Thursday, 30 November 2017

Furtwängler in Beethoven and Schumann

Of the symphonies of Beethoven, I now really only enjoy the third, sixth and seventh. And anyone who has the Eroica conducted by either Furtwängler or Klemperer, needs no other. The two conductors are chalk and cheese in this music, with Furtwängler sounding warm and romantic, Klemperer stark and brooding (especially in the funeral march). I have just been listening to a new original tape transfer of Furtwängler conducting the Eroica in Lucerne (26 August 1953); it's a superb version, with a very reasonable sound quality and wonderful orchestral playing.

The CD also contains Schumann; the Manfred Overture, and the fourth symphony. I can enjoy Schumann as a song writer, and also in quieter music (such as the second movement of the fourth symphony). But most Schumann, particularly when he is rumbustious, passes me by. However, I suspect one would find it difficult to hear better versions of these works than the performances on this Audite CD. All three works are from tapes of public performances, and Audite gives the recent ICA Klemperer transfers of London public performances 1955 and 1956 an object lesson in how to transfer broadcast tapes. None of the periods of coughing and spluttering that so marred the ICA recordings; with Audite, just the very occasional cough and end-of-work applause remind one that these are live, public performances. Why some companies insist on keeping applause puzzles me; are there really people who sit and listen to applause every time they hear that particular recording? Or, even worse, people at home who join in the applause each time?

So now, whenever I want to re-listen to Beethoven's Eroica symphony, I have choices to make: Furtwängler in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic -- more forceful and in reasonable sound (with Pristine Audio). Or Furtwängler in 1953 with, presumably, the Berlin Philharmonic -- more mellow and thoughtful (Audite). Or one of my seven Klemperer versions; perhaps the 1955 (mono) Philharmonia, or the 26th June 1957 version with the Royal Danish Orchestra. Choices, choices. But it's nice to have options.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Klemperer at his best. But ....

A CD release from ICA (International Concert Artists) sees four CDs of London concerts by Otto Klemperer in 1955 and 1956. So far I have just sampled the Mozart pieces; the performances are pretty outstanding. At that time, Klemperer was fleet of foot, and the Philharmonia at its peak. The sound quality is not bad at all, taken from the original BBC broadcast tapes.

But …. and it's a big but. The transfers are just a straight tape dump, despite Paul Bailey being listed as “Remastering”. So you get audience noise and coughing even between movements; you get applause; you get a constant hum of concert hall reverberation and audience noise. Professional transfer artists such as Andrew Rose, Seth Winner or Mark Obert-Thorn have shown what can be done with removing background noise from old 78s or LPs, and I cannot believe it would not have been possible to remove much of it here. And as for leaving hall noise and coughing between movements …. The recordings are now way out of international copyright, despite the optimistic copyright notices plastered all over this set. Let us hope some real transfer artists take them over and convert very good concert hall performances into very good recorded performances. Mr Bailey should be hanging his head in shame. I may have to spend a lot of time re-transferring and cleaning up these recordings myself, since the performances are well worth having the best and merit a little tender loving care.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Gerhard Taschner - Part Two

A double CD pack from the French company Tahra brings us Taschner recordings from the period 1943-7, mostly in good sound and well transferred, although the Brahms sonata sounds a bit rough, with edgy violin tone in places. The recording of the Bach Chaconne made 23rd June 1943 in Berlin must have come from tape (radio broadcast) since there is no surface noise. A big sonic improvement over the 1941 version that was transferred from shellac disks. For my money, this is the best Bach chaconne in my entire collection. Three stars, no question; it was the piece that brought Taschner instant fame when he played it for Furtwängler in 1941. The Devil's Trills (27th March 1949) is up there in the top three or four, with superb trilling from Taschner. The 1943 Chaconne, along with the 1943 Zigeunerweisen, were among tapes captured by the Russians in 1945, and restored to Germany in March 1991. A little side-track of history.

