Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Voyages with Mary Bevan

As a lover of French mélodies, I invested in a new CD featuring the English soprano Mary Bevan, with Joseph Middleton at the piano. The CD, “Voyages” takes as its theme the longing to depart for distant and imagined lands. Ms Bevan has a lovely voice, and sings with welcome vivacity. Juxtaposing four German-language songs (Schubert) to the French compilation may make intellectual sense, but the inter-mingling of early nineteenth century German Lieder with late nineteenth century French mélodies sits somewhat uneasily on the musical logic. One can see the logic in a compilation of Voyages to hoped-for lands of connecting Goethe's texts to the Baudelaire texts of the French songs. But there is not too much musical logic.

French is a difficult language for the non-French, and on occasions Ms Bevan sounds more at home in the four German-language songs (Schubert) than in the fifteen French-language songs. Her German is clear, but her French can be a bit mumbled on occasions. French, however, is a difficult language for singers (even French singers); German and Italian are much more singer-friendly. I enjoyed making the acquaintance of Emmanuel Chabrier's setting of Baudelaire's L'invitation au voyage, with its unexpected obbligato bassoon added to the piano accompaniment. The Duparc setting is, of course, much more familiar. I also enjoyed the two songs by the 19th century Parisian cabaret poet, Maurice Rollinat; his setting of Le jet d'eau is quite haunting. Throughout the recital Joseph Middleton is his usual tower of strength. Good balance between voice and piano.

For the next few years, I think I probably have enough collections of French mélodies. I cannot even recall all the ones I have. Time to diverse into Haydn baryton trios, or Scarlatti sonatas, or whatever.

Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov is my kind of composer. And Boris Giltburg is my kind of pianist when it comes to playing Rachmaninov. I was very pleased to catch a broadcast (7th November 2017) of Giltburg playing Rachmaninov's third piano concerto. As expected, Giltburg is authoritative and with an entirely natural approach to Rachmaninov's music; no distracting mannerisms, no drawing attention to his superb technique (except, perhaps, in the first movement cadenza, where a bit of showing off is entirely legitimate). In this public concert the orchestra was the Liverpool Philharmonic, probably Britain's best “Russian” orchestra at the moment thanks to Vasily Petrenko (although the conductor on this occasion was Carlos Miguel Prieto). The off-air sound is entirely acceptable, with a realistic balance between piano and orchestra. When it comes to playing Rachmaninov or Shostakovich, it seems Boris Giltburg can do no wrong in my eyes.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Sergei Dogadin in Shostakovich. Antje Weithaas in Bach and Ysaÿe

Naxos keeps coming up with top-notch new violinists playing interesting music. The latest I've listened to sees Sergei Dogadin (violin) and Nikolai Tokarev (piano) playing Shostakovich; the sonata for violin and piano, and an arrangement of the 24 preludes opus 34. Most of the preludes were arranged by Dmitry Tsyganov, but the remainder are here arranged by Lera Auerbach. The late sonata (opus 134) is a difficult work to get to grips with, in common with many of Shostakovich's final works, including the second violin concerto. I listen to the sonata often, and am very gradually worming my way into it. Not music for listening to if one is suffering from depression, however. The opus 24 preludes work well in their violin and piano guise, and provide a kaleidoscopic view of Shostakovich's music, ranging from manic gaiety to gloomy forebodings. I enjoyed them immensely. Dogadin comes over as a top class violinist, with a superb range of dynamics. The recording of the violin comes over as somewhat metallic on the upper strings, though the balance is good. Another excellent Naxos addition to my Naxos violin shelf.

I quoted recently from a review concerning Antje Weithaas's violin. Intrigued by a violinist whose name I knew but whose playing I had never heard, I bought her latest CD — volume 3 of her traversal of the solo violin works of J.S. Bach and Eugène Ysaÿe. Half way through listening to volume 3, I went over to my computer and ordered volumes 1 and 2. What impressed me? Her playing makes the works so interesting; nothing is routine, dynamics are varied, everything sounds so fresh and inevitable. And she can certainly play the violin, witness the difficult fugue of the third Bach solo violin sonata, or the jaw-dropping speed with which she plays the double of the courante in the Bach first partita. Her playing in both Bach and Ysaÿe made me think of the playing of Alina Ibragimova, who also holds ones attention by constant variation of dynamics and colour. In my youth, these Bach works usually came over as mezzo-forte from players such as Yehudi Menuhin (on record) or Alfredo Campoli (at a concert). The sounds produced by Weithaas (and also by Ibragimova) are worlds away from that somewhat monochrome universe. This Weithaas CD (from Cavi-music) reconfirms the fact that it is not necessarily the big names and the big brands that produce the best results. I really look forward to receiving my two missing Weithaas volumes of Bach and Ysaÿe; it's a long time since I listened so intently to this familiar music. This volume 3 has Ysaÿe's fourth and sixth sonatas; of the Ysaÿe, I particularly like the first, second and fourth sonatas, so interesting times are coming.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Violins and Investors

