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.

The Naxos Company, and Nazrin Rashidova

The Naxos company started in 1987 in Hong Kong at the inspiration of Klaus Heymann, a German resident in Hong Kong. Later, his Japanese wife, Takako Nishizaki, a violinist, also took part in the company (and was probably one reason why Naxos has always had a prominent violin repertoire). For the past 31 years, during which most rivals and competitors have disappeared as organised recording companies, Naxos has continued its policy of low prices, repertoire that avoids the over-recorded, artists and instrumental groups that are not on the normal All Star circuit, and never (or rarely) deleting any issues. Naxos explores the 80 percent of the classical music repertoire that the big commercial enterprises rarely touch, and it often achieves excellent artistic results with its ranks of “B list” artists and orchestras. In classical music, being a well-known name is not always a guarantee of first-rate quality (and we all remember the revelation that Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was caught out giving concerts simultaneously in two different cities; the RPO name had become a mere franchise operation).

The latest release from Naxos typifies the company, with Nazrin Rashidova playing Volume 2 of her planned traversal of the 24 études-caprices opus 64 by Emile Sauret (all six of the new études on the CD are labelled as “world première recordings”.) Music of a specialist interest maybe, but well worth recording and listening to. For this second volume Rashidova puts aside her modern British violin that sounded so well in Volume 1 and plays on a Stradivarius from 1685. The Strad also sounds well, with a good tone on the lower strings. There is some wonderful violin playing on this CD. In the liner notes, Rashidova writes extensively about the quality of the "Sauret" Strad. Finally, as usual with the good-quality Naxos, liner notes (by Rashidova) are excellent and, although Rashidova is a fine-looking woman, the front cover quite rightly gives Emile Sauret star billing in a large typeface, with a photo of the composer dominating half of the front. A bit more class at Naxos compared with the likes of DG, Decca and Warner.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Sviatoslav Richter frustrates in Schubert

Sviatoslav Richter was no “legend”; he was a real person, and I once had a ticket to hear him at a concert near me. Unfortunately, when the great day came, I found I had mistakenly thrown away the ticket, so I never heard him live. But he was a very great and very famous pianist, with a special love for the music of Franz Schubert.

I settled down to listen to Richter in 1979 in Tokyo playing Schubert piano sonatas; B major D 575, F minor D 625, A major D 664, and A minor D 784. The pianism was wonderful. The audience was ecstatic (some applause was maintained). Three of the sonatas have slow movements marked “andante”, but Richter's concept of andante in Tokyo was more akin to molto adagio. Richter being Richter, his tempi were never based on a desire for affect, nor to please the crowd. And Richter being Richter with his superb ability to concentrate, the andantes never sagged. However, the three andantes were all so slow they often nearly stopped, and I just could not take it any more. Click on the following movements.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Russians Play Russian

The Russians are famous for composing first-class music, as well as for churning out generations of first-class musicians (especially pianists and violinists). They are not famous for their recording technology of generations ago, so I approached a disc of “Russian Treasures” recorded during the dark years of 1948 and 1957 with considerable trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised; the original tapes came from Moscow Radio (not the studios of Melodya) and the tapes were processed by the Czech company Multisonic in 1993. Even given the age of the original performances, the results made pleasant listening. Composers were all Russian: Glinka (Sestetto), Borodin (Grand Trio) and Tchaikovsky (String Sextet).

The Russians often have a bad press (especially by the paranoid Americans); sometimes deservedly, more often, not. Politics aside, the Russian artists playing Glinka, Borodin and Tchaikovsky would be hard to beat: Leonid Kogan, Elizabeta Gilels, Dmitry Tsyganov, Vasily Shirinksy, Sergei Shirinsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Rudolf Barshai ... and others. Very much Golden Age performances of this music. I'll keep the CD to hand for re-playing whenever I need reminding there is still superb music making to be had at the touch of a button. The Russians in Russian music are still hard to beat. I am still waiting for a really good transfer of the famous 1952 recording of Tchaikovsky's opus 50 piano trio with Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Ning Feng, and Josef Suk, in Bach

When it comes to performances of music of the baroque era, and of the 18th century, I am conscious of often being illogical and somewhat schizophrenic. I love the way Handel's operas and oratorios are played today, and find it difficult to accept the old 20th century performing tradition before the final decades of the century. I deplore race-to-the-finish Bach, and prefer Klemperer or Richter in most of Bach's choral music. I dislike Glenn Gould's recordings of the Goldberg Variations as being too much Gould, not enough Bach, but I like Beatrice Rana's recording of the Goldbergs for the sense of a personal interaction with the music. I like my Brandenburgs played by Adolf Busch, Karl Richter or Otto Klemperer rather than Allegro Molto conducting I Barochisti di Novara.

