Thursday, 28 December 2017

Sabine Devieilhe

Back in July, I was surprised to enjoy a CD of Véronique Gens singing arias from nineteenth century French operas. Apart from Carmen — said to be the world's most frequently performed opera — French opera gets few headlines, probably understandably so. It does, however, feature some highly attractive individual arias, as re-confirmed by a new CD "Mirages" from the superb French coloratura soprano, Sabine Devieilhe with her fresh, young soprano voice. Léo Delibes provides three of the arias (from his opera Lakmé) with others coming from André Messager, Debussy, Massenet and a few others – including Igor Stravinsky (Le Rossignol). The opera arias (19th and early 20th centuries) are interspersed with some songs with piano accompaniment (Koechlin, Debussy, Berlioz). In a couple of the pieces Devieilhe is augmented by Marianne Crebassa (mezzo) and Jodie Devos (soprano). The efficient little orchestra is conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Altogether a three-star CD of music, singing, playing, and recording. Sabine Devieilhe was already high in my esteem; with this CD she shoots even higher. A disc to keep in my “do not file away, yet” rack, and a lovely musical ending to 2017. Off now to France to eat oysters.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Sigiswald Kuijken's Bach Cantatas

I have 38 recordings of different cantatas by J.S. Bach directed by Sigiswald Kuijken and his Petite Bande. I am in the process of listening to them all. I also have major sets directed by Philippe Herreweghe, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki, plus sundry others. For the moment, it is Sigiswald, and his Belgian Bachists; others will follow in 2018.

Kuijken is “Bach-lite”, so you don't get a chorus, just the four soloists singing together. Which may have been what Bach expected, even though when he wrote the music he probably heard in his head a heavenly choir singing. “That is in my head”, Bach would have muttered. “Tomorrow morning it will be the same sorry crew singing.” In the chorus movements, I miss the chorus. In the chorales, the four soloists are acceptable. While it is true that recording technology can boost the sound of four voices, the choruses still sound weak, more madrigal than chorus. In the context of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, four voices would have sounded very weedy.

Bach's music varies from “cantate du jour”, to remarkable music. The (many) remarkable cantatas possibly reflect the arrival of important visitors, or the boss's family, where Johann Sebastian needed to make a special effort, even above his exalted normal; BWV 144 is a case in point (Nimm, was dein ist). Kuijken's soloist line-up (typically Siri Thornhill, Petra Noskaiova, Christoph Genz, Jan van der Crabben, with many variations over the years) is variable, with some noticeably weak tenors on occasions. The alto, Petra Noskaiova, (female, thank heavens) seems to have been a favourite of Kuijken, and features often. The tenor, Christoph Genz, features in 21 of the cantatas; he was obviously more to Kuijken's taste than he is to mine.

The big advantage of the Kuijken performances is the clarity of texture (very important in Bach), the expertise of the orchestra, and the fine balance of the recordings. Plus Kuijken's feelings for Bach, and for Bach's rhythm, and tempo. None of that PDQ Bach here. I can never remember having to mutter “speed it up a bit” or “slow down!” when listening to these particular 38 cantata recordings which continue to give me a great deal of pleasure, despite the occasional weak soloist, and the lack of body in the choral movements. I have 30 Bach cantatas directed by Masaaki Suzuki with, as I recall, a small choir and a band of soloists who are usually superior to Kuijken's. Suzuki is probably now a project for 2018.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Magnificent Ten for 2017

2017 has been a good year for up-and-coming and new on the horizon artists (newish on my horizon, at least). I've picked ten artists for my vintage 2017, eschewing the old favourites such as Klemperer, Furtwängler, Kreisler, Heifetz, etc. where it goes without saying. As usual, order is random, since picking “1st” and “10th” in such a varied list is meaningless.

Nazrin Rashidova impressed me greatly for her violin playing in seven études-caprices of Emile Sauret. She also shows a healthy desire to escape the standard, rubber-stamped repertoire, with recordings devoted to the music of Moritz Moszkowski, and Leopold Godowsky, as well as the Sauret.

Vasily Petrenko is becoming a really first-rate conductor in his chosen repertoire. Following on from his remarkable Shostakovich symphonies came the two symphonies of Edward Elgar, superbly conducted, and played by the Liverpool Philharmonic.