Find a detail in a landscape by Auguste Renoir that could not have been there before 1919 (when he died) and the selling price potential of the picture immediately plummets from $3 million to $70. The price of paintings by famous artists is a reflection of financial and investment portfolios, not of the aesthetics of the painting. People buy famous pictures for their investment value, and then lock them away in cellars where no one can see them. In the twentieth century, old violins followed paintings into investors' lairs, with violins by Antonio Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesù selling for millions of dollars and ending up in the same cellars as Renoir's paintings. As with the aesthetics of paintings, the sound of the violin often had little to do with the potential sale price. A few months ago, commenting on a recording by Nazrin Rashidova, I remarked that “I imagined Ms Rashidova was playing on some ancient, multi-million dollar Italian violin. But it transpires that her violin is one made by David Rattray, London, in 2009”.

So I was particularly pleased at a reviewer in the Gramophone magazine, reviewing a Bach recording by the German violinist Antje Weithaas, commenting that: “Equally key to her sound, though, is that she's playing on a modern set-up: chin rest, metal strings and even a 2001 instrument from Stefan-Peter Greiner, the German luthier also behind Christian Tetzlaff's magnificent violin; and it must be said that if you ever needed proof that 18th-century Cremona is not a prerequisite for tonal riches, individuality and power, then Weithaas's Greiner does that job very nicely. In its lower reaches it's soft, cloaked and dark, with an ear-pricking modern edge; then, while duskiness also forms part of its top register's tonal armoury, so does a firm, powerful singing platinum tone which Weithaas employs to great effect.”

As regular readers will know, I am no fan of “original instruments” (unless they are good instruments, well played). What does the violin sound like? How well is it played? I have no problem with “investors” playing with Bitcoins or expensive Swiss watches, but I do wish they would leave paintings and violins to those who want to look at them, play them, or listen to them.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

La Mer

Inspired by my roughest crossing of the Channel between England and France in 64 years the other day, I dug out a recording of Debussy's La Mer (written in Eastbourne on the English coast, of all unlikely places). After some humming and hawing, I settled on a 1976 recording (Philips) by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. A lucky choice; at the time, the Philips recording team, the orchestra, and Haitinik were all at a high point in their careers.

There are superb conductors with low profiles (or small PR lobbies): Bernard Haitink, Günter Wand, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Kirill Petrenko ... There are well-known conductors with high profiles and powerful PR lobbies: Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Gustavo Dudamel, Daniel Barenboim …. Fame and talent do not necessarily coincide. In this La Mer, as in so much else, Haitink strikes one as just the right person. He probably has spent little or nothing on PR. But his music making always speaks for itself.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Sabine Devieilhe

Back in July, I was surprised to enjoy a CD of Véronique Gens singing arias from nineteenth century French operas. Apart from Carmen — said to be the world's most frequently performed opera — French opera gets few headlines, probably understandably so. It does, however, feature some highly attractive individual arias, as re-confirmed by a new CD "Mirages" from the superb French coloratura soprano, Sabine Devieilhe with her fresh, young soprano voice. Léo Delibes provides three of the arias (from his opera Lakmé) with others coming from André Messager, Debussy, Massenet and a few others – including Igor Stravinsky (Le Rossignol). The opera arias (19th and early 20th centuries) are interspersed with some songs with piano accompaniment (Koechlin, Debussy, Berlioz). In a couple of the pieces Devieilhe is augmented by Marianne Crebassa (mezzo) and Jodie Devos (soprano). The efficient little orchestra is conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Altogether a three-star CD of music, singing, playing, and recording. Sabine Devieilhe was already high in my esteem; with this CD she shoots even higher. A disc to keep in my “do not file away, yet” rack, and a lovely musical ending to 2017. Off now to France to eat oysters.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Sigiswald Kuijken's Bach Cantatas

I have 38 recordings of different cantatas by J.S. Bach directed by Sigiswald Kuijken and his Petite Bande. I am in the process of listening to them all. I also have major sets directed by Philippe Herreweghe, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki, plus sundry others. For the moment, it is Sigiswald, and his Belgian Bachists; others will follow in 2018.