A friend recently sent me a set of the Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas recorded in 1970 by the great Czech violinist, Josef Suk and, following a highly enthusiastic notice by one reviewer, I bought a set of the same works recorded in late 2016 by the Chinese violinist, Ning Feng. I settled down to listen to both performances, recorded some 45 years apart, with my notebook at the ready; starting with the first sonata, one after another, and ending with the third partita, one after another. From experience, ones reaction to different performances can also depend on mood and circumstances, so I was anxious to compare like with like.

Right from the start, with the first sonata, my ears and my tasting notes made it clear I was dealing with two different things: an excellent vintage red wine, versus an excellent vintage champagne. Suk is calm and relaxed. I have never taken to Bach's violin fugues; Suk ploughs through the first fugue, but I wait for the following Siciliana where I can admire Suk's double stops. When we get to Feng, it's a different world; much more subjective, more rubato and playing around with the rhythm. Feng is terrific in the fugue; his differentiation of the voices makes it sound as if a string quartet is playing the piece. His Siciliana is also excellent, with lovely playing of the parts, and Feng's finale is more exciting than that of Suk.

The first partita is the most difficult of the six unaccompanied works to bring off. It has ten movements (five dances, and five doubles – variations at double speed). Suk plays a really excellent Sarabande, with lovely part playing, but his approach to most movements comes over as a bit ponderous, with the opening Allemanda going on for ever, and the doubles do not fizz. Feng's Sarabande shows him trying a bit too hard; some of Suk's calm and simplicity would not have come amiss. However, in the doubles, Feng really does fizz – the double of the Corrente (marked double presto) sees smoke coming from Feng's bow, much as it did when Antje Weithaas played it on her recording.

With the second sonata, my opinions are becoming clearer. For the fugues, the Chinese is your man, with his “string quartet” approach to the different voices; the Czech sounds a bit effortful here, at times. Suk's gravitas and simplicity pay off in the slow movements where he often sings, compared with Feng who plays. Suk's finale lacks fantasy; his tempi are often measured, whereas Feng sounds more flowing.

By the end of the second partita, with its wonderful and challenging Ciaccona, and with only the third sonata and the less challenging third partita left, my personal pendulum had begun to swing towards Josef Suk and the classical, mid- 20th century style. With Suk you get Bach, the whole Bach, and nothing but Bach. With Ning Feng, you get superb and imaginative violin playing, with highly interesting flights of fancy, but sometimes Johann Sebastian gets lost in the violinistic jamboree and you find yourself admiring Mr Feng rather than Herr Bach.

It is noticeable when it comes to the two great Russian violinists of the last century, David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, neither really tackled the Bach unaccompanied works on record (though Kogan did record a couple of them). Bach's unaccompanied violin works demand a certain style of playing and a certain sound. Of the violinists around the middle of the last century, Milstein, Grumiaux – and now Suk – are well worth listening to. Heifetz, in a place all by himself, is also well worth listening to. Of the modern school, I like Alina Ibragimova, Antje Weithaas – and now Ning Feng. All bring fantasy, technique and colour to these six works. Those looking for just one set by one violinist are going to be disappointed. For my desert island choice, I am going to have Heifetz, Grumiaux, Suk, Ibragimova, Weithaas ... and Feng. I like good red Burgundy. And I also like good vintage champagne.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Adieu, The Gramophone

I bought my first copy of The Gramophone magazine in 1953 (at the age of twelve). I have bought every issue since then, but I have now decided to stop. Mainly a question of age, and experience. I can usually spot interesting new recordings, or hear about them via friends. I no longer need guidance by “experts”, and too often I distrust the experts' opinions and recommendations. Too many of Gramophone's heroes and heroines are based in London, too many record for major companies, advertisers or sponsors. As soon as one reads rave reviews for Benjamin Grosvenor, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim, Martha Agerich, Mitsuko Uchida, John Eliot Gardiner, et al, one says: “Yeah, well”. In addition, I have walls full of CDs that I cannot possibly listen to again during my remaining years so I really do not need yet more.

