Friday, 31 December 2004

For New Year's Eve this year, it was Elgar rather than Bach. I wanted to hear the violin concerto. Interestingly, my choice went to Isabelle van Keulen out of the 11 versions I have. A few wobbly bits in the finale, but she plays with passion and eloquence and is very well supported by the Hallé Orchestra under Mark Elder. (Off-air of a January 2004 concert).

Greatly enjoyed a 2-CD Vadim Repin concert (Tokyo, October 2004) courtesy of Akiko. Serious programme based on the Franck sonata and Schubert's D 934 Fantasy. Double secret of success? Repin's playing, plus the duo partnership with Nikolai Lugansky. Duos are best when they feature equals (like Repin and Berezovsky, or Repin and Lugansky). I have not warmed to Repin in duos with Argerich, nor with "Bash'em" Itmar Golan.
Also on the CD are Arvo Pärt's Fratres (good) and Schoenberg's Op 48 Fantasy (as awful as ever). The enticing encores are two Tchaikovsky pieces, plus Bartok's Roumanian Dances, and Paganini's Carnival in Venice. Civilised listening at the highest level. Quite restores one's faith in violin & piano duos.

Monday, 20 December 2004

Recorded off-air Vadim Repin and Martha Argerich playing the Beethoven Kreutzer sonata (from the 2004 Verbier Festival). I'm certainly glad Ms Argerich doesn't want to accompany me; she is pretty dominant. One of those performances of which it is said: "sparks were struck". It is certainly a performance full of life and fire. In some ways, it might be termed hectoring. But this is as much Beethoven's fault as that of Martha Argerich. This performance reminded me that there are many violin & pianos sonatas that I prefer to the Kreutzer.

Sunday, 19 December 2004

A really excellent new CD features the young German violinist Julia Fischer. She fits well into the all-star team of extraordinary young female violinists and, like Janine Jansen and Elisabeth Batiashvili, is thorougly musical and "serious". This, her first CD, has an excellent Khachaturian violin concerto, the Glazunov concerto, and the first Prokofiev concerto. Adding to the pleasure is the all-Russsian back-up of Yakov Kreizberg and the Russian National Orchestra. Recording is excellent, though the violin balance a little too natural for my taste; with these concertos we are, alas, used to a more forward balance for the soloist. But Julia Fischer is yet another young violinist to watch.

A new release (December 2002 recording) of Schubert's Trout Quintet also makes one wonder whether, in recorded classical performances, the "good old days" were always that good. This new Trout, with an all-French line-up of the Capuçon brother, Gérard Caussé. Frank Braley and Alois Posch, sparkles and dances and underlines the fact that this was a young man's music written for an informal social occasion. Difficult to think of a Trout I'd rather put on. And the recording (Virgin) is really first-rate.

Monday, 13 December 2004

To Portsmouth on 9 December to hear Elisabeth Batiashvili play the Brahms violin concerto.Only, it transires, it wasn't Batiashvili (again) but a substitute young woman of exceptional talent, but with an inferior violin; she appeared to be playing on a violin that did not respond to pressure -- forte on the E and A strings came over as being harsh. But you could have heard a pin drop during the cadenza; she really made the audience concentrate on what was being played. Her name: Antje Weithaas. Good, but not Batiashvili.

The orchestra plainly did not like the conductor, Rolf Gupta (Norway). Conducting without a baton, his arms became two flippers that twitched up and down, which plainly left the exposed, high, pianissimo violins at the start of the Prelude to Lohengrin, all at sea. From grim faces all round, it seemed as if hard words had been exchanged during the interval; the conductor came on late for the second half (Schumann second symphony) and the orchestra only managed a slight smile when he tripped and nearly fell at the end of the concert. I doubt we'll be seeing him again with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Wednesday, 24 November 2004

Thanks to buying a new biography of him, I am re-discovering Christian Ferras. One of the advantages of having a back-collection of recordings ! I have listened with very great enjoyment to his playing of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (with Silvestri) and of the Lekeu sonata (with Pierre Barbizet). There is a luminosity about Ferras's playing, and the sound has an incredible inner life. Like Heifetz (whom he does not resemble) Ferras's sound is never monotone but is replete with a myriad of colours and nuances. In inner intensity, his playing often brings to mind George Enescu. I have a little pile of Ferras CDs all ready for a re-listen, and greatly look forward to it. A bit of a mystery why, outside France and a few violin afficionados, Ferras is mainly either forgotten or unknown. A superb violinist and musician.

Tuesday, 2 November 2004

New CD from Akiko Suwanai; she does not disappoint. Eight pieces: Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Ravel, Lalo and Chausson, with two Kreisler pieces. Philharmonia conducted by Dutoit. Ms Suwanai makes you think of Nathan Milstein; suave, alert, intelligent and never living off the (superb) sound of her Strad violin, but concentrating on the music, and the playing. Each of the eight pieces is among the "best in class". Perhaps only the Tzigane disappoints slightly by sounding as if Akiko has never met a real gypsy in her life. But it's a mild criticism amidst 75 minutes of exemplary and cultivated violin playing. In Saint-Saens one thinks of Heifetz. In Chausson, Enescu. In Kreisler and Ravel, Milstein. Praise indeed.

