religionists such as Karl Goldmark (another protégé of Beecham).

Sadly, clutching my twelve Delius-Beecham CDs, I find that the attraction Delius's music used to have for me, has died. Works such as Sea Drift, that I once loved, now sound mawkish and second rate. After I am gone, there will be a lot of dusty Delius recordings for someone to inherit.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Elgar: Daniel Barenboim versus Vasily Petrenko

I rarely indulge in head-to-head comparisons. Either a performance convinces me, or it does not. And there are many way to skin a cat, so very different performances of the same work can often be equally valid. I greatly admired the recent recording of Elgar's second symphony (Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic) but, so far, mine is the only opinion I have come across. I did notice a number of critics expressing great enthusiasm for Daniel Barenboim's recording of the work with Staatskapelle Berlin, so I decided to acquire the latter and to see what all the fuss was about. My tasting notes on my head-to-head listening are as follows:

First Movement: Allegro vivace e nobilmente: Barenboim 18:28. Petrenko 19:14

Barenboim makes big difference between the allegro and slower sections – a bit like John Barbirolli. The music almost becomes becalmed at times. Petrenko integrates the different sections and moods better, being a bit slower over all, but then the slower sections can be faster than with Barenboim. The Liverpool brass and woodwind shine better than the Berliners. Overall the sound is better with Petrenko (Onyx) than with Barenboim (Decca). There is more nobilmente with Petrenko, and Barenboim's tempo changes get on my nerves. There used to be a similar contrast between Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli in this movement, with Barbirolli killing it with love.

Second Movement: Larghetto. Barenboim 14:01. Petrenko 15:04

One of Elgar's loveliest movements, and the Liverpudlians are obviously playing their hearts out. Again, Barenboim has problems establishing a basic pulse; the music frequently becomes becalmed. The superior Liverpool brass and woodwind (or recording thereof) greatly favours Petrenko's performance.

Third Movement: Rondo – Presto. Barenboim 8:01. Petrenko 7:58

The return of the throbbing nightmare is well handled by Barenboim, and is quite dramatic. The timings are identical: Barenboim's basic tempo is a shade faster, but he loses time in slamming on the brakes from time to time. As throughout the music to date, Petrenko and the Liverpudlians give the impression of knowing exactly where they are going. Barenboim and the Berliners often seem to be exploring and finding their way through an unfamiliar environment.

Fourth Movement: Moderato e maestoso. Barenboim 15:31. Petrenko 16:50

By now my views were pretty clear. Barenboim and his Berliners do come out fighting in the fifteenth round, and the finale is the best of their four movements; particularly the impressive final minute. But by then, it's too late. A clear win for the Russian and his valiant Liverpudlians, on points. I have always been impressed with Vasily Petrenko, who seems to me to be an exceptionally talented and musical conductor. He understands the importance of pulse in symphonic music. I have never taken to Daniel Barenboim. His recording of the Elgar will be shelved and will gather dust; Petrenko will be taken down whenever I want to listen to Elgar's second symphony.

After two hours listening to the two versions: what a magnificent twentieth century symphony this is! Well done Vasily Petrenko, the Liverpool Philharmonic, the Onyx recording team … and Edward Elgar.

Khatia Buniatishvili plays Rachmaninov

Looking at the new CD that arrived in the post, I get the impression it features the music and playing of Khatia Buniatishvili. She appears to be playing the music that some old Russian, Sergei Rachmaninov, has been commissioned to arrange for her and an orchestra. Thus nine photos or images of the glamorous Ms Buniatishvili, and not one of the scowling arranger of the music (though the does get a credit in the text). One wonders exactly whom these major record companies think they are trying to attract. There are presumably lots of disappointed purchasers who discover that Ms Buniatishvili is not actually singing sultry love songs, or stripping, on this new CD.

Well, more than enough of the booklet; on with the music and the playing. No danger of me being curmudgeonly about Ms Buniatishvili's playing of the piano; I am a declared fan. I also like Mr Rachmaninov's arrangements of music for Ms Buniatishvili's piano and orchestra in his second and third piano concertos on this CD. Competition in both concertos is, of course, ferocious. Despite the nay-saying of various expert critics during the previous century, Rachmaninov's music has lived on and on in popular esteem over the decades. Being Khatia Buniatishvili, there are many tigress moments, of course, but she can also play with a touching simplicity, as in the adagio of the C minor concerto. She is a tigress who also knows how and when to relax. The first movement cadenza of the third concerto is here a real tour de force. Throughout the two concertos, the dark sound of the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Paavo Järvi is entirely appropriate for Rachmaninov's Russian gloom and aching nostalgia.

How do the recordings of the two concertos here stack up against the great players of the past: Rachmaninov himself, Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch, Richter, Argerich .. and almost anyone else one can think of? The answer, I think, is that the performances should be taken in their own right, with a fascinating pianist, an admirable orchestra, and an excellent modern recording. When I want to listen to the second or third of Rachmaninov's concertos, will I reach out my hand for Buniatishvili? Very definitely; there is so much to enjoy in these two performances and, like all the big Romantic works that also involve an orchestra, a good, modern recording quality is a great asset.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Charles-Auguste de Bériot

Charles-Auguste de Bériot fares quite well on my shelves, with 26 recordings of his musical works. He does not seem to fare so well in the concert hall, however, and I do not recall seeing a concert programme featuring his works. All a bit mysterious, when his music is tuneful, well written and attractive to listen to. He was certainly a better melodist than Alban Berg in his violin concerto!

My latest acquisition (thanks again to faithful Naxos) is a CD of Bériot's fourth, sixth and seventh violin concertos, plus a couple of substantial morceaux for violin and orchestra. The violinist is a young Japanese, born in 1997, Ayana Tsuji and she copes really well with Bériot's tough demands on the right arm, with ricochet and staccato bowing in constant use. She has the right delicate touch for this music – the central movement of the seventh concerto is especially moving. The music of de Bériot does not call for a Russian T34 tank.

