Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Otar Taktakishvili

I have always liked the Concerto No.1 in F minor for violin, written in 1976 by Otar Taktakishvili (1924-89). I have a recording of it played by Taktakishvili's fellow Georgian, Liana Isakadze with a Moscow orchestra conducted by the composer. The work is memorable, with haunting themes and the prevailing mood is melancholy. The violin spends a lot of time on the lower strings. Has anyone except Isakadze ever played it? I find its total neglect to be little short of extraordinary. Maybe no orchestra can obtain the parts? Maybe no conductor has ever even heard of it? Maybe violinists baulk at the key of F minor that among its four flats has A, D and E flat, thus making three of the four open strings out of bounds? Whatever the reason, I can find no currently available recording of this lovely work, though there is an old Russian film on YouTube of Isakadze and the composer playing the work, or part of the work.

The only reason I have a copy is from a good friend in South America some time ago. The CD copy also contains Taktakishvili's concerto No.2 for violin & chamber orchestra (1986) with Isakadze and the Georgian Chamber Orchestra. Another genial work, a lot shorter than the first concerto. I also have the concertino for violin & small orchestra (1956) played by David Oistrakh with Taktakishvili and a Moscow orchestra. This one sounds like an early piece from circa 1890 written by a 32 year old Georgian. Oistrakh is bland and efficient and this work suffers from a lethal dose of socialist realism.

I am amazed at the neglect of the two mature Taktakishvili concertos. I once messaged Lisa Batiashvili asking her to consider the first concerto, but nothing happened. Taktakishvili seems known now only for his works with flute. Musical fashion, political correctness and musical correctness aside: would you not rather listen to one of Taktakishvili's violin concertos than to those by Schönberg, or Berg? During the twentieth century, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khatchaturian, and, of course, Otar Taktakishvili (who?) all wrote excellent violin concertos. Let us hear them all.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Beethoven's Violin Concerto, and Leonidas Kavakos

Until a few days ago, I had 90 recordings of Beethoven's violin concerto on my shelves. Then a good friend sent me another, so I now have 91. This 91st is played and conducted by Leonidas Kavakos, a violinist I have liked for a couple of decades now. This 91st is well played by orchestra (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and soloist, and the recording (Sony) is very satisfactory.

So far, so good. One notices immediately, however, that the concerto is going to last for over 49 minutes (from memory, Heifetz and Toscanini raced through the same work in 39 minutes). Beethoven and Elgar thus tie for longest violin concertos! With Kavakos, the first movement alone takes over 27 minutes, of which at least five are occupied by a somewhat grotesque cadenza adapted by Kavakos from one Beethoven wrote for a piano version of the concerto. The first movement is marked allegro ma non troppo and it certainly is not troppo here; whether it is allegro is another matter -- during the G minor interlude in the first movement the music becomes almost static.

There are many cadenzas available for this concerto; Ruggiero Ricci once recorded those by David, Joachim, Laub, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Saint-Saëns, Auer, Ysaÿe, Busoni, Kreisler, Milstein, and Schnittke. I like short, brilliant cadenzas that do not hold up the progress of the music for too long. Why anyone would want to adapt Beethoven's piano version cadenza for a violin is beyond my comprehension (as is the view of the original instrument brigade that the sound world of the original has to be respected and re-created, when composers such as Bach and Beethoven had no scruples about adapting their music to accommodate quite different sounds and instruments).

Of the other 90 versions of the concerto on my shelves, my favourites in alphabetical order remain Batiashvili (2007), Busch (1949), Grumiaux (1966), Kreisler (1926), Kulenkampff (1936), Neveu (1949), Röhn (1944), Schneiderhan (1962), and Suk (1965). Enough! We need a 20 year moratorium on recordings of the Beethoven violin concerto.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

More from Vilde Frang

A good friend sent me a new CD from Vilde Frang, a violinist I much admire. The CD is a somewhat unhappy mixture of violin pyrotechnics, and solid music. So Paganini variations mixed with Schubert's Fantasie in C major, and Rondo brillant in B minor.

When it comes to pyrotechnics, I can happily skip Paganini's Paisiello variations with which Ms Frang chooses to open her CD. We all know that for a violinist, playing extended passages in harmonics is a real challenge, and that playing extended passages in double-stopped harmonics is a supreme challenge, as is extensive pizzicato with the fingers of the left hand. Supreme challenges even for a virtuoso: yes. But of real musical interest? Rarely. As a retired violinist, and a lover of the violin, I am somewhat exasperated by violinistic circus tricks with little musical content.

I greatly admire Ms Frang, but I am not really convinced by her pianist, Michail Lifits who is no Rudolf Serkin, or Clara Haskil. Ms Frang is not always lucky with her partners -- I still resent her Mozart concertos with Jonathan Cohen and his group of “authentic” scrapers and blowers in ye olde style. On this new CD, Mr Lifits is better when accompanying, as in the Paganini pieces, rather than as an equal partner, as in the Schubert works.

It's difficult to pinpoint what I don't like about much of the recorded sound. Is it that the pianist often plays too loudly and is apt to thump a bit? Or did the engineers miscalculate the dynamic range? Or did the balance engineer not reckon on the difference between a piano, and a violin playing pianissimo? All I know is that if I adjust the volume so that the piano playing does not occasionally blow my socks off, then a lot of the softer violin playing is hard to hear. And that is listening through headphones; listening via loudspeakers, that always tend to favour the bass and thus the piano, things would have been even more unsatisfactory. The worst affected is Schubert's lovely C major Fantasie for violin & piano which is nowhere near as enjoyable to listen to here compared with the all-time classic recording by Adolf Busch with Rudolf Serkin (1931). The piano (as recorded) just hogs the limelight too much of the time. And Lifits does bang a bit, on occasions.

To my surprise, I quite took to Ms Frang's rendition of Heinrich Ernst's take on Schubert's Erlkönig. Not a piece I like normally, but here the different voices are brought out admirably, and the pyrotechnics coped with effortlessly. The piece lasts for under four and a half minutes, but never outstays its welcome (unlike the two Paganini variations included on this CD).

So a bit of a curate's egg. Ms Frang would have been better to stick with a lot less Paganini, or with more Schubert. She remains, however, an excellent violinist.

Igor Markevitch and the LSO in vintage Rimsky-Korsakov

I have often praised the Czech Supraphon record label; this time round I am praising the Australian Eloquence label from a company that remasters and reissues important recordings from the 1950s and 60s Universal International back-catalogue. The recordings come mainly from Decca and Philips. This time round I was listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, an original Decca release from 1962, with the LSO conducted by Igor Markevitch.

The sound from nearly 60 years ago is pretty amazing, and well balanced. The LSO was in good form during that period. Altogether, a highly welcome re-incarnation of the original. The Eloquence CD also sees the same forces in Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Vilde Frang, Vasily Petrenko, and Edward Elgar

It's not often I listen intently to every bar of Elgar's violin concerto from the beginning until the end 50 minutes thereafter. But this evening I did, deeply moved by an August 2019 broadcast from Oslo where Vasily Petrenko conducted the Oslo Philharmonic, with Vilde Frang as the soloist. Elgar's concerto is deeply passionate and romantic, and that is what came over with Frang and Petrenko.

Vilde Frang makes a lovely sound, and one notices here Elgar's love of the lower reaches of the violin (he should have written a viola concerto, as well as those for cello and violin). Frang and Petrenko (who work hand-in-glove in this work) are not afraid of extensive rubato, and the music benefits. The off-air sound is excellent, marred only slightly by a somewhat recessed contribution from the string section during forte moments. I have 22 recordings of this concerto (including another one by Frang in San Francisco earlier this year). But this combination of Frang and Petrenko in Elgar gets my gold medal. It's warm, passionate and loving. It would be good to hear Frang and Petrenko collaborating in Shostakovich and Glazunov.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Diana Tishchenko

I often buy recordings by unknown young violinists, just to take them for a test drive. My shelves are full of past violinists of whom I now have only a hazy memory. The latest serendipitous purchase was a CD by the young Ukrainian violinist, Diana Tishchenko -- her début recording, unless I am mistaken. I was attracted by the CD contents: the sonatas for violin and piano by Ravel, Enescu (number 3) and Prokofiev (number 1), plus the third sonata for solo violin by Ysaÿe. Why does everyone always present Ysaÿe's third sonata? I much prefer the first, second, and fourth.

Ms Tishchenko is my kind of girl, and her playing reminds me of Alina Ibragimova, with a superb range of pianissimos and fortissimos and first-rate sensitivity to the music. Her style of playing smacks more of Franco-Belgian than the Russian bear. All four works on the CD score highly for the violin playing, no mean achievement in four works all from the opening decades of the past century. The pianist, Zoltan Fejervari, is school of Gerald Moore rather than Yuja Wang or Alfred Cortot, but these three violin and piano sonatas are weighted towards the violin part, in any case.

