Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Bach's Secular Cantatas, and Masaaki Suzuki

As the proud owner of around 250 recordings of Bach cantatas, I really, really do not need yet more. However, I bought a CD of two more Bach cantatas — secular cantatas, this time — and so enjoyed the two works … that I have now ordered six more secular cantatas. All feature the incomparable Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan. The first CD of this batch that I bought has Carolyn Sampson as the soprano soloist, and I greatly welcome more recordings with Ms Sampson. She sings Ich bin in mir Vergnügt BWV 204 beautifully.

The words / libretti for almost all vocal music before Mozart are usually banal. I can never take to the words of Bach's church cantatas: “I long to die, so I can see Jesus again” and similar religious hocus-pocus. So the secular Bach cantatas make a very welcome change for me. Well done Johann Sebastian, and Masaaki Suzuki, and the BIS record company that year after year has supported Suzuki and his fine Japanese musicians.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Life, according to Igor Levit

The much-admired (by me) pianist Igor Levit has just released a double CD album with the title “Life”. As one would expect from Levit, the pianism is extraordinary, the musicianship exemplary with a formidable grasp of form, structure, and dynamics. So far: straight “A”s all the way. The nine pieces of music on the two CDs are a mixed bag. We start with Ferrucio Busoni's Fantasia after J.S. Bach, which rambles on agreeably for over 14 minutes. Bach would have done better, in a lot less time. We continue with Brahms' arrangement for the left hand of the Chaconne from Bach's second partita for solo violin, a very pleasant surprise. Confining the arrangement to just one pianistic hand means that the original violin music comes over without excessive additions and ornamentation and this, coupled with Levit's grasp of form, makes this a formidable recording of Bach's music. It also confirms my often-stated view that “authentic” Bach is a pretty meaningless term, given Johann Sebastian's casual ability to arrange or transcribe his music from instrument to instrument, and voice to voice. CD I continues with the “Ghost” variations by Robert Schumann, very nearly posthumous, and ends with a ten minute piece by Frederic Rzewski with the title A Mensch (a person, or human being). For me, once heard, forever pigeon-holed since Rzewski's piece does ramble on.

The second CD begins with Franz Liszt's transcription of the solemn march from Wagner's Parsifal; Liszt's transcriptions and arrangements of other men's music have usually appealed to me, as here. The real Liszt comes next, with 33 minutes of his Fantasia and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” by Meyerbeer, a piece that goes on and on and suffers from the too-often prevalent gigantism of much music in the second half of the 19th century; the adagio section, alone, takes up nearly 14 minutes. I've always regarded Franz Liszt as a flashy 19th century pianist who is much over-rated as a composer, and this does little to change my long-held prejudice. Predictably, the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, as arranged by Liszt, comes over wonderfully; Liszt seems to have been at his best when faced with real music by the likes of Schubert or Wagner. In his playing of the Liebestod (as in his playing of Brahms's arrangement of Bach's Chaconne), Levit gives evidence of a sense of form and dynamics rivalling that of Otto Klemperer, or Sergei Rachmaninov.

Ferrucio Busoni's Berceuse is a pleasant piece of music, as is the concluding piece by someone called Bill Evans: Peace Piece – attractive, minimalist music that does, however, question the compilation's title: Life. Almost all the music on these two CDs is sombre and either piano, or pianissimo. Not music to listen to if you are deeply depressed, or contemplating suicide. I suspect that, in twenty or so years time when I near 100 years old, I'll strip out the Bach and Wagner pieces to a separate CD for lifetime listening. Liszt and Busoni are for lovers of pianism; I am a lover of the violin. And not of organs, or counter-tenors. Or harpsichords. I do, however, greatly admire Igor Levit as a formidable musician, chosen repertoire sometimes notwithstanding.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Semyon Snitkovsky