Concerts featuring violinists seem locked into the same old eight or ten violin concertos (or else some ephemeral modern concoction cunningly placed between two popular pieces to forestall audiences voting with their feet). De Bériot's music is not hard on the intellect, but it is friendly on the ear and I listen to my 26 recordings with pleasure, including this new one with Ms Tsuji. And thanks again, Mr Naxos; 13 of my 26 recordings are on the Naxos label.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Beethoven

I rather thought I had given up enjoying performances of Beethoven's violin concerto. I have been listening to it regularly now for over sixty years. I have 90 recordings of the work on my shelves, including the one I bought in the 1950s (Bronislaw Gimpel). So I was surprised just how much I enjoyed a performance (over the web) by Frank Peter Zimmermann and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert – a conductor who is quite new to me. The concert dates from 3rd March of this year. I already have a performance of the Beethoven by Zimmermann dating from 1987, but he has come on a long way in the intervening 30 years (he is now only 52 years old and playing magnificently). Zimmermann plays the familiar Kreisler cadenzas, a pleasant contrast to so many violinists who seek out something exotic and provocative. And it goes without saying that -- hurrah, hurrah -- there is not a period or authentic effort in sight. Beethoven's concerto does not need it.

The Beethoven concerto is a tough one to play. For a start, it is very much a concerto for violin and orchestra, and a good orchestral contribution is essential. The violinist has little in the way of bravura passages or pyrotechnics with which to wow the audience. The first movement is long (around 22 minutes) and demands the utmost sophistication from the violinist, and informed and intelligent contributions from the orchestra. It also demands the right tempos for each of the movements – particularly the first, which is often taken too slowly. Zimmermann triumphs on all accounts (as do Alan Gilbert and the orchestra) and the performance, that held my attention throughout, gets one of my rare three star ratings and joins a small, select band of top class performances of this concerto on record.

As an addendum: I was astonished at the quality of this downloaded recording. We have come a long way since I used to couple up my tuner and amplifier to a cassette recorder in order to preserve off-air recordings. There is now (on my equipment) little to choose between studio recordings, and (good) off-air broadcasts over the Web such as this one from New York.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Russian Music. And Khatia Buniatishvili

Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Glinka, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin (for pianists) …. there is a long litany of Russian composers who have achieved firm places in the romantic and post-romantic eras of music. All complemented, of course, by hordes of first-class pianists and violinists from Russian lands. The Russian system may not produce first-class results in economics, but it certainly succeeds in music.

Modest Mussorgsky is now known mainly for his Pictures at an Exhibition, and his operas Boris Godunov, and Sorochyntsi Fair. I have been listening again with increased admiration to Pictures played by the charismatic Khatia Buniatishvili. It's wonderful music, with wonderful playing. The CD is complemented by Ravel's La Valse, and three movements from Stravinsky's Petrushka. A three star disc.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Mutterings about Opera

Amongst my musings in this blog, opera features very seldom. I have written of my deep love of Tristan and Isolde, and of many Handel operas. I may at some time have mentioned that I also love Tosca and La Bohème, perhaps also of Bellini's Norma. But opera has never really been one of my passions, although I love collections of arias from 18th century opera. My latest happy opera hour was listening to Joyce DiDonato (mezzo soprano) and Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis in operatic duets by Handel. A stream of wonderful tunes and beautiful music that would have filled Schubert and Mozart with envy. There is a lot to be said for operatic music.

By the end of his professional life, my father was playing in the Sadlers Wells Opera orchestra. As a lifelong musician, he also loved opera, but from a musician's point of view. He liked the orchestral music and loved good singing. But he had no interest in the “plot” or in what was happening on the stage. I seem to have inherited this trait; for most operas – particularly those before around 1830 – I could not care less what the various tenors, basses and sopranos are singing about, which was probably the case with Handel's upper-class English audiences almost all of whom would have had a typical English ignorance of any foreign language, including Italian. The first opera I attended was in the Hamburg opera house, where I sat enthralled listening to Tristan and Isolde; I recall I had my eyes closed for much of the time in order to avoid being distracted by what was happening on the stage. If that was true then, it would certainly be true now when too many operatic performances appear to have been hijacked by megalomaniac stage producers determined to achieve immediate notoriety and to put the music composer in his place. The composer only has to specify “Sultan's palace, overlooking the Bosporus” for the producer to “update” the opera to the New York subway in 1958. Opera critics are quick to praise “imaginative” staging and “making the opera relevant to modern young people”. At the same time, music critics will be decrying the use of modern instruments and the absence of gut strings, etc. in defiance of what the composer would have expected. Bizarre. If you update Mozart to the New York subway in 1958, why not update that old-fashioned music at the same time, and maybe replace the violins with saxophones and re-cast the recitatives as rap music?

I recall many years ago in New York when a friend remarked that, as an economy, the Metropolitan Opera was dispensing with the side-stage sign language person who kept deaf members of the audience informed as to what was being sung. Bizarre, thinking of deaf people going to an opera, but it fits with the view of many commentators and critics that the story and the plot are of major importance; this results in commentators insisting on relating the plot at length even though, and certainly pre- 1830, opera plots are usually thoroughly silly and not worth bothering about. Some of the Mozart operas, of course, are an exception to the silly story phenomenon.

So I love listening to operatic music, but shun the distraction of staging (which is why I would never buy an opera on DVD). Sitting back in my chair, I can enjoy Bellini or Wagner or Mozart or Handel without the distractions and annoyance introduced by egotistical stage directors. Prima la musica, poi le parole. Le parole come a long way behind la musica for me.