I'm in the market for future recordings by Ms Tishchenko (providing they do not feature yet another rendition of the Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky or Bruch concertos). It's a tough world out there for violinists and pianists, even for those as supremely talented as Ms Tishchenko. Her début record is issued by Warner, not a company noted for interesting repertoire a little off the beaten path. I'll keep my antennae alert, since Diana Tishchenko's playing impressed me greatly.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Paul Godwin aka Pinchas Goldfein

I am currently weeding out my severely over-weight collection of CDs. In so doing, I come across recordings I had long forgotten, and it gives me a chance to re-rehabilitate them and to take them out for a hearing. Serendipity decreed that my hand alighted on a double CD album of the violin playing of Paul Godwin. He was born Pinchas Goldfein in Poland (1902) and moved to Germany, becoming an extremely famous dance band leader in the 1920s. In 1933 he fled to Holland, clutching his Stradivarius and managed to survive the German occupation of Holland. After the end of the second world war, he re-started his career as a violin soloist and chamber music player when dance band orchestras fell out of fashion (cf. Alfredo Campoli in England). He died in Holland in 1982.

My set contains probably the most passionate performance of Bloch's Nigun on record. Godwin had a luscious sound, with lots of vibrato, typical of that era in Central Europe (viz Mischa Elman, Fritz Kreisler, and Toscha Seidel). Right and left arm technique was rock solid; tempi almost all vivace. He excels in the Kreisler pieces here and, for a change one can clearly differentiate between love's joy, and love's sorrow (Liebesfreud, and Liebesleid).

Paul Godwin reminds us of how much we have lost with the post- 1945 generation of violinists from the conservatoires of Europe / America / Asia when playing salon pieces. Paul Godwin, like Kreisler and Heifetz, should be compulsory listening for all aspiring violinists who venture into the world of “encore pieces”. I can listen happily to Godwin playing short pieces for 90 minutes without wilting or growing bored. They don't play like that now.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

The Pavel Haas Quartet plays Shostakovich

About 100 years ago, composers of “serious” music stopped worrying about performing musicians, and about audiences. They worried about themselves and their academic reputations. As a result, I for one have little taste for most music written after 1920 -- with some notable exceptions, including the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Forbidden by the draconian communist régime from writing any form of esoteric or intellectual music, Shostakovich wrote music that could get by the censors of the time. Luckily for his then, and subsequent, audiences.

I like Shostakovich's music. I like the Pavel Haas Quartet. I like the Supraphon recording engineers, so I snapped up a new recording of the Quartet playing the second (1944) seventh (1960) and eighth (1960) string quartets. Music of my lifetime, and music that speaks to me; most unusual. Shostakovich's music, like that of Sibelius, has bags of personality; one cannot say the same of the semi-contemporary cerebral music of people such as Stockhausen, Nono, Dallapicolla, Boulez, or Ferneyhough. One rejoices with Shostakovich, one weeps with him, one contemplates with him, one trembles with him, one laughs with him, one panics with him.

Shostakovich came to the string quartet medium somewhat later in his career but, once there, he took to the medium like a duck to water, with fifteen string quartets. He appears to have regarded the four voices as equals, and this is good news for the Pavel Haas that integrates its four members without overt favouritism. The playing is exemplary. The recording is truly excellent. The music is of eternal value. I am extremely happy with my purchase and am on my starting blocks for future recordings of Shostakovich by the Pavel Haas Quartet.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Pierre Amoyal, Yuval Yaron, and Virtuosos

Pity today's top virtuosos of the violin or the piano. They will all be able to play faster and louder than their predecessors. They will all have drawers full of gold, silver and bronze medals from various competitions; I read there are currently more than 300 piano competitions handing out medals on a regular basis. They will all make a few recordings, strive for international fame, then end up as violin or piano teachers in some minor college somewhere. It was always thus; in the violin world, think only of the considerable stature of violinists such as Sascha Jacobsen, David Nadien, Oscar Shumsky, Joseph Gingold and many, many others. For many, of course, a high-profile international career entails too many sacrifices – think of Albert Sammons, the superb self-taught British violinist who refused to travel outside Britain. Arthur Grumiaux, after an initial start, also declined to travel, but he still found fame because of his strong links with one of the world's great recording companies of the time, Philips.

But for all their medals and star technique, it is extremely rare that pianists reach the musical level of their illustrious predecessors such as Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer, Clara Haskil, Maria Pires, et al., and rare that violinists come anywhere near Kreisler, Heifetz, Grumiaux, Elman, et al. Jascha Heifetz had a number of pupils who found temporary fame at one time or another, including Yuval Yaron, Rudolf Koelman, Pierre Amoyal, and Erick Friedman. I have always had an affection for the playing of Rudolf Koelman (and admiration for someone who recorded the 24 Paganini caprices live). Thanks to a generous friend, I listened today to two ex- Heifetz pupils, Pierre Amoyal in Fauré (1993) and Yuval Yaron in the Sibelius concerto (1978).

I listened first to Heifetz pupil Pierre Amoyal playing Fauré (1993 recording). Fauré's first violin & piano sonata is one of my favourites, though the much later second sonata has always appeared to me as mainly note-spinning. Amoyal was a superb player, with Heifetz's emphasis on beauty of sound and stringent avoidance of any “ugly” sounds, but without the passion and commitment Heifetz brought to his playing. There are better options around for Fauré fans of the first sonata, including Dumay-Collard, Grumiaux-Hajdu, Heifetz-Smith, and Thibaud-Cortot (1927).

Next on the turntable came the Israeli Yuval Yaron. Yaron was mainly a Gingold pupil, though he also attended Heifetz classes. Currently I have 51 recordings of the Sibelius violin concerto and this is definitely one of the better ones. This unknown violinist (to me) gets my rare three stars for his passionate performance (no wonder he won the Sibelius competition a couple of years earlier). His performance does not eclipse the passionate advocacy that Ginette Neveu brought to this much-recorded work, but it does win a place in my Sibelius pantheon. The Bavarian orchestra under Klaus Tennstedt sounds here more Teutonic than Nordic as reproduced on my equipment, and there are a few minor fluffs from Yaron in what is presumably a live recording from a radio studio concert. Yaron sounds more school of Gingold than school of Heifetz, but that is no bad thing, even if the Sibelius was one of Heifetz's favourite concertos for concerts. Those wishing to dip into samples of Yaron's playing will have a hard time; the former echt virtuoso has mainly vanished from view, like so many others, and is now teaching in a college in California. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Haydn, Mozart. And the Eighteenth Century

As I have remarked previously, there is something eternally appealing about much of the music written during the 18th century in Europe. I sit here surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of CDs, yet almost all my listening at the moment is to music of the 18th century (Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart). By pure chance, I took down an old CD recorded by Vilde Frang and Michail Lifits (London, December 2013, off-air) in Mozart K 376, K 379 and K 481. Lovely playing by two young people (Frang was 27 at the time) and really superb music, especially 379 and 481.

This listening supplemented my on-going daily bread: the six Haydn Op 76 string quartets, and the three Op 71 quartets, played by the Takacs Quartet. Warm, affectionate playing far removed from “period instrument” playing. In these somewhat troubled times, Haydn and Mozart, supplemented with Bach and Handel from time to time, are really all one needs.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Ning Feng in Paganini

Paganini's first violin concerto is a virtuoso work, but with many lovely themes and many highly lyrical moments. For anyone who loves violin playing, it's a must (when played by a truly expert violinist). My three-star list (out of the 45 recordings I possess) comprises: Leonid Kogan, Francesca Dego, Philippe Hirschhorn, Viktoria Mullova, Michael Rabin, Nemanja Radulovic, Akiko Suwanai (Moscow, July 1990). Kogan, Mullova and Rabin are very full-blooded Russian performances, very macho. Rabin loses points for a too-close recording, and for savage cuts in both the first and final movements (though not as savage as the versions by Kreisler or Wilhelmj both of whom re-orchestrated the orchestral parts and amputated the second and third movements of the concerto). Radulovic has a bit too much Radulovic and not enough Paganini, for my taste.

The latest CD to arrive on my player is one by Ning Feng, with the Asturian Symphony Orchestra. Very well recorded (listened through headphones, since the violinist often plays pianissimo and is not recorded prominently). The Asturian orchestra sounds as if the players are thoroughly enjoying themselves, playing with the kind of gusto of an Italian opera orchestra and brass band that Paganini was obviously expecting. Ning Feng's contribution is remarkable, and he gets my three stars. He is a true virtuoso, but also a highly elegant virtuoso -- much as Paganini may have been (Niccolò was neither German, nor Russian, nor even Israeli). At the end of his traversal of Paganini's concerto, I wanted to cheer. Ning Feng's performance on this CD is now my “if you only have one version” choice.

Ning Feng started in my estimation a couple of years ago as “a good virtuoso violinist”. His recording of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas then had him soaring high in my estimation, and with this Paganini recording, he soars even higher. One day he may even beat his fellow Chinese violinist, Tianwa Yang, in Sarasate's music. With his elegant and intelligent playing, Feng may well go on to superb Mozart and Beethoven (he lives in Berlin, so is obviously in a good position to also imbibe the German musical tradition).