I have often remarked that fame is something dependent on great talent, plus great backers, great PR, and great managers. Plus a bit of luck. Unfortunately, great talent, by itself, will rarely buy world recognition, and fame. Take Semyon Snitkovsky, whose playing I have just been admiring on transfers from Melodya recordings. Born in the USSR in 1933, he died in the USSR in 1981 at the age of 47. Later in his career, he was a violin professor in Moscow and Budapest. Few people have heard of him (no backers, no PR company); similar to the case of Julian Sitkovetsky, another great violinist from the Russian lands during those turbulent years. Yet listening to Snitkovetsky playing the evergreen Glazunov violin concerto, plus a couple of Paganini caprices — alas, with piano; why? — and a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody arranged by Hubay, here was a truly major talent of the violin. The Glazunov is thoroughly Russian in its nostalgia and fully equal to the more famous Heifetz and Milstein. He also plays the Vieuxtemps 4th concerto, a much neglected work by modern violinists. It's a superb performance, fully the equal of that by Jascha Heifetz many years before. Unfortunately, the same cuts are made in the orchestral parts, as if the orchestra were purely secondary and ornamental. Modern concert promoters and record producers seem rarely to schedule the Glazunov and Vieuxtemps 4th concertos, more's the pity.

The moral of the story? Just because you have never heard of them before, or because they never made the world stage, it does not mean they are not truly top-notch violinists, pianists, or singers.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Orpheus Britannicus

When it comes to the finest, most sophisticated wine, France takes the gold medal. When it comes to fine, sophisticated cuisine, the gold medal is probably shared between the Chinese, the French, and the Italians. When it comes to great music, the gold medal goes to Europe. No other area of the world has produced music that, 327 years after it first sounded, still enthrals listeners. I speak as one who this evening listened to Henry Purcell's ode Hail, Bright Cecilia, composed in 1691 and played this evening on a Franco-British CD by Marc Minkowski. Music for all time.

Marc Minkowski and his Franco-British team (or, more exactly, French team with British appendages) go on to play Handel's A Song for Saint Cecilia's Day (1739), to words by John Dryden. Who wins the gold medal: Orpheus Britannicus, or the Caro Sassone? In the end, there are three gold medals: Handel's music is the great crowd pleaser; Purcell's the more sophisticated, appealing to connoisseurs. The third gold medal goes to Marc Minkowski and his Franco-Britannic forces.

A lobby of musical extremists suggests that “all music is equally valid”. Which is plain nonsense. A young man beating a bongo drum is not going to be listened to in 327 years time. Great Music is music that transcends centuries and appeals to connoisseurs of generation after generation. Vide Purcell's Hail, Bright Cecilia, and Handel's A Song for Saint Cecilia's Day.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Czech Violin Tradition. And Vaclav Snitil

For the inhabitants of a small country, the Czechs — including, musically, the Slovaks and Bohemians — have had a disproportionate influence on the musical world, especially that of violin playing. Composers include Dvorak, Janacek, Smetana, Fibich and Suk. Violinists are too many to list. The Czech recording company, Supraphon, has kept the Czech flag flying for countless decades. This evening I am listening to Vaclav Snitil (one of the horde of excellent Czech violinists of the past century) with Josef Hala at the piano. Snitil's sound is typically Czech: highly focused intonation, with sparing use of vibrato, judicious rubato, and excellent rhythmic sense. This evening for me he played music by Smetana, Dvorak, Fibich, and Josef Suk. An all-Czech evening and highly enjoyable. If every country in Europe made as rich a contribution to musical life, we would be swamped with outstanding music and musicians. And this is not even broaching the area of Czech orchestras and, especially, string quartets. The total population of the present day Czech Republic is only a little over ten million people. Add in just over five million for Slovakia. A remarkable musical race. For me, the soulful, melancholy nature of so much of Czech music is encapsulated in Vaclav Snitil and Josef Hala playing Dvorak's well-known Four Romantic Pieces Op 75. Sheer bliss.

