Saturday, 22 December 2018

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio with Gilels, Kogan, and Rostropovich

In my humble opinion, there were just two really great piano trio combinations in the twentieth century: Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals. And Gilels, Kogan, and Rostropovich. All six musicians were absolutely superb. Both trios broke up mainly because of disputing cellists, Casals objecting to his colleagues because of second world war politics, Rostropovich rowing with Kogan and then, later, becoming an émigré to the West in search of money. While they lasted, however, the two quite disparate trios were world-beaters.

I have long loved the 1952 recording made by Gilels, Kogan, and Rostropovich of Tchaikovsky's A minor piano trio, opus 50. The trio with one of Tchaikovsky's haunting melodies. I have the recording in various transfers, but have just acquired one more; highly satisfactory. The three friends (as they then were) play like three Russian angels. All three, I recollect, lived in the same prestige apartment building in Moscow; Kogan married Gilel's sister Elizabeta, herself an eminent violinist. For a Russian recording of 1952, the result is excellent. Perhaps the piano sounds a little tinny, but the strings make angelic sounds and the balance is absolutely fine – no mean feat in a piano trio where, all too often, the powerful piano and the gruff cello overpower the more slender violin. Not so here.

This newly-acquired transfer comes from Diapason (“les indispensables”) and includes Tchaikovsky's third string quartet, recorded by the Borodin Quartet, also in 1952. It is the best transfer so far, in my collection of Tchaikovsky's Trio. To complete my great joy at re-possessing this all-time classic, the CD cost me just €1.46 ordered from Amazon (France) and delivered from Germany at low-cost postage. There never were such times for music lovers.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Otto Klemperer in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

When it comes to Beethoven symphonies, I am choosy. I like the 3rd, 6th, and 7th. Also the first three movements of the 9th, but I turn off at the bombastic finale. Otherwise for me, Ludwig van Beethoven is the string quartets, the sonatas for piano and violin, and many of the 32 piano sonatas.

By chance, I listened today to the 6th symphony, in a recording from 1951 (Vox XPV 1068, in origin) sent to me long ago by a very good Dutch friend. The orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic (labelled as the "Vienna Symphony Orchestra", possibly for contractual reasons). The conductor was Otto Klemperer. For the sound of that vintage, I feared the worst, but I was pleasantly surprised. The warm, silky sound of the Vienna Philharmonic came over loud and clear.

Otto Klemperer (born in Breslau, Germany, in 1885. Died in Zürich, Switzerland in 1973) was, arguably, the last of the great conductors of the central German repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler). He, with Wilhem Furtwängler – with whom Klemperer refused to speak after 1945 – were probably the last two great conductors of that music, at that era. Now, we have Robin Ticcati, Gustavo Dudamel, or Daniel Barenboim. As a German Jew, Klemperer had an increasingly miserable life in Germany after 1930. As a staunch left-winger, he had an increasingly miserable life in America after 1940, culminating in the Americans refusing to re-issue his passport to enable him to travel internationally; he was saved (ironically) by the Germans who re-issued his German passport, freeing Klemperer – I don't recall him ever going back to America thereafter.

Whatever the racial affiliations and the politics. My two favourite recordings of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony are Furtwängler with the Vienna Philharmonic (1952) and Klemperer with the Vienna Philharmonic (1951). There is something about the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 1950s, with a very special and distinctive warm, seductive sound. And with Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Otto Klemperer. We can note in passing that Klemperer in 1951 was noticeably faster in the Pastoral than in later recordings, particularly in the Landleute third movement. We can also note that Klemperer's preference for having his woodwind to the fore pays excellent dividends in the Pastoral. This is a recording I had overlooked for many years (like so many on my shelves, alas). I shall overlook it no more.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Jan Dismas Zelenka

In Europe, the turn of the century from the 17th to the 18th saw hordes of highly talented composers of music scribbling away frantically, mainly to satisfy church and court employers. Amongst the scribblers were Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel, Antonio Vivaldi and, for a brief time, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. These four produced music of astonishing quality that still lives on today. Contemporaneously, in the depths of deepest Bohemia, Jan Zelenka was scribbling away, mainly at church music, with no less than twenty surviving masses. A generous friend sent me a recording that includes his 40 minute Missa Sancti Josephi.

The music is by an expert, with a surprising amount of frolicking and jollity (for a Mass). This is not “great” music on the scale of Bach's Mass in B minor, but it is immensely attractive and well written. I enjoyed it immensely, my enjoyment greatly increased by an excellent well-balanced recording (Carus-Verlag), four excellent soloists that include my much-admired Julia Lezhneva, she of the angelic soprano voice. Orchestra and Choir are from Stuttgart, and the efficient conductor is Frieder Bernius.

Zelenka grew up in a period when composers knew to keep musical numbers short and varied, otherwise the audience or congregation went to sleep, talked among themselves, or started a game of cards. So Zelenka's 39 minute Mass contains 13 different tracks, with the music well differentiated. He juggles his four soloists, one choir and one (large) orchestra like a real expert. I can't say I'm in the market for the other 19 Masses of Zelenka; but I'll certainly continue to enjoy this excellent recording and performance. Balancing the soloists, choir and orchestra cannot have been easy, but the Germans, in particular, appear to be highly skilled in that department.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Ginger Pork à la Bamboo Tree

This blog purports to deal with "Musicke & Food" but there is rarely any mention of food. So, nearing Christmas, here are details of my Number One dish for this week (with a nod towards the Bamboo Tree restaurant in Luang Prabang, who influenced my concept).
  • pork fillet, cut into small pieces
  • field or shitake mushrooms (cut small)
  • root ginger (plentiful)
  • Thai chillies, red and green
  • green bell pepper
  • salt, pepper
  • olive oil suffused with chilli
  • red Burgundy wine (to drink with the dish)

    Absolutely delicious! Melts in the mouth, tantalises the taste buds, and delights the intestines. Substitute lamb, beef, duck or chicken for the pork, if necessary, but stick with rich Burgundy wine.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Nemanja Radulovic and Khachaturian's Violin Concerto

Aram Khachaturian wrote his violin concerto in 1940 (a really bad time to launch a new work). It was quickly taken up by violinists, and sneered at by most Western critics because it was in D minor and had lots of catchy tunes, just when composers were supposed to be writing atonal serial music without a key signature or tune, or audience, in sight, and because Khachaturian was in the USSR, and thus a “Commie”. Music critics pre-date Mr Trump for bigotry. Violinists, however, loved it and still do, after nearly 80 years. And I have loved the concerto, for many, many decades.

I have 26 different recordings of the work, the earliest being Louis Kaufman in 1945, followed by David Oistrakh in 1946/47/65. Then Gerhard Taschner in 1947 and 1955. Then Leonid Kogan in 1951 and 1958. Then Julian Sitkovetsky in 1954 and 1956. Then Ruggiero Ricci in 1956. Then Mischa Elman — no less — in 1959, and Henryk Szeryng in 1964. The most recent recordings I have are by Julia Fischer (2004) and James Ehnes (2013). And Nemanja Radulovic (2018). If the critics sniff, violinists do not; with good reason.

Top of the list for me when I want to listen to Khachaturian's concerto are Julian Sitkovetsky in Romania with Niyazi conducting (1954) and Leonid Kogan in Boston with Pierre Monteux conducting (1958). Formidable competition for Mr Radulovic; how does he measure up?

Nemanja Radulovic is an immensely gifted violinist, hailing from Serbia. He looks a bit like Rasputin and records for the 21st century version of Deutsche Grammophon, thus the liner booklet and publicity full of photos of Mr Radulovic, with poor old Khachaturian getting just a brief mention. Deutsche Grammophon is now just a “brand”, as the jargon would have it and bears little resemblance to the previous highly-respected German company.

Sitkovetsky, Kogan, and Oistrakh plunge headlong into Khachaturian's exotic music. Radulovic plunges headlong into highly-sophisticated virtuoso violin playing. The Borusan orchestra of Istanbul (ex- Constantinople) accompanies dutifully, but one wonders how Khachaturian, an Armenian, would have reacted to the idea of Turks playing his music. The massacre of around 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks is hardly ancient history. Whatever; the Turks don't play with too much feeling or enthusiasm compared, for example, with the Romanian radio orchestra under Niyazi for Sitkovetsky where, in the second movement, the Romanians swoon into the music. Listening to Radulovic is a bit like listening to Vladimir Horowitz; one admires the playing, whilst the music takes second place. Radulovic's playing in the finale is equal to any of his competitors; he is, after all, a super-virtuoso, and the finale is his best movement of the work.

