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.