Kuijken is “Bach-lite”, so you don't get a chorus, just the four soloists singing together. Which may have been what Bach expected, even though when he wrote the music he probably heard in his head a heavenly choir singing. “That is in my head”, Bach would have muttered. “Tomorrow morning it will be the same sorry crew singing.” In the chorus movements, I miss the chorus. In the chorales, the four soloists are acceptable. While it is true that recording technology can boost the sound of four voices, the choruses still sound weak, more madrigal than chorus. In the context of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, four voices would have sounded very weedy.

Bach's music varies from “cantate du jour”, to remarkable music. The (many) remarkable cantatas possibly reflect the arrival of important visitors, or the boss's family, where Johann Sebastian needed to make a special effort, even above his exalted normal; BWV 144 is a case in point (Nimm, was dein ist). Kuijken's soloist line-up (typically Siri Thornhill, Petra Noskaiova, Christoph Genz, Jan van der Crabben, with many variations over the years) is variable, with some noticeably weak tenors on occasions. The alto, Petra Noskaiova, (female, thank heavens) seems to have been a favourite of Kuijken, and features often. The tenor, Christoph Genz, features in 21 of the cantatas; he was obviously more to Kuijken's taste than he is to mine.

The big advantage of the Kuijken performances is the clarity of texture (very important in Bach), the expertise of the orchestra, and the fine balance of the recordings. Plus Kuijken's feelings for Bach, and for Bach's rhythm, and tempo. None of that PDQ Bach here. I can never remember having to mutter “speed it up a bit” or “slow down!” when listening to these particular 38 cantata recordings which continue to give me a great deal of pleasure, despite the occasional weak soloist, and the lack of body in the choral movements. I have 30 Bach cantatas directed by Masaaki Suzuki with, as I recall, a small choir and a band of soloists who are usually superior to Kuijken's. Suzuki is probably now a project for 2018.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Magnificent Ten for 2017

2017 has been a good year for up-and-coming and new on the horizon artists (newish on my horizon, at least). I've picked ten artists for my vintage 2017, eschewing the old favourites such as Klemperer, Furtwängler, Kreisler, Heifetz, etc. where it goes without saying. As usual, order is random, since picking “1st” and “10th” in such a varied list is meaningless.

Nazrin Rashidova impressed me greatly for her violin playing in seven études-caprices of Emile Sauret. She also shows a healthy desire to escape the standard, rubber-stamped repertoire, with recordings devoted to the music of Moritz Moszkowski, and Leopold Godowsky, as well as the Sauret.

Vasily Petrenko is becoming a really first-rate conductor in his chosen repertoire. Following on from his remarkable Shostakovich symphonies came the two symphonies of Edward Elgar, superbly conducted, and played by the Liverpool Philharmonic.

Carolyn Sampson is hardly up-and-coming, but she produced a first-rate CD of songs to poems by Paul Verlaine, as well as a CD of Bach cantatas for soprano. Both three stars.

Beatrice Rana shot into my little world with her performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations. She has played other things — extremely well — but it is her Goldbergs that shoot her to fame in my eyes.

Boris Giltburg was a pretty new name for me. His Rachmaninov and Shostakovich recordings went straight to the top of the pile (though I responded less enthusiastically to his Beethoven).

Arabella Steinbacher is hardly up-and-coming, but she added to her attractive list of recordings with a first-class performance of the violin concerto of Benjamin Britten, highly competitive in what is now a somewhat crowded field of recordings of this work.

The Tetzlaff Quartett released a performance of Schubert's last string quartet that was truly remarkable. The CD also contains a superb Haydn quartet (Opus 20 No.3).

Arcadi Volodos released a CD of Brahms solo piano music that enthralled even me, normally no fan of Brahms' piano music.

Khatia Buniatishvili wowed me with my favourite performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. She can be a variable performer, but here she sounds completely in her element.

Maria João Pires is hardly up-and-coming; she was born 23rd July 1944, exactly three years after me. But the performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert played by her that I listened to throughout the year mean she has to have a place in this subjective list of remarkable artists for 2017.

Record company of the year has to be Naxos for its stream of remarkable violinists, year after year.