Monday, 21 October 2019

Julius Röntgen

In my recent round-up of sonatas for violin and piano that are all too rarely heard, I forgot about Julius Röntgen (1855-1932). Born a German, died a Dutchman, Röntgen wrote and wrote and wrote – over 600 compositions. I know of him mainly through his works for violin and piano, being the proud owner of two CDs devoted to his various violin and piano works. One CD features the violinist Christoph Schickedanz. The other Atsuko Sahara. Both offer Röntgen's attractive E major sonata opus 40. Sahara gets the better recording and pianist (John Lenehan). Röntgen was one of the few composers at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th who could write memorable themes. I am very fond of my two Röntgen CDs of violin and piano music.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Medtner, Catoire - and David Oistrakh

Concert programmes by violinists and pianists have become pretty stereotyped, with the same old two dozen or so sonatas being paraded, particularly Beethoven's “Spring” sonata, the Ravel sonata, the César Franck, the Brahms sonatas .... and a small score of other warhorses. Less frequently heard are the admirable violin and piano sonatas by George Enescu, Guillaume Lekeu, Leos Janacek; and the third sonata of Nikolai Medtner who was born in Moscow in 1880 and died in London in 1951. I first met Medtner's genial sonata in a 1996 recording by Vadim Repin, and I went on to collect four other performances of the work. This time round I re-sampled it played by David Oistrakh, with Alexander Goldenweiser playing the piano part.

I have never been too enthusiastic about Oistrakh as a violinist. He had a fantastic technique, but his warm, rich, Russian sound always sounded somewhat foreign to me in the German and, particularly, French repertoire. However, his sound and approach take to Russian music like a duck to water and I greatly enjoyed his playing of the Medtner. The two-CD set is completed with Oistrakh and Goldenweiser tackling sonatas and a couple of short pieces by another Russian, Georgy Catoire who was born in Moscow in 1861 and died there in 1926 and, again, Oistrakh sounds quite at home in the melancholy sonorities of Catoire's music. My CD set also includes an excellent performance of Catoire's trio in F minor, recorded in 1949 by Goldenweiser with Kogan and Rostropovich, another thoroughly Russian occasion and another opportunity to sample Kogan and Rostropovich playing together.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Yuja

I have a great admiration for the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. She combines an extraordinary piano technique with a variety of touch and expression, playing the music from inside, as it were, and responding to the mood of every bar and phrase. A pianist to whom I can listen even when I am not too keen on the music she is playing.

Her latest CD features her usual repertoire preferences: Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Ligeti and Prokofiev. To these favourites her programmes also frequently embrace Liszt, Scarlatti and Ravel. Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and Ravel wrote my kind of music. Does anyone other than pianists really like the music of Alexander Scriabin? It usually belongs to a musical class that I deem “I ain't going nowhere”. The first movement of Prokofiev's piano sonata no.8 on this CD belongs to the same somewhat shapeless form, though things pick up in the second and third movements. Yuja's pianism is extraordinary here. Scriabin's 10th sonata wanders on, but only for just under twelve minutes; I know that however many times I listen to it, it will always be totally unfamiliar. The three very short Ligeti pieces on the disc are attractive, and show off Yuja's technique. The four Rachmaninov pieces are familiar territory for me, and the pianist.

Yuja Wang in her chosen repertoire is a real phenomenon; a virtuoso pianist plus. I have no idea as to whether she plays Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert, but it would be interesting to hear her take on a work such as Bach's Goldberg Variations (just as Beatrice Rana impressed me greatly in the same work). In the meantime: Viva Yuja !

As an addendum: why is the CD called "THE Berlin Recital"? Had she never played there before, and never will again? If not, it should be "A Berlin Recital". And do we really need eight photos of Yuja (though, of course, none of Rachmaninov or Prokofiev).  DG ain't what it used to be.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Music Therapy


“Art thou troubled? Music shall calm thee” said an aria by Handel from Rodelinda, sung in English by Kathleen Ferrier on a 78 rpm record of my long-distant youth.

Well, up to a point. Depends on the music. Feeling a bit troubled of late, I turned to Schubert (fourth symphony) and Brahms (second symphony) and felt even more troubled. Luckily, to calm me, I did not turn to Shostakovich, Prokofiev or Rachmaninov. Instead, I alighted on Handel sung by Véronique Gens and all my troubles and cares vanished. One can generalise; but the music of the 18th century is usually a lot more calming than the troubled music of much of the 19th century, not to mention the stress and turmoil of the 20th. As if Véronique Gens were not enough, I then alighted on the wonderful Simone Kermes singing Handel, with a band conducted by the late highly-lamented Alan Curtis.

“Art thou troubled? Handel shall calm thee”. Handel's (or Mozart's) music should be freely available in any national health therapy programme.

Friday, 27 September 2019

Beethoven Re-visited


In my young years, I somewhat overdosed on Beethoven symphonies, particularly the 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th. As a result, I rarely turn to them now, though yesterday I took out the 7th symphony for an airing. The conductor was Otto Klemperer, and the orchestra in 1960 the Philharmonia. The sound is still excellent for its time. Klemperer is my Beethoven conductor; his somewhat grim character seems to chime well with the temperamental Beethoven. With Klemperer you get a first-rate sense of form and balance, you hear all the parts of the music, you get a conductor immersed in the music rather than in self-promotion. With the Philharmonia in 1960 you get fine orchestral playing, though without the distinctive sound of that era in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Leningrad or Philadelphia.

In my peak Beethoven years in the 1950s, it was Karajan, Furtwängler and Toscanini who led the field. Furtwängler and Toscanini never made it into the stereo era, when recorded orchestral sound really became a lot better. Karajan was always a bit too concerned with Karajan and beautiful sound for my liking, and frantic Italian Toscanini much too concerned with being Toscanini, the fastest conductor on Earth. So for the Beethoven symphonies I am happy with my EMI Klemperer box, apart from the 9th symphony for which one needs Furtwängler.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in Brahms

Alina Ibragimova. Arabella Steinbacher. Tianwa Yang. Vilde Frang. Ning Feng. Janine Jansen. Sueye Park. Nazrin Rashidova. Renaud Capuçon. Simone Lamsma. Julia Fischer. Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Lisa Batiashvili. James Ehnes. Akiko Suwanai. Katrin Scholz . . . . The list of eminent violinists of the younger generation goes on and on, heavily oriented nowadays to young women.

For very many works with violin, Alina Ibragimova and Lisa Batiashvili are usually among my top three, four or five for choice of recording. I have been faithful to both for going on a couple of decades now, and they have rarely disappointed (apart from Ibragimova in Bach's works for violin and orchestra, where she has always been let down in recordings by the choice of accompanying band). A gift from a friend of Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien playing the three violin and piano sonatas of Brahms gives me an opportunity for a quick re-appraisal of Ibragimova, and her favourite duo partner.

She reminds me of Arthur Grumiaux who, for his recordings of 50 or 60 years ago, is always an excellent choice for any of the German classics, or the Franco-Belgian repertoire. Like Grumiaux, Ibragimova is a sensitive musician who sees the artist as a medium for the music, rather than the music as a vehicle to showcase the player. Her violin, a Bellosio of circa 1775, suits her playing like a glove. Her partnership with Tiberghien is as sympathetic as was the partnership of Grumiaux and Clara Haskil. The tempi adopted by Ibragimova and Tiberghien in the Brahms sonatas are entirely uncontroversial. We sit back and enjoy the music, and the playing. Like Grumiaux, Ibragimova appears to play almost everything but, like Grumiaux, I note her especially for her playing of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the Franco-Belgian repertoire. I have scores of recordings of the three Brahms violin and piano sonatas, but this new one from Ibragimova and Tiberghien goes straight into the top four or five.

Monday, 2 September 2019

David Fray plays Bach


I first heard the piano playing of David Fray a couple of months ago when he played the keyboard part to Renaud Capuçon's rendition of some of Bach's sonatas for violin and keyboard. I loved the CD, but also remarked highly favourably on Fray's playing of the keyboard parts. I therefore snapped up a new (recorded 2012) CD where Fray plays Bach's second and sixth keyboard partitas, plus the C minor Toccata BWV 911.

This is my kind of Bach playing. Fray brings out Bach's counterpoint and part-writing with real professional talent. The sound is bright; the rhythms are pointed, the tempi are well chosen. More !

Monday, 26 August 2019

Guillaume Lekeu


Hunting in vain for the identity of an annoying 2-3 bar phrase that will not leave my head, I decided it was either from something by Rachmaninov, or by Guillaume Lekeu. This has led me so far into listening to three hours of chamber music by Lekeu. In vain; I still have not found the identity of the musical phrase. It must be Rachmaninov, but there are so many pieces of music by Sergei Rachmaninov! Anyway, there are worse ways of spending three hours than listening to the chamber music of Lekeu, especially the complete music for string quartet (Quatuor Debussy) or the quartet for piano and string quartet. There is an appealing chromatic melancholy in much of the music (well, anyone would be melancholy if they died just one day after their 26th birthday.) It is astonishing that so much high quality music was left by someone who died so young. Nowadays it is mainly his sonata for violin and piano that is aired occasionally; it was commissioned by Eugène Ysaÿe; I got to know it first from a 1938 recording by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin. Latterly the work received an excellent performance by Alina Ibragimova, with Cédric Tiberghien.

Guillaume Lekeu was born in Verviers, Belgium in 1870 and died in 1894 in Angers, France after catching typhoid fever from a contaminated sorbet. He joins a long list of eminent composers who died too young: Purcell (36), Pergolesi (26), Mozart (35), Schubert (31), Chausson (44), Bizet (37), George Butterworth (31).

