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.