Carolyn Sampson is hardly up-and-coming, but she produced a first-rate CD of songs to poems by Paul Verlaine, as well as a CD of Bach cantatas for soprano. Both three stars.

Beatrice Rana shot into my little world with her performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations. She has played other things — extremely well — but it is her Goldbergs that shoot her to fame in my eyes.

Boris Giltburg was a pretty new name for me. His Rachmaninov and Shostakovich recordings went straight to the top of the pile (though I responded less enthusiastically to his Beethoven).

Arabella Steinbacher is hardly up-and-coming, but she added to her attractive list of recordings with a first-class performance of the violin concerto of Benjamin Britten, highly competitive in what is now a somewhat crowded field of recordings of this work.

The Tetzlaff Quartett released a performance of Schubert's last string quartet that was truly remarkable. The CD also contains a superb Haydn quartet (Opus 20 No.3).

Arcadi Volodos released a CD of Brahms solo piano music that enthralled even me, normally no fan of Brahms' piano music.

Khatia Buniatishvili wowed me with my favourite performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. She can be a variable performer, but here she sounds completely in her element.

Maria João Pires is hardly up-and-coming; she was born 23rd July 1944, exactly three years after me. But the performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert played by her that I listened to throughout the year mean she has to have a place in this subjective list of remarkable artists for 2017.

Record company of the year has to be Naxos for its stream of remarkable violinists, year after year.

Monday, 11 December 2017

In Praise of Arthur Grumiaux

A friend who recently visited Japan bought a few CDs of recordings by Arthur Grumiaux, and sent me copies. Readers of this blog will know of my high opinion of Grumiaux (if they do not, there is a search box on the top left-hand corner of the blog page). Grumiaux and Adolf Busch were the two great string players in chamber music during the twentieth century, and both knew how to surround themselves with suitable partners of the same standard. Grumiaux's suave, elegant playing so representative of the Franco-Belgian school, has survived the decades, and hearing him play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert plus the French and Belgian classics is still a wonderful experience. (Of course, Grumiaux also played anything and everything – even the Berg concerto in 1967 – but it is in the classics, the French school, and in chamber music that his true greatness as a violinist is revealed). My good friend sent me Grumiaux playing Vivaldi concertos, Beethoven string trios, and Schubert violin and piano sonatas; a rare feast. Another feast comes in the Beethoven string trios and Schubert works in so far as recording quality is concerned. Nearly fifty years ago, Philips knew how to make excellent recordings with a perfect balance between instruments … and was also able to transfer the analogue recordings to digital media without the glassy sheen that afflicts so many transfers.

As a side note: why is it that the Japanese almost alone have always kept on sale recordings of great violinists of the past? The three Grumiaux CDs that my friend sent are not available here. Years ago, when I wanted a 10-CD set of the recordings of Gioconda de Vito, I had to get them from … Tokyo. And when I wanted a set of the Léner Quartet's complete Beethoven quartets, I had to get them from … Tokyo. I have many, many recordings of music played by Arthur Grumiaux. I will retain them until the day I die.

Keep-at-Hand Recordings

Picking a book from shelves of books is relatively easy. Picking a CD from shelves of CDs is not easy, particularly with slim-line CDRs like many of my recordings. I can (almost) always find a given recording, since my CD collection is organised. But serendipity is a tall order and very many recordings that I shelve are never thought of again, through no fault of theirs. Which is one reason why I keep a small toast-type rack near my CD player with 15 CDs that I can turn to when I want to listen to something congenial. For anyone interested, as 2017 nears its end, here are the current contents of the rack, in random order:

Emile Sauret — Caprices Op 64 Nos.1-7. Nazrin Rashidova.
J.S. Bach — Goldberg Variations. Beatrice Rana.
Chopin — Complete Etudes. Zlata Chochieva.
Rachmaninov — Etudes-tableaux Op 39, plus second piano concerto. Boris Giltburg.
A Verlaine Songbook — Carolyn Sampson.
Saint-Saëns — Works for violin & orchestra. Tianwa Yang.
Shostakovich — Piano Quintet, plus String Quartet No.8. Talich Quartet.
Mozart & Beethoven — violin & piano sonatas. Ji Young Lim.
J.S. Bach — Cantatas for soprano. Carolyn Sampson.
Julius Röntgen — Music for violin & piano. Atsuko Sahara.
Beethoven & Mozart — Grumiaux Trio.
Beethoven — String Trios Op 9. Grumiaux Trio.
Heinrich Ernst — The Virtuoso Violin. Thomas Christian.
Prokofiev — Violin & piano works. Lisa Oshima.
Paganini — 24 Capricci. Sueye Park.

