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.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Volume 8 of Naxos Fritz Kreisler recordings

“Some wonderful playing, but some pretty rubbishy music”. So remarked an assistant at Blackwell's Music Shop in Oxford where I was buying a Strad box of three LPs of Kreisler recordings, many decades ago. I thought of the young man again today listening to Volume 8 of Naxos' complete Fritz Kreisler recordings. 24 tracks, all with wonderful playing, and some of pretty rubbishy music.

You will search in vain for recordings of Jascha Heifetz playing Kreisler pieces, bar a handful. Heifetz, a big fan of Kreisler all his life, knew he could never get near Kreisler on his own turf; listening to Kreisler playing his Liebesleid and Liebesfreud back in 1926, you realise that no one in the intervening 93 years has come anywhere near Kreisler in these pieces, with his subtle rubato and sense of Viennese bonhomie.

A peculiarity of the American music scene in the earlier decades of the last century is that violinists such as Kreisler, Elman and Heifetz were often recorded in “crossover” music of popular tunes. So on Volume 8 we find Kreisler lavishing his talents on pieces such as Lemare's “Moonlight and Roses”, or Elwyn Owen's “Invocation” and Irving Berlin's “Blue Skies”. Over in Europe, one cannot imagine violinists such as Oistrakh, Kogan, Adolf Busch, Kulenkampff, Schneiderhan, Prihoda or Thibaud turning to "popular" pieces.

Volume 8 makes one appreciate the advances that have been made in audio restoration over the past 90 years. The transfers here (by Ward Marston) are truly state-of-the-art and few allowances need to be made for the 90 year old sound. I love basking in the sound of Kreisler playing the violin and here, at the age of 51 and 52, he was still in very fine form. That rubato, that staccato, those double-stops like no one else plays them. Thank you, Naxos, for all eight volumes.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Thumbs Down for Schumann Lieder Box

Lured by a cheap price, and nostalgia for many of the recordings I listened to in my teens, I bought a box of four CDs of Lieder by Schumann, recorded by various artists during the 1940s and 50s. At last, I recovered Gérard Souzay in the Dichterliebe, a 1953 recording that I once owned on a second-hand LP in the 1950s. And Fischer-Dieskau – never my favourite singer – with the Opus 39 Liederkreis (1954) that I used to play on an old 10 inch LP.

The set also includes Irmgard Seefried in the Frauenliebe und Leben cycle (1957), a work I am not fond of because of its – to me – mawkish and outdated view of a woman's life.

“Lieder und Zyklen” is translated into sort-of English as “Art Songs and Cycles”. I am not sure what has happened to the English language, but Schumann wrote “Lieder” (which are songs, in English). Gustav Mahler's “Das Lied von der Erde” is usually rendered into English as “The Song of the Earth” (not the “Art Song of the Earth”). Perhaps the addition of “art” to “song” is so not to confuse teenage Americans, who seem to call everything a “song”; even Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, or Bach's Mass in B minor. Anyway, for teenage Americans: these are songs (Lieder, in German) sung in German. No translations are included, so either you understand 19th German perfectly, or you rest blissfully ignorant as to what is being sung. I am not dogmatic about understanding what is being sung (particularly when it comes to 18th century music), but 19th century German Lieder, and French mélodies, are slightly different kettles of fish and we need to know what the songs are about. I know the Dichterliebe and the two Liederkreis, plus Frauenliebe und Leben well enough not to need a libretto, and I also know many of the Goethe Mignon settings well enough. But the other 30 or so ….

Those selling recordings of German Lieder, or French mélodies (or even “art songs”) should make it very plain if no libretto is included. Otherwise, for pretty well everyone, it's a bit like buying a car without an engine. Other singers include Peter Anders and Emmi Leisner, mainly from the 1940s. What they are singing about, I have no clue. Not a good buy (a German company called Membran Music). Fine transfers, however.

Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev

Whatever one's view of Russians — positive, or negative — they obviously produce streams of truly excellent composers, violinists, and pianists. The latest Russian pianist to grace my CD player is Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, who turns out to be the grandson of the late Tatiana Nikolaeva. He plays an all-Russan programme of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Medtner, Tchaikovsky; and two concert études composed by his grandmother. A nice touch.

