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.