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.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Carolyn Sampson in French Mélodies

French song is not as “popular” as German song. However, I have long been a fan of French mélodies, so I snapped up a new CD of French songs sung by one of my current favourite singers, Carolyn Sampson. The CD has 33 mélodies, all featuring the poems of Paul Verlaine, with quite a few settings of the same poems by different composers. The overall standard of the music from the ten composers featured is high, though inevitably some stand out more than others. There are surprises: I greatly liked the setting of Paysages tristes by someone unknown to me, Déodat de Séverac.

The French language, a frequent hurdle for non-native singers, sounds pretty secure in the voice of Carolyn Sampson (a quick look at a YouTube interview in French shows she has a pretty good command of the language). 80 very pleasant minutes. Joseph Middleton sounds an excellent accompanist on the piano, and BIS produces a clear and well-balanced recording. Another esteemed acquisition.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Tetzlaff Quartett in late Schubert

All my musical life, I have held the music of Franz Schubert in high regard, particularly his later works: the final three piano sonatas, the final string quartets, and the Winterreise song cycle. A high place is reserved for Schubert's last string quartet, in G major D.887. I came to know it from an LP with the Quartetto Italiano (a performance I still have) and then from the Busch Quartet, recorded in the 1930s. Those two performance were very different, with the Italians bringing their smooth, wonderful tone to the work, whilst the Busch players presented a starker picture. Now along comes the Tetzlaff Quartett, and the mood is starker still – rather like the recent recording of Death and the Maiden with the Pavel Haas Quartet that I so much enjoyed recently.

The Tetzlaff Quartett reveals a more complex emotional world than that suggested by the Quartetto Italiano, with the Italians' softer colours and ironing out of dissonances and dynamic extremes. With Tetzlaff, we wonder at Schubert's kaleidoscopic harmonic shifts as well as at his constant shifts of mood. Looking at the score, pp and ff seem to be alternating every few bars, and the score is littered with accidentals, keeping the harmonic language vague, even at times bringing to mind Schubert's later Austrians – Mahler, Zemlinsky or Korngold. The Tetzlaffs approach is similar to that of the old Busch Quartet, but with later recording techniques the full force of Schubert's violently alternating dynamic range can be felt to the full.

As I have written before, string quartets have often been a medium of intensely personal communication where composers, free of writing for the masses, could indulge in a little experimentation, or in exploration of more personal feelings, as witnessed by many of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Shostakovitch. Even Mendelssohn departed from his usual pleasant sounds with his string quartet in F minor opus 80, written immediately after the death of his sister. As with the Pavel Haas in Death and the Maiden, I am happy to add the Tetzlaff Quartett's recording of Schubert's final string quartet to my Schubert pantheon.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Roberta Invernizzi, and Handel

Apart from Gustav Mahler, it is difficult to think of a composer whose stock has risen faster than that of Georg Frideric Handel. When I was young, when it came to Handel it was the Messiah, the Water Music, the Fireworks music, and some violinist – including me – playing “Handel's Largo”. My current catalogue of Handel recordings amounts to 585 works: duetti, cantatas, complete operas and oratorios, plus arias from individual operas and oratorios. Yes, five Messiahs, six recordings of the “Largo” (but no Fireworks, or Water Music). Inconceivable back in the 1950s and 60s.

The latest 13 Handel pieces (all from his operas) to join my collection are sung by Roberta Invernizzi (with the Accademia Hermans directed by Fabio Ciofini). Invernizzi has a lovely burnished soprano voice that I enjoy immensely. Her arias are well chosen; the band plays well and stylistically. The CD wins a privileged place in my rack of 15 CDs that I keep to hand. There is a lot to be said for singers who sing in their native languages; for a start, they can concentrate hard on the meaning of the words, rather than on how to pronounce them colloquially. But that is a subject for another essay. I also often prefer Italian bands in this kind of music, rather than their more prim and proper North European counterparts. Maybe Handel, with his evident preference for Italian singers and musicians (at that time) had good instincts. See Thomas Hearne and his condemnation in Oxford of Handel and his “Crew of (lousy foreign) fiddlers”. An early Brexit supporter !

Invernizzi's CD is built around the four famous sopranos for whom Handel wrote much of his operatic music. The fact that two of the sopranos achieved the popular nicknames of “the Elephant” and “the Pig” reminds us of the days when opera singers (as well as musicians in general) were prized above all for their performing ability, rather than for their physical appearance. Alas, nowadays if you are not young and beautiful, you are greeted with polite rejection by the marketing team. We await with horror the future appearance of a teenage Brunhilde, and a teenage Tristan.

An excellent addition to my 585 collection of Handel recordings. I confess to being a bit of a Handel junkie; but rather more Handel than yet another Kreutzer Sonata, or Mendelssohn violin concerto. Viva Invernizzi !

Igor Levit plays Rachmaninov

Igor Levit is a modern pianist who – so far – can do little wrong, in my eyes. I had pigeon-holed him as a supreme pianist in the classical repertoire: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Not a Romantic. I was therefore intrigued when a friend directed me to an off-air performance (6th June) of Levit playing Rachmaninov, one of the great late-Romantic composers. I should have reflected more; some of the very best performances of Rachmaninov's works are by the composer himself, who had no truck with icing the cake and gilding the lily when it came to playing his own works. Rachmaninov played them straight.