And that is my line-up of the 15 keep-at-hand recordings for 2017. Interestingly, no orchestral music (apart from the orchestra in the second Rachmaninov concerto, and in the Saint-Saëns pieces). Why not this, and why not that? My rack only holds 15 discs.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Marianne Crebassa

I have always loved Maurice Ravel's Shéhérazade and was intrigued to see it included in a new CD recital by the French mezzo, Marianne Crebassa since here it is with a piano, and not the usual subtle orchestra. Does it work? Yes, for me it was a surprising success, helped by the piano accompaniment of Fazil Say. For the second song, la flûte enchantée, a flute is added to the piano; it works well. Ms Crebassa has a most attractive creamy voice; I have always been attracted to French mélodies, and this new CD is right on target although I have never managed to enjoy Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis. And I have never met Gabriel Fauré's four Mirages, though I cannot say I am too surprised at their lack of popularity. The first song, cygne sur l'eau, seems to have some affinities with rap music. Perhaps Mirages is an acquired taste. The three mélodies by Debussy here are more enjoyable, and Henri Duparc, with four mélodies, is always first class.

I cannot remember hearing Ravel's Vocalise en forme de habenera sung (as it should be). It has only appeared (often) in my life in its arrangement for violin and piano, of which I have 29 examples on my shelves. Ms Crebassa sings it well, and Fazil Say's piano is exemplary thoughout this CD. The stars of this CD are, somewhat predictably: Henri Duparc, Maurice Ravel, Marianne Crebassa, Fazil Say, and Erato.


Quoted with approval from the ARG (American Record Guide):

We get a lot of publicity touting the "greatest" — violinist, pianist, whatever. In the age of mass culture "greatest" simply means "most famous", which in turn means "has the biggest publicity budget". And that means he attracts crowds of people who don't know any better, so he plays with every orchestra that can afford him (his fees climb very fast, so many cannot), which feeds his reputation, thus confirming his publicity. Often less famous people play better, but are viewed as "second tier".

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Messiah Cometh -- Yet Again

Listen to ten different performances of a symphony of Brahms and you will hear the same notes, in the same order. Tempi may vary. Dynamics may vary. But you will always be listening to the same work. In my distant youth, Handel's Messiah was a stack of fragile 78 rpm records (played by me on a wind-up gramophone). Main singers in my 78 pile were Isobel Baillie (soprano), and Gladys Ripley (contralto); conductor was Malcolm Sargent. Writing this, I am listening to my latest Messiah, with a mainly French ensemble directed by Hervé Niquet; soprano 1 is Sandrine Piau (hurrah!); soprano 2 is Katherine Watson; contralto is Anthea Pichanick; tenor is Rubert Charlesworth; bass-baritone is Andreas Wolf. All are extremely good (and not a castrato amongst them). I am often doubtful about tenors, but I make an exception for Rupert Charlesworth here; an excellent singer, with superb diction.

And what of language? English people tend to bristle when non-English singers tackle English words (but nod approvingly when English speakers sing in German, French or Italian). English disapproval also extends to American accents, even though in the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, American pronunciation is probably more “authentic”. But American accents bring memories of Popeye, Donald Trump, and the Lone Ranger; not a good thing to conjure up when listening to Handel or Purcell. Apart from a number of non-english “R”s, nothing ruffled me with the English language in this recording. The English “R” is certainly not an Italian R, nor a German R, nor a French R. It is some sort of Brexit R. (Not even the Thai “R”; a very fine hotel, the Royal River, in Bangkok came over when referred to by the locals as the Loyal Liver).

Compared with Gladys Ripley, Isobel Baillie and Malcolm Sargent in my youth, tempi are now swift. I was constantly reminded that Handel's feet and pedigree were anchored firmly in Italian opera and in the trios and duets that he wrote in Italy in his youth (some of which found their ways, many years later, re-cycled into the Messiah). Pitch is baroque pitch, which means the singers do not invoke tension when they are obliged to sing above the stave. Handel was careful about the range of his singers (one reason why there are so many versions of his works, including the Messiah, where Handel re-wrote and adapted to the raw singer material with which he was faced). The choir here is a reasonable size, as it should be for Handel; Handel would have had no truck with people like Joshua Rifkin and their minimalist econo-forces.

