Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Nemanja Radulovic and Khachaturian's Violin Concerto

Aram Khachaturian wrote his violin concerto in 1940 (a really bad time to launch a new work). It was quickly taken up by violinists, and sneered at by most Western critics because it was in D minor and had lots of catchy tunes, just when composers were supposed to be writing atonal serial music without a key signature or tune, or audience, in sight, and because Khachaturian was in the USSR, and thus a “Commie”. Music critics pre-date Mr Trump for bigotry. Violinists, however, loved it and still do, after nearly 80 years. And I have loved the concerto, for many, many decades.

I have 26 different recordings of the work, the earliest being Louis Kaufman in 1945, followed by David Oistrakh in 1946/47/65. Then Gerhard Taschner in 1947 and 1955. Then Leonid Kogan in 1951 and 1958. Then Julian Sitkovetsky in 1954 and 1956. Then Ruggiero Ricci in 1956. Then Mischa Elman — no less — in 1959, and Henryk Szeryng in 1964. The most recent recordings I have are by Julia Fischer (2004) and James Ehnes (2013). And Nemanja Radulovic (20018). If the critics sniff, violinists do not; with good reason.

Top of the list for me when I want to listen to Khachaturian's concerto are Julian Sitkovetsky in Romania with Niyazi conducting (1954) and Leonid Kogan in Boston with Pierre Monteux conducting (1958). Formidable competition for Mr Radulovic; how does he measure up?

Nemanja Radulovic is an immensely gifted violinist, hailing from Serbia. He looks a bit like Rasputin and records for the 21st century version of Deutsche Grammophon, thus the liner booklet and publicity full of photos of Mr Radulovic, with poor old Khachaturian getting just a brief mention. Deutsche Grammophon is now just a “brand”, as the jargon would have it and bears little resemblance to the previous highly-respected German company.

Sitkovetsky, Kogan, and Oistrakh plunge headlong into Khachaturian's exotic music. Radulovic plunges headlong into highly-sophisticated virtuoso violin playing. The Borusan orchestra of Istanbul (ex- Constantinople) accompanies dutifully, but one wonders how Khachaturian, an Armenian, would have reacted to the idea of Turks playing his music. The massacre of around 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks is hardly ancient history. Whatever; the Turks don't play with too much feeling or enthusiasm compared, for example, with the Romanian radio orchestra under Niyazi for Sitkovetsky where, in the second movement, the Romanians swoon into the music. Listening to Radulovic is a bit like listening to Vladimir Horowitz; one admires the playing, whilst the music takes second place. Radulovic's playing in the finale is equal to any of his competitors; he is, after all, a super-virtuoso, and the finale is his best movement of the work.

I am conscious of being a bit sniffy concerning Radulovic; not that he and his many fans will worry. My favourite musicians are those like Adolf Busch, Artur Grumiaux, Maria Pires, Clara Haskil, Wolfgang Scheiderhan, Igor Levit, who get inside the music and then play it from the heart. I am uneasy with “star” performers where the spotlight is focused on “me, me, me”. I'd probably have sniffed at Paganini had he been around in my lifetime. 'Sorry, Niccolò, but it just isn't my kind of thing'.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

In Praise of Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach has been dead for 268 years, yet his music still lives on and, for most of that time, connoisseurs of fine music have always put Bach as Number One on the pedestal of great composers; there is no reason to suppose that this will change for the next 268 years. I first came across Bach and his music when I was around 10 years old (I grew up in a music-loving family). As I have related before in this blog, the very first concert I ever attended at the age of about thirteen was of Bach's Mass in B minor. Interrogating my catalogue of recorded music I possess, I find I have recordings of 1016 pieces of music by Bach, and I find that more and more of my listening — especially in the evening — is of Bach's music. Bach's output over the 65 years of his life was prodigious; the man scribbled away for almost all his life and all his time. There are few real peaks in his output; the Mass in B minor, the St John and St Matthew Passions certainly qualify as “peaks” but pretty well all the rest is just solid, great music be it for voices, solo instruments, or baroque bands.

I frequently ask myself what makes Bach so special, and the answer is usually somewhat complex. Here are a few ingredients for Bach's greatness:

There is always something going on, in Bach's music. “Too much counterpoint, and Protestant counterpoint, at that” Thomas Beecham is reputed to have growled. Bach loved counterpoint, he loved multi-layered music; in many instances, the “accompaniment” is even more interesting than the solo line, viz. many of the sections in the 200 or so cantatas. This makes listening to Bach interesting. His contemporaries, such as Handel and Vivaldi, did not go in much for counterpoint, which had gone out of fashion with much of polyphony. (This does not make Handel's and Vivaldi's music less interesting; it just points up one of Bach's Unique Selling Points).