Levit gives a superb performance à la Rachmaninov of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Levit is recognisably Levit in the playing, and I should have reflected in advance on his expressed love of playing variations. Superb support comes from the Bavarian State Orchestra under Kirill Petrenko, and the two ex-Russians with one of the world's top orchestras give a performance of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody that goes straight to the top 2-3 performances I can think of. I'll watch out eagerly for more opportunities to sample Igor Levit playing Rachmaninov.

James Ehnes, and Beethoven's Sonatas

For the past twenty years or so, I have followed the career of the violinist James Ehnes with interest. Just over ten years ago, I heard him live at a concert (playing the Shostakovich first violin concerto). I have many, or most of, his recordings. Looking at the most recent CD cover photo, I was struck by his physical resemblance to Jascha Heifetz: neat attire, clean shaven, immaculate short hair. On the concert platform also he resembles Heifetz's famous no-nonsense playing stance and facial expressions.

Like Heifetz, Ehnes is a superb and sophisticated player, with technique to burn as shown in his recent re-recording of the the 24 Paganini Capricci. Of course, Ehnes's playing sounds nothing like Heifetz's; no one's ever does. But the similarities between the two men are somewhat striking. As a loyal Ehnes fan, I bought his latest CD featuring Beethoven's violin and piano sonatas Opus 30 No.1, and Opus 47 (Kreutzer). The pianist is Andrew Armstrong, who does well, although I always get the impression that Beethoven's piano parts in these sonatas are less important than in many other duo sonatas by other composers. No problem with Armstrong, however, and no problem with the excellent Onyx recording. Like almost all violin and piano recordings, this one is best heard through good quality headphones rather than speakers; modern loudspeakers – at least in the quality range I can afford – are designed to give good bass response (which is what most music listeners pine for, it appears). Treble response is sacrificed, which means that the sound from the bass-heavy piano predominates over the sound from the treble-heavy violin.

It goes without saying that Ehnes's playing in these two sonatas is absolutely first rate, and it is difficult to find fault with him (or with Armstrong). It is a good lesson in sophisticated violin playing. Truly excellent versions of these two sonatas, in other words. I re-discovered the sad fact that I really do not enjoy the Kreutzer sonata; give me any of the other nine Beethoven sonatas in its place. I find it too long. The slow movement is a set of variations rather than one of Beethoven's sublime adagios; and it goes on for some sixteen minutes, with the whole sonata lasting nearly forty minutes – far too long for its subject matter, in my view, and I rarely enjoy Beethoven in his more aggressive moods. No fault of Ehnes and Armstrong, however!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Volodos plays Brahms

It is highly unusual for me to buy a CD of Brahms piano music. I enjoy a wide range of piano music, especially Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Rachmaninov. I no more can play the piano than I can play the marimba, so the piano music of the “pianist” composers does not feature prominently on my shelves; little Liszt, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Scriabin (Rachmaninov is an exception). But I was curious about all the critical furore regarding a new Brahms piano music CD recorded by Arcadi Volodos, so I ventured out with my money, and bought it. And I have now listened to it many times.

When it comes to solo piano music, I still greatly prefer Rachmaninov to Brahms. However, Mr Volodos does an excellent job in persuading me to keep this CD for frequent listening. It is not so much the music; it's the playing. Volodos has an uncanny talent for light and shade, for graduations of piano (not much of the music on the CD is vigorous or loud). So I sit entranced listening to Volodos's piano playing. The three Opus 117 intermezzi are familiar – even to me – but what piano playing!

I cannot say I am in the market now for Brahms piano recitals. But if Volodos ever records more Brahms, I'll be there with my money. I sense Volodos is not a pianist for the great classics; the magic (a word I usually dislike and avoid) is in his playing, rather than in the music. Just what is required, to my mind, for Brahms opus 76, 117 and 118. A comparison springs to mind with the conductor Thomas Beecham, who was superb in lavishing meticulous attention on minor works, but who left the "big" works of Beethoven, Brahms, etc. to others.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Carolyn Sampson sings Bach

As the proud possessor of 270 (!) recordings of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, I am somewhat baffled as to why I am still adding to my collection. When on earth am I going to listen to 270 recordings?

Be that as it may, the latest CD to arrive chez moi features the wonderful Carolyn Sampson singing three cantatas with the Freiburger Barockorchester. The CD has everything I require of a good Bach cantata recording: first class music, first class singing, fine instrumental backing, and a good recorded sound. Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten is deservedly well known and features some of Bach's best secular cantata music. It is difficult to sing, but Sampson manages it superbly. Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn adds a bass-baritone, Andreas Wolf, and very effective he is too, with a nice contrast to the soprano part. Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut is another well known cantata that confirms that Sampson is not just a pretty voice, but also responds intelligently to the words she is singing. Fine oboe playing (Katharina Arfken) throughout the cantatas add up to a welcome addition to my Bach cantata discography.