Zigeunerweisen (Berlin, 4th December 1943) is as thrilling as ever with Taschner, but the vibrato in the slower passage still grates a little. Never mind; the left-hand pizzicato is still crisp and accurate. On 10th March 1947 in Berlin, Taschner and Walter Gieseking give a superb performance of César Franck's sonata; one of my three star choices. Taschner and Gieseking may be what the Americans, with their genius for marketing slogans, call a “dream team”. Anyway, the dream team goes on to play Brahms' third violin sonata (same date, and presumably same broadcast session, but sounding as if it comes from a different transfer source). The double CD pack ends with Taschner tackling Khatchaturian's violin concerto, with the Berlin Radio Orchestra conducted by Artur Rother. This is valuable for Taschner's remarkable violin playing, especially in the finale where the bow control is amazing. The slow movement lacks the intensity that Julian Sitkovetsky brought to the part (with Niyazi conducting), and the sound in general is not great; Khatchaturian needs colour, and the sound levels in this transfer (as maybe on the original tape) vary from time to time, with the violin sometimes close, sometimes too distant. Since the concerto was only completed in 1940, this 1947 performance must have been one of the first outside Russia.

For much of Taschner's earlier professional life in the 1930s and early 40s, performances of the Mendelssohn concerto would have been impossible. His 1953 performance with Fritz Lehmann has a freshness and a welcome absence of sentimentality. Tempi are brisk, technique and musicianship immaculate, and I liked it a lot. I thought I could never take even one more recording of this concerto, but I make an exception for Taschner's performance here. In the andante, taken as a true andante and not as an adagietto as so often, one notices that time and fashion have tamed Taschner's previously somewhat nervous vibrato. In the andante and finale, Taschner's timings at 7'41 and 6'09 are similar to those of Heifetz (7'07 and 5'57), though Heifetz is much faster than anybody in the first movement (11'00, versus 12'30 for Taschner). The Drabinghaus & Grimm transfer from the broadcast tapes gives a perfectly tolerable sound.

The sound in the Mendelssohn has Taschner balanced a little too far back, which is a shame since we buy these old recordings to listen to the violinist, not the orchestra – or even the concerto. In the Tchaikovsky concerto with Artur Rother conducting (1948) the violinist is balanced well forward, and we can admire the superb playing. For a 1948 live recording, the sound quality is astonishingly good. This MDG disc rounds off with an excellent transfer of Taschner's party piece, the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen recorded in 1943 with Michael Raucheisen at the piano. Incredible playing, but the vibrato of the 1940s still grates a little.

The Sibelius concerto dates from 1956 and the close up violin enables us to admire Taschner's peerless technique. The occasional minor fluff reminds us that pretty well all Taschner recordings are live and taken from broadcast tapes; no patching possible. Given the intensity of Taschner's playing, and his penchant for speedy tempi, it's a wonder there are not more fluffs. Taschner never plays it safe. The performance as a whole is one for lovers of violin playing, but is best avoided by lovers of the Sibelius violin concerto; there are too many odd changes of tempo in the first movement, and the orchestra (Cologne Radio Orchestra) often sounds all at sea. In the adagio di molto, we admire Taschner's ability to sustain a long melodic line, and we also notice that the nervous vibrato of 10-15 years before has now more or less vanished. In the finale, we admire the violinist's virtuosity and intensity; and no one plays fast passages faster than Gerhard Taschner !

This MDG disc continues with a second recording of the Khachaturian violin concerto (1955, with Schmidt-Isserstedt conducting the NDR orchestra). In the finale, we admire Taschner's superb sense of rhythm; in the andante sostenuto, his sense of the long line in the melody is superb. One feels Taschner is more at home in Khachaturian than in the concertos of Mozart (I know of no recording of Taschner playing anything by Mozart). All in all, however, I feel this performance lacks much of Taschner's much admired intensity, and parts of the work are a little too laid back for my liking. But perhaps, again, I am still bewitched by the performance by Julian Sitkovetsky, with Niyazi. This MDG CD ends with another Taschner party piece, Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy (1953, Fritz Lehmann and the Bamberger Symphoniker). Music that suits Taschner's virtuosity, sense of rhythm and sheer élan down to the ground.