At my age, I am out of synchronisation with forte-pianos, harpsichords, violins sans vibrato, eight-part choruses sung by just eight singers, and the whole concept of “authentic”. In addition, I do not regard those who compose music post mid- twentieth century as being well worth investigation or investment, come what may; there is quite enough first-class music pre-1965 that is pretty well unknown and rarely played to occupy several lifetimes. And to cap it all, I am not in favour of dumbing-down classical music performances and artists in an attempt to enter the lucrative market of pop and entertainment. That's all about money, not art.

So, regretfully, I shall part company with The Gramophone after around 65 years. I'll miss it.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Clara Haskil in 1953

A piano recital from 65 years ago in Ludwigsburg by Clara Haskil reminds us what we are missing all too often these days. The 75 minute programme features music by Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, Debussy and Ravel. All short pieces, except for Beethoven's last piano sonata, Opus 111. An infinite variety of music over a couple of centuries, superbly played. The 65 year old sound comes over extremely well in SWR's re-mastering and transfers.

The performance of Beethoven's Opus 111 is more subdued than those to which we are accustomed. There is a wrong note during the start, to remind us these are unedited taped recordings. The theme of the Arietta is played with a beautiful simplicity; perhaps a primary example of art concealing art. Clara Haskil was no barn-stormer, and maybe she is slightly less impressive in late Beethoven than in her much-favoured other masters of the classical era. In any case, we do not long to hear her in Rachmaninov's third piano concerto. Many thanks to SWR for exhuming this recital.

Teodor Currentzis and Tchaikovsky's Pathétique

I grew up with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony played by Toscanini (NBC Orchestra), Cantelli (Philharmonia) and Furtwängler (Berlin Philharmonic) later followed by Mravinsky (Leningrad Orchestra) and Mikhael Pletnev (Russian National Orchestra). I still have all of these, plus a few others, so I really did not need yet another Pathétique. However, it is one of my favourite orchestral works, so I launched out and bought yet another version: Teodor Currentzis and the MusicAeterna orchestra.

Teodor Currentzis (half Greek, half Russian) is a highly interventionist conductor. The orchestra (from Perm in Siberia) confirms my often stated belief that a “second tier” orchestra playing repertoire familiar to it will often play its heart out, whereas a world-famous orchestra under a guest conductor will often go through the motions. Russian orchestras in core Russian repertoire, like German or Austrian orchestras in the core German repertoire, French orchestras in the core French repertoire, or English orchestras in the core English repertoire, almost always add that extra 10% of commitment and authenticity.

This is a Pathétique with a difference; somewhat wild, with exaggerated pauses and wide dynamics. I enjoyed it (as is often the case when one listens to musicians playing their hearts out in repertoire they know and love). However, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique is too good a symphony to be listened to too often in a distorted performance. The music of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mahler and Rachmaninov is already so full of Angst and insecurity that it really does not need additional dollops. I felt the same way about Nemanja Radulovic's performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, despite the magnificent violin playing. For the Pathétique, maybe I should buy the recording by Vasily Petrenko; but that is on a double CD with the third and fourth symphonies that I do not want. Till then, it's back to the ancient Mravinsky recordings, plus the more recent Pletnev or Valery Gergiev.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

An Afternoon of Saint-Saëns, and Chausson

A mini festival of French music this afternoon, with Camille Saint-Saëns and Ernest Chausson. Monsieur Saint-Saëns contributed his Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, plus his third violin concerto, plus his Havanaise opus 83. Monsieur Chausson contributed his Poème. All these works were Heifetz specialities, of course (apart from the Saint-Saëns violin concertos that Heifetz never recorded, for reasons I cannot understand).