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Bruckner's Ninth with Carl Schuricht

When I was fifteen or sixteen years old and staying in Paris, I walked to the Théâtre du Châtelet one evening to attend a concert of the music of Wagner and Bruckner (seventh symphony). Carl Schuricht conducted the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne. It must have been an Easter period, since the concert featured the Good Friday music from Parsifal. This was the very start of my love of the music of Wagner and Bruckner. My Bruckner repertoire centres on the seventh, eighth and ninth symphonies, and today I listened once again to the ninth, conducted in 1961 by the same Carl Schuricht of my youth, but this time with the Vienna Philharmonic.

I first made the acquaintance of Bruckner's ninth in the 1950s with a Vox LP recorded in 1953 with Jascha Horenstein conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Schuricht's VPO in 1961 was probably the same orchestra, and there is nothing quite like the old Vienna Philharmonic playing Bruckner. The music positively glows, with wonderful strings, brass and woodwind. The re-furbished sound by the EMI engineering team for this Schuricht re-issue captures the VPO sound perfectly. The combination of Bruckner's music, the VPO's playing and the sure-footed conducting of Schuricht, an old Bruckner hand, make listening to this performance a golden classic. The 1944 Berlin Philharmonic recording under Furtwängler (Pristine Audio) is another golden classic but, in the last resort, the VPO playing and the wonderfully re-furbished sound make Schuricht my first listening choice.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Alexander Melnikov and Dmitri Shostakovich

Around seven years ago, I wrote of my pleasure in listening to Alexander Melnikov playing the 24 Preludes & Fugues of Dmitri Shostakovich. Well, I am still listening, and still with great pleasure. Like some gnarled old priest who always keeps a copy of the Bible close to hand, the 2-CD set of Shostakovich is usually near my hand, since the music lends itself admirably to frequent listening in short bursts. My one gripe is that the preludes and the fugues are banded separately, which means one cannot shuffle-play the works; it is too easy with 24 pieces on two CDs to play the same half dozen works each time, only rarely reaching numbers 20-24.

Be that as it may; these preludes & fugues are most enjoyable listening, and are beautifully played by Melnikov. For me, Shostakovich was the most significant composer of the 20th century, a century that probably did not produce any great composers of the ilk of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Unlike so many 20th century composers, Shostakovich put real emotions into his music; his music is rarely dull or routine. "The 24" is a long work — fully two and a half hours — but the musical inspiration is high, and the craftsmanship superb; it is intriguing to imagine Bach and Shostakovich getting together and playing their respective preludes and fugues to each other. I suspect Bach would have been intrigued and impressed by the Russian's oeuvre.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Otto Klemperer in Mozart

When it comes to the great German orchestral classics — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner — I have a distinct preference for performances conducted by the great European conductors of the past: Wilhem Furtwängler, Günter Wand, Carl Schuricht, Eugen Jochum, Hans Knappertsbusch, Karl Böhm, and Otto Klemperer. They always appear to embrace a long classical tradition of performing the music, something that escaped the Italians such as Toscanini, Cantelli, Chailly or their American-based furioso imitators.

Otto Klemperer (born 1885 Breslau, Germany. Died 1973 Zürich, Switzerland) was one of the old school German conductors of the first half of the past century. In Bach and Mozart he was somewhat different from his German confrères in preferring smaller forces; he refused to record Bach's Mass in B Minor for Walter Legge, since Legge wanted him to use the full Philharmonia Choir. Klemperer recorded the Mass after Legge's departure, but with a small choir of 40 voices. The 1967 recording of the B Minor Mass by Klemperer is still my favourite. Klemperer in Mozart had no truck with “period practice” or “original instruments” (Gott sei Dank) and in this he was typical of his generation. Listening to the darker hues of the Prague Symphony (recorded March 1962) one wonders whether anyone ever conducted this more effectively than Otto; and the refurbished sound is really top class.

In the period 1956-62, Klemperer recorded most of Mozart with the Philharmonia. I cherish these recordings that show Klemperer's sense of texture, structure, and rhythm, and his insistence on a forward wind band really pays dividends in Mozart. In 2012 EMI (as it then was) began to re-master some of its enormous back-catalogue classics with a specialist team as part of a Super Audio CD project of rehabilitating the classics of the EMI repertoire. The 60 year old orchestral recorded sound comes over as excellent and a fine tribute to the late Walter Legge and Douglas Larter. Alas, the only two albums I have of these SACD re-masterings are Mozart's last six symphonies (with Klemperer) and Bruckner's 8th and 9th Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic under Carl Schuricht (1961, and 1963).

Soon after these remarkable SACD re-incarnations were released, EMI was sold to the American Warner company, where careful investment in back repertoire was not on the board. For the back repertoire acquired from EMI, Warner seems to have had the philosophy of “pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap” (ROI, and all that), whilst fiercely protecting its “intellectual property” against all comers such as Pristine Audio who might want to re-furbish the sounds, recordings and artists from decades before; real dog in the manger stuff. So we were offered giant Klemperer / Boult / Beecham etc. boxes from Warner with no attempt at re-masterering or re-furbishing the sound. I am eternally grateful that my two Klemperer and Schuricht albums survived the sale to the Americans.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Wilhelm Backhaus

Re-shelving a CD of music by Beethoven, I noticed its shelf neighbour: a double CD of Wilhelm Backhaus playing Beethoven piano sonatas (and the third piano concerto). A happy find; I had completely forgotten this CD of recordings 1950-51.

I am not a big fan of Beethoven's piano sonatas, but I am a big fan of Backhaus. Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) was already famous at the beginning of the 20th century, and he lived and played until a ripe old age. Transfers of his piano-roll recordings are still around. His playing is no-nonsense German classical (a good antidote to pianists such as Alfred Brendel). In recording at least, he confined himself pretty much to the German classics of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, seldom venturing outside this field. He is rarely now included among lists of great pianists of the past, though so much the worse for lists that too often reflect commercial fame rather than genuine talent and solid values. Unlike his contemporaries, Artur Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, Backhaus was a formidable virtuoso at the keyboard. His pianism reveals a lovely touch, and I enjoyed the quality and variety of sound he gets from his pianos (viz the start of the Opus 26 piano sonata's andante con variazioni.) Simple, and lovely!

Thursday, 25 July 2019

More Sauret from Nazrin Rashidova

As a refugee from the current horror of British politics, I seized with glee a new CD where the immensely talented Azeri violinist, Nazrin Rashidova, plays the third volume of Emile Sauret's Opus 64 études-caprices. As I have remarked before (when commenting on the first two volumes) Sauret's works for solo violin demand first-rate virtuosity, but not showmanship virtuosity as required by many of the solo violin works of Paganini or Ernst. Not many circus tricks with Sauret. Rashidova is probably the ideal interpreter of these genial études-caprices.

We live in a golden age for those who like serious music. In Britain and America more and more concert halls seem to be going over to entertainment / showbiz music, rather than to the age-old great music of previous generations. Since in my long life I have only briefly lived in or near large cities, I have almost always been dependent on recorded or broadcast music. When I grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, hour-long recordings of solo violin works by Sauret were completely inconceivable, and unobtainable. In the current era, thanks mainly to the plethora of small recording companies, so much music outside the classical A Group is now at one's fingertips. As usual, we have the admirable Naxos company to thank for Rashidova's recordings of Sauret. Excellent recording quality, to boot. Strongly recommended, especially for lovers of fine violin playing and lovely violin music.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Supraphon. And the Pavel Haas Quartet

Listening to Bedrich Smetana's two string quartets as recorded in 2014 by the Pavel Haas Quartet, I marvelled at Supraphon's recording. A perfect balance between the four instruments. A perfect perspective for the sound -- not too distant, not too close. A perfect balance between pianissimo and fortissimo. An avoidance of the high violin “glare” that so disfigures so many digital recordings.

All this, of course, subject to my playback equipment, which is not state-of-the-art, but nor is it bargain basement. I know nothing about sound recording of music, except that in the 1950s and 60s EMI with Walter Legge and Douglas Larte did great things, as did DGG in the 1960s and 70s; and Supraphon for the past couple of decades. Recording “classical” music is intrinsically different from recording popular or entertainment music, and one really cannot use the same teams for both. Happily for us, Supraphon appears to have recording technicians who understand orchestral and chamber music. I wish the company would record more of the superb Pavel Haas Quartet; the current market selection is a bit limited.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Leos Janacek

I took down a box of “The Best of Czech Classics”: eight Czech string quartets played by three different Czech string quartets. Two quartets by Janacek, two by Smetana, one by Novak, and three by Dvorak. Needless to say, the quartets that spoke to me best were the two by Leos Janacek. I have been a Janaceck fan ever since the 1950s, when I acquired a 10” CD of the Diary of a Young Man who Disappeared (sung in German) quickly followed by the Glagolitic Mass, and the Sinfonietta. I never ventured into Janacek's many operas, but I greatly enjoy his sonata for violin and piano. There is something about Janaceck's laconic, fragmented and emotional music that greatly appeals to me, and always has. His is a very individual voice. Never been a Dvorak fan, however.

As a footnote: Janacek was not technically Czech, since he was born in Moravia. Just as Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (aka Joseph Stalin) and Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria were not really Russians, but Georgians, and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev and Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev were not really Russians, but Ukrainians. In that part of Europe, your current nationality often depended on the month, and the year. Probably still does.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Beethoven's Diabelli Variations: Artur Schnabel

Back to Beethoven's Diabelli, and this time with Artur Schnabel (recorded 1937). The restoration on Naxos (Mark Obert-Thorn) is excellent, but I needed to tame the bass. Compared with Levit (yesterday) one notices straight away how Schnabel differentiates each of the 33 variations, and how he obviously loves the music. Coming from a different time, many of the variations are played more slowly than is now customary. So much the better.