Well, there are a few other Taschner recordings around: an EMI disc has the Bruch concerto, plus assorted concertos by Fortner, Pfizner and a Kammermusik by Hindemith. A Tahra CD has a few bits and pieces with piano not available elsewhere. But neither Tahra nor EMI exist any longer, so anyone wishing to investigate the recorded legacy of Gerhard Taschner has to seek out the CDs of Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG). Without MDG, Taschner would now be almost completely unknown. Thus the fickle nature of fame: it does not suffice to be a major virtuoso with an exceptional sense of musicality, of rhythm, and with fire and intensity. Without a good agent, an aggressive PR man and a solid home-team backing group, a name will fade into the history books. There are no violinists around today of the stature of Gerhard Taschner. All aspiring violinists would do well to listen to his recordings, alongside the recordings of Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. I am extremely happy to have my little Taschner collection.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tianwa Yang / Vilde Frang

Concert and recital programmes are becoming stupefyingly boring, with the same few works re-cycled over and over again, unless it be some contemporary piece, to be played once only and never again, and sandwiched carefully mid-programme to discourage non-fans from arriving late, or leaving early. Two recent CDs to tumble through my door reveal how recorded music is saving the day for the thousands of musical works rarely or never played in public. One new CD features seven shorter pieces for violin and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, with only the Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo capriccioso being at all familiar. And even those two pieces rarely show up in concert programmes today. Which is a great pity, since all the music here is attractive and pleasing to the ear. Expert performer is the highly talented Tianwa Yang, with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. I suspect people in Havana are more laid back than Ms Yang supposes, and her Havanaise goes by at a brisk trot. Still, delightful music, well played and well recorded. A CD from St Naxos, of course; what would lovers of violin music do without Naxos?

The other CD was a most enjoyable recital of 17 short pieces for violin and piano, played by Vilde Frang, with pianist José Gallardo. You won't find these pieces played in recital programmes, except as encores, more's the pity; the choice is excellent, based on homage to great violinists of the past as composers or arrangers. Thus, Heifetz, Kreisler, Wieniawski, Auer, Szigeti, Bazzini, et al. I was especially happy to re-encounter Szigeti's arrangement of an étude by Scriabin (étude in thirds). The playing is of the very best, the recording and balance just as they should be. Being a Warner product, the CD is liberally plastered with photos of young Ms Frang, of course. Naxos, quite rightly, gives us just one small black and white photo of Tianwa Yang, on the understandable grounds that we are buying the music of Saint-Saëns, not the performance of a young female.

I now rarely go to live concerts or recitals, more a question of geography and logistics rather than anything else. But looking at present day concert programmes, I guess I'd probably stick to recorded music even if I lived next door to a concert hall, since recorded music has such riches in terms of repertoire offered. Like the two CDs here.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Quatuor Mosaïques in Late Beethoven

My scepticism concerning “original instruments” and “period performances” is well documented in this blog. I can never really see the point, except it is currently fashionable. All those critics – most of them either pianists or choral scholars – who pretend they can discern immediately whether an instrument they are hearing has gut strings, metal strings, or plastic strings, can do nothing of the sort. I grew up with gut strings and they were a pain in the neck, always going out of tune, and snapping if you so much as looked at them. Instrument strings are one of the few things in the world that have become better over time (as well as computers, and cars). The strings I use in 2017 seem rarely to go out of tune, and very rarely break. And my playing does not sound any worse than it did when I had gut strings in my youth.

Well, all that as an introduction to the Quatuor Mosaïques playing the five late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven “on period instruments”. Of the sixteen strings used by the four instruments of the quartet, my sensitive ear can hear that three are non-gut. (Actually, it can't, but that just shows how silly the whole thing has become. I cannot even hear which of Heifetz's four violin strings was non-gut; he always used three gut strings, and one metal covered. I seem to remember it was the G that was metal covered). I bought the Mosaïques set because I have its Haydn quartet set, and like it very much indeed. Despite being “period”, the quartet has a warm, friendly sound, and does not scamper through the music at high speed like so many “period” performers. And unlike many period performers, the four players can actually play their respective instruments rather well; in this set, I would particularly pick out the cellist, the Frenchman Christophe Coin, who really makes the most of the cello part; it is as if Furtwängler were directing the ensemble, with emphasis on the bass part underpinning the music. More brownie points: for the B flat quartet opus 130, the Mosaïques go straight into the Grosse Fuge, after the Cavatina, a solution to Beethoven's controversial finales I much prefer, even though the Fuge does sound deranged in places, even to 21st century ears. To the ears of 1825, it must have sounded worse than the music of Luciano Berio.

