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).