Despite its age, this is now going to be my first choice when I want to listen to the Diabelli played by a master who knows and loves the music. Three stars.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Igor Levit

My love of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven has waned over the past decades. I now find much of his music somewhat bombastic, and a forced listening to his fifth piano concerto recently confirmed my loss of interest. There are, however, still exceptions: the string quartets, the sonatas for violin and piano, the fourth piano concerto, the third, sixth and seventh symphonies – and the 33 Variations on a Theme of Diabelli. I grew up with this work in my teens (a 12 inch LP played by Wilhelm Backhaus). It's a work that demands a pianist at the service of the music, and is one that extrovert pianists such as Lang Lang or Glenn Gould should avoid. The Diabelli variations comprise a complete world within one work, and do not require the added magic / follies of interventionist pianists.

I have nine recordings of the Diabelli on my shelves — including the ever-faithful Backhaus recording from 1955 — but today I chose the recording by Igor Levit, very much a non-extrovert pianist and musician, although I could equally have chosen the 1937 recording by Artur Schnabel, another non-interventionist. Levit is hyper-efficient and dispatches the 33 variations as ordered. But, unlike Backhaus or Schnabel (or probably others) you do not feel he has this work in his bones, and that he does not have decades of playing it, and revelling in his favourite variations. I speak this as a lover of Levit's pianism but, for the Diabelli, you need super pianism. Plus. Love.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Schubert and Bach. From the Panocha Quartet, and Renaud Capuçon and David Fray

It was a happy choice when I decided to listen to a couple of Schubert's string quartets and my hand alighted on a 1988 Supraphon recording of the Panocha Quartet playing D 804 and the youthful D 87. Classic old-world playing reminding one very clearly that this is chamber music, with four friends playing in a large room or small hall. It also reminded me how extraordinary it is that one small country in central Europe could produce so many first class musicians – particularly string players and string quartets. It sometimes seems that at least half of the world's A class string quartets have been either Czech, or Hungarian. The Czechs are also lucky in having the faithful Supraphon company there for decade after decade, supporting Czech music and Czech players.

Feeling in a chamber music mood, my hand then alighted on a recent recording of four Bach sonatas for keyboard and violin. The soloists were Renaud Capuçon and David Fray; I liked this CD very much the first time round, and enjoy it more and more on re-hearing. Herr Bach presumably wrote the virtuoso keyboard part to show off his playing, and the keyboard does dominate these works, with the violin often just playing accompanying chords or, in one case, being completely silent for one whole movement (BWV 1019). The character of these sonatas comes over well in this recording, with Herr Bach (alias David Fray) dominating the show and Herr Vogel of the Court orchestra (alias Renaud Capuçon) together fully capturing the spirit of these four sonatas. I hope and trust the same players will one day give us the two remaining sonatas in this set of six.


Sunday, 30 June 2019

Music and Politics

During my lifetime, I have listened to many, many conductors, violinists, singers and pianists. I have always judged them, I hope, on their prowess as conductors, violinists, singers, or pianists. In my early teens, in my school library during the 1950s, I read a book on music by someone called “Bacharach”. Even at an early age I was scandalised that he denigrated Wilhelm Furtwängler -- because he had stayed and worked in Nazi Germany -- and eulogised Arturo Toscanini who had left Italy and found lucrative employment in America (from which he never returned except for visits, despite the fall of fascist Italy in 1944). History has decided the respective merits of Furtwängler and Toscanini. What did Mr Bacharach's evaluation have to do with the respective conducting merits of the German and the Italian?

Music is an art form -- along with painting and ballet -- that transcends frontiers of language, nationality, culture, politics, race and religion. I therefore still -- after over 60 years -- become irate when composers, musicians or artists are pilloried because of their race, religion, politics, or nationality. It still goes on, 60 years later viz the “sage” Norman Lebrecht lambasting the highly talented Russian conductor Valery Gergiev as “Putin's henchman”. Herr Lebrecht may not like Gergiev's conducting (but, usually, I do). But what do Gergiev's politics have to do with his conducting of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique?

Saturday, 29 June 2019

César Franck, and Arabella Steinbacher

César Franck's Sonata in A major for violin was written in 1886 as a birthday present for Eugène Ysaÿe. It is a very popular work with violinists and audiences, and genial in nature (as befits a birthday present). Although written during the period when Wagner was all the rage in the musical world, the sonata was written by a Franco-Belgian for a Franco-Belgian, and given its première in Paris in 1886. This should provide a clue as to its character and the way it should be played; the Franco-Belgian school was renowned for elegance rather than brutal power.

I have on my shelves 59 different recordings of the work, starting from 1923 where Cortot and Thibaud give probably the best recording ever of the work, albeit in pre-electric sound. The pair re-recorded the work in 1929; inevitably in far better sound, though the performance lacks a little of the freshness of the original version. Subsequently the sonata became a favourite of Jascha Heifetz, and of Leonid Kogan; the most recent recording I possess is an excellent one by Alina Ibragimova, with Cédric Tiberghien.

In my younger years, I used to play the sonata on both violin, and viola – the work is not technically difficult, for the violinist. Pretty well every violinist one can think of has recorded it over the years, with the many successful performances coming from violinists from the Franco-Belgian school; it does not take too well to the Russian tank style of violin playing. Yesterday I picked from my shelves a 2012 recording by Arabella Steinbacher, with Robert Kulek. Ms Steinbacher is an elegant player, with a lovely sound and an exemplary technique. She does not often feature in any list of the top 10 violinists around today but, as I have remarked frequently, fame is no guarantee of quality, and vice versa. Fame is often more a tribute to a pushy promotion manager. Arabella records for Pentatone and for Orfeo and her recordings are usually a sure choice if you are looking for something beautifully played and recorded. I basked in her playing of the Franck sonata.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Vilde Frang, Ning Feng, and Recording Engineers

I listened off-air to two violin concertos played by the younger generation of violinists: Ning Feng played the Sibelius (with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Simone Young) and Vilde Frang played the Elgar, with the San Francisco symphony orchestra conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski. Both violinists gave totally admirable performances, with Frang getting a special mention for maintaining the tempos and not lingering in what is admittedly a somewhat over-long concerto (50 minutes). These performances by both young violinists are up there with the best.

What was not up with the best were the performances by the respective British and American recording engineers, particularly sad in the case of the BBC that used to have a great deal of expertise in this area. This new generation of Anglo-American engineers has been brought up on the terminology of popular or entertainment music, where the “star” is spotlit, whilst the “backing group” is relegated to the background. Adjust your volume to listen comfortably to Feng or Frang, and the orchestras recede to Studio B somewhere nearby. Adjust your volume to listen to the orchestras, and the violinists will knock you out of your socks. I find increasingly that to get a realistic balance, one needs to look to recording engineers in Germany, Holland or Scandiavia, where the tradition of Tonmeister appears to live on, and where recording engineers have actually experienced going to symphony concerts and listening to concertos where the soloist emerges from the orchestral sound, rather than dominates it. If anything, the BBC engineers here are worse, since they continually tweak the sound and balance during the performance, so occasionally you get a giant clarinet and a normal violin, then an enormous violin and a distant orchestral string section.

By coincidence, I followed this up with listening to the ever-talented Arabella Steinbacher playing Shostakovich's second violin concerto, where Shostakovich, Steinbacher, Nelsons (the conductor) and Orfeo (the Munich-based recording company) all illustrate just how to record a solo violin well integrated with the sound of a symphony orchestra. There: it can be done.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

In Praise of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Growing up during the 1940s and 50s in a musical family, music has always been a special love for me. Right from the start, however, I was never greatly enamoured of “showbiz” music: music that was written to appeal to the People, the Grand Duke, the Emperor, the People's Committee for Correct Music, or whatever. Over the decades my interest in symphonies and operas has waned, whilst my love of chamber music has grown. I love many piano sonatas, many sonatas for violin and piano, many trios. And many string quartets.

String quartets are a special area of affection. Into this almost-ideal medium, many composers have poured out their real feelings for music, away from “showbiz” aspects. Thus I really enjoy, more and more, the string quartets of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert ... and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich did not inhabit an ideal environment for a composer of classical music. His chamber music -- and above all his fifteen string quartets -- pours out the depressive-manic reflection of his character, his life, and his environment. Jolly themes become more and more jolly, until they morph into the fixed grimace of a clown. Happy Dmitri plunges from exuberance to deepest gloom within a few bars. It is all thoroughly Russian, and I have a special place in my heart and my emotions for the music of Shostakovich. For me, Russian music is at its most “authentic” (to use a current fashion-phrase) when played by Russians, so I am greatly enjoying Shostakovich's 4th, 6th and 8th string quartets played by the St Petersburg String Quartet, and recorded in St Petersburg in 1999. This is music that connects directly with me, in a way that the string quartets of contemporary composers such as Benjamin Britten or Béla Bartok never can, however admirable they may be on paper.

Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets (and 15 symphonies). I cannot claim to know the quartets and symphonies intimately, since I came to them relatively late in life. However, like the two violin concertos (that I do know well) and the sonatas for, respectively, violin, viola and cello, I sense that Shostakovich 1-10 is somehow more engaged and passionate, than Shostakovich 11-15. Late Shostakovich is even bleaker than early Shostakovich. The music is often sotto voce, with the occasional anguished howl of rage, or despair. Many of the works end pianissimo, eschewing the traditional grand ending leading to thunderous applause. The long held, pianissimo ending of the third quartet (opus 73, in F major) seems to go on for hours before finally dying. I love it, I am a fully paid-up member of the Shostakovich fan club.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The Music World circa 2019

In the early 1950s, my family in the south of England was visited by two Aunts from The North (my father had seven sisters, and five brothers). The aunts were happy to hear that their young nephew liked music, as did they. They asked me to play something I liked, and I put on my current amour -- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert songs. They listened intently and then, at the end, one of them said: “Eh, he sings very well ... for a foreigner”.

On my return from a couple of weeks in Vietnam a few days ago, I listened to Tianwa Yang playing Brahms. On a whim, I followed this up with Ning Feng playing Bach. And, this evening, it was Xiayin Wang playing Rachmaninov. I wonder what my Aunts from The North would have made of all of that. Before listening to Xiayin Wang, I consumed with pleasure my master dish: a Thai soup Tom Yum, with assorted fish. In 2019, we live in a different world (even in Brexit Britain).

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Vive Tianwa Yang


150 years ago, probably no one would have heard, or heard of, a violinist such as Tianwa Yang. In those days, violinists, singers and pianists found fame (if any) only in their local areas. 100 years ago, not much would have changed, even after the advent of radio broadcasting and recording; slots were limited to established musicians, and recording companies were few in number given the overheads in recording, promoting, manufacturing and distribution.

Move on the the present day, however, and we welcome a veritable cornucopia of superb young violinists, singers, cellists and pianists, with specialist recording companies vying with YouTube and network streaming. For violinists, Naxos has promoted a realm of talent for many of the past decades, including Ms Yang whose current recording of the Brahms violin concerto is the latest addition to her long list of Naxos recordings. I liked this performance a lot. Her musicality shines throughout the work, even in the (Joachim) cadenza. Ms Yang is no barnstormer of a violinist; even in her early recording of the 24 Paganini Capricci at the age of 13, she revealed herself to be a thoughtful and musical player, less interested in strutting the stage than in getting to the heart of the music. I have 91 recordings of Brahms' Op 77, from 1927 (Kreisler) to 2017 (Yang). Yang is recognisably feminine in her performance, and I like it.

Fame is mainly based on age, and on establishing a recognised “brand”. This brand recognition is tough on new entrants who may well be infinitely superior to established brands. To my mind, Tianwa Yang plays the Brahms concerto much better than “brands” such as Pinchas Zukerman, Isaac Stern, Vadim Gluzman ... or a host of others amongst my 91 other candidates for a place on the podium. And the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Antoni Wit plays the orchestral parts like ... a German orchestra playing Johannes Brahms. Tianwa Yang takes a place on the podium for recordings of the Brahms violin concerto. Also on the new CD is a performance of Brahms' double concerto for violin and cello, where the young Gabriel Schwabe complements the young Tianwa Yang affectionately. A three-star addition to my bulging collection of really worthwhile recordings.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Renaud Capuçon and David Fray play Bach

In my younger years, I used to play the six Bach sonatas for violin and keyboard. They are fine works, with some highly interesting movements, and illustrate that, even early on in 1717, Bach was head and shoulders above his Italian contemporaries. I have acquired a new CD on which Renaud Capuçon and David Fray tackle four of these sonatas, where both violin and keyboard have equal prominence.

The CD is fine. David Fray plays the keyboard part on a piano, thank heavens, rather than on a jangling harpsichord that would have been the best Bach could come up with back in 1717. I am not a lover of the sound of harpsichords: “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof” as Thomas Beecham termed it many years ago. Renaud Capuçon, an expert chamber music player, projects the violin part superbly. He does not dabble in the current fad for “pseuo-baroque” playing, but neither does he try to make Bach's violin writing sound like César Franck. Vibrato is used, but judiciously. A CD to keep at hand and to enjoy Bach in seventeen movements. On re-listenings, I admire the CD more and more: for Bach's music, for Capuçon's violin playing, and for Fray's pianism. There is a lightness of touch and a commendable willingness to dance to Bach's dance rhythms that I find wholly admirable. This, I would venture to suggest, is how these works should be played in our current world.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

From the Archives: Charles Gounod, and Artur Schnabel

The string quartets of Charles Gounod are pretty un-famous. I discovered three of them in my dusty archives, played by the Danel Quartet; I have no idea where the CD came from. This is attractive, easy-listening music, with no Sturm und Drang. Some of the movements are extremely charming – the allegretto of the A major quartet, for example.

Also from my archives, my mind jogged by a friend's reference to Artur Schnabel, I exhumed my collection of Schnabel recordings, including an 8-CD box of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Schnabel's principal composers. I re-discovered one of my favourite pianists; much like Clara Haskil, or Maria Pires, Schnabel puts the music first and eschews any showing off. His Bach playing is sheer delight, with good tempi and excellent part playing. Some in the past cast doubts on his virtuosity, but listening to Schnabel, recorded mainly in the 1930s, there are no signs of weakness. And that wonderful sense of subtle rubato! When all the flashier players have come and gone, Schnabel goes on for ever. There was more musicality in Schnabel than in ten Vladimir Horowitzs.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Petrenko's Magnificent Enigma

Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations is one of very few English works post-17th century to have achieved international acceptance. It's a lovely piece of music, fresh, varied, and affectionate. I have eleven different recordings, including excellent ones by Barbirolli and Monteux. However, pride of place must go to a new recording where Vasily Petrenko conducts a Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra that sounds right at the top of its game in this music that must be so familiar to most of the players. Petrenko's pacing is superb, and he manages to persuade the Liverpool strings to play with a depth and glow that is almost Russian. I particularly admired the balance of the orchestral parts, where everything can be heard, a tribute to both the conductor and to the balance engineers. The Onyx recording is truly excellent. Another great recording to add to Petrenko's Elgar collection. The young Russian would seem to have a real affinity with the music of Sir Edward. How about the Elgar violin concerto with fellow-Russian Alina Ibragimova as soloist?

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Georges Bizet: Symphony

Georges Bizet had little success with his music in his lifetime. Even his “hit” opera, Carmen -- claimed to be the most played opera in the world -- had to wait until after his death in 1875 at the age of 36 to achieve any vestige of success. In 1935, his Symphony in C, written at the age of 17, was exhumed and given its first performance after 80 years (by Felix Weingartner). It is a lovely work, fresh, melodic and expertly written for an orchestra. One can lament that the musical world in France, and Paris, in mid-19th century was so unfriendly to French composers and that Bizet more-or-less abandoned writing for orchestras, dictated by the current fashion.

I listened to it -- twice -- today, recorded in 1959 with Thomas Beecham conducting the ORTF orchestra in Paris. Lovely music, beautifully conducted, expertly played. 17-year olds today do not write such enchanting and enjoyable half-hour musical works. You can probably hunt the world's concert halls for live performances of Bizet's Symphony in C, but you will not find many (or any).

Saturday, 30 March 2019

In Praise of Vaclav Snitil (Who?)

After a recent bout of “baroque” violinists with their thin, whining tone, it was a relief to turn to the violin playing of Vaclav Snitil (1928-2015), a Czech violinist who was a pupil of Jaroslav Kocian. By some (happy) accident of fate, and some good friends, I have many recordings by Snitil, including the complete violin and piano works of Mozart. Snitil was a devotee of chamber music playing and appears to have concentrated his repertoire on the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Czech-Slovak lands. Who else would have recorded a complete 65 minute CD of the violin and piano music of Jan Kubelik and Jaroslav Kocian, except Snitil and his Guarneri del Gesù violin? Or a CD of violin and piano music by Laub, Ondricek, Sevcik, Kubelik, Kocian, and Prihoda? Whatever, it makes a pleasant change from yet another rendition of de Falla's Danse Espagnole. As I remarked recently when commenting on Sueye Park's recital disk; you need to play short salon pieces con amore, as did many of the old school of violinists. Which is probably why modern violinists steer clear of them in favour of yet another traversal of Beethoven's Spring sonata, or Ravel's sonata. Yawn.

Scan a list of “famous” violinists over the past 50 years and you probably will not find Snitil. Given his dates, he will have spent all his professional life behind the Iron Curtain, and thus be pretty invisible to the world outside. Moreover, violinists (especially) are “famous” because of efficient PR agencies, pushy impresarios, and astute managers. American lists and websites, in particular, seem to feature only violinists known to American television audiences or to extensive American media coverage; lots of Perlmans, Zukermans and Sterns, but few Snitils, Schneiderhans, Suks or Grumiauxs. For the Americans, current violinists seem  to concentrate on Hilary Hahn, or Joshua Bell; not Tianwa Yang, Renaud Capuçon, or Vilde Frang.

