Friday, 27 July 2018

Mikhail Pletnev conducts Shostakovich

For many, many decades, I have loved the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. His music “speaks” to me in a way that his contemporaries such as Prokofiev, Stravinsky or Bartok never do. I love the kaleidoscopic changes of mood in his music. I love his gift for coming up with memorable tunes, themes and motifs. I love his mastery of the orchestra, in his orchestral works. I love his dyed-in-the-wool “Russian-ness”. I love his lineage going back to the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

So I was more than delighted when a friend sent me a new CD where Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra on Pentatone. The works on the CD are Shostakovich's fourth and tenth symphonies. So far I have listened to just the magnificent tenth symphony, one of my favourites. The fourth symphony is somewhat daunting and needs mental preparation. Needless to say, this new recording of the tenth symphony is superb; very Russian in the orchestral sound and playing, superb in Pentatone's recording. Is it superior to my hitherto favourite, Vasily Petrenko conducting his Liverpudlians? Hard to say, from memory. Enough that Pletnev and his Russian forces earn my admiration from the beginning, to the end (as do Petrenko and his Liverpool orchestra).

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Pierre Rode

Pierre Rode (1774-1830) was a violin virtuoso, a pupil of Viotti, and a contemporary of Beethoven, Paganini and Heinrich Ernst. He gave the premier of Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata. He wrote music almost exclusively for the violin, including 13 violin concertos, most of which have been recorded by the violinists' friend, Naxos, with Friedemann Eichhorn as soloist. His music is tuneful and well written for the violin, as one would expect. The virtuoso aspect of Rode's violin music is mainly centred upon the bow arm, with every variety of bow stroke being called upon. Unlike Paganini or Ernst, the left hand is not obliged to indulge in violinistic circus tricks, with double stopping being rare, and harmonics even rarer.

A generous friend gave me the latest Rode-Eichhorn instalment, a CD of the 11th and 12th violin concertos, with two sets of variations for violin and orchestra. This is carefree music to which one just sits back and enjoys life. Eichhorn has become something of a specialist in this music and he plays with aplomb and a scintillating right arm; Rode would have nodded in approval. The Naxos recording is excellent. One is left wondering why we do not hear these concertos more often, rather than the 8-9 “standard” works that are always trotted out year after year. And when were concertos by Rode, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Hubay et al. last recorded by companies such as DG, Decca or Warner? Thank heavens for Naxos.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Playing Bach: Pau Casals, and Beatrice Rana

I listened again to the six suites for solo cello by Bach. The cellist was my all-time favourite in this music: Pau Casals, recorded in the mid- 1930s and re-released by Pristine Audio. Casals plays very much from the heart which, to my mind, is the secret of Bach playing, and I had the same reaction and degree of admiration listening to Beatrice Rana's recent recording of the Goldberg Variations. There are internal harmonies and rhythms in Bach's music that you sense when you play the works. I used to play the cello suites (albeit transcribed for viola) and arrogantly thought that I played them as well as anyone else …. except Casals, who was always hors concours in these works. For Bach playing one really needs to forget musicologists and erudite PhDs in ancient music. Bach's music is very much alive, if you play it with feeling and understanding. In evidence, M'Lud: Pau Casals and Beatrice Rana. Different generations, different instruments. Different works. Different countries of origin. But eternally valid, to my mind. Forget “recent scholarship has revealed that …" Bach's music is not an historical artifact. Bach's music demands a subjective, human reaction.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Acquaragia Drom - Zingari

Many, many years ago in France I picked up by chance a CD of the music of a bunch of (probably somewhat smelly) Adriatic gypsies playing their folk music. The five members of the band were photographed in front of their van. Instrumentarium was guitar, clarinet, accordion, and violin; all instruments you could carry off quickly to the forest whenever the next gypsy purge erupted. The band called itself Acquaragia Drom Zingari, and the CD dates from the early 1990s. I have spent decades enjoying the tracks on the CD.

Why? First of all, because this is genuine folk music, not too tainted by showbiz or commercial considerations. Secondly, because the sound world is genuinely North India meets Southern Europe, as befits its gypsy origins. Thirdly, because the two female vocalists have voices that will cause all males to salivate, and all female listeners to scowl. And fourthly because this kind of music — Central European folk, klezmer and gypsy — gave birth to so much of Western classical music (and instrument playing). This is roots stuff, and highly enjoyable. These Zingari were based in Italy, and may now — once more — be having a hard time of it. Off to the forest, again.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Camille Saint-Saëns

I seem to recall that someone once suggested that Camille Saint-Saëns was “the greatest composer who was not a genius”. Not an entirely unjust epitaph, one feels. Alas, nowadays he is usually only met via his Organ Symphony, the Carnival of the Animals, or the third violin concerto, and most of his prolific output is ignored. Unjustly ignored, I feel, since he crafted many agreeable works. Reminded by a comment from a friend, I took out an old recording of his two piano trios, opus 18 and opus 92. The performers on this 1993 Naxos CD are the Joachim Trio, with John Lenehan as the pianist. Not music to shake the world, but music that gives over an hour of enjoyable listening in entirely civilised company. At this stage of my life, I turn more and more to chamber and recital music — leaving organ symphonies and whatever to other ears. Monsieur Saint-Saëns wrote five piano concertos, three violin concertos, a cello concerto, numerous pieces for violin including the better known Havanaise, and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, an opera Samson & Dalila, string quartets, various sonatas and symphonies; none of it trite. A composer most of whose music is unjustly neglected in the modern musical world. Very little angst in Saint-Saëns' music, little grief, few violent emotions. Just very pleasant, tuneful, well-written music inhabiting the same musical world as most of Grieg or Mendelssohn. I love the two piano trios (composed in 1863, and 1892).