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.