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.