I am conscious of being a bit sniffy concerning Radulovic; not that he and his many fans will worry. My favourite musicians are those like Adolf Busch, Artur Grumiaux, Maria Pires, Clara Haskil, Wolfgang Scheiderhan, Igor Levit, who get inside the music and then play it from the heart. I am uneasy with “star” performers where the spotlight is focused on “me, me, me”. I'd probably have sniffed at Paganini had he been around in my lifetime. 'Sorry, Niccolò, but it just isn't my kind of thing'.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

In Praise of Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach has been dead for 268 years, yet his music still lives on and, for most of that time, connoisseurs of fine music have always put Bach as Number One on the pedestal of great composers; there is no reason to suppose that this will change for the next 268 years. I first came across Bach and his music when I was around 10 years old (I grew up in a music-loving family). As I have related before in this blog, the very first concert I ever attended at the age of about thirteen was of Bach's Mass in B minor. Interrogating my catalogue of recorded music I possess, I find I have recordings of 1016 pieces of music by Bach, and I find that more and more of my listening — especially in the evening — is of Bach's music. Bach's output over the 65 years of his life was prodigious; the man scribbled away for almost all his life and all his time. There are few real peaks in his output; the Mass in B minor, the St John and St Matthew Passions certainly qualify as “peaks” but pretty well all the rest is just solid, great music be it for voices, solo instruments, or baroque bands.

I frequently ask myself what makes Bach so special, and the answer is usually somewhat complex. Here are a few ingredients for Bach's greatness:

There is always something going on, in Bach's music. “Too much counterpoint, and Protestant counterpoint, at that” Thomas Beecham is reputed to have growled. Bach loved counterpoint, he loved multi-layered music; in many instances, the “accompaniment” is even more interesting than the solo line, viz. many of the sections in the 200 or so cantatas. This makes listening to Bach interesting. His contemporaries, such as Handel and Vivaldi, did not go in much for counterpoint, which had gone out of fashion with much of polyphony. (This does not make Handel's and Vivaldi's music less interesting; it just points up one of Bach's Unique Selling Points).

Bach knew about the attention spans of his audience. Folk musicians, and American popular song writers, also know about attention spans, which is why individual songs or instrumental pieces usually last only around five minutes. Similarly, Bach — like other 18th century composers — makes sure usually that no individual piece or section lasts longer than five or six minutes. The longer works, like the Passions and the Mass, are broken up into varying sections. It is true that variations such as the Goldberg Variations last much longer, but 30 or so variations within a 60 minute work contain a lot of variety. The Chaconne of the D minor partita for solo violin lasts around 13 minutes, but, again, a chaconne is a series of variations on a ground. Plenty of variety. As the centuries rolled on, music in the 19th and 20th centuries became more and more bloated – think of Mahler's 8th Symphony, or Wagner's Tristan & Isolde. Folk and popular music escaped the bloat movement, luckily for their popular appeal.

Bach's music is never glib, showy or flashy. Pretty well everything is at a very high level, and even Bach under pressure and indulging in music-processing manages to be interesting.

Along with his fascinating counterpoint, Bach can often indulge in some pretty weird harmonies, as in the bass aria Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen in the church cantata Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen. Listening to Bach's modulations and harmonic structures is a fascinating exercise in its own right. And, as John Eliot Gardiner has pointed out, so much of Bach's music — even the church music — incorporates dance rhythms of the early 18th century: gavottes, bourées, sarabandes, gigues, passpieds, sicilianos, etc. This gives Bach's music a constant air of rhythmic vitality and interest.

So: Interesting music. Fascinating music. Absorbing music. Music with a constantly varied rhythmic, sonic and harmonic structure. In my view, Johann Sebastian Bach fully deserves his gold medal in the musical Olympics. I am immensely happy to have been able to visit his grave, and the city where he was born, and the church where he was baptised. Bach!

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

An Evening of Debussy, Berlioz, and Ravel

I have been having a mini- French music festival, starting with Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw orchestra in Debussy: l'Après-midi d'un faune, La Mer, and the first two Nocturnes (I never took to the third, Sirènes). La Mer, the Nocturnes and I go back a long, long way to the 1950s when I listened often to both, conducted in those days on LP by Guido Cantelli. Haitink was recorded in the late 1970s and, as so often, he and the superb Concertgebouw orchestra have exactly what it takes to project Debussy's music. I have never been a great Debussy fan, but there are some works of his that I like very much – such as La Mer.

And on to Berlioz, and his six songs with orchestra that make up Les Nuits d'été, a work I came to first only a few years ago. I have the classic recording with Régine Crespin, but I prefer to listen to it sung by one of my favourite French sopranos, Véronique Gens. Beautiful singing in lovely music.

And ending with Ravel and his Shéhérazade, also sung by Véronique Gens. Music I have known for a long time (I first met it sung superbly by Frederica von Stade). I now have 13 different versions of this work, but I usually gravitate to Mme. Gens since, apart from anything else, I admire her clear French diction. I do like singers who can articulate clearly. Well: Debussy, Berlioz, and Ravel. An admirable French trio that made an excellent evening's listening.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, with Paul Kletzki

As a change from the baroque music that has occupied me of late, I listened this evening to Rimsky-Korsakov's evergreen Scheherazade. The recording came from a period of excellence around 1958-9 when the Philharmonia orchestra was on top form, as were the EMI recording engineers. Conductor during this period of excellence was the Polish conductor Paul Kletzki, a maestro who saw his job to guide an orchestra to give of its best and to project the music. Kletzki was not one of those who indulged in the cult of personality; he conducted effectively and efficiently. Since the 1950s I have always treasured his recording of Mahler's fourth symphony (the only Mahler symphony to which I now wish to listen). I wallowed happily in his Scheherazade, with Hugh Bean as the violin narrator, and with the original excellent sound enhanced by a friend who sent me an admirable transfer. Familiar music, lovingly rendered by orchestra, conductor, and engineers.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Bach does Pergolesi

I settled back in my armchair to listen to a new recording for my collection: Masaaki Suzuki, with singers Carolyn Sampson and Robin Blaze, singing Bach's cantata Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden. Only it turned out not to be Bach's music; it was Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, with new words from Psalm 51, with music arranged and edited by … Johann Sebastian Bach, catalogued as BWV 1083.

A pretty remarkable story, given that Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died in 1726 at the age of 26 and that Bach obviously knew and admired his Stabat Mater, all the 1500 kilometres or so from Naples to Leipzig. The Catholic veneration of Mary would obviously not have gone down well with Bach's Lutheran Protestants, so new words were found. Bach's editing is serious and light, and not nearly as drastic as, say, Mozart's re-write of Handel's Messiah. I have to say, I was highly impressed with “Bach's” work, as with the performance here. Sampson and Blaze sing well together. Bach's version keeps the essence of Pergolesi's wonderful music; no wonder Bach must have been impressed enough to devote time and energy to re-working the work. Very enjoyable, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Bach's Secular Cantatas, and Masaaki Suzuki

As the proud owner of around 250 recordings of Bach cantatas, I really, really do not need yet more. However, I bought a CD of two more Bach cantatas — secular cantatas, this time — and so enjoyed the two works … that I have now ordered six more secular cantatas. All feature the incomparable Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan. The first CD of this batch that I bought has Carolyn Sampson as the soprano soloist, and I greatly welcome more recordings with Ms Sampson. She sings Ich bin in mir Vergnügt BWV 204 beautifully.

The words / libretti for almost all vocal music before Mozart are usually banal. I can never take to the words of Bach's church cantatas: “I long to die, so I can see Jesus again” and similar religious hocus-pocus. So the secular Bach cantatas make a very welcome change for me. Well done Johann Sebastian, and Masaaki Suzuki, and the BIS record company that year after year has supported Suzuki and his fine Japanese musicians.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Life, according to Igor Levit

The much-admired (by me) pianist Igor Levit has just released a double CD album with the title “Life”. As one would expect from Levit, the pianism is extraordinary, the musicianship exemplary with a formidable grasp of form, structure, and dynamics. So far: straight “A”s all the way. The nine pieces of music on the two CDs are a mixed bag. We start with Ferrucio Busoni's Fantasia after J.S. Bach, which rambles on agreeably for over 14 minutes. Bach would have done better, in a lot less time. We continue with Brahms' arrangement for the left hand of the Chaconne from Bach's second partita for solo violin, a very pleasant surprise. Confining the arrangement to just one pianistic hand means that the original violin music comes over without excessive additions and ornamentation and this, coupled with Levit's grasp of form, makes this a formidable recording of Bach's music. It also confirms my often-stated view that “authentic” Bach is a pretty meaningless term, given Johann Sebastian's casual ability to arrange or transcribe his music from instrument to instrument, and voice to voice. CD I continues with the “Ghost” variations by Robert Schumann, very nearly posthumous, and ends with a ten minute piece by Frederic Rzewski with the title A Mensch (a person, or human being). For me, once heard, forever pigeon-holed since Rzewski's piece does ramble on.

The second CD begins with Franz Liszt's transcription of the solemn march from Wagner's Parsifal; Liszt's transcriptions and arrangements of other men's music have usually appealed to me, as here. The real Liszt comes next, with 33 minutes of his Fantasia and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” by Meyerbeer, a piece that goes on and on and suffers from the too-often prevalent gigantism of much music in the second half of the 19th century; the adagio section, alone, takes up nearly 14 minutes. I've always regarded Franz Liszt as a flashy 19th century pianist who is much over-rated as a composer, and this does little to change my long-held prejudice. Predictably, the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, as arranged by Liszt, comes over wonderfully; Liszt seems to have been at his best when faced with real music by the likes of Schubert or Wagner. In his playing of the Liebestod (as in his playing of Brahms's arrangement of Bach's Chaconne), Levit gives evidence of a sense of form and dynamics rivalling that of Otto Klemperer, or Sergei Rachmaninov.

