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.