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.