From his photos, Snitil looks like a prosperous Czech farmer wearing his Sunday suit; the likes of Warner Music or DG would not touch him with a barge pole. Skinny young females, and ill-shaven young males, are all the rage when it comes to modern violinists, even if they cannot really communicate Jaroslav Kocian's charming pieces. It is said that the test of a great chef, is his ability to present a perfect boiled egg and a salad. In the same way, I submit that the test of a great violinist is his or her ability to play four salon pieces entrancingly. Vaclav Snitil passes the test. I doubt whether many “famous” modern violinists such as xx or yy could do the same.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Dixit Dominus. With Haïm, Minkowski, and Eliot-Gardiner

Handel was in Rome in 1707, and there the 22 year old Saxon wrote Dixit Dominus, a setting of Psalm 109 for five-part chorus, five soloists and strings. It is an astonishingly virtuoso work, as the young Handel exalts in his incredible powers. I listened to it in a 1977 recording by the young John Eliot-Gardiner, then went on to the same work led by Emmanuelle Haïm (2006) and finally Marc Minkowski (1998), the latter two being mainly French participants. The two French-based teams come in at a whisker over 30 minutes. The Englishman comes in at 35 minutes. Eliot-Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir sounds a bit cumbersome, as recorded here, and his soloists are nothing outstanding, featuring no less than two counter-tenors, one of whom sounds suspiciously like a boy soprano. Nothing against boy sopranos, just so long as I do not need to hear them sing.

Haïm is the most flamboyant and Italianate of the three (quite rightly so, in my view, given the work's provenance). Her choir and soloists are excellent and her team includes the superb Natalie Dessay and Philippe Jaroussky. Haïm and Handel always seem to get on well together, and with me. If I have a criticism, it is that Haïm appears to concentrate her energies on the soloists and choir, and leaves the orchestra to its own devices, which is a great pity since Handel's writing for the string orchestra is imaginative and attractive.

Marc Minkowski strikes the right balance between orchestra, soloists and choir, and his is probably the recording I am most likely to take to a desert island with me. His soloists are not quite equal to Haïm's team, but the two sopranos, Annick Massis and Magdalena Kozena are good, and the alto, Sara Fugoni, is a welcome relief from Eliot-Gardiner's counter-tenors. Three Dixit Dominus listenings within 18 hours has been surprisingly invigorating and enjoyable. There is nothing the equal of Handel's music for late-night listening.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Véronique Gens sings Chausson

Written at the very end of the nineteenth century, just before his premature death at the age of 44 in a bicycle accident, Ernest Chausson's Poème de l'Amour et de la Mer has always had a special place in my affections. It has excellent previous recordings from the likes of Janet Baker and Susan Graham, but today I wallowed in its lush self-pity with a new recording where it is sung by Véronique Gens, one of my favourite singers, and a soprano with exemplary diction where you can hear every word she is singing. It's a lovely performance and recording, with the Lille Orchestra under its new conductor Alexandre Bloch. Three stars.

The CD continues with Chausson's Symphony, another lush, late-Romantic work that never seems to have made it into the standard repertoire. Well worth hearing however, and well recorded. As far as I can judge, the Lille performance under Bloch is excellent.

Isabelle Faust disappoints in Bach

I first heard Bach's (reconstructed) concerto for oboe and violin BWV 1060 on a 7 inch 33 rpm disc in the 1950s (Karl Ristenpart). Even to my teenage ears, it did not sound too successful, since the piercing oboe dominates all and the violin might just as well be played by 12-year old John Smith (or 15-year old Harry Collier). Fast forward to 2019, and it does not sound any better even with Isabelle Faust playing the violin part. The main difference is: speed. In the 1950s, had I heard this, my immediate reaction would have been to check whether I was playing the 33 rpm disc at 45 rpm. Why are Ms Faust and her companions in such a hurry? Don't they wish to revel in Bach's music? Or did the financial controller warn them to ensure the session lasted no more than 18 minutes in case they ran into punishing overtime payments? Whatever; like almost everything on this two-CD set featuring Isabelle Faust and the Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin: it's all too bloody fast!

I sort of give up with Bach's concertos featuring solo violin. The old classics featured a full symphony orchestra, which was demonstrably wrong and anachronistic. The modern “with-it” recordings feature anodyne violin playing with a demonstrable lack of affection. Even Alina Ibragimova was let down by a bizarre band accompaniment directed by Jonathan Cohen, with a plucking lute dominating the proceedings in the slow movements, ensuring the recording went on to a far back shelf in my collection and affection. I am not much interested in historical reconstructions as to what the music may have sounded like in 1720, or whenever. I want the music played by someone who loves it, who cherishes it, and who plays with a small group of aficionados who also love the music. Exceptional violin technique is not necessary; there are no harmonics, passages in harmonics, passages of tricky double-stopping, or passages of ricochet bowing. Well over 90,000 modern violinists could probably play the music to the same standard as Ms Faust, which is frustrating for top-notch violin soloists.

Isabelle Faust is a superb violinist who, in the past, did some really good things; I remember, in particular, the Beethoven violin concerto, plus violin & piano sonatas, and some excellent Schubert and Bartok. But in recent years she seems to have gone down the less challenging path of ye olde violine playing. One cannot blame her, since churning out pseudo 1720 violin playing is a lot less challenging than tackling the Brahms or Sibelius violin concertos. The problem is: not many people can play the Brahms or Sibelius violin concertos successfully, whereas almost every violinist and his or her dog can play the Bach concerti. The secret lies in the art of playing the violin, and having excellent colleagues to back you up. Lovers of ye olde violine playing remind me of lovers of old, 1950s and 60s cars that, compared with modern cars, are hopelessly unreliable, inefficient, and expensive to run and maintain.

I have never understood the rationale for playing a violin senza vibrato. I'm sorry, but a violin played with subtle and varied vibrato sounds so much more attractive than a violin played without vibrato, especially in the slow movements where Ms Faust's vibrato-less violin sounds as if it is whining. I know they didn't do vibrato in 1720 (it is claimed). But things have moved on a little since 1720 in terms of violin (and keyboard) playing. There is some nice music on these two CDs, with a mixture of concertos, sinfonias and trio sonatas. The sound overall is a bit “spiky”, though I am not sure whether this is down to the recording, or to the violin playing that lacks warmth. I seem to have 20-30 recordings of each of the main Bach violin concertos — the A minor, E major, and D minor double. Not one finds much favour with me; I can't take symphony orchestras playing the band part of these concertos. Nor can I take the non-vibrato, brittle and brusque playing of the baroqueux in these works, particularly in the slow movements that sound as if the players are worried about missing the last tram or train home after the session. We do not know, of course, what Bach would have expected when he marked vivace, or andante. But the lovely largo ma non tanto of the D minor double concerto does not sound largo in the hands of Isabelle Faust and Bernhard Forck, by any stretch of the imagination. "Warum so schnell?" Bach might have asked. Two more CDs for the shelves.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien


In a world positively awash with superb violinists, I have always had a special affection for the playing of Alina Ibragimova. She is a highly versatile and sophisticated player, with an impeccable technique and a remarkable range of dynamics, from whispering pianissimos to passionate fortissimos. From her violin (Anselmo Bellosio c1775) she draws sounds appropriate to whatever music she is playing. I have only heard her once in person, when she played unaccompanied Bach all alone on the stage in Bath; a memorable experience.

A new CD from her with her excellent long-term musical partner, Cédric Tiberghien is devoted to four items from the late Romantic Franco-Belgian repertoire, the earliest being the sonata by César Franck (1886) and the latest a Nocturne by Lili Boulanger (1911). The poème élégiaque by Eugène Ysaÿe and a 1905 sonata by Louis Vierne complete the programme. I am the proud owner of no less than 58 different recordings of the Franck sonata; though I cannot claim to recall all 57 of the other recordings, this one has to be among the select few at the top of the rostrum. The performance by Ibragimova is a long way from her Moscow roots. In terms of sophistication, her playing reminded me on occasions of Jascha Heifetz; this sonata was one of his favourites, though Heifetz in duo sonatas always suffered from his preference for accompanists rather than partners. I suspect Ysaÿe to whom the sonata was dedicated, and who gave its first performance, would have cheered and voted for Ibragimova and Tiberghien.

The sonata by Louis Vierne is not without its interesting moments, but it does suffer from the familiar late Romantic bloat during its 33 minutes. However, I suspect it will wait several decades before receiving another recording at least the equal of this one from Ibragimova and Tiberghien.

The engineering and balance in this Hyperion recording are excellent, especially since Ibragimova's pianissimos must have posed something of a problem for the balance engineering. Altogether, a CD to enhance the current reputation of the Ibragimova-Tiberghien duo.


Monday, 11 March 2019

In Praise of Vin Rosé

I like wine. Mainly red or rosé, since I find most white wines too acidic for my taste. And normally I drink wine from France, since it's the nearest wine country to England and I know French wines and have no great need to get to know Bulgarian wines, or whatever. In addition, most French wines are made from a blending of two or more of the 63 grape varieties used in wine making; too many non-French wines seem to feature just one grape variety, which means the wines lack sophistication and become somewhat generic and predictable. A good red wine from the Bordeaux region has a sophisticated taste.