Monday, 11 December 2017

In Praise of Arthur Grumiaux

A friend who recently visited Japan bought a few CDs of recordings by Arthur Grumiaux, and sent me copies. Readers of this blog will know of my high opinion of Grumiaux (if they do not, there is a search box on the top left-hand corner of the blog page). Grumiaux and Adolf Busch were the two great string players in chamber music during the twentieth century, and both knew how to surround themselves with suitable partners of the same standard. Grumiaux's suave, elegant playing so representative of the Franco-Belgian school, has survived the decades, and hearing him play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert plus the French and Belgian classics is still a wonderful experience. (Of course, Grumiaux also played anything and everything – even the Berg concerto in 1967 – but it is in the classics, the French school, and in chamber music that his true greatness as a violinist is revealed). My good friend sent me Grumiaux playing Vivaldi concertos, Beethoven string trios, and Schubert violin and piano sonatas; a rare feast. Another feast comes in the Beethoven string trios and Schubert works in so far as recording quality is concerned. Nearly fifty years ago, Philips knew how to make excellent recordings with a perfect balance between instruments … and was also able to transfer the analogue recordings to digital media without the glassy sheen that afflicts so many transfers.

As a side note: why is it that the Japanese almost alone have always kept on sale recordings of great violinists of the past? The three Grumiaux CDs that my friend sent are not available here. Years ago, when I wanted a 10-CD set of the recordings of Gioconda de Vito, I had to get them from … Tokyo. And when I wanted a set of the Léner Quartet's complete Beethoven quartets, I had to get them from … Tokyo. I have many, many recordings of music played by Arthur Grumiaux. I will retain them until the day I die.

Keep-at-Hand Recordings

Picking a book from shelves of books is relatively easy. Picking a CD from shelves of CDs is not easy, particularly with slim-line CDRs like many of my recordings. I can (almost) always find a given recording, since my CD collection is organised. But serendipity is a tall order and very many recordings that I shelve are never thought of again, through no fault of theirs. Which is one reason why I keep a small toast-type rack near my CD player with 15 CDs that I can turn to when I want to listen to something congenial. For anyone interested, as 2017 nears its end, here are the current contents of the rack, in random order:

Emile Sauret — Caprices Op 64 Nos.1-7. Nazrin Rashidova.
J.S. Bach — Goldberg Variations. Beatrice Rana.
Chopin — Complete Etudes. Zlata Chochieva.
Rachmaninov — Etudes-tableaux Op 39, plus second piano concerto. Boris Giltburg.
A Verlaine Songbook — Carolyn Sampson.
Saint-Saëns — Works for violin & orchestra. Tianwa Yang.
Shostakovich — Piano Quintet, plus String Quartet No.8. Talich Quartet.
Mozart & Beethoven — violin & piano sonatas. Ji Young Lim.
J.S. Bach — Cantatas for soprano. Carolyn Sampson.
Julius Röntgen — Music for violin & piano. Atsuko Sahara.
Beethoven & Mozart — Grumiaux Trio.
Beethoven — String Trios Op 9. Grumiaux Trio.
Heinrich Ernst — The Virtuoso Violin. Thomas Christian.
Prokofiev — Violin & piano works. Lisa Oshima.
Paganini — 24 Capricci. Sueye Park.

And that is my line-up of the 15 keep-at-hand recordings for 2017. Interestingly, no orchestral music (apart from the orchestra in the second Rachmaninov concerto, and in the Saint-Saëns pieces). Why not this, and why not that? My rack only holds 15 discs.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Marianne Crebassa

I have always loved Maurice Ravel's Shéhérazade and was intrigued to see it included in a new CD recital by the French mezzo, Marianne Crebassa since here it is with a piano, and not the usual subtle orchestra. Does it work? Yes, for me it was a surprising success, helped by the piano accompaniment of Fazil Say. For the second song, la flûte enchantée, a flute is added to the piano; it works well. Ms Crebassa has a most attractive creamy voice; I have always been attracted to French mélodies, and this new CD is right on target although I have never managed to enjoy Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis. And I have never met Gabriel Fauré's four Mirages, though I cannot say I am too surprised at their lack of popularity. The first song, cygne sur l'eau, seems to have some affinities with rap music. Perhaps Mirages is an acquired taste. The three mélodies by Debussy here are more enjoyable, and Henri Duparc, with four mélodies, is always first class.

I cannot remember hearing Ravel's Vocalise en forme de habenera sung (as it should be). It has only appeared (often) in my life in its arrangement for violin and piano, of which I have 29 examples on my shelves. Ms Crebassa sings it well, and Fazil Say's piano is exemplary thoughout this CD. The stars of this CD are, somewhat predictably: Henri Duparc, Maurice Ravel, Marianne Crebassa, Fazil Say, and Erato.