Notwithstanding the magnificent Jascha Heifetz in these works, I listened to them played by Arthur Grumiaux, who was ill-served by the Philips recording team in the 1950s, but the team made up for it in the 1960s. I grew up with the various Heifetz recordings but, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself admiring Grumiaux even more. In terms of violin playing, both the Russian and the Belgian are supreme here. It is just that Grumiaux seems to play the Franco-Belgian repertoire with a natural accent, whereas Heifetz's accent is acquired and studied, rather than natural. Difficult to explain, like so much in music when it comes to words. But listening to the violin's entrance in the Chausson as played by Heifetz, my reaction is: “Wow, what superb playing!” When Grumiaux makes his entrance (accompanied by the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1966), the reaction is: “Wow, what superb music!”

Finishing up with a dessert of Ravel's ubiquitous Tzigane, I found myself profoundly admiring Grumiaux's playing (1966). Many players, including Patricia Kopatchinskaja, ham up the gypsy element until it becomes almost a caricature. With Grumiaux, Tzigane sounds like a piece of exotic music by Maurice Ravel, much as his Shéhérazade is a piece of exotic Oriental music.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Simone Lamsma

One thing leads to another. An email conversation with a friend concerning the recordings of Joseph Hassid led me to review my collection of recordings of short pieces of violin and piano music by Edward Elgar (played by William Bouton, Marat Bisengaliev, and Simone Lamsma). So I re-discovered the playing of the Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma and her Naxos CDs of violin and piano music by Elgar, and of three violin concertos by Louis Spohr. The only thing I remembered about her, was that I liked her violin playing very much. Apparently she won the Benjamin Britten Violin Competition back in 2004 (why, oh why, has she never been asked to record the Britten violin concerto, as well as the Elgar?) The world is full of violin virtuoso clones recording the same old concertos and the same old sonatas. In the Elgar short pieces, Bouton and Bisengaliev give us top-rate violin playing from the music stand; Lamsma gives us top-rate violin playing from the heart, and I was sad when her Elgar CD came to an end. She and her pianist, Yurie Miura, even managed to retain my interest throughout Elgar's not-too-memorable sonata for violin and piano. If ever Ms Lamsma records the Elgar and Britten violin concertos (preferably with the Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko) I'll buy multiple copies to distribute to my friends and family.

On another Naxos CD, Simone Lamsma gives excellent performances of Louis Spohr's 6th, 8th, and 11th violin concertos. The 8th concerto (“In modo di scena cantante”) is a test of a violinist's sensitivity and musicianship; Lamsma comes through with flying colours, helped also by an excellent 2007 recording and the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois. Spohr's music demands sophisticated violin playing rather than power virtuosity; his music is certainly well served here by Ms Lamsma. Louis (or Ludwig) Spohr's violin concertos do not deserve their current neglect (though writing eighteen of them did not help in getting them known and established). At least Naxos puts a big picture of Herr Spohr on the CD cover; DG or Warner would have plastered the booklet with photos of the attractive Ms Lamsma.

Addendum: I recorded off-air a very fine performance by Simone Lamsma with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the Elgar violin concerto (November 2010). Unfortunately, the CDR on which I stored it has become unplayable and cannot be rescued, despite all my attempts at resuscitation. If anyone has a copy of this performance, please let me know !

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Lisa Batiashvili, and Sergei Prokofiev

I have been a fan of Lisa Batiashvili's violin playing for the past 17 years, ever since her début CD for EMI back in the year 2000. I don't think she has ever really disappointed me (though I never much cared for her unaccompanied Bach partita back on that début CD). In the world of post-18th century music for violin and orchestra, Lisa Batiashvili is a major contender in almost every work. Her trademark qualities — apart from superb violin playing — are her regal, lyrical, and deliberate playing, together with clear enunciation; nothing is blurred or slurred with Lisa at the helm.

I have never had much of a relationship with Sergei Prokofiev, apart from his music for violin. I am aware he wrote operas, symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas and piano concertos, but I know little of them. His two sonatas for violin and piano, together with his two concertos for violin and orchestra, are works I know inside out from long acquaintance. I snatched up a new CD featuring Prokofiev's two violin concertos, with Lisa Batiashvili (and orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Like her recent Tchaikovsky concerto recording, the recording of the first Prokofiev concerto underlines the lyrical nature of much of the writing, whilst down-playing some of Prokofiev's more “devilish” and iconoclastic passages. Batiashvili comes over as a gentle soul at heart. Joseph Szigeti, back in 1935 with the unlikely aid of Thomas Beecham, brought far more raw savagery to much of the music of the first violin concerto.