Sunday, 31 October 2004

I seem to have mastered the art of preparing and cooking baby squid. Delicious! And my twelve bottles of pinot noir d' Alsace (Majestic, Cirencester) turn out to be excellent. The gastronomic front looks good. Listened to Grigori Feyghin playing the Myaskovsky violin concerto. This really is a worth edition to the long list of 20th century violin concertos. Feyghin plays brilliantly, à la Oistrakh. Not much individuality, but plenty of technique and a good sound. Also, obviously, thoroughly in tune with the music. Perhaps the new generation will take up Myaskovsky (as has Repin) along with the violin concertos of Britten, Dvorak and others.

Tuesday, 26 October 2004

A really marvellous performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto from Janine Jansen (recorded off-air). She really is my kind of violinist! Enthusiastic, musical, and no-holds-barred. She doesn't draw attention to her lovely violin, nor to her beautiful sound but just gets on and plays like the devil. A superb performance. Only drawback is the sing-along baritone (presumably Richard Hickox, the conductor) who really does detract from Jansen's performance. Shoot him !
However, Janine Jansen certainly joins Elisabeth Batiashvili and Akiko Suwanai on my young female violinist rostrum. A major talent.

Friday, 8 October 2004

On a second hearing, I was much impressed with the début CD of Jack Liebeck (with Katya Apekisheva on the piano). One of an interesting new generation of performers. On the CD he plays the second Prokofiev sonata, Chausson's Poème (impressive and not plagued by slow playing), Saint-Saën's first sonata, and Ysaÿe's third unaccompanied sonata. A most enjoyable recital. As I have said before: violin playing seems to be in safe hands. And Liebeck, thank goodness, does not endulge in the constant "fat", rich tone that so many violinists of the Russian-American-Israeli school appear to think is de rigeur.

Monday, 4 October 2004

Very much enjoyed the violin playing of Andreas Röhn this weekend. On his DG "Début" CD, the Handel sonata is exceptional; not baroque playing, thank goodness, but highly intelligent and with an excellent feeling for dance rhythms. Then on to Spohr's Gesangszena concerto (No.8) a work that challenges intelligence and the ability to vary tone, volume and colour. No one does it quite like Heifetz, of course. But Röhn -- like Hilary Hahn -- is pretty enjoyable. The world is certainly rich in violinists.
Otherwise, it was a good double Richter CD (Chopin, Debussy, Scriabin, Prokofiev, etc). Still enjoying the G minor violin concerto of Otar Taktakishvili. Quite as good as Britten, Walton etc -- and better than many. Lots of moules marinières to eat, and a large crab. Good weekend.

Sunday, 26 September 2004

Enjoyable re-listen to the F minor violin concerto by Otar Taktakishvili (probably Number 2, dating from 1976, but I must investigate. CD copy from Carlos). Highly capable soloist was Liana Isakadze (Georgia). Not all the Soviet music written and performed 1920-90 was dross. The Taktakishvili is a mixture of Mahler and Rimsky-Korsakov. Enjoyable to sit back and listen to.
Before that, I had basked once again in Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce Di Donato in Handel's opera duets. Bliss! And listened once again to Mendelssohn's Op 80 quartet, which is rapidly becoming one of my "fetish" works. From the heart, to the heart, to paraphrase Beethoven.
Weekend rounded off with an excellent dover sole, plus a rich casserole of ox tale. All is well, for the moment !

Saturday, 18 September 2004

Handel and Franck / Fauré. First it was sheer bliss to listen to Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce Di Donato singing duets from Handel operas (Virgin Veritas, new release). Handel soars and dives and enchants. This really is a CD to take to Heaven (or elsewhere) with me.
Followed by the elusive Lola Bobescu (with Jacques Genty) in the Franck sonata and the first Fauré sonata. One can only boggle at the fact that semi-contemporaries such as Isaac Stern had great and glorious careers while Bobescu (who was his equal technically and his superior musically) hung around on the edges of a Belgian / Japanese career. Like Ciofi and Di Donato in Handel, Bobescu soars and dives. I must find more of her recordings. Hard to get.
Nachspeisen were Sherry Kloss playing arrangements and transcriptions (on Heifetz's own Tononi violin). CD courtesy of Carlos. Highly enjoyable. A shame no one has really taken on the large-scale arrangement work of Kreisler and Heifetz in the violin world. Anyway; well done Ms Kloss. And the violin sounds just as good as it did back in 1917 on Heifetz's original recordings.

Monday, 13 September 2004

This weekend it was