There is some breathtaking pianism on this CD. Rachmaninov's familiar moments musicaux reveal Arseny to be a highly sensitive pianist, with lashings of Russian “dreamy” interpretations. Some slow pieces are too slow? Maybe, but he has the technique and the concentration to bring them off. This is a CD I'll keep close to hand. Highly recommended to lovers of great pianism and Russian music.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Whisky, Haydn, Mozart, Handel's Cantatas

I listened to nine string quartets by Haydn, played by the Takacs Quartet, and the Goldmund Quartet. Very fine indeed. I then listened to the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn (played by the Hagen Quartett). It was like going from Grant's blended whisky (my favourite blend) to a 12-year old Caol Ila malt (my favourite single malt). Mozart's music is on a different plane from Haydn's. Nothing wrong with Josef Haydn; it's just that Mozart's music is so much more sophisticated, complex, and subtle and juxtaposing the two composers with their better quartets just points up the difference.

No such whisky contrast going from J.S. Bach to Georg Handel. I have just embarked on listening to the cantatas and duets that Handel wrote in Italy when he was in his very early twenties. Bach is Caol Ila; Handel a 15-year old Laphroaigh (to continue the whisky metaphors). They are very different in taste, but equal in quality. Handel had a gift all his life of being able to surround himself with highly gifted instrumentalists and singers: violinists, bassoonists, cellists, oboists, or whatever. He himself was a master on any keyboard (like Bach). Fabio Bonizzoni and his group La Risonanza, often together with the superb soprano Roberta Invernezzi, produced seven CDs of Handel's Italian cantatas, plus an eighth CD with the Italian duets. It's a magnificent collection for Handel lovers. (Glossa).

The works often need highly talented solo instrumentalists, plus first-rate singers, which makes most of them unsuitable for amateur performances. Be it the highly virtuoso violin solos in Il Delirio Amoroso (Cardinal Pamphili), written probably for a band headed by Arcangelo Corelli, or the virtuoso soprano needed for Tra le Fiamme (Pamphili, again) the 22 year old Handel displays amazing compositional powers. For Handel lovers, it is always interesting to meet familiar tunes or themes that he was to re-use throughout his life, albeit in new garbs to match changing players or singer circumstances. Either Handel travelled with huge trunks containing manuscripts, or he had a quill pen with many terabytes of extended memory.

I often bemoan the fact that pretty well all the CDs in my collection are listened to only once, or rarely thereafter. This does not hold true for the cantatas of Bach, or Handel; they are often spinning on my CD player.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

"New Music"

Had I been alive and listening to music over two or three centuries ago, I would have been demanding: “New music! Not re-plays of the old stuff that I know already.” So Messrs. Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al scribbled away writing new music every week, or month, or quarter. Just to satisfy the listening public's demand for “new music”. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century: Listeners and players regard “new music” on a programme as a child regards a spoonful of honey after a horrid medicine. Graduates of music academies (including many well-known music critics) extol the virtues of “new music”. Just as, to prove their modern credentials, they extol the virtues of great women composers (on shaky evidence). And, at the extreme critical wing; black women composers of new music.

Being not a composer, nor black, nor a woman, I can speak without prejudice. I like good music be it played or composed by French, German, Jewish, Russian, British, Scandinavian, Chinese, Japanese, Czech, Polish, Romanian, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox .. the list goes on. Great music does not know sex, race, or nationality. Or time period. In the archives, there are kilos of music composed over the past three or four centuries, most of it rarely if ever played, and rarely if ever listened to. Do we really need “new music”? In my local supermarket, there is a complete aisle devoted to breakfast cereals. And almost another aisle devoted to different yoghurts. Do we really need yet another new yogurt, or breakfast cereal? Surely: enough is enough. Show me a piece of new music that is still being played and enjoyed after many decades, and I'll be mildly interested. Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Benjamin Britten — plus maybe just a few others — make the cut, but not many do. And after a lifetime of listening to music, there are still reams and reams that I have never heard. Josef Haydn wrote 68 string quartets; I've only heard a dozen or so, and know only a few well. Not to mention Domenico Scarlatti's 555 keyboard sonatas. Or Donizetti's alleged 70+ operas. I sense we “need” new music like we “need” a new breakfast cereal.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