Brahms' Hungarian Dances, and Baiba Skride

A memorable photo in my collection of photos of violinists is one of Padraig O'Keeffe, an Irish folk fiddler, clutching a bow and violin in one hand and a glass of (probably Guinness) in the other. This was the tradition of European folk fiddlers, at weddings, funerals, and village dances. I thought nostalgically of the photo listening to Hagai Shaham dispatching immaculately all 21 of Johannes Brahms' Hungarian Dances (arranged by Joseph Joachim). The dances are well known and bear repeated listening; Shaham's playing is superb, but this is Israeli-type violin playing, with hyper-efficiency and little warmth or human feeling. Going back to Joachim's (few) recordings, one discovers a different world. I don't think Padraig O'Keeffe would have warmed to Mr Shaham's playing, and the Hungarian village committees would probably not have re-engaged him. The military parade-ground feeling in Mr Shaham's recording is accentuated by the short intervals between tracks; one dance follows immediately on the previous.

After dance number 12, I had had enough of Mr Shaham's brusque efficiency, and turned my attention to alternative violinists who have recorded all the Dances: Marat Bisengaliev (1994), Aaron Rosand (1991), Oscar Shumsky (1997) and Baiba Skride (2010). I chose the Latvian Ms Skride, since I like her playing but have not heard it for a while. She plays here with her sister Lauma at the piano, and the two make a fine duo, with lots of welcome rubato, and an ever-present warmth of feeling as if they are enjoying making music together (which they probably were). Their enjoyment communicates itself in their playing.

Pretty well every violinist who has ever lifted a bow has played and recorded a selection of these dances. They are highly attractive pieces of music and well repay repeated listening. In future, when I want to sit back and listen to a few of them, I'll reach out for Baiba and Lauma.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Toscha Seidel, Violinist

There is a well-known photo from the early years of the 20th century showing a teenage Jascha Heifetz (“the angel of the violin”) accompanying on the piano a teenage Toscha Seidel (“the devil of the violin”) with a paternal Leopold Auer looking on. Heifetz and Seidel later emigrated to America, fleeing the chaos of the Russian revolutionary years. Heifetz had his brilliant career, eclipsing all violinists in America in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. America, with its quasi- duopoly of RCA and CBS for classical recordings had only one slot for one major violin star, and Jascha Heifetz was so ordained. Major violinists such as Mischa Elman and Toscha Seidel were relegated to the “B” team. Yehudi Menuhin and Nathan Milstein managed to make international recording careers in Europe, as did Mischa Elman in some desperation towards the end of his performing career, followed by America-based violinists such as Bronislaw Gimpel, and Erica Morini.

Listening today to a recital compilation of recordings by Toscha Seidel, one mourns the fact that this fascinating violinist is not now well-known. There is fire and spirit in his playing, such as one rarely encounters elsewhere, coupled with an incredible technique. Few violinists nowadays would abandon themselves so recklessly (and impeccably) to short pieces by Mozart, Wagner, Brahms, Kreisler, Achron, et al. This is the Devil of the Violin (recorded variously in the 1920s, 30s and 40s). Seidel's playing in a 1941 recording of Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing suite (with Korngold at the piano) yields nothing to Heifetz in style and technique, but trumps even Heifetz
with an added vibrancy and emotion that will always make this my number one choice for this music. The new generation of fine violinists could learn a lot about putting everything into their playing.

Seidel died in 1962 at the early age of 63 years, suffering in his later years from acute depression. His few recordings of longer works, such as the Grieg and Franck violin and piano sonatas, suggest that, somewhat like Mischa Elman, he was above all the master of shorter pieces where violin sound and technique were paramount, though his performances of the Brahms violin concerto – alas, never preserved from radio recordings – were legendary, and one would have loved to have heard him in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I have nothing of his playing preserved in recordings after 22nd July 1945, when he would have been 46 years old. This was an eloquent and moving account of Chausson's Poème, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Most of his concertising was done for American radio stations, and the recordings were never retained.