No performances of the last five string quartets of Beethoven are going to be definitive. Listening to the Mosaïques, I still recall passages as played by the Busch Quartet – in the Cavatina of opus 130, for example. And the Busch players let the music breathe more than do their rivals. However, in these wonderful string quartets, I'll happily settle for the Busch, the Mosaïques and the Talich Quartet, in any old order. In the words of a Bach cantata: Ich habe genug.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Gerhard Taschner - Part One

Gerhard Taschner was born in 1922 and died in 1976 at the age of 54. In 1941, at the age of 19, he was chosen by Furtwängler to be leader of the Berlin Philharmonic. In the early 1960s, health problems forced him to abandon his concert career. Like so many from Central Europe in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, his career was stunted and he never found the renown his playing merited. He was, apparently, also a difficult person, once walking out of a rehearsal with Herbert von Karajan in the late 1940s and never going back.

For some reason that escapes me, I find I have no less than twelve CDs of various recordings by Taschner, most of them from broadcast tapes, since he never had a major recording contract. A two CD set contains all of Taschner's 78 rpm recordings from the 1940s and reveals immediately a highly focused tone, impeccable intonation, and a wonderful bow arm. And what a technique! His recording here of the Bach Chaconne (1941) is one of the most interesting I can think of; a long way from “period style”, but enthralling playing by the 19 year old Taschner. I lapped it up, despite the crackly surface noise from the shellac discs. The sonata by César Franck with Cor de Groot in 1943 reveals Taschner to be a superb chamber music and duo player, despite, on occasions, a distracting fast, narrow vibrato, especially prominent in slower music. But this 21 year old player was certainly no mere virtuoso. Within a few years, the very fast vibrato appears to have been tamed and becomes less of a distraction.

I must confess that I had more or less forgotten about these old recordings on my shelves. Meaning to sample different tracks, I soon found that I always had to listen to the whole thing, since Taschner's playing is fascinating, and his musicianship so convincing. Pieces by Paganini and Sarasate (1942 and 44) reveal Taschner to be at least the equal of Heifetz or Kogan in these works (and more interesting than 95% of today's violinists), with a superb sense of rhythm and the best left-hand pizzicato in the business – hearing his Zigeunerweisen makes one realise just how many violinists cheat or smudge when it comes to the pizzicato passages. Some of the shellac disc sides have more crackle and pop than many breakfast cereals, but I am not au fait with the technical possibilities of removing surface noise without impacting the violin sound, and with violinists the sound is important. In April 1948, Taschner turns in an excellent performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, with an approach that makes one think of Jascha Heifetz: authoritative, sensitive, and with a refusal to linger over sentimental passages. The finale underlines Taschner's virtuoso credentials. Berlin in 1948 cannot have been the most pleasant place on earth in which to play music.

A remarkable four CD box from Dabringhaus und Grimm sees Taschner in the early to mid 1950s, with two CDs of short or encore pieces and two CDs of sonatas for violin and piano. Those were the days when musicians were permitted to programme or record short pieces and encore pieces. No more 78 rpms for the Dabringhaus set, but at least Taschner had a little luck in that in the 1940s and early 50s the Germans were probably top of the pile when it came to recording technology, with the Americans and Russians limping way behind during the same period. Holding listeners' interest through around 26 short pieces demands a violinist with an exceptional palette of sound, style and colouring. Heifetz could do it. Kreisler could do it. And on the D&G CDs, Taschner certainly could do it! I intended to sample, but I listened to everything, all through. None of today's highly talented violinists can get anywhere near Taschner's playing of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasia (November 1954, with Martin Krause). You are glued to your speakers or headsets. And out of my 81 (!) recordings of Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, I cannot think of any more thrilling than Taschner's (6th October 1952, with Hubert Giesen). His 1952 recording of Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin may be the best of the 45 recordings of this short piece I possess, since, chameleon-like, Taschner always adapts his sound and his bowing to the different music he plays. Like Laurence Olivier on the stage, or Maria Callas in the opera house, Taschner adapts his sound and his playing to the music at hand. Particularly when listening to a recital of short pieces, one discovers there are many Taschners at work. The style and sound of the Taschner who plays Beethoven sonatas (7th November 1955) is, quite rightly, very different from the sound of the Taschner who plays Brahms' G major sonata (26th November 1955).