Prokofiev's second violin concerto has less of the raw energy of the first, reflecting the difference in Prokofiev's world between 1917 (the first concerto) and the second concerto (1935). In 1917, Prokofiev could be avant-garde and semi-revolutionary; in 1935, popularity and lack of provocation were more important considerations, as was his impending return to the “People's Russia”. Predictably, the second concerto suits Lyrical Lisa even more than the first. Super castanets in the finale ! The orchestral violins in the second movement (where they sometimes play almost in duet with the solo violin) are a bit feeble; this is a chamber orchestra, after all (Chamber Orchestra of Europe). I am not clear as to the definition of a “chamber orchestra”, as opposed to “orchestra”. This one has an admirable tuba (do many chamber orchestras have tubas?) and all play extremely well, except the orchestral violins do seem to lack “heft” when required. Whatever; this recording goes on the podium as one of the very best of Prokofiev's second violin concerto, though Batiashvili could have been a little more “devilish” during the final moments of the work.

The recording is good, with the solo violin prominent. As usual with the Deutsche Grammophon label incarnation, the CD is aimed at young men who are going to be won over to the music of Sergei Prokofiev by the four “glamour” photos of Batiashvili in the booklet (with not even one black-and-while photo of Sergei Prokofiev, who did, in some ways, have something to do with the music on the CD). The highly agreeable “fillers” on the current CD are three short pieces from Prokofiev's ballets, arranged for violin and orchestra by Tamas Batiashvili, Lisa's father. Enjoyable. Let us hope all those inflamed young men rush out and buy the CD and also get to know some of Prokofiev's most agreeable music. The booklet is probably very erudite, but grey print on a yellow background is too much of a challenge to eyes over 50 years old. One leaves that kind of reading to the young men at whom the booklet and CD presentation are aimed. The print is small but, after all, space was needed for the photos !

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Bach and Arthur Grumiaux

Two hours of J.S. Bach played by Arthur Grumiaux on an old Philips double CD (probably obtainable now only to those who seek it out in Japan; the Japanese have a commendable respect for fine violin playing). Grumiaux's suave, sophisticated, elegant style of playing suits Bach's music remarkably well, and he has an instinctive feeling for phrasing in Bach's music. The CDs contain eleven sonatas for violin and keyboard: the familiar six, plus five others (at least one of which does not sound too much like J.S. Bach, to my finely-attuned ears). This set has languished on my shelves un-listened to for many years, mainly because the “keyboard” Grumiaux has selected is a harpsichord, an instrument whose jingles and jangles I try to avoid. Not that I need to worry too much in this set; the violin is balanced well forward, so the fairly resonant harpsichord jangles less than is often the case, and the overall sound is warm, with the harpsichord making agreeable background noises from time to time. Great listening for those who love the music of Bach, the playing of Arthur Grumiaux, and the sound of the violin.

The only slight niggle is that, for the six well-known sonatas for violin and keyboard, one also needs to-hand the set played by Frank Peter Zimmermann, with Enrico Pace providing the keyboard part on the piano. The Bach sonatas favour the violin, but the keyboard is often not just a continuo part. With Zimmermann and Pace you get both voices; with Grumiaux, you get mainly the voice of the violin. Perhaps, in some after-life, we shall have Arthur Grumiaux playing these works with Enrico Pace.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

"The Best". And Antje Weithaas

In terms of performances of music that have been captured and recorded for posterity, it is almost impossible to refer to “the best” performance of any given work. There may be a few exceptions: perhaps Tosca in 1953 with Vittorio di Sabata conducting Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, and Giuseppe di Stefano. Perhaps Tristan and Isolde in 1952 with Furtwängler conducting Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus. Perhaps even the Bach “48” recorded by Edwin Fischer in the mid- 1930s. But rather than stick ones neck out for “the best”, it is usually wiser to talk of “among a handful of the best”.