Ferrucio Busoni's Berceuse is a pleasant piece of music, as is the concluding piece by someone called Bill Evans: Peace Piece – attractive, minimalist music that does, however, question the compilation's title: Life. Almost all the music on these two CDs is sombre and either piano, or pianissimo. Not music to listen to if you are deeply depressed, or contemplating suicide. I suspect that, in twenty or so years time when I near 100 years old, I'll strip out the Bach and Wagner pieces to a separate CD for lifetime listening. Liszt and Busoni are for lovers of pianism; I am a lover of the violin. And not of organs, or counter-tenors. Or harpsichords. I do, however, greatly admire Igor Levit as a formidable musician, chosen repertoire sometimes notwithstanding.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Semyon Snitkovsky

I have often remarked that fame is something dependent on great talent, plus great backers, great PR, and great managers. Plus a bit of luck. Unfortunately, great talent, by itself, will rarely buy world recognition, and fame. Take Semyon Snitkovsky, whose playing I have just been admiring on transfers from Melodya recordings. Born in the USSR in 1933, he died in the USSR in 1981 at the age of 47. Later in his career, he was a violin professor in Moscow and Budapest. Few people have heard of him (no backers, no PR company); similar to the case of Julian Sitkovetsky, another great violinist from the Russian lands during those turbulent years. Yet listening to Snitkovetsky playing the evergreen Glazunov violin concerto, plus a couple of Paganini caprices — alas, with piano; why? — and a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody arranged by Hubay, here was a truly major talent of the violin. The Glazunov is thoroughly Russian in its nostalgia and fully equal to the more famous Heifetz and Milstein. He also plays the Vieuxtemps 4th concerto, a much neglected work by modern violinists. It's a superb performance, fully the equal of that by Jascha Heifetz many years before. Unfortunately, the same cuts are made in the orchestral parts, as if the orchestra were purely secondary and ornamental. Modern concert promoters and record producers seem rarely to schedule the Glazunov and Vieuxtemps 4th concertos, more's the pity.

The moral of the story? Just because you have never heard of them before, or because they never made the world stage, it does not mean they are not truly top-notch violinists, pianists, or singers.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Orpheus Britannicus

When it comes to the finest, most sophisticated wine, France takes the gold medal. When it comes to fine, sophisticated cuisine, the gold medal is probably shared between the Chinese, the French, and the Italians. When it comes to great music, the gold medal goes to Europe. No other area of the world has produced music that, 327 years after it first sounded, still enthrals listeners. I speak as one who this evening listened to Henry Purcell's ode Hail, Bright Cecilia, composed in 1691 and played this evening on a Franco-British CD by Marc Minkowski. Music for all time.

Marc Minkowski and his Franco-British team (or, more exactly, French team with British appendages) go on to play Handel's A Song for Saint Cecilia's Day (1739), to words by John Dryden. Who wins the gold medal: Orpheus Britannicus, or the Caro Sassone? In the end, there are three gold medals: Handel's music is the great crowd pleaser; Purcell's the more sophisticated, appealing to connoisseurs. The third gold medal goes to Marc Minkowski and his Franco-Britannic forces.

A lobby of musical extremists suggests that “all music is equally valid”. Which is plain nonsense. A young man beating a bongo drum is not going to be listened to in 327 years time. Great Music is music that transcends centuries and appeals to connoisseurs of generation after generation. Vide Purcell's Hail, Bright Cecilia, and Handel's A Song for Saint Cecilia's Day.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Czech Violin Tradition. And Vaclav Snitil

For the inhabitants of a small country, the Czechs — including, musically, the Slovaks and Bohemians — have had a disproportionate influence on the musical world, especially that of violin playing. Composers include Dvorak, Janacek, Smetana, Fibich and Suk. Violinists are too many to list. The Czech recording company, Supraphon, has kept the Czech flag flying for countless decades. This evening I am listening to Vaclav Snitil (one of the horde of excellent Czech violinists of the past century) with Josef Hala at the piano. Snitil's sound is typically Czech: highly focused intonation, with sparing use of vibrato, judicious rubato, and excellent rhythmic sense. This evening for me he played music by Smetana, Dvorak, Fibich, and Josef Suk. An all-Czech evening and highly enjoyable. If every country in Europe made as rich a contribution to musical life, we would be swamped with outstanding music and musicians. And this is not even broaching the area of Czech orchestras and, especially, string quartets. The total population of the present day Czech Republic is only a little over ten million people. Add in just over five million for Slovakia. A remarkable musical race. For me, the soulful, melancholy nature of so much of Czech music is encapsulated in Vaclav Snitil and Josef Hala playing Dvorak's well-known Four Romantic Pieces Op 75. Sheer bliss.

Brahms' Hungarian Dances, and Baiba Skride

A memorable photo in my collection of photos of violinists is one of Padraig O'Keeffe, an Irish folk fiddler, clutching a bow and violin in one hand and a glass of (probably Guinness) in the other. This was the tradition of European folk fiddlers, at weddings, funerals, and village dances. I thought nostalgically of the photo listening to Hagai Shaham dispatching immaculately all 21 of Johannes Brahms' Hungarian Dances (arranged by Joseph Joachim). The dances are well known and bear repeated listening; Shaham's playing is superb, but this is Israeli-type violin playing, with hyper-efficiency and little warmth or human feeling. Going back to Joachim's (few) recordings, one discovers a different world. I don't think Padraig O'Keeffe would have warmed to Mr Shaham's playing, and the Hungarian village committees would probably not have re-engaged him. The military parade-ground feeling in Mr Shaham's recording is accentuated by the short intervals between tracks; one dance follows immediately on the previous.

After dance number 12, I had had enough of Mr Shaham's brusque efficiency, and turned my attention to alternative violinists who have recorded all the Dances: Marat Bisengaliev (1994), Aaron Rosand (1991), Oscar Shumsky (1997) and Baiba Skride (2010). I chose the Latvian Ms Skride, since I like her playing but have not heard it for a while. She plays here with her sister Lauma at the piano, and the two make a fine duo, with lots of welcome rubato, and an ever-present warmth of feeling as if they are enjoying making music together (which they probably were). Their enjoyment communicates itself in their playing.

Pretty well every violinist who has ever lifted a bow has played and recorded a selection of these dances. They are highly attractive pieces of music and well repay repeated listening. In future, when I want to sit back and listen to a few of them, I'll reach out for Baiba and Lauma.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Toscha Seidel, Violinist

There is a well-known photo from the early years of the 20th century showing a teenage Jascha Heifetz (“the angel of the violin”) accompanying on the piano a teenage Toscha Seidel (“the devil of the violin”) with a paternal Leopold Auer looking on. Heifetz and Seidel later emigrated to America, fleeing the chaos of the Russian revolutionary years. Heifetz had his brilliant career, eclipsing all violinists in America in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. America, with its quasi- duopoly of RCA and CBS for classical recordings had only one slot for one major violin star, and Jascha Heifetz was so ordained. Major violinists such as Mischa Elman and Toscha Seidel were relegated to the “B” team. Yehudi Menuhin and Nathan Milstein managed to make international recording careers in Europe, as did Mischa Elman in some desperation towards the end of his performing career, followed by America-based violinists such as Bronislaw Gimpel, and Erica Morini.

Listening today to a recital compilation of recordings by Toscha Seidel, one mourns the fact that this fascinating violinist is not now well-known. There is fire and spirit in his playing, such as one rarely encounters elsewhere, coupled with an incredible technique. Few violinists nowadays would abandon themselves so recklessly (and impeccably) to short pieces by Mozart, Wagner, Brahms, Kreisler, Achron, et al. This is the Devil of the Violin (recorded variously in the 1920s, 30s and 40s). Seidel's playing in a 1941 recording of Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing suite (with Korngold at the piano) yields nothing to Heifetz in style and technique, but trumps even Heifetz
with an added vibrancy and emotion that will always make this my number one choice for this music. The new generation of fine violinists could learn a lot about putting everything into their playing.

Seidel died in 1962 at the early age of 63 years, suffering in his later years from acute depression. His few recordings of longer works, such as the Grieg and Franck violin and piano sonatas, suggest that, somewhat like Mischa Elman, he was above all the master of shorter pieces where violin sound and technique were paramount, though his performances of the Brahms violin concerto – alas, never preserved from radio recordings – were legendary, and one would have loved to have heard him in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I have nothing of his playing preserved in recordings after 22nd July 1945, when he would have been 46 years old. This was an eloquent and moving account of Chausson's Poème, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Most of his concertising was done for American radio stations, and the recordings were never retained.

The hackneyed saying “they don't play like that nowadays” is particularly true of Toscha Seidel (and of Mischa Elman). More's the pity. The last violinist to play with such inner vibrancy was probably Ginette Neveu (also in the 1940s).

Friday, 5 October 2018

Ning Feng plays Bach

Looking at a facsimile of the original scores of Bach's six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, one notices immediately a) the density of the notes and the part-writing and b) the complete absence of any performance indications, apart from tempo markings at the start of movements such as the fugues where the basic tempo is not obvious (for example, adagio, allegro, or grave). For the sarabandes, gavottes and rondos, no tempo markings are deemed necessary. There is a complete absence of piano, forte, crescendo, diminuendo, and other such performance directions.