In Praise of Handel

Currently, I am alternating reading a book by Jane Glover on “Handel in London” with listening to Handel's London operas (at the moment, it is Giulio Cesare with Marc Minkowski directing and Magdalena Kozena and Anne Sofie von Otter in the cast). Current fashion places Bach, Mozart and Beethoven on the triumvirate pedestal. Mozart and Beethoven (and probably Bach, also) had an extremely high regard for Handel, with good reason; Handel was an instinctive genius composer. His first London opera, Rinaldo (highest quality) was composed from scratch in two weeks, a few days after his arrival in England. It is next on my listening list. Top-class music poured out of Handel, as it poured out of Mozart and Schubert.

Unfortunately for us (and perhaps for his ultimate popularity) Handel wrote mainly just large vocal and choral works — around 42 operas, 120 cantatas, and 29 oratorios. Unlike Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, he wrote comparatively little in the way of significant instrumental or chamber music and he has no equivalent of Mozart's “Haydn” string quartets, or Bach's Goldberg Variations to ensure his continuing exposure in recital and concert halls. No great matter; in his chosen repertoire, he was king, and I shall never, ever grow tired of listening to Handel's music.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Sueye Park's recital

Fritz Kreisler was born in 1875 and for almost all of his long life he was a much-loved major violinist. His sound was highly individual, and when he played short pieces (or “encore pieces”) he played with simplicity, and from the heart. This endeared him to his listeners (and still does when one listens to his recordings from the earliest times until the early 1930s). No one played short pieces as entrancingly as Kreisler; not even Heifetz or Milstein. When Kreisler played something like his tambourin chinois, his heart took over and the head took a rest.

I recently greatly admired the young Korean violinist, Sueye Park when she played Paganini's 24 capricci, so I bought her new CD on which she plays 13 well-known and well-worn encore pieces. 12 of the 13 are pretty well standard fare, with just Edwin Grasse's Wellenspiel being less well-known. A pity Ms Park did not intersperse her selection with a few less heard items by the likes of Hubay, Vieuxtemps, Ysaÿe, Fibich, Drdla, Ries, et al. One can have just too many renditions of de Falla's Danse Espagnole.

Ms Park does include a work I really dislike: Heinrich Ernst's variations on the Last Rose of Summer (as I also dislike his Erlkönig arrangement). Virtuoso violin playing is one thing, but it should also remain musical. Playing a tune in double-stopped harmonics whilst plucking the accompaniment with the left earlobe might (for all I know) be possible; the result would be technically outstanding, but the musical value absolutely zero. Both Paganini and Ernst revelled in writing passages that involve long stretches of double-stopped harmonics, but the result, for the musical listener, is mere tedium, and “Bravo, the chimpanzee!” if the soloist succeeds in jumping the hurdle.

Ms Park is technically superb, and also a highly intelligent musician. She does, however, tend to play from the head rather than the heart, so the overall effect is very different from that left by Kreisler, for example. She also occasionally has a habit of emphasising the first beat in the bar, which distracts, for example, in her playing of Rachmaninov's Vocalise; where is simplicity in this lyrical piece? Viz also Dvorak / Kreisler's Songs my Mother Taught me. Ms Park is superb in virtuoso pieces, but a little less in her element where simple melodic playing is called for. Her rendition of Rachmaninov's Vocalise has nowhere near the singing simplicity of Heifetz, Milstein or Lisa Batiashvili.

All of which is a bit Beckmesser, since Ms Park does play superbly, and BIS does its usual exemplary job with recording and balance. I'll continue to look out for new recitals or recordings from Sueye Park. Maybe in 20 years time if she plays these pieces again, she can give her head a rest and throw away the music stand, and just play from the heart.