Quoted with approval from the ARG (American Record Guide):

We get a lot of publicity touting the "greatest" — violinist, pianist, whatever. In the age of mass culture "greatest" simply means "most famous", which in turn means "has the biggest publicity budget". And that means he attracts crowds of people who don't know any better, so he plays with every orchestra that can afford him (his fees climb very fast, so many cannot), which feeds his reputation, thus confirming his publicity. Often less famous people play better, but are viewed as "second tier".

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Messiah Cometh -- Yet Again

Listen to ten different performances of a symphony of Brahms and you will hear the same notes, in the same order. Tempi may vary. Dynamics may vary. But you will always be listening to the same work. In my distant youth, Handel's Messiah was a stack of fragile 78 rpm records (played by me on a wind-up gramophone). Main singers in my 78 pile were Isobel Baillie (soprano), and Gladys Ripley (contralto); conductor was Malcolm Sargent. Writing this, I am listening to my latest Messiah, with a mainly French ensemble directed by Hervé Niquet; soprano 1 is Sandrine Piau (hurrah!); soprano 2 is Katherine Watson; contralto is Anthea Pichanick; tenor is Rubert Charlesworth; bass-baritone is Andreas Wolf. All are extremely good (and not a castrato amongst them). I am often doubtful about tenors, but I make an exception for Rupert Charlesworth here; an excellent singer, with superb diction.

And what of language? English people tend to bristle when non-English singers tackle English words (but nod approvingly when English speakers sing in German, French or Italian). English disapproval also extends to American accents, even though in the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, American pronunciation is probably more “authentic”. But American accents bring memories of Popeye, Donald Trump, and the Lone Ranger; not a good thing to conjure up when listening to Handel or Purcell. Apart from a number of non-english “R”s, nothing ruffled me with the English language in this recording. The English “R” is certainly not an Italian R, nor a German R, nor a French R. It is some sort of Brexit R. (Not even the Thai “R”; a very fine hotel, the Royal River, in Bangkok came over when referred to by the locals as the Loyal Liver).

Compared with Gladys Ripley, Isobel Baillie and Malcolm Sargent in my youth, tempi are now swift. I was constantly reminded that Handel's feet and pedigree were anchored firmly in Italian opera and in the trios and duets that he wrote in Italy in his youth (some of which found their ways, many years later, re-cycled into the Messiah). Pitch is baroque pitch, which means the singers do not invoke tension when they are obliged to sing above the stave. Handel was careful about the range of his singers (one reason why there are so many versions of his works, including the Messiah, where Handel re-wrote and adapted to the raw singer material with which he was faced). The choir here is a reasonable size, as it should be for Handel; Handel would have had no truck with people like Joshua Rifkin and their minimalist econo-forces.

My father (a double bass player) always maintained that Handel wrote his Messiah in order to give musicians many money-earning concert opportunities around the Christmas period. He was probably wrong: Handel wrote music in order to make money for himself. He was the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of the early 18th century (albeit that Handel's music will last a lot longer than that of his English rival some 275 years later). Handel died a rich man, despite having rarely having a patron or salaried employment. He is often passed over as a “great” composer, even though Mozart and Beethoven fully appreciated his genius. Anyway, in 200 years time, I predict that Handel's music, including his Messiah, will still be delighting lovers of great music. And this latest offering, from Hervé Niquet and his forces? I love it! Some things in (musical) life do get better and better, and Handel's music, in particular, has benefited enormously from greater understanding and appreciation. Anyone who loves Handel anchored in Italian opera, rather than in the Church of England, will enjoy this recording with its excellent singers, superb choir, professional orchestra, and very expert recording and balance. Perhaps, somewhat arrogantly, I can suggest that we now know Handel a lot better compared with immediate previous generations. He is not just the composer of the Messiah, of the Water Music, and of the Fireworks music. He was a prolific composer, like his contemporaries Johann Sebastian Bach, and Antonio Vivaldi. He was one of the truly great composers of the Western World.

In Praise of Seventeen Year Old Girls

Of the many blessings that I can count, one is that I have never aspired to be a concert violinist in the modern world. It would have been bad for my amour propre, bad for my mental health, and disastrous for my personal finances. The competition out there is ferocious! I have just been listening (courtesy of YouTube) to 16 year old Lara Boschkor playing the first Wieniawski violin concerto, and the 17 year old Lara Boschkor playing Prokofiev's first violin concerto. Miss Boschkor appears — quite understandably — to have won every competition around since she was 10 years old. I can't compete with that. I give her Wieniawski and her Prokofiev three stars each. Most teenage wonders soon fade away. I hope she does not.