Some, of course, have taken this to mean that Bach conceived of the music being played dead-pan, as on a sewing machine, or mechanical typewriter. Musicologists and academics have frowned at anyone making an “unauthorised” ritardando, or staccato, or pianissimo. Not so Ning Feng, whose recent recording of the six I kept to hand rather than file away. For musicologists, this will be self-indulgent Bach with no sense of “18th century style”, whatever that may have been, and leaving aside the question as to whether a 21st century style increases the power and interest of the music. Were Bach to hand, he could give us his opinion. I suspect he would much prefer Ning Feng on his 1721 Stradivari, compared with old Hans Nothman on his Leipzig fiddle soon after 1720 when the unaccompanied works first saw the light of day.

The first partita has no real technical difficulties (even I could play it, in my day, although the Flight of the Bumble Bee speeds in some of the doubles as played by Ning Feng or Jascha Heifetz are beyond most mortals). The ten movements (five movements, plus five doubles) can seem to go on forever, with no great musical interest; the interest has to be in the violin playing, with subtle variations of tempo and dynamics. From recollection, first-rate violinists as varied as Lisa Batiashvili, Yehudi Menuhin, Johanna Martzy, and Alfredo Campoli gave dead-pan, routine playing. The great Russians such as Oistrakh and Kogan mainly avoided unaccompanied Bach. Mr Feng holds my interest well, through the violin playing rather than just the music. He has a wonderful sense of light and shade, piano and forte; the playing in the double presto of the first partita, or the famous andante of the second sonata, is quite breathtaking. He is an expert at phrasing, at establishing a line in the music, and of voicing in the fugues. The Ciaccona comes over really well, with expert chording and dead-on-target double stops (though I still prefer Alina Ibragimova's way of ending the Ciaccona piano, rather than forte, although she is pretty well alone in this).

Ning Feng's teachers include Antje Weithaas, a violinist I admire greatly and whose playing of the unaccompanied music of Bach and Ysaÿe I recently so enjoyed. Although I do not know the Weithaas recordings intimately, I fancy I can hear a strong influence from her in Feng's playing on this Bach set, especially in the use of varied dynamics. I was somewhat surprised that a 36 year old Chinese virtuoso could woo me so completely with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but Bach playing is seemingly independent of sex, race, or age. The two CDs constitute a two and a half hour celebration of the sound of the violin, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It's a nice touch that just as Bach was finishing his unaccompanied sonatas and partitas, Antonio Stradivari was putting the final touches to Ning Feng's violin on the other side of the Alps.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Simone Kermes, and Handel

Back from holiday (Burgundy, and Provence). What to listen to, after two weeks without music? Serendipity came into play, with Simone Kermes and Maite Beaumont singing the inevitable Handel opera arias and duets (with Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis). Handel is very much “welcome back” music; emotions and intellect are not stretched. It's just lovely music all over again. Will I ever become tired of listening to Pena Tiranna? I think not. And Simone Kermes has one of those voices that sing the words and convey the emotions behind them, rather than simply mouth beautiful melodies.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Music for Moods

I have nothing in common with Sergei Rachmaninov. He was twice in exile; once from his beloved Russia, the second time from Europe convulsed in wars. He ended his days in what must have seemed to him a somewhat barbaric land, playing almost non-stop in order to earn money for himself, his family, and his entourage. This evening I sat peacefully in England, with no wars currently in sight; yet I really needed to immerse myself in the music of Rachmaninov, first the second symphony, then the second piano concerto. For the symphony, only Valery Gergiev and the Kirov orchestra would do. For the second piano concerto, only Boris Giltburg could be chosen. It was an all-Russian evening, and a highly satisfactory one, at that. Strange how moods dictate musical choice, which is one reason I always hesitated before buying in advance a ticket for a musical evening. Imagine turning out at 7:30 on a Thursday to hear Haydn, when your mood says “Rachmaninov” !

Friday, 7 September 2018

Arkadi Volodos

Just over a year ago, I was enthusing over a CD where the Russian pianist, Arkadi Volodos, plays thirteen piano pieces by Johannes Brahms. I returned to it today and admired it more than ever. Volodos plays with (apparent) simplicity; listening to him, each piece seems to receive its ideal performance. Cannot ever be bettered.

There are musicians who have a high profile because of all sorts of reasons. Often their recording companies, managers, and impresarios would like to convert them into pop music phenomena because, as we all know, pop musicians make lodsa money for themselves, their recording companies, and their managers. There are other musicians who are highly respected without all the PR razzmatazz; Kirill Petrenko, and Arkadi Volodos spring to mind among the modern highly respected musicians. Neither man appears to give interviews; Volodos lives quietly in Spain and records and concertises from time to time, playing what he wants to play. In terms of publicity seeking, he is the modern equivalent of Clara Haskil who just played what she wanted, with whomsoever she wanted. I am always sceptical about “fame” that is measured in column inches; real fame is when you sit down and listen to someone playing, singing or conducting and exclaim: “Gosh!” Which is what I did this evening listening to Arkadi Volodos playing Brahms.

Friday, 31 August 2018

The Songs of Mr Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell, who died in 1695 at the age of 36, is one of the greatest of the lesser known composers. He wrote incidental music for plays, semi-operas, songs, trio sonatas, anthems, cantatas, fantasias, odes, and a great number of chamber pieces.

I have just been listening to a 2006 song selection sung by the delectable voice of Carolyn Sampson. Purcell was a master of English song, of exotic harmonies and complex modulations. He was also a master of the ground bass as heard, for example, in Dido's lament (from the opera Dido & Aeneas), or in the song “music for a while”. Accompanying Ms Sampson on her CD is a varied collection of olde instruments. Songs include the well-known: Sweeter than Roses, The Plaint, Music for a While, If Music be the Food of Love, Fairest Isle, and O Solitude.

On to a second Purcell CD where the German soprano Dorothee Mields is accompanied by the Lautten Compagney Berlin on a CD recorded in 2009. I prefer the band on this CD; one can have too much of plucking lutes, theorbos, and harpsichords; not too surprising that they all died out somewhat hastily. Ms Mield's attractive singing is interspersed with instrumental pieces, including two chaconnes, a musical form to which Purcell was most attached. Most of the songs are taken from Purcell's contributions to semi-operas, a patchwork of theatrical plays with songs and music. There is duplication between songs as sung by Mields and Sampson; both women are wonderful, but in the end I probably prefer Mields, who lingers less and has a more interesting and varied instrumental backing.

On to a third Purcell song CD where a French group, La Rêveuse, plays a selection of instrumental pieces, including trio sonatas by Purcell and the Moravian Gottfried Finger, a contemporary of Purcell and Handel, who settled in England. Many of the pieces on this CD feature Purcell's famous basso ostinato, a true signature feature of much of his music. The ten songs on the CD are all sung by the French soprano Julie Hassler, who has a lovely voice and the best English diction of the three sopranos so far. You can actually follow the words she is singing, which is not always true of Sampson or Mields. I greatly enjoyed this CD, recorded in Provence in 2007.

On a fourth Purcell song CD we switch to a Scottish tenor for the songs. Paul Agnew is recorded close-to, and sings often at the bottom of his register. With a principal accompaniment by a bass-viol, the overall sound comes over as somewhat lugubrious. The accompaniment is “economy-mode” — bass-viol, theorbo, and harpsichord. A few instrumental pieces are interjected into the songs but, frankly, this CD recorded in France in 2009 simply did not hold my attention and I quickly became tired of the gloomy sound. The CD cover is bizarre, with a masked, naked woman in a 19th century bathtub. The connection with Henry Purcell is not clear.

On to a fifth CD from my shelves, with Agnès Mellon accompanied by Christophe Rousset (harpsichord) and Wieland Kuijken (bass-viol, again). Yet another French recording from southern France (1992), albeit with a very basic accompaniment, with not even a theorbo in sight. Ms Mellon has a pleasant voice, and the two accompanists are highly proficient, if a little lacking in variety of timbre. The absence of plucking is welcome. (I know harpsichords are plucked, but they sound one up from the monotone lute and guitar family). The CD contains a good selection of songs, plus Purcell's trademark “grounds”. I enjoyed the 71 minutes of music.

A sixth CD features the Dutch baritone, Maarten Koningsberger accompanied by a solitary theorbo in a recording made in 2008. The pair get through 26 songs by Purcell, one after another, with no respite. I was fully prepared not to like this: a baritone and a theorbo, in Purcell? But I was quickly won over. Koningsberger has an attractive and expressive voice, and is the first singer of the six so far where you can follow the words as he sings, without frequent course to the libretto. Purcell's vocal writing is rarely straightforward, and with many of the singers above, even gluing oneself to the libretto is no guarantee of following the texts. A big thanks to Koningsberger for his diction and clear enunciation. With just a theorbo, and 26 songs one after another, you essentially get just the song, the whole song, and nothing but the song. Not such a bad thing, it turns out, since most of the songs are very short (as recorded here – typically between two and three minutes). The choice of songs eschews the standard “Best of Henry Purcell” selection, making this a highly useful CD for those wishing to explore Purcell's lesser-known oeuvre, an oeuvre that is pretty vast, despite him dying so young, alas. Interesting to note that, even back in the 17th century, “popular” music was obsessed with love, and sex. Plus ça change ….. Anyway, Mr Koningsberger and his theorboist won me over, despite my forebodings when I first loaded the CD on to its tray.

