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.