The third and fourth CDs in this truly excellent Dabringhaus und Grimm set feature sonatas for violin and piano by Dvorak, Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Othmar Schoeck, and Maurice Ravel. All the recordings on all four CDs seem to come from German radio archives, and sound quality ranges from not bad, to pretty good. Pianists in the sonatas here are Edith Farnadi and Martin Krause, with Hubert Giesen in the Dvorak. We find Taschner to be a truly first class player of chamber music and duo sonatas. Indeed, of the 34 pieces of music presented on these four CDs, a very high proportion indeed would feature in my three best recordings of the music concerned. You can almost certainly find almost all the 34 pieces played by contemporary players such as Joshua Bell or Nikolaj Znaider. But you will find no playing of the standard set by Taschner. And I know of no one else who has recorded the fascinating “Mosquitos” by the American Blair Fairchild.

The connection between talent and fame is a fragile one. A violinist such as Isaac Stern was ten times more famous than Gerhard Taschner; Gerhard Taschner was ten times a better and more interesting violinist than Isaac Stern. Gerhard Taschner was a major violinist who is now pretty well unknown. In this he resembles the violinist David Nadien who is also pretty well unknown (but for different career reasons from Taschner). Come to think of it, the playing styles of Taschner and Nadien have much in common, including completely fluent techniques and an aversion to lingering and slow tempi, although there is more fire and tension in Taschner's playing. Violinists for violinists. I am happy to possess my Taschner collection. When people ask who are the great violinists of the past century, you can reply “Heifetz, and Kreisler” and they will nod. If you add “Joseph Hassid, David Nadien, and Gerhard Taschner” they will look at you oddly.

This is part one of my return to Taschner. Awaiting me are two CDs of concertos from EMI, two CDs of Tahra's Art of Gerhard Taschner, two CDs of Tahra's Portrait of Gerhard Taschner, and one CD of the Gieseking-Taschner-Hoelscher trio in Brahms. From the EMI, I'll probably gloss over the concertos by Fortner, Pfitzner and Hindemith (Kammermusik). And one of the Tahra CDs duplicates material I have already considered. To be continued ….

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Arabella Steinbacher, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten

The violin concertos of Paul Hindemith and of Benjamin Britten were both finished in 1939. Somewhat remarkably, until now I had no recording of Hindemith's work, and to the best of my knowledge I have never heard it before in my entire life. Today I heard it for the first time and I have to confess that I feel I have not been missing much. Hindemith's concerto is well-crafted in a highly Germanic post- Brahms and post- Bruch idiom. I suspect it is not much played, and I cannot say I am surprised.

The highly capable soloist (I imagine) is the glamorous Arabella Steinbacher. The usual excellent recording comes from Pentatone. I cannot see the CD spinning too often chez moi. But also on the CD is Britten's (suddenly) ever popular violin concerto. At this rate, the concerto will outpace that of Tchaikovsky in recordings and popularity! I commented recently (re Julia Fischer) how so many top violinists have suddenly discovered the work. Now Arabella has added it to her recorded repertoire and it is an excellent version. The Britten work is permeated with sadness; the Hindemith work admits to no emotions. The Britten is also one of those rare works where I do not feel that the finale is a bit of a let-down, and I am happy that it is at last enjoying a well-deserved popularity, after being sniffed at by critics for so long, and ignored by so many soloists of previous generations, with the honourable exception of Theo Olof (1948) and Bronislaw Gimpel (1961).

Arabella is never a girl in a hurry, and this Britten takes its time, particularly in the final passacaglia. Vladimir Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra sound excellent and idiomatic, and Pentatone's recording makes this a highly useful three star addition to the catalogue of excellent recordings. It is really good to hear so much orchestral detail; in Britten's concerto, the orchestral part is extremely important; on a par with that of the soloist. As for Herr Hindemith and his violin concerto … Oh well, you can't win them all.