On to CD number seven and back to the soprano voice, featuring a 2006 all-Canadian recording with Karina Gauvin and the instrumental group Les Boréades. The CD contains 21 tracks, with a generous helping of instrumental interludes. Unlike Mr Koningsberger, Ms Gauvin sticks mainly to Purcell's best known songs. Her diction is admirably clear (unlike many other singers) and Les Boréades make a welcome contribution, and a change from the somewhat monotonous backing on some of the other CDs. This CD was — somewhat unexpectedly — a big hit with me. Good music, good singing, good accompaniments. And a nice rendition of the popular “When I am laid to Earth” with its ostinato ground bass played by Les Boréades.

CD number eight features Emma Kirkby 36 years ago in distant 1982, with a small backing group of a viol and pluckers, plus an occasional violin obbligato (Catherine Mackintosh). There is some lovely singing on this CD, and “The Plaint” with violin obbligato has probably never had a better performance than here. Ms Kirkby's pure young girl voice was a great hit during the final two decades of the last century, and it still comes over with good effect despite all that has happened since. The 16 tracks of songs and airs make for happy listening. There are no instrumental episodes. All in all, a CD I was surprised to enjoy so much.

Coming full circle, the final Purcell song and airs CD from my shelves returns to Carolyn Sampson, recorded live in London in 2015 with the usual small backing group. The lute, bass viol and harpsichord contribute instrumental interludes, some of them by Purcell's contemporaries. That is sometimes a plus in a song recital disk. Ms Sampson has a lovely voice but, as in her 2006 recital commented on above, I do have problems with following what she is singing, even glued to the libretto; lose your place, and you probably have to wait for the next song until you can start following again. Maybe this is because the Canadian, French and German singers above take more care over their English pronunciation, or maybe because Ms Sampson seems to indulge in a lot more ornamentation than the others. The lute plucks on solidly behind her, but I miss the more imaginative background accompaniment provided by some of the others in this round-up. There is a harpsichord suite with five movements, and a lute selection with three pieces; more plucking than in a commercial hen-house, and I really did not enjoy it.

In conclusion: The 17th century was a rich one for English music; the golden age was prolonged into the earlier 18th century with the importation of the Saxon Handel after which, apart from a few sparks from time to time, music in England went into a terminal decline that has lasted right up to the present. “Das Land ohne Musik” as someone once said. People — perhaps above all the competitive Americans — are usually looking for “the best” when one reviews nine different CDs of roughly the same repertoire. There is no “best” here. I would eliminate Paul Agnew, since it all is rather gloomy and depressing. I would also eliminate Maarten Koningsberger, reluctantly, since it's a CD for an excellent overview of Purcell's lesser-known songs, rather than a CD to sit back and enjoy. Despite being a fanatical admirer of Carolyn Sampson, I would probably eliminate her two CDs remarked upon here, partly on the grounds of unimaginative accompaniments and instrument choice, mainly on the grounds of frustration trying to follow the words she is singing. Which leaves me with one German, two French and one French Canadian to fully survive this current round-up. Fear not; I have many CDs of Purcell operas and semi-operas, plus Odes, fantasias, and Anthems, so I'll be returning (with pleasure) to Mr Henry Purcell in due course.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Renaud Capuçon's Encore CD - Capriccio

You probably need to be a dedicated fan of violin encores to listen to 21 of them, one after another, all in the space of 75 minutes. This evening I had meant just to sample Renaud Capuçon's 2006 CD Capriccio, but I ended up listening to every note, with considerable enjoyment. All of the 21 pieces on the CD are all-too familiar, with arrangements by Heifetz, Kreisler, Prihoda, and a few others. Composers range from Mendelssohn and Schubert, through to Strauss and Schumann, passing on the way Stravinsky, Debussy, and Korngold. Virgin Classics, and Capuçon, avoided the annoying habit of interweaving unknown contemporary pieces that no encore lover needs to bother with.

Of course, as well as having a dedicated fan listening, you need a really expert violinist playing to hold attention over 75 minutes of encore pieces. Renaud Capuçon's suave tone, expert technique and exemplary musicality show why he is one of my favourites of the modern violinists. He favours flowing tempi, no bad thing in music of this kind which can stagnate if the player wallows too much. Somewhat to my surprise, the CD appears still to be available — deservedly so, in my view. Lovers of violin playing should snap it up at once.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Handel's Alcina

As I recounted in this blog all the way back in 2009, I first came across Handel's opera Alcina – the love-lorn sorceress – back in September 2007 when I attended a performance at the Théâtre de Poissy. The theatre opened in 1937 with a performance of Gounod's Faust (I was not there), and its size and acoustics made it a natural venue for a concert performance of Handel's opera. The town itself seemed to contain a high proportion of people from south of Marseille, so it was difficult for a francophile North European like me to find somewhere to eat, either before or after the performance. But my car was still there after the end of the work, with all four wheels in place, so I was happy. The evening has stayed fixed in my mind, even nine years later. Immediately following that performance, conducted by the late lamented Alan Curtis, the work was recorded in Italy by pretty well the same forces I heard in Poissy. Joyce DiDonato was the sorceress, and the supporting cast included Karina Gauvin and Maïte Beaumont as Ruggiero.

DiDonato, as well as being a superb singer, can always act with her voice; her cries of “Traditore!” in the aria Ah! mio cor, schernito sei! rival Callas's cries of “Mori!” in Tosca. And you cannot get better than that. Three hours went quickly listening to Handel this Sunday. As is now my wont, I dispensed with the libretto with its tiresome “plot”, and just sat back and enjoyed the music, the playing, and the singing. I appear to have a rival recording of the work conducted by William Christie in 1999 with another all-star cast including Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Natalie Dessay. I really must take it off the shelf and give it an airing; a man cannot have too much Handel. My hang-up is the memory of the live performance I attended in Poissy with Alan Curtis conducting, plus Joyce DiDonato's characterisation of Alcina. A surfeit of sorceresses.

Addendum: since writing the above, I have listened to the William Christie recording, and I prefer it. Christie's direction is tauter, with a superior presence of rhythm; Alan Curtis comes across as a bit too laid back. And Christie has a superior cast: Curtis's Ruggiero, Maïte Beaumont, is outclassed by Christie's Susan Graham, and Curtis's Morgana, Karina Gauvin is no match for Christie's Natalie Dessay. The Alcinas are a bit more problematic; Curtis's Joyce DiDonato is superb, as is Christie's Renée Fleming. But Fleming, who was a pretty woman with a wonderful voice in 1999, suffers from the soprano diction syndrome where it's often hard to make out in what language she is singing — Italian, English, French, or Serbo-Croat. No such problem with the superior actress, DiDonato, who articulates clearly in excellent Italian. Alcina is very much an opera for the soprano voice, and the men are mainly cardboard cut-outs. Commendably, neither Christie nor Curtis resort to male altos, counter-tenors, or castrati (nor female baritones). 18th century audiences may have enjoyed freaky voices, but I do not. A pity Christie did not poach DiDonato for his recording, since then he really would have had an all-star cast and knocked the competition for six.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Gioachino Rossini's Cenerentola

It is not often you will find me sitting back enjoying an evening of 19th century Italian opera. But here I was today listening with great enjoyment to Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola. Handel in the 18th century, like Rossini in the 19th, were the Andrew Lloyd Webbers of their time (though with infinitely more talent). They wrote music for money, and therefore music that their fans would like, and pay for. Over 200 years since it was written, one can still sit back and enjoy Cenerentola. For me, no need for a libretto (let alone a DVD). In a good performance, the music and the singing tell you who are the villains, who are the heroes and heroines, who is sad, who is happy, who is noble, who is down-at-heel. It's easy-listening, sing-along music, but written by a supreme artist. No depths are plumbed; no heights scaled; we just enjoy the experience, tapping our feet on occasion. No harm in that.

The performance I listened to this evening was recorded in 1971 by the LSO conducted by Claudio Abbado, with an exquisite Teresa Berganza as Cinderella. It takes all your cares away. Rossini made it big in Paris, and one can understand the enthusiasm of the fashionable connoisseurs. Great stuff. Tempts me to embark on another opera evening soon.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Mikhail Pletnev conducts Shostakovich

For many, many decades, I have loved the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. His music “speaks” to me in a way that his contemporaries such as Prokofiev, Stravinsky or Bartok never do. I love the kaleidoscopic changes of mood in his music. I love his gift for coming up with memorable tunes, themes and motifs. I love his mastery of the orchestra, in his orchestral works. I love his dyed-in-the-wool “Russian-ness”. I love his lineage going back to the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

So I was more than delighted when a friend sent me a new CD where Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra on Pentatone. The works on the CD are Shostakovich's fourth and tenth symphonies. So far I have listened to just the magnificent tenth symphony, one of my favourites. The fourth symphony is somewhat daunting and needs mental preparation. Needless to say, this new recording of the tenth symphony is superb; very Russian in the orchestral sound and playing, superb in Pentatone's recording. Is it superior to my hitherto favourite, Vasily Petrenko conducting his Liverpudlians? Hard to say, from memory. Enough that Pletnev and his Russian forces earn my admiration from the beginning, to the end (as do Petrenko and his Liverpool orchestra).