With meals, I normally drink red wine, with a preference for Côtes du Rhône, Languedoc, and Burgundy. Bordeaux has some superb wines, but they are normally priced with a big mark-up because they are Bordeaux. My normal aperitif wine is a good rosé; my current bulk purchase from Majestic Wine here in England is an excellent rosé from the Carcassonne region of south-west France. It is not expensive; it has a good rosé colour (not too pale); it is pretty dry but not at all acidic. I am drinking a glass now as I write. I find it difficult to understand why rosé wine is not more popular; only the French, Italians and Spaniards seem to make it, and few people drink it. I always found it difficult in restaurants in America to find one with a decent range of rosé wines; even in an excellent restaurant in Paris last July, the restaurant with its fine wine list featured only one rosé wine. Tough on those eating fish but not fancying red or white wine. Most of the English seemed fixated on white wine; most of the French, on red wine. I am fixated on rosé wine, when I can find it.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Hail Bright Cecilia – Purcell

Classical music has many major jewels, some of them well-known, others somewhat hidden by time. Henry Purcell's Ode to Saint Cecilia: Hail Bright Cecilia is one of music's major jewels. Lasting for 54 minutes and written in 1692 just three years before Purcell's untimely death, it is a major work full of wonderful tunes and highly sophisticated musical writing. It needs expert singers who are fully proficient in the English language; Purcell's writing for English words does not really translate into other languages, so expertly does he fit the music to each word. If the work lies somewhat outside of current main international repertoire, it is partly because of its length, partly because major classical singers are usually proficient in Italian and German, and maybe French, but rarely in English since, outside of much of the music of Purcell, Handel and Benjamin Britten, they rarely come across English texts in their working lives.

I listened to Hail Bright Cecilia today directed by Philippe Herreweghe in a 1997 Harmonia Mundi recording, the director and the company almost guaranteeing that the recording will be excellent and the musical direction sane and well-balanced; Herreweghe, like Masaaki Suzuki, was one of those conductors who just did an excellent job without trying to impose odd or outlandish personal theories, or seek notoriety through novel effects. In modern parlance: Herreweghe ticks all the boxes. His soloists are almost all native English speakers. His choir and orchestra the admirable Collegium Vocale based in Ghent. A terrific work, and this recording earning my somewhat rare three stars. Music of genius, wonderfully sung, wonderfully played, and expertly recorded. The CD also includes the earlier Cecilia Ode Welcome to All the Pleasures, written by the 22 year old Purcell. Also top-notch and, in the aria "Here the Deities Approve" featuring one of Purcell's beloved ground bass accompaniments, of which he was the master.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook with Damrau and Kaufmann

Forty-six songs, one after another in the space of 76.5 minutes takes a lot of digesting and I venture rarely into Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook. I grew up with the recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, two singers I have never much cared for. I also have a recording by Fischer-Dieskau and Irmgard Seefried. I invested somewhat reluctantly in a third recording because the singers are Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann, both of whose voices I like very much.

Well, Damrau and Kaufmann easily take first prize as does their pianist, Helmut Deutsch. A lovely performance of the forty-six songs. It's a live recording, with the singers somewhat distant; when Kaufmann sings softly, it is sometimes difficult to hear that he is singing, let along what he is singing about, for example in the lovely opening of Nun lass uns Frieden schließen. However, for Wolf's Italian Songbook: it's Kaufmann and Damrau, with Deutsch. I doubt whether this recording will be bettered for many, many decades.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Three Young Women Violinists

It used to be said that when Jews left Russia, each of them carried a violin case. Move on a few decades, and it is now young women who carry the violin cases. After enthusing over Sueye Park (Korea) I am now enthusing over Francesca Dego (Italy) and Veriko Tchumburidze (Turkey). Ms Dego plays the first Paganini violin concerto; Ms Tchumburdize plays Bruch's genial Scottish Fantasy.

This is a devastatingly accurate performance of the Paganini, even down to truly superb left-hand pizzicati. And the accompanying Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Daniele Rustioni even manages to sound like the Italian opera orchestra Paganini would have expected. I had never come across Ms Dego before a friend sent me this CD. I am considerably impressed.

Ms Tchumburdize has to be my favourite Turkish violinist. She seems to have won every violin contest that she has ever entered. The performance of the Bruch is affectionate and mellow. The work was a Heifetz speciality, and those used to his tempi may find Ms Tchumburdize's opening movement a bit leisurely. She does, however, have the technique and concentration to bring it off.

So three pretty devastating young women – and there are a lot more of them around today!

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Emmanuelle Haïm in Handel Cantatas

I like Emmanuelle Haïm and her Concert d'Astrée. I like Handel's music, and I like the soprano Sabine Devieilhe. So I was first in line for a double CD from them all featuring three Handel cantatas, plus the trio sonata in B minor, with its lovely largo third movement. The 53 minute cantata Aminta e Fillide, with its plethora of favourite Handel tunes, comes on the first CD. The second CD sees the cantata Armida abbandonata, the cantata La Lucrezia, plus the trio sonata. A newcomer, the mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre, joins Devieilhe in Aminta, and she also sings alone in Lucrezia.

Haïm seems to like highly theatrical music, which is what we have here as Handel plunges in with his usual relish to abandoned females. Much of the music is very theatrical, and Haïm and her team relish the dramatics. Haïm seems to favour Handel over Bach (I know only of her recording of Bach's Magnificat), and maybe she has a point in playing to her strengths; Handel cantatas probably better suit her temperament, than Bach cantatas. Sabine Devieilhe is superb, as usual, and the new mezzo-soprano does really well; Haïm appears usually to favour mezzos over male altos or counter-tenors (don't we all).

Any Beckmesser criticisms? Racking my brains, I can say that some of the added ornamentation in the da capo soprano parts sounds a bit contrived and fussy. It's probably accepted period practice, but I prefer it to be discreet rather than sounding contrived; Haïm and Handel may not agree with me. Anyway, the combination of Handel, Haïm and Devieilhe sees me on auto-buy.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Antje Weithaas in Beethoven. Capuçon and Caussé in Mozart

I am frequently amazed at the recorded quality of much music broadcast and available over the Internet; in particular, broadcast engineers often reveal a great talent for recording balance. Two new concerts recently gave me special delight. From Leipzig on 10th February, Antje Weithaas gave a superb performance of the Beethoven violin concerto, excellently backed by the MDR Sinfonieorchester Leipzig under the young Klaus Mäkelä. For a change, the orchestra made a real contribution to the proceedings, and this became genuinely a concerto for violin and orchestra, helped by exemplary balance and recording quality. Ms Weithaas has a slender tone that may not be ideal in Bruch or Brahms, but was admirable in the filigree arabesques that characterise so much of the Beethoven concerto solo part. I was not enthralled with her choice of cadenzas – Busoni in the first movement? After Beethoven's day, pretty well all composers preferred to write out their own cadenzas to prevent show-off soloists from going on and on and trying to make their own contribution. However, all in all this performance, from the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, pleased me greatly with its soloist, tempi, orchestral contribution, and recorded quality and balance.

On to a second concert, this time from a church near Gstaad in Switzerland on 26th January where Renaud Capuçon and Gérard Caussé were the perfect combination in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. What a perfectly matched pair, and the recorded balance between the two was again demonstration class. The small band (Les Siècles) was conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Two minor flaws were the sound of the full band in a church acoustic, where the sound sometimes tended towards cavernous, plus a lot of noise that sounded like the Swiss army on the march, on occasions. However, all in all a perfect rendition of Mozart's miraculous score, and good sound. Commercial recording companies have some pretty tough competition nowadays.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Pavel Sporcl, the Gypsy Way, and the Civitas Ensemble

I have never liked commercial “popular” music, nor musicals or operetta. I do, however, like good folk music, including “gypsy” music from Central Europe, klezmer music, some traditional jazz, and much folk music from Kentucky and Tennessee, with singers such as Gillian Welch. The highly talented Czech violinist, Pavel Sporcl, has made something of a speciality of the gypsy music of Central Europe, with his band the Gypsy Way. “Gypsy” here embraces much of the traditional folk music emanating particularly from Hungary and Romania where folk, klezmer and gypsy have all overlapped over the centuries.

On a new double CD set called Alla Zingarese, Sporcl and his band go through their paces and the result is exhilarating and highly addictive listening. To my ears, it all sounds thoroughly “gypsy”. On the flip-side (as one used to say) the second CD is given over to a Chicago group Civitas Ensemble, headed by Yuan-Qing Yu from Shanghai, who is also the deputy leader of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The group features Ms Yu on the violin, a cellist, a clarinettist and a pianist; they join the Gypsy Way on the first CD side. Their six tracks are not really zingarese, but more music influenced by Central European folk music, such as Liszt's C sharp minor Hungarian Rhapsody played as a piano solo by Winston Choi, or an effective arrangement of Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No.1 by Cliff Colinot. Most of the Civitas tracks feature mainly one solo instrument (the talented Ms Yu opens the proceedings with a five minute solo violin piece by Sylvie Bodorova). All enjoyable but, for my taste, lacking the authentic gypsy zing of Sporcl and his Gypsy Way group. I did not take to Lukas Sommer's Cigi-Civi, but no one writes contemporary music to appeal to me, and the piece only lasts for 3:47.

Most of the pieces on the Sporcl tracks are arrangements; nothing wrong with that and even, in the arrangement of Sarasate's evergreen Zigeunerweisen arranged by Lukas Sommer, the small group accompanying Sporcl's fireworks is probably more enjoyable and appropriate than the traditional piano or orchestra accompaniment. The 88 minutes on these two CDs go past quickly and gave me a great deal of enjoyment.