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.