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Pierre Rode

Pierre Rode (1774-1830) was a violin virtuoso, a pupil of Viotti, and a contemporary of Beethoven, Paganini and Heinrich Ernst. He gave the premier of Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata. He wrote music almost exclusively for the violin, including 13 violin concertos, most of which have been recorded by the violinists' friend, Naxos, with Friedemann Eichhorn as soloist. His music is tuneful and well written for the violin, as one would expect. The virtuoso aspect of Rode's violin music is mainly centred upon the bow arm, with every variety of bow stroke being called upon. Unlike Paganini or Ernst, the left hand is not obliged to indulge in violinistic circus tricks, with double stopping being rare, and harmonics even rarer.

A generous friend gave me the latest Rode-Eichhorn instalment, a CD of the 11th and 12th violin concertos, with two sets of variations for violin and orchestra. This is carefree music to which one just sits back and enjoys life. Eichhorn has become something of a specialist in this music and he plays with aplomb and a scintillating right arm; Rode would have nodded in approval. The Naxos recording is excellent. One is left wondering why we do not hear these concertos more often, rather than the 8-9 “standard” works that are always trotted out year after year. And when were concertos by Rode, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Hubay et al. last recorded by companies such as DG, Decca or Warner? Thank heavens for Naxos.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Playing Bach: Pau Casals, and Beatrice Rana

I listened again to the six suites for solo cello by Bach. The cellist was my all-time favourite in this music: Pau Casals, recorded in the mid- 1930s and re-released by Pristine Audio. Casals plays very much from the heart which, to my mind, is the secret of Bach playing, and I had the same reaction and degree of admiration listening to Beatrice Rana's recent recording of the Goldberg Variations. There are internal harmonies and rhythms in Bach's music that you sense when you play the works. I used to play the cello suites (albeit transcribed for viola) and arrogantly thought that I played them as well as anyone else …. except Casals, who was always hors concours in these works. For Bach playing one really needs to forget musicologists and erudite PhDs in ancient music. Bach's music is very much alive, if you play it with feeling and understanding. In evidence, M'Lud: Pau Casals and Beatrice Rana. Different generations, different instruments. Different works. Different countries of origin. But eternally valid, to my mind. Forget “recent scholarship has revealed that …" Bach's music is not an historical artifact. Bach's music demands a subjective, human reaction.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Acquaragia Drom - Zingari

Many, many years ago in France I picked up by chance a CD of the music of a bunch of (probably somewhat smelly) Adriatic gypsies playing their folk music. The five members of the band were photographed in front of their van. Instrumentarium was guitar, clarinet, accordion, and violin; all instruments you could carry off quickly to the forest whenever the next gypsy purge erupted. The band called itself Acquaragia Drom Zingari, and the CD dates from the early 1990s. I have spent decades enjoying the tracks on the CD.

Why? First of all, because this is genuine folk music, not too tainted by showbiz or commercial considerations. Secondly, because the sound world is genuinely North India meets Southern Europe, as befits its gypsy origins. Thirdly, because the two female vocalists have voices that will cause all males to salivate, and all female listeners to scowl. And fourthly because this kind of music — Central European folk, klezmer and gypsy — gave birth to so much of Western classical music (and instrument playing). This is roots stuff, and highly enjoyable. These Zingari were based in Italy, and may now — once more — be having a hard time of it. Off to the forest, again.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Camille Saint-Saëns

I seem to recall that someone once suggested that Camille Saint-Saëns was “the greatest composer who was not a genius”. Not an entirely unjust epitaph, one feels. Alas, nowadays he is usually only met via his Organ Symphony, the Carnival of the Animals, or the third violin concerto, and most of his prolific output is ignored. Unjustly ignored, I feel, since he crafted many agreeable works. Reminded by a comment from a friend, I took out an old recording of his two piano trios, opus 18 and opus 92. The performers on this 1993 Naxos CD are the Joachim Trio, with John Lenehan as the pianist. Not music to shake the world, but music that gives over an hour of enjoyable listening in entirely civilised company. At this stage of my life, I turn more and more to chamber and recital music — leaving organ symphonies and whatever to other ears. Monsieur Saint-Saëns wrote five piano concertos, three violin concertos, a cello concerto, numerous pieces for violin including the better known Havanaise, and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, an opera Samson & Dalila, string quartets, various sonatas and symphonies; none of it trite. A composer most of whose music is unjustly neglected in the modern musical world. Very little angst in Saint-Saëns' music, little grief, few violent emotions. Just very pleasant, tuneful, well-written music inhabiting the same musical world as most of Grieg or Mendelssohn. I love the two piano trios (composed in 1863, and 1892).

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov's Third Concerto

For over 100 years now, the music of Sergei Rachmaninov has stood the test of time and remains highly popular with musicians and the public. For much of the previous century, the critics and “experts” were a bit sniffy about Rachmaninov's music; it was popular, and people loved it. Quelle Horreur ! But Sergei has seen off pretty well all contenders for music written in the 20th century, including that of his erstwhile rival Igor Stravinsky whose popularity now seems to rest mainly on his earlier ballet music. Judging by the world's concert programmes, and by issued recordings, Rachmaninov goes from strength to strength.

I caught up with the melancholy Russian again in a new (Naxos) recording of his third piano concerto played by my current favourite pianist for the Romantic Russian repertoire: Boris Giltburg. The work is well recorded; the orchestra the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Giltburg projects the music magnificently guided, one suspects, by the composer's own recording. This is all about Rachmaninov, not Giltburg. Boris is not in the line of self-projecting pianists such as Lang Lang, Horowitz, Martha Argerich (and many others). He plays the music magnificently, with an incredible technique in the big first movement cadenza.

Igor Levit and Boris Giltburg are currently my favourite Russian-born pianists, with Igor anchored firmly in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and Boris in Rachmaninov and Shostakovitch. This is a good era for first-class piano playing. There are few things more agreeable in life than sitting back in a comfortable chair with a glass of good wine and letting the music of Sergei Rachmaninov wash over you.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Simone Lamsma in Britten's Violin Concerto

I was very pleased indeed to be able to plug into a performance by Simone Lamsma of Benjamin Britten's violin concerto (11th June 2018 in the Concertgebouw, with the Netherlands Philharmonic under Edward Gardner). The performance is passionate and committed; the off-air sound exemplary; the hall audience extremely well-behaved. Lamsma has for a long time been identified with this concerto, and her commitment is contagious. Interestingly, Lamsma — like Theo Olof in his pioneering 1948 recording — plays the 1939 original version of the work. Perhaps it's a Dutch thing; pretty well everyone else, including Britten in his recording, plays the revised version. Off-hand, I can't tell the difference, from memory.

Britten's violin concerto has only recently come into its own. Writing an intensely melodic concerto in D minor was not something calculated to enthuse the young critics of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, geared up as they were to extol the latest fashion of the avant-garde (a bit like today's critics slobbering over “gut strings” and “original instruments”.) Ah, fashion. Nearly 80 years on, Britten's concerto is moving and impressive; well written for the violin and for the orchestra. When I was young, BBC commentators used to introduce the works of Shostakovich, Britten, Khachaturian, and others, slightly apologetically. “I know it's not really music of our times, but it has its place”. Well, Messrs Shostakovich, Britten and Khachaturian are having the last laugh. I have never been a fan of Benjamin Britten's music, but I do have a soft spot for his violin concerto as do, it appears, many modern violinists. The link to the Lamsma performance is available for some time at:

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Grumiaux and Primrose in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante

Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola K 364 is one of the great works in Mozart's output, and a favourite of string players. Often it is surprisingly difficult to bring off with violinist and violist well matched and balanced. I listened to it today in a 1955 off-air recording from West German Radio, with the Cologne orchestra conducted by Otto Ackermann, courtesy of a very good Dutch friend. Violinist was the superb Arthur Grumiaux, for me probably the greatest violinist of the previous century in terms of combined violin playing and musicianship. Viola player was the technically superb William Primrose, a controversial figure with me since he all too often sounds like a jumped-up violinist playing a violin tuned a fifth lower. Here, however, Cologne and Grumiaux appear to have had a benign influence on Primrose, who matches Grumiaux beautifully throughout. The sound is “big Mozart” of the 1950s. Sadly, they don't play like this no more.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Handel again, and Shostakovich

Many decades ago, back in the 1980s, I heard Handel's cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo for the first time. The venue was the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (where Handel once gave a series of concerts). The singers at that time were Emma Kirkby and David Thomas (I cannot remember who the third one was). Ever since that far-off event, this cantata has remained one of my favourite works, and the sheer musical invention of this work composed in Naples in 1708 by the 23 year old Saxon continues to amaze. Sheer genius. I listened to it yesterday performed by a stellar line-up of Sandrine Piau, Sara Mingardo and Laurent Naouri, with Emmanuelle Haïm directing the Concert d'Astrée. Bliss.