I commented recently on Vilde Frang and her highly distinguished CD of “hommage” to pieces composed by, or arranged by, great violinists of the past. Ms Frang is now 31 years old, so hardly an up-and-coming young violinist. But she is certainly a force to be reckoned with (forgetting her unfortunate Mozart concerto CD with a band of costumed historical has-beens).

Even when I was young, I never even dared open the music to Paganini's 24 Capricci. But, then, I was never a 17 year old girl. Sueye Park, on a new BIS CD, is (just) 17 and plays the capricci extremely effectively. Technically, she is beyond reproach, and the accuracy of her double stops is quite outstanding. However, the capricci have lasted around 200 years because they are more than simply technical show-off pieces. Somewhat like 13 year old Tianwa Yang, many years ago, Ms Park also brings out the many sentimental and lyrical aspects of the 24 works (one reason why her CD lasts for an astonishing 82'41). For many violinists, the capricci are macho works, designed for showing off technique. Ms Park gives every single note its due; a difficult feat in technically challenging works, where it is often easier to flash through the difficulties at speed rather than to spell them out and play them accurately. As I am sure Paganini intended, the 24 capricci exhibit the full range and capabilities of the violin; listening to Sueye Park, I feel she has really thought through each capriccio and gives each its full measure as music, and as a technical example of what one violin with four strings and one bow can achieve. The older generation of violinists — Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Oistrakh, Kogan — never tackled the unaccompanied caprices on record, and it was left to violinists such as Ruggiero Ricci (1949) to open up the repertoire. Since then, I have much enjoyed Michael Rabin (1958), James Ehnes (2009), Leonidas Kavakos (1990) and Thomas Zehetmair (2007).

Beyond showing off a violinist's incredible technique, the 24 capricci are also about showing off the incredible range and variety of voices of the humble violin, and I suspect it is this latter aspect that would have had Signor Paganini nodding his head in approval had he been able to listen to Sueye Park. It certainly has my head nodding in approval. I listened to all 24 caprices one after another, a difficult feat unless the violinist — like here — has a broad range of colour and dynamics. In the end, a performance of Paganini's 24 capricci comes down to either: listen to what a wonderful violinist I am, or listen also to what a wonderful instrument the violin is. Three stars to Miss Park. And to Signor Paganini. And to BIS.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Furtwängler in Beethoven and Schumann

Of the symphonies of Beethoven, I now really only enjoy the third, sixth and seventh. And anyone who has the Eroica conducted by either Furtwängler or Klemperer, needs no other. The two conductors are chalk and cheese in this music, with Furtwängler sounding warm and romantic, Klemperer stark and brooding (especially in the funeral march). I have just been listening to a new original tape transfer of Furtwängler conducting the Eroica in Lucerne (26 August 1953); it's a superb version, with a very reasonable sound quality and wonderful orchestral playing.

The CD also contains Schumann; the Manfred Overture, and the fourth symphony. I can enjoy Schumann as a song writer, and also in quieter music (such as the second movement of the fourth symphony). But most Schumann, particularly when he is rumbustious, passes me by. However, I suspect one would find it difficult to hear better versions of these works than the performances on this Audite CD. All three works are from tapes of public performances, and Audite gives the recent ICA Klemperer transfers of London public performances 1955 and 1956 an object lesson in how to transfer broadcast tapes. None of the periods of coughing and spluttering that so marred the ICA recordings; with Audite, just the very occasional cough and end-of-work applause remind one that these are live, public performances. Why some companies insist on keeping applause puzzles me; are there really people who sit and listen to applause every time they hear that particular recording? Or, even worse, people at home who join in the applause each time?

So now, whenever I want to re-listen to Beethoven's Eroica symphony, I have choices to make: Furtwängler in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic -- more forceful and in reasonable sound (with Pristine Audio). Or Furtwängler in 1953 with, presumably, the Berlin Philharmonic -- more mellow and thoughtful (Audite). Or one of my seven Klemperer versions; perhaps the 1955 (mono) Philharmonia, or the 26th June 1957 version with the Royal Danish Orchestra. Choices, choices. But it's nice to have options.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Klemperer at his best. But ....