Apart from a grand piano, a solo violin is one of the most expressive solo instruments, but its range and dynamics cannot compete with those of a symphony orchestra, a string quartet, or a grand piano. To sustain a listener's interest over 30 or 60 minutes of playing demands a solo violinist of real expertise in mixing sounds and dynamics. I enthused recently over Antje Weithaas playing the solo violin music of Bach and of Eugène Ysaÿe. I have now added her Volume 1 to my collection, and only await Volume 2 which is somewhere in the order process. This additional volume confirms my initial reaction to Ms Weithaas; her playing really sustains my interest from beginning to end and she achieves this with a fascinating mixture of bowing, dynamics and timbre. In solo Bach and Ysaÿe, Ms Weithaas is certainly “among a handful of the best”, a handful that includes Alina Ibragimova and, for Bach, Heifetz and Milstein.

On the subject of “the best”, I thoroughly agree with this quote from Otto Klemperer: 'For me, Bach's B minor Mass is the greatest and most unique music ever written'. I have just re-listened to the work. Yes, it is the greatest. And yes, it is unique. How a provincial German leading a very ordinary life came to write such music is one of life's mysteries.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Voyages with Mary Bevan

As a lover of French mélodies, I invested in a new CD featuring the English soprano Mary Bevan, with Joseph Middleton at the piano. The CD, “Voyages” takes as its theme the longing to depart for distant and imagined lands. Ms Bevan has a lovely voice, and sings with welcome vivacity. Juxtaposing four German-language songs (Schubert) to the French compilation may make intellectual sense, but the inter-mingling of early nineteenth century German Lieder with late nineteenth century French mélodies sits somewhat uneasily on the musical logic. One can see the logic in a compilation of Voyages to hoped-for lands of connecting Goethe's texts to the Baudelaire texts of the French songs. But there is not too much musical logic.

French is a difficult language for the non-French, and on occasions Ms Bevan sounds more at home in the four German-language songs (Schubert) than in the fifteen French-language songs. Her German is clear, but her French can be a bit mumbled on occasions. French, however, is a difficult language for singers (even French singers); German and Italian are much more singer-friendly. I enjoyed making the acquaintance of Emmanuel Chabrier's setting of Baudelaire's L'invitation au voyage, with its unexpected obbligato bassoon added to the piano accompaniment. The Duparc setting is, of course, much more familiar. I also enjoyed the two songs by the 19th century Parisian cabaret poet, Maurice Rollinat; his setting of Le jet d'eau is quite haunting. Throughout the recital Joseph Middleton is his usual tower of strength. Good balance between voice and piano.

For the next few years, I think I probably have enough collections of French mélodies. I cannot even recall all the ones I have. Time to diverse into Haydn baryton trios, or Scarlatti sonatas, or whatever.

Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov is my kind of composer. And Boris Giltburg is my kind of pianist when it comes to playing Rachmaninov. I was very pleased to catch a broadcast (7th November 2017) of Giltburg playing Rachmaninov's third piano concerto. As expected, Giltburg is authoritative and with an entirely natural approach to Rachmaninov's music; no distracting mannerisms, no drawing attention to his superb technique (except, perhaps, in the first movement cadenza, where a bit of showing off is entirely legitimate). In this public concert the orchestra was the Liverpool Philharmonic, probably Britain's best “Russian” orchestra at the moment thanks to Vasily Petrenko (although the conductor on this occasion was Carlos Miguel Prieto). The off-air sound is entirely acceptable, with a realistic balance between piano and orchestra. When it comes to playing Rachmaninov or Shostakovich, it seems Boris Giltburg can do no wrong in my eyes.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Sergei Dogadin in Shostakovich. Antje Weithaas in Bach and Ysaÿe

Naxos keeps coming up with top-notch new violinists playing interesting music. The latest I've listened to sees Sergei Dogadin (violin) and Nikolai Tokarev (piano) playing Shostakovich; the sonata for violin and piano, and an arrangement of the 24 preludes opus 34. Most of the preludes were arranged by Dmitry Tsyganov, but the remainder are here arranged by Lera Auerbach. The late sonata (opus 134) is a difficult work to get to grips with, in common with many of Shostakovich's final works, including the second violin concerto. I listen to the sonata often, and am very gradually worming my way into it. Not music for listening to if one is suffering from depression, however. The opus 24 preludes work well in their violin and piano guise, and provide a kaleidoscopic view of Shostakovich's music, ranging from manic gaiety to gloomy forebodings. I enjoyed them immensely. Dogadin comes over as a top class violinist, with a superb range of dynamics. The recording of the violin comes over as somewhat metallic on the upper strings, though the balance is good. Another excellent Naxos addition to my Naxos violin shelf.