The only conceivable connection between Handel's Cantata a tre and Shostakovich's G minor piano quintet is that both works are among my personal favourites. I have known the Shostakovich work for many years, ever since I heard a 1949 recording by Shostakovich at the piano with the Beethoven Quartet. The quintet was written in 1940 and shows that, even in the unstable musical environment of the 20th century, great music with real feeling could still be written. The work followed my listening to Handel's cantata — what a contrast! — and was given by the Talich Quartet with Yakov Kasman as pianist. Very moving, as always.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Valery Gergiev in Rachmaninov

These days we are not blessed with many top conductors. The towering figures of the past recede year by year. Of the present crop, when it comes to 19th and 20th century orchestral music, we have to face the fact there are no conductors of Bruckner, Wagner or Beethoven who can compare with the likes of Furtwängler or Klemperer. We do, however, have three top Russians: Valery Gergiev, Vasily Petrenko, and Kirill Petrenko. All three are thoroughly worthy of note, especially in the Russian repertoire. I have long had a great deal of respect for Vasily for his recordings of Elgar and Shostakovich, in particular. Kirill is less easy to sum up, since he is rarely heard in any recordings, but I did hear him conducting Elgar's second symphony — a difficult work to bring off — and he did bring it off spectacularly well (as did Vasily).

I have just been listening to Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra in Rachmaninov's second symphony, a key work in my personal pantheon. The recording dates from 1993 and features a Russian orchestra playing its heart out in an important work in the Russian orchestral repertoire. I have seven different recordings of this work, but this Gergiev performance is by far the best. I have many recordings with Gergiev conducting, mainly in Russian or French repertoire. He almost never disappoints.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Igor Levit, Akiko Suwanai, play Beethoven concertos.

One of the advantages of living in the Internet age is the ability to tap into sites such as Orchestra on Demand and listen to orchestral performances from all over the world. (If only there were also a website doing the same for chamber and instrumental music). Recently I tapped into Igor Levit in Vienna (Radio Austria) and Akiko Suwanai (Hungarian website).

Igor Levit played Beethoven's E flat piano concerto with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. The Radio Austria recording (from May this year) was clear and well-balanced. The Viennese orchestra played Beethoven to the manor born. Levit in Beethoven (as in Bach and Mozart) is always a clear winner; he invariably mirrors the form and emotions of the music he is playing and the result here is a three star performance of the piano concerto following every twist and turn of Beethoven's music.

I was pleased to hear Akiko Suwanai again; a major presence in the violin world up until a few years ago, she has always been a violinist well worth hearing. Her playing in Beethoven's violin concerto (at a concert in 2016) is typical of her; excellent musicianship, impeccable technique, flowing tempos (the concerto comes in at a whisker over 40 minutes rather than the more usual 43-44 minutes). The Korean orchestra (KBS Symphony Orchestra) was recorded somewhat dimly, with up-front woodwind and soloist and everyone else relegated to the background. The audience in Seoul was supremely bronchial throughout. A performance for lovers of Akiko Suwanai's violin playing, rather than for lovers of Beethoven's violin concerto. Recording and balancing orchestras and soloists is a demanding art, and not everyone succeeds.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Goerne and Brendel in Die Winterreise

Frequently, there are advantages to live recordings: the added frisson of playing before a real audience can add that extra 10% over even a good studio recording, with its many re-takes. The main disadvantage of live recordings is audience noise: clapping, coughing, mobile phone sounds, whatever. I settled back to listen to Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel in Schubert's Die Winterreise song cycle. For some inexplicable reason, the work started with audience applause — not even on a separate track. So every time you wished to enter the world of Die Winterreise, you had to have a burst of audience applause to set the atmosphere. Even worse: the sound engineers had miscalculated the dynamics. In order to hear the recorded pianissimos, you had to turn the volume up. When the next song featured a fortissimo, you were blasted out of your socks. After the fourth or fifth song in the cycle, I gave up. The CD is on the pile destined for a charity shop.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Emmanuelle Haïm in Bach and Handel

In his interesting study of J.S. Bach and his music, Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner makes an interesting case for respecting the dance-like rhythms in Bach's music, even the church music such as the cantatas. He frowns at the tendency in much of northern Europe to imbue Bach's church music with a Protestant reverent piousness. Gardiner would approve of the recording of Bach's Magnificat directed by the ever-talented Emmanuelle Haïm with her Concert D'Astrée. Under Haïm's direction, the music is alive, just as Bach surely intended in this work where he appears to be showing off his prodigious talents. I seem to have nine different recordings of the Magnificat, about the only Bach work apart from the Mass in B minor that uses the Latin language. I love Haïm's recording, and even love the singing of Philippe Jaroussky, the counter-tenor for whom I always make an exception.

On the same CD is one of the few works by Handel in the Latin language, the Dixit Dominus dating from 1707 when Handel was just 22 years old and living in Rome. The work is a veritable tour de force, with the young Handel showing off his prodigious talents. On this CD, Bach and Handel go head-to-head; Bach's music takes just over 25 minutes, Handel's 30 minutes (both as directed by Haïm). Predictably, neither composer is the outright winner, since their music is always as different as chalk and cheese. So ironic that despite being born only six weeks apart in the same region of Germany, the two never met. Anyway, some 300 years later, the music of both composers is still going strong. Oddly enough, I have only one other recording of Dixit Dominus and that is also French, conducted by Marc Minkowski. But Ms Haïm is going to be a hard act to follow, since her performance is a tour de force of Handel's tour de force. And a recording of both works that features Natalie Dessay, Philippe Jaroussky and Laurent Naouri (amongst others) really assembles a lot of first-class talent. The recording was made in Paris in 2006 and is of excellent quality. Ms Haïm, of whom I almost always approve highly, is no follower of the north European pious approach to the church music of Bach, Handel or Vivaldi. I like her L'Orfeo (Monteverdi), Messiah (Handel), La Resurrezione (Handel) and Dido and Aeneas (Purcell) plus many of her other Handel recordings.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Handel Opera Duets

Handel's operas and oratorios are a goldmine of good tunes and memorable arias. Wandering through my collection of recordings this evening, happy chance saw me taking out a CD of operatic duets from Handel's operas, recorded 15 years ago by Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) and Joyce DiDonato (mezzo). The late Alan Curtis directs Il Complesso Barocco, and Virgin turns out a first-class recording. Which is really just what you need for Handel: first-class singers, a first-class band, expert direction, and a well-balanced recording. The music does the rest.

The two singers are superb, and a mezzo-soprano such as DiDonato spares us the embarrassment of a counter-tenor or a castrato. 73 minutes of pure gold. Handel never fails.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Christian Gerhaher sings Schubert's Die Winterreise

Back in the 1950s when I was a teenager, I assiduously copied out and learned the texts of the twenty-four songs that comprise Schubert's Die Winterreise; all of which stood me in good stead for the rest of my life, since I can now sit back and listen to the songs without having recourse to the texts or translations.

It is difficult to imagine what Schubert's small audience back in 1828 would have made of this cycle of songs, where pessimism rules, and where the harmonies of the songs often modulate every few bars (the modulations of Die Krähe always fascinated me). I knew this greatest of all song cycles from my early LPs of Hans Hotter (three LP sides, with the fourth side blank). I then, inevitably, went on to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; since then, there have been many candidates for favourite version, the latest being Jonas Kaufman (tenor). This evening it was back to Christian Gerhaher (baritone) with Gerold Huber at the piano, recorded back in 2001. The pianist is excellent. Gerhaher sings with welcome emotion and really enters into the spirit of this evergreen work; Winterreise is an emotional work — with often quite violent emotions. Thanks to my teenage hard work, I can sit back and enjoy the songs and the words, greatly helped by Gerhaher's clear diction and enunciation. Gerhaher, Goerne, or Kaufman (I never took to Fischer-Dieskau)? Spoilt for choice, but I greatly enjoyed Gerhaher this evening and was completely gripped for 78 minutes.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Renaud Capuçon

Renaud Capuçon is hardly a household name, even among lovers of violin playing, yet whatever he does is pretty well always of the highest quality and stands up to all and any comparisons with other modern violinists. At 42 years old, Capuçon is hardly a wunderkind, nor is he an attractive young woman; a lot of publicity therefore passes him by. Like the late Arthur Grumiaux (with whom he has much in common) he is a versatile musician and often heard at his very best in chamber music and duo sonatas, often in the company of his brother Gautier (cello), Frank Braley (piano) and Gérard Caussé (viola). Renaud Capuçon and his distinguished friends always seem to me to be making real chamber music: friends playing together and enjoying the music.

I like his recording of he two Brahms string sextets, and of the two Schubert piano trios, and of Schubert's Trout Quintet, and of the three Brahms piano trios (with Nicholas Angelich). Capuçon has recorded most things (though I cannot find him in my collection playing Mozart, Paganini, or Bach). His Beethoven and Brahms concertos are very fine, as is his Brahms double concerto (with Gautier). I also admire his set of the complete Beethoven violin and piano sonatas (with Frank Braley). The two Brahms string sextets were recorded live, and here the clarity of the ensemble, the fine balance, and the atmosphere of six friends playing together, makes this Brahms to live with. There are other violinists at the same level as Capuçon — James Ehnes, for example — but Renaud Capuçon always has that special “Arthur Grumiaux” edge to his playing. And like Grumiaux (and Adolf Busch) he really excels in chamber music.