Bach knew about the attention spans of his audience. Folk musicians, and American popular song writers, also know about attention spans, which is why individual songs or instrumental pieces usually last only around five minutes. Similarly, Bach — like other 18th century composers — makes sure usually that no individual piece or section lasts longer than five or six minutes. The longer works, like the Passions and the Mass, are broken up into varying sections. It is true that variations such as the Goldberg Variations last much longer, but 30 or so variations within a 60 minute work contain a lot of variety. The Chaconne of the D minor partita for solo violin lasts around 13 minutes, but, again, a chaconne is a series of variations on a ground. Plenty of variety. As the centuries rolled on, music in the 19th and 20th centuries became more and more bloated – think of Mahler's 8th Symphony, or Wagner's Tristan & Isolde. Folk and popular music escaped the bloat movement, luckily for their popular appeal.

Bach's music is never glib, showy or flashy. Pretty well everything is at a very high level, and even Bach under pressure and indulging in music-processing manages to be interesting.

Along with his fascinating counterpoint, Bach can often indulge in some pretty weird harmonies, as in the bass aria Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen in the church cantata Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen. Listening to Bach's modulations and harmonic structures is a fascinating exercise in its own right. And, as John Eliot Gardiner has pointed out, so much of Bach's music — even the church music — incorporates dance rhythms of the early 18th century: gavottes, bourées, sarabandes, gigues, passpieds, sicilianos, etc. This gives Bach's music a constant air of rhythmic vitality and interest.

So: Interesting music. Fascinating music. Absorbing music. Music with a constantly varied rhythmic, sonic and harmonic structure. In my view, Johann Sebastian Bach fully deserves his gold medal in the musical Olympics. I am immensely happy to have been able to visit his grave, and the city where he was born, and the church where he was baptised. Bach!

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

An Evening of Debussy, Berlioz, and Ravel

I have been having a mini- French music festival, starting with Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw orchestra in Debussy: l'Après-midi d'un faune, La Mer, and the first two Nocturnes (I never took to the third, Sirènes). La Mer, the Nocturnes and I go back a long, long way to the 1950s when I listened often to both, conducted in those days on LP by Guido Cantelli. Haitink was recorded in the late 1970s and, as so often, he and the superb Concertgebouw orchestra have exactly what it takes to project Debussy's music. I have never been a great Debussy fan, but there are some works of his that I like very much – such as La Mer.

And on to Berlioz, and his six songs with orchestra that make up Les Nuits d'été, a work I came to first only a few years ago. I have the classic recording with Régine Crespin, but I prefer to listen to it sung by one of my favourite French sopranos, Véronique Gens. Beautiful singing in lovely music.

And ending with Ravel and his Shéhérazade, also sung by Véronique Gens. Music I have known for a long time (I first met it sung superbly by Frederica von Stade). I now have 13 different versions of this work, but I usually gravitate to Mme. Gens since, apart from anything else, I admire her clear French diction. I do like singers who can articulate clearly. Well: Debussy, Berlioz, and Ravel. An admirable French trio that made an excellent evening's listening.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, with Paul Kletzki

As a change from the baroque music that has occupied me of late, I listened this evening to Rimsky-Korsakov's evergreen Scheherazade. The recording came from a period of excellence around 1958-9 when the Philharmonia orchestra was on top form, as were the EMI recording engineers. Conductor during this period of excellence was the Polish conductor Paul Kletzki, a maestro who saw his job to guide an orchestra to give of its best and to project the music. Kletzki was not one of those who indulged in the cult of personality; he conducted effectively and efficiently. Since the 1950s I have always treasured his recording of Mahler's fourth symphony (the only Mahler symphony to which I now wish to listen). I wallowed happily in his Scheherazade, with Hugh Bean as the violin narrator, and with the original excellent sound enhanced by a friend who sent me an admirable transfer. Familiar music, lovingly rendered by orchestra, conductor, and engineers.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Bach does Pergolesi

I settled back in my armchair to listen to a new recording for my collection: Masaaki Suzuki, with singers Carolyn Sampson and Robin Blaze, singing Bach's cantata Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden. Only it turned out not to be Bach's music; it was Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, with new words from Psalm 51, with music arranged and edited by … Johann Sebastian Bach, catalogued as BWV 1083.

A pretty remarkable story, given that Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died in 1726 at the age of 26 and that Bach obviously knew and admired his Stabat Mater, all the 1500 kilometres or so from Naples to Leipzig. The Catholic veneration of Mary would obviously not have gone down well with Bach's Lutheran Protestants, so new words were found. Bach's editing is serious and light, and not nearly as drastic as, say, Mozart's re-write of Handel's Messiah. I have to say, I was highly impressed with “Bach's” work, as with the performance here. Sampson and Blaze sing well together. Bach's version keeps the essence of Pergolesi's wonderful music; no wonder Bach must have been impressed enough to devote time and energy to re-working the work. Very enjoyable, and highly recommended.