My father (a double bass player) always maintained that Handel wrote his Messiah in order to give musicians many money-earning concert opportunities around the Christmas period. He was probably wrong: Handel wrote music in order to make money for himself. He was the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of the early 18th century (albeit that Handel's music will last a lot longer than that of his English rival some 275 years later). Handel died a rich man, despite having rarely having a patron or salaried employment. He is often passed over as a “great” composer, even though Mozart and Beethoven fully appreciated his genius. Anyway, in 200 years time, I predict that Handel's music, including his Messiah, will still be delighting lovers of great music. And this latest offering, from Hervé Niquet and his forces? I love it! Some things in (musical) life do get better and better, and Handel's music, in particular, has benefited enormously from greater understanding and appreciation. Anyone who loves Handel anchored in Italian opera, rather than in the Church of England, will enjoy this recording with its excellent singers, superb choir, professional orchestra, and very expert recording and balance. Perhaps, somewhat arrogantly, I can suggest that we now know Handel a lot better compared with immediate previous generations. He is not just the composer of the Messiah, of the Water Music, and of the Fireworks music. He was a prolific composer, like his contemporaries Johann Sebastian Bach, and Antonio Vivaldi. He was one of the truly great composers of the Western World.

In Praise of Seventeen Year Old Girls

Of the many blessings that I can count, one is that I have never aspired to be a concert violinist in the modern world. It would have been bad for my amour propre, bad for my mental health, and disastrous for my personal finances. The competition out there is ferocious! I have just been listening (courtesy of YouTube) to 16 year old Lara Boschkor playing the first Wieniawski violin concerto, and the 17 year old Lara Boschkor playing Prokofiev's first violin concerto. Miss Boschkor appears — quite understandably — to have won every competition around since she was 10 years old. I can't compete with that. I give her Wieniawski and her Prokofiev three stars each. Most teenage wonders soon fade away. I hope she does not.

I commented recently on Vilde Frang and her highly distinguished CD of “homage” to pieces composed by, or arranged by, great violinists of the past. Ms Frang is now 31 years old, so hardly an up-and-coming young violinist. But she is certainly a force to be reckoned with (forgetting her unfortunate Mozart concerto CD with a band of costumed historical has-beens).

Even when I was young, I never even dared open the music to Paganini's 24 Capricci. But, then, I was never a 17 year old girl. Sueye Park, on a new BIS CD, is (just) 17 and plays the capricci extremely effectively. Technically, she is beyond reproach, and the accuracy of her double stops is quite outstanding. However, the capricci have lasted around 200 years because they are more than simply technical show-off pieces. Somewhat like 13 year old Tianwa Yang, many years ago, Ms Park also brings out the many sentimental and lyrical aspects of the 24 works (one reason why her CD lasts for an astonishing 82'41). For many violinists, the capricci are macho works, designed for showing off technique. Ms Park gives every single note its due; a difficult feat in technically challenging works, where it is often easier to flash through the difficulties at speed rather than to spell them out and play them accurately. As I am sure Paganini intended, the 24 capricci exhibit the full range and capabilities of the violin; listening to Sueye Park, I feel she has really thought through each capriccio and gives each its full measure as music, and as a technical example of what one violin with four strings and one bow can achieve. The older generation of violinists — Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Oistrakh, Kogan — never tackled the unaccompanied caprices on record, and it was left to violinists such as Ruggiero Ricci (1949) to open up the repertoire. Since then, I have much enjoyed Michael Rabin (1958), James Ehnes (2009), Leonidas Kavakos (1990) and Thomas Zehetmair (2007).

Beyond showing off a violinist's incredible technique, the 24 capricci are also about showing off the incredible range and variety of voices of the humble violin, and I suspect it is this latter aspect that would have had Signor Paganini nodding his head in approval had he been able to listen to Sueye Park. It certainly has my head nodding in approval. I listened to all 24 caprices one after another, a difficult feat unless the violinist — like here — has a broad range of colour and dynamics. In the end, a performance of Paganini's 24 capricci comes down to either: listen to what a wonderful violinist I am, or listen also to what a wonderful instrument the violin is. Three stars to Miss Park. And to Signor Paganini. And to BIS.