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Pavel Haas Quartet, and Schubert's String Quintet

There are probably only a few hundred musical works at the very top of the tree. We have to come up with a better term for great music other than the somewhat ambiguous classical music. Perhaps eternal music, or evergreen music, or ever-lasting music. Schubert's string quintet in C major, D 956, was among the works Schubert finished in the last few weeks of his life. He never heard it played, nor saw it in print. Listening to it 190 years after it was written, it still sounds as fresh and as alive as music written recently. I can recall a surprising number of people over the years who have nominated the adagio of the string quintet as being music they would choose to die to. It is music I have known and loved for most of my lifetime; but then, I really love Schubert's music, especially the late piano and chamber works.

I have several recordings of the quintet, including the famous 1951 one with Casals, Tortelier, Isaac Stern, et al, and the 1952 recording by the Amadeus Quartet and William Pleeth, the recording I grew up with. But now the only recording I want to listen to is the 2013 version with the Pavel Haas Quartet (with Danjulo Ishizaka, cello). Everything that is in Schubert's last chamber work comes over with the Pavel Haas team. The playing is all about Schubert, and not about lovely instruments or lovely playing. The recording and balance are excellent (Supraphon) as is the coupling (the Death and the Maiden Quartet D 810). Three gold stars. The Pavel Haas is a wonderful string quartet.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Vasily Petrenko conducts in Vienna

In the old days, I would couple a radio tuner to a tape cassette recorder via an amplifier and record music off-air. The results were ... adequate. I was again surprised listening (on the web) to a concert given on 11th March in the  Konzerthaus Großer Saal in Vienna where Vasily Petrenko — a conductor for whom I have an enormous respect — was conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The sound in Beethoven' violin concerto, and in Rimsky-Korsakov's evergreen Scheherazade, was astonishingly excellent; well-balanced and well recorded. My only gripe was that the engineers had turned up the soloist's microphone in the Beethoven concerto when it came to the cadenzas, so we suddenly heard a sound out of all proportion to what had gone before, or what followed.

Petrenko is a known quantity in Russian music (and in Elgar) so I was not surprised to enjoy and admire the performance of Scheherazade. I have never heard Petrenko in Beethoven, and was pleased at the solid and positive support he gave to the solo violin. In my view, the Beethoven violin concerto needs a positive contribution from the orchestra, in order to contrast with the lyrical solo violin.

The soloist in the Beethoven concerto was 22 year old Emmanuel Tjeknavorian, born in Vienna. He came over here as a gentle soul, with expert lyrical playing, and the result was an admirable contrast between the strong orchestra and the filigree arabesques of the solo violin. An enjoyable performance. Tjeknavorian came up with cadenzas I had never heard before; the first movement cadenza was fine, the second movement one far less so, and the one in the finale OK. There are many fine cadenzas written for the Beethoven concerto, but every violinist nowadays seems to find a need to come up with something new; new is not always better than old.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Cantatas

I have over 30 Bach cantatas in the series conducted by Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan. Mr Suzuki is not a director with a big ego. Tempi are uncontroversial. The small choir sounds (to me) just the right size for Bach's many choral passages and is, in any case, preferable to the one-per-part brigade. The instrumental band plays well, and is expertly balanced. The recordings, over several decades now, are either satisfactory, or excellent. The soloists are usually from a small pool of German, Flemish, British and Dutch. Stalwarts over the years have been Peter Kooij (bass), Gerd Türk (tenor), Hanna Blazikova (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), and Carolyn Sampson (soprano). The Japanese solo singers in the earliest recordings were later abandoned.

Inevitably, a few cantatas are routine (but even routine Bach is always well worth listening to). Many give evidence of special care, no doubt for special occasions. There are many jewels such as BWV 21 “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis”. Whenever I want to listen to something, but cannot decide what, I know I'll be happy with a couple of Bach cantatas. For the Suzuki set, all praise also to the Swedish BIS company, that has kept the faith with Suzuki and Bach over many decades (unlike DG that chickened out of the John Eliot Gardiner series, presumably, as the Americans would say, because the recordings “did not make the numbers”). Bach would have said: “There are more important things than numbers, where my music is concerned”.

No criticisms? Well, I am not keen on counter-tenors. I like my sopranos, altos and contraltos to be women, just as I like my tenors, baritones and basses to be men. Mr Suzuki and I disagree on this. On the face of it, Kobe in western Japan is an unlikely source for top-notch Bach. All praise to Masaaki Suzuki for enriching our access to well-performed Bach cantatas. These 30 or so cantatas are ones I shall always keep to hand, counter-tenors notwithstanding. I seem to have around 50 Bach cantatas directed by Philippe Herreweghe, so that will be a new report sometime in the future.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Jean Sibelius

On my return home after a spell in hospital, I have embarked on a mini- Sibelius festival. Which is a bit odd, since Jean Sibelius has rarely featured in my listening repertoire for many years (apart from the violin concerto), and equally odd in that my listening had recently moved away from orchestral music in favour of chamber music, and solo instruments. Whatever: it's wall to wall Sibelius at the moment, with all seven symphonies receiving a well-deserved airing. The second, fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies are familiar fare, the other three less so. My current listening is confined to LSO Live recordings made by Colin Davis more than a decade or so ago. The LSO knows the music backwards, the recorded sound is not bad at all, and Davis's conducting is right for Sibelius (even if we have him singing along with the orchestra in the fifth symphony).

In England, Thomas Beecham espoused the cause of Sibelius early on; in the 1950s and 60s, Herbert von Karajan continued the cause, somewhat unusually for a German; Sibelius was popular in Scandinavia, in Russia and in Britain – perhaps also in America – but had made little impact in Germany, and pretty well none at all in France or Italy. Sibelius's music is music of the North, with icy winds and freezing frost. The second and fifth symphonies have become almost popular (a Frenchman, Pierre Monteux, made a very fine recording of the second symphony back in 1958, again with the LSO). I grew up in my distant teens with the sixth and seventh symphonies (Philharmonia under von Karajan) and still have a soft spot for these two; like a long draft of pure, cool, spring water. The earlier Sibelius symphonies still show his debt to Tchaikovsky and the Russians; the later symphonies are pure Nordic Sibelius. Many Beecham Sibelius recordings are still available, as are the recordings made by von Karajan, first with the Philharmonia, then with the Berlin Philharmonic — I prefer the earlier Philharmonia recordings, where von Karajan was less obsessed with pure, silky sound, and the Philharmonia was at its peak in the 1950s with Klemperer and von Karajan in and out of the recording studios and concert halls, all presided over by Walter Legge. I even have a recording conducted by Furtwängler of En Saga (1943, Berlin Philharmonic) and, in the same year, he conducted Georg Kulenkampff in the violin concerto. Praga Digital is currently re-issuing re-vamped transfers of the Karajan-Philharmonia symphonies five, six, and seven. I have my name down.

And for the violin concerto? I have 56 different recordings, the classics being the Heifetz and the Neveu recordings from earlier in the last century. Pretty well every violinist that ever drew a bow has recorded the work, which has joined the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos at the top of the A-list. My modern choice would probably be one of the two recordings with Lisa Batiashvili playing. Or maybe Vadim Repin (I have no less than six different recordings of Repin playing this work).

Sibelius avoided the gigantism and long-windedness that characterised much of the music at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth; Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Elgar all wrote music that, arguably, often goes on just too long. Most of Sibelius's symphonies come in comfortably at around 30 minutes each; a good listening span. In self-imposed musical exile after his seventh symphony, he shunned the sterile cul-de-sac of the serialists such as Schönberg, Berg and their acolytes, fortunately for his music and his future reputation. My mini- Sibelius festival over, I'll nevertheless not re-shelve the CDs but will keep them by me. I value all seven Sibelius symphonies, even the fourth that proves that the Russians do not have a monopoly on musical pessimism and gloom.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Sandrine Piau in Handel

Yesterday, the temperature where I live was plus 14 degrees. Today it is minus 2. I struggled to find music that would calm my frustration, and tried many options. At last, by trial and error, I found just the right 60 minutes; the honeyed soprano voice of Sandrine Piau singing Handel excerpts (mainly in English). With the title “Between Heaven and Earth” the CD also features the Accademia Bizantina directed by Stefano Montanari. From first note to last, it is a ray of sunshine, with Piau's wonderful singing complementing Handel's inventive music, and the highly talented band filling in the rest. Montanari is first violin, conductor and musical director and his enthusiastic Italians make a pleasant change from the often somewhat dour North Europeans in this music. A CD I shall never regret having bought.

This blog is called Musicke & Food; there is, indeed, a relationship between the two, in that the "right" music for the session in hand can vary enormously, just as the "right" food can be unpredictable. A fridge full of fish; I yearn for meat. A fridge full of meat; I yearn for fish. A pile of string quartets; I yearn for the symphonies of Sibelius. However, Ms Piau and Georg Frederike Händel filled the bill this evening. Danke, merci ... et grazie. And a bowl of soupe de poissons from Brittany fulfilled the food part. Merci.