I quoted recently from a review concerning Antje Weithaas's violin. Intrigued by a violinist whose name I knew but whose playing I had never heard, I bought her latest CD — volume 3 of her traversal of the solo violin works of J.S. Bach and Eugène Ysaÿe. Half way through listening to volume 3, I went over to my computer and ordered volumes 1 and 2. What impressed me? Her playing makes the works so interesting; nothing is routine, dynamics are varied, everything sounds so fresh and inevitable. And she can certainly play the violin, witness the difficult fugue of the third Bach solo violin sonata, or the jaw-dropping speed with which she plays the double of the courante in the Bach first partita. Her playing in both Bach and Ysaÿe made me think of the playing of Alina Ibragimova, who also holds ones attention by constant variation of dynamics and colour. In my youth, these Bach works usually came over as mezzo-forte from players such as Yehudi Menuhin (on record) or Alfredo Campoli (at a concert). The sounds produced by Weithaas (and also by Ibragimova) are worlds away from that somewhat monochrome universe. This Weithaas CD (from Cavi-music) reconfirms the fact that it is not necessarily the big names and the big brands that produce the best results. I really look forward to receiving my two missing Weithaas volumes of Bach and Ysaÿe; it's a long time since I listened so intently to this familiar music. This volume 3 has Ysaÿe's fourth and sixth sonatas; of the Ysaÿe, I particularly like the first, second and fourth sonatas, so interesting times are coming.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Violins and Investors

Find a detail in a landscape by Auguste Renoir that could not have been there before 1919 (when he died) and the selling price potential of the picture immediately plummets from $3 million to $70. The price of paintings by famous artists is a reflection of financial and investment portfolios, not of the aesthetics of the painting. People buy famous pictures for their investment value, and then lock them away in cellars where no one can see them. In the twentieth century, old violins followed paintings into investors' lairs, with violins by Antonio Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesù selling for millions of dollars and ending up in the same cellars as Renoir's paintings. As with the aesthetics of paintings, the sound of the violin often had little to do with the potential sale price. A few months ago, commenting on a recording by Nazrin Rashidova, I remarked that “I imagined Ms Rashidova was playing on some ancient, multi-million dollar Italian violin. But it transpires that her violin is one made by David Rattray, London, in 2009”.

So I was particularly pleased at a reviewer in the Gramophone magazine, reviewing a Bach recording by the German violinist Antje Weithaas, commenting that: “Equally key to her sound, though, is that she's playing on a modern set-up: chin rest, metal strings and even a 2001 instrument from Stefan-Peter Greiner, the German luthier also behind Christian Tetzlaff's magnificent violin; and it must be said that if you ever needed proof that 18th-century Cremona is not a prerequisite for tonal riches, individuality and power, then Weithaas's Greiner does that job very nicely. In its lower reaches it's soft, cloaked and dark, with an ear-pricking modern edge; then, while duskiness also forms part of its top register's tonal armoury, so does a firm, powerful singing platinum tone which Weithaas employs to great effect.”

As regular readers will know, I am no fan of “original instruments” (unless they are good instruments, well played). What does the violin sound like? How well is it played? I have no problem with “investors” playing with Bitcoins or expensive Swiss watches, but I do wish they would leave paintings and violins to those who want to look at them, play them, or listen to them.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

La Mer

Inspired by my roughest crossing of the Channel between England and France in 64 years the other day, I dug out a recording of Debussy's La Mer (written in Eastbourne on the English coast, of all unlikely places). After some humming and hawing, I settled on a 1976 recording (Philips) by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. A lucky choice; at the time, the Philips recording team, the orchestra, and Haitinik were all at a high point in their careers.

There are superb conductors with low profiles (or small PR lobbies): Bernard Haitink, Günter Wand, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Kirill Petrenko ... There are well-known conductors with high profiles and powerful PR lobbies: Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Gustavo Dudamel, Daniel Barenboim …. Fame and talent do not necessarily coincide. In this La Mer, as in so much else, Haitink strikes one as just the right person. He probably has spent little or nothing on PR. But his music making always speaks for itself.