A CD release from ICA (International Concert Artists) sees four CDs of London concerts by Otto Klemperer in 1955 and 1956. So far I have just sampled the Mozart pieces; the performances are pretty outstanding. At that time, Klemperer was fleet of foot, and the Philharmonia at its peak. The sound quality is not bad at all, taken from the original BBC broadcast tapes.

But …. and it's a big but. The transfers are just a straight tape dump, despite Paul Bailey being listed as “Remastering”. So you get audience noise and coughing even between movements; you get applause; you get a constant hum of concert hall reverberation and audience noise. Professional transfer artists such as Andrew Rose, Seth Winner or Mark Obert-Thorn have shown what can be done with removing background noise from old 78s or LPs, and I cannot believe it would not have been possible to remove much of it here. And as for leaving hall noise and coughing between movements …. The recordings are now way out of international copyright, despite the optimistic copyright notices plastered all over this set. Let us hope some real transfer artists take them over and convert very good concert hall performances into very good recorded performances. Mr Bailey should be hanging his head in shame. I may have to spend a lot of time re-transferring and cleaning up these recordings myself, since the performances are well worth having the best and merit a little tender loving care.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Gerhard Taschner - Part Two

A double CD pack from the French company Tahra brings us Taschner recordings from the period 1943-7, mostly in good sound and well transferred, although the Brahms sonata sounds a bit rough, with edgy violin tone in places. The recording of the Bach Chaconne made 23rd June 1943 in Berlin must have come from tape (radio broadcast) since there is no surface noise. A big sonic improvement over the 1941 version that was transferred from shellac disks. For my money, this is the best Bach chaconne in my entire collection. Three stars, no question; it was the piece that brought Taschner instant fame when he played it for Furtwängler in 1941. The Devil's Trills (27th March 1949) is up there in the top three or four, with superb trilling from Taschner. The 1943 Chaconne, along with the 1943 Zigeunerweisen, were among tapes captured by the Russians in 1945, and restored to Germany in March 1991. A little side-track of history.

Zigeunerweisen (Berlin, 4th December 1943) is as thrilling as ever with Taschner, but the vibrato in the slower passage still grates a little. Never mind; the left-hand pizzicato is still crisp and accurate. On 10th March 1947 in Berlin, Taschner and Walter Gieseking give a superb performance of César Franck's sonata; one of my three star choices. Taschner and Gieseking may be what the Americans, with their genius for marketing slogans, call a “dream team”. Anyway, the dream team goes on to play Brahms' third violin sonata (same date, and presumably same broadcast session, but sounding as if it comes from a different transfer source). The double CD pack ends with Taschner tackling Khatchaturian's violin concerto, with the Berlin Radio Orchestra conducted by Artur Rother. This is valuable for Taschner's remarkable violin playing, especially in the finale where the bow control is amazing. The slow movement lacks the intensity that Julian Sitkovetsky brought to the part (with Niyazi conducting), and the sound in general is not great; Khatchaturian needs colour, and the sound levels in this transfer (as maybe on the original tape) vary from time to time, with the violin sometimes close, sometimes too distant. Since the concerto was only completed in 1940, this 1947 performance must have been one of the first outside Russia.

For much of Taschner's earlier professional life in the 1930s and early 40s, performances of the Mendelssohn concerto would have been impossible. His 1953 performance with Fritz Lehmann has a freshness and a welcome absence of sentimentality. Tempi are brisk, technique and musicianship immaculate, and I liked it a lot. I thought I could never take even one more recording of this concerto, but I make an exception for Taschner's performance here. In the andante, taken as a true andante and not as an adagietto as so often, one notices that time and fashion have tamed Taschner's previously somewhat nervous vibrato. In the andante and finale, Taschner's timings at 7'41 and 6'09 are similar to those of Heifetz (7'07 and 5'57), though Heifetz is much faster than anybody in the first movement (11'00, versus 12'30 for Taschner). The Drabinghaus & Grimm transfer from the broadcast tapes gives a perfectly tolerable sound.

The sound in the Mendelssohn has Taschner balanced a little too far back, which is a shame since we buy these old recordings to listen to the violinist, not the orchestra – or even the concerto. In the Tchaikovsky concerto with Artur Rother conducting (1948) the violinist is balanced well forward, and we can admire the superb playing. For a 1948 live recording, the sound quality is astonishingly good. This MDG disc rounds off with an excellent transfer of Taschner's party piece, the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen recorded in 1943 with Michael Raucheisen at the piano. Incredible playing, but the vibrato of the 1940s still grates a little.