The hackneyed saying “they don't play like that nowadays” is particularly true of Toscha Seidel (and of Mischa Elman). More's the pity. The last violinist to play with such inner vibrancy was probably Ginette Neveu (also in the 1940s).

Friday, 5 October 2018

Ning Feng plays Bach

Looking at a facsimile of the original scores of Bach's six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, one notices immediately a) the density of the notes and the part-writing and b) the complete absence of any performance indications, apart from tempo markings at the start of movements such as the fugues where the basic tempo is not obvious (for example, adagio, allegro, or grave). For the sarabandes, gavottes and rondos, no tempo markings are deemed necessary. There is a complete absence of piano, forte, crescendo, diminuendo, and other such performance directions.

Some, of course, have taken this to mean that Bach conceived of the music being played dead-pan, as on a sewing machine, or mechanical typewriter. Musicologists and academics have frowned at anyone making an “unauthorised” ritardando, or staccato, or pianissimo. Not so Ning Feng, whose recent recording of the six I kept to hand rather than file away. For musicologists, this will be self-indulgent Bach with no sense of “18th century style”, whatever that may have been, and leaving aside the question as to whether a 21st century style increases the power and interest of the music. Were Bach to hand, he could give us his opinion. I suspect he would much prefer Ning Feng on his 1721 Stradivari, compared with old Hans Nothman on his Leipzig fiddle soon after 1720 when the unaccompanied works first saw the light of day.

The first partita has no real technical difficulties (even I could play it, in my day, although the Flight of the Bumble Bee speeds in some of the doubles as played by Ning Feng or Jascha Heifetz are beyond most mortals). The ten movements (five movements, plus five doubles) can seem to go on forever, with no great musical interest; the interest has to be in the violin playing, with subtle variations of tempo and dynamics. From recollection, first-rate violinists as varied as Lisa Batiashvili, Yehudi Menuhin, Johanna Martzy, and Alfredo Campoli gave dead-pan, routine playing. The great Russians such as Oistrakh and Kogan mainly avoided unaccompanied Bach. Mr Feng holds my interest well, through the violin playing rather than just the music. He has a wonderful sense of light and shade, piano and forte; the playing in the double presto of the first partita, or the famous andante of the second sonata, is quite breathtaking. He is an expert at phrasing, at establishing a line in the music, and of voicing in the fugues. The Ciaccona comes over really well, with expert chording and dead-on-target double stops (though I still prefer Alina Ibragimova's way of ending the Ciaccona piano, rather than forte, although she is pretty well alone in this).

Ning Feng's teachers include Antje Weithaas, a violinist I admire greatly and whose playing of the unaccompanied music of Bach and Ysaÿe I recently so enjoyed. Although I do not know the Weithaas recordings intimately, I fancy I can hear a strong influence from her in Feng's playing on this Bach set, especially in the use of varied dynamics. I was somewhat surprised that a 36 year old Chinese virtuoso could woo me so completely with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but Bach playing is seemingly independent of sex, race, or age. The two CDs constitute a two and a half hour celebration of the sound of the violin, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It's a nice touch that just as Bach was finishing his unaccompanied sonatas and partitas, Antonio Stradivari was putting the final touches to Ning Feng's violin on the other side of the Alps.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Simone Kermes, and Handel

Back from holiday (Burgundy, and Provence). What to listen to, after two weeks without music? Serendipity came into play, with Simone Kermes and Maite Beaumont singing the inevitable Handel opera arias and duets (with Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis). Handel is very much “welcome back” music; emotions and intellect are not stretched. It's just lovely music all over again. Will I ever become tired of listening to Pena Tiranna? I think not. And Simone Kermes has one of those voices that sing the words and convey the emotions behind them, rather than simply mouth beautiful melodies.