Saturday, 23 June 2018

Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov's Third Concerto

For over 100 years now, the music of Sergei Rachmaninov has stood the test of time and remains highly popular with musicians and the public. For much of the previous century, the critics and “experts” were a bit sniffy about Rachmaninov's music; it was popular, and people loved it. Quelle Horreur ! But Sergei has seen off pretty well all contenders for music written in the 20th century, including that of his erstwhile rival Igor Stravinsky whose popularity now seems to rest mainly on his earlier ballet music. Judging by the world's concert programmes, and by issued recordings, Rachmaninov goes from strength to strength.

I caught up with the melancholy Russian again in a new (Naxos) recording of his third piano concerto played by my current favourite pianist for the Romantic Russian repertoire: Boris Giltburg. The work is well recorded; the orchestra the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Giltburg projects the music magnificently guided, one suspects, by the composer's own recording. This is all about Rachmaninov, not Giltburg. Boris is not in the line of self-projecting pianists such as Lang Lang, Horowitz, Martha Argerich (and many others). He plays the music magnificently, with an incredible technique in the big first movement cadenza.

Igor Levit and Boris Giltburg are currently my favourite Russian-born pianists, with Igor anchored firmly in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and Boris in Rachmaninov and Shostakovitch. This is a good era for first-class piano playing. There are few things more agreeable in life than sitting back in a comfortable chair with a glass of good wine and letting the music of Sergei Rachmaninov wash over you.

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.