The Sibelius concerto dates from 1956 and the close up violin enables us to admire Taschner's peerless technique. The occasional minor fluff reminds us that pretty well all Taschner recordings are live and taken from broadcast tapes; no patching possible. Given the intensity of Taschner's playing, and his penchant for speedy tempi, it's a wonder there are not more fluffs. Taschner never plays it safe. The performance as a whole is one for lovers of violin playing, but is best avoided by lovers of the Sibelius violin concerto; there are too many odd changes of tempo in the first movement, and the orchestra (Cologne Radio Orchestra) often sounds all at sea. In the adagio di molto, we admire Taschner's ability to sustain a long melodic line, and we also notice that the nervous vibrato of 10-15 years before has now more or less vanished. In the finale, we admire the violinist's virtuosity and intensity; and no one plays fast passages faster than Gerhard Taschner !

This MDG disc continues with a second recording of the Khachaturian violin concerto (1955, with Schmidt-Isserstedt conducting the NDR orchestra). In the finale, we admire Taschner's superb sense of rhythm; in the andante sostenuto, his sense of the long line in the melody is superb. One feels Taschner is more at home in Khachaturian than in the concertos of Mozart (I know of no recording of Taschner playing anything by Mozart). All in all, however, I feel this performance lacks much of Taschner's much admired intensity, and parts of the work are a little too laid back for my liking. But perhaps, again, I am still bewitched by the performance by Julian Sitkovetsky, with Niyazi. This MDG CD ends with another Taschner party piece, Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy (1953, Fritz Lehmann and the Bamberger Symphoniker). Music that suits Taschner's virtuosity, sense of rhythm and sheer élan down to the ground.

Well, there are a few other Taschner recordings around: an EMI disc has the Bruch concerto, plus assorted concertos by Fortner, Pfizner and a Kammermusik by Hindemith. A Tahra CD has a few bits and pieces with piano not available elsewhere. But neither Tahra nor EMI exist any longer, so anyone wishing to investigate the recorded legacy of Gerhard Taschner has to seek out the CDs of Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG). Without MDG, Taschner would now be almost completely unknown. Thus the fickle nature of fame: it does not suffice to be a major virtuoso with an exceptional sense of musicality, of rhythm, and with fire and intensity. Without a good agent, an aggressive PR man and a solid home-team backing group, a name will fade into the history books. There are no violinists around today of the stature of Gerhard Taschner. All aspiring violinists would do well to listen to his recordings, alongside the recordings of Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. I am extremely happy to have my little Taschner collection.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tianwa Yang / Vilde Frang

Concert and recital programmes are becoming stupefyingly boring, with the same few works re-cycled over and over again, unless it be some contemporary piece, to be played once only and never again, and sandwiched carefully mid-programme to discourage non-fans from arriving late, or leaving early. Two recent CDs to tumble through my door reveal how recorded music is saving the day for the thousands of musical works rarely or never played in public. One new CD features seven shorter pieces for violin and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, with only the Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo capriccioso being at all familiar. And even those two pieces rarely show up in concert programmes today. Which is a great pity, since all the music here is attractive and pleasing to the ear. Expert performer is the highly talented Tianwa Yang, with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. I suspect people in Havana are more laid back than Ms Yang supposes, and her Havanaise goes by at a brisk trot. Still, delightful music, well played and well recorded. A CD from St Naxos, of course; what would lovers of violin music do without Naxos?

The other CD was a most enjoyable recital of 17 short pieces for violin and piano, played by Vilde Frang, with pianist José Gallardo. You won't find these pieces played in recital programmes, except as encores, more's the pity; the choice is excellent, based on hommage to great violinists of the past as composers or arrangers. Thus, Heifetz, Kreisler, Wieniawski, Auer, Szigeti, Bazzini, et al. I was especially happy to re-encounter Szigeti's arrangement of an étude by Scriabin (étude in thirds). The playing is of the very best, the recording and balance just as they should be. Being a Warner product, the CD is liberally plastered with photos of young Ms Frang, of course. Naxos, quite rightly, gives us just one small black and white photo of Tianwa Yang, on the understandable grounds that we are buying the music of Saint-Saëns, not the performance of a young female.

I now rarely go to live concerts or recitals, more a question of geography and logistics rather than anything else. But looking at present day concert programmes, I guess I'd probably stick to recorded music even if I lived next door to a concert hall, since recorded music has such riches in terms of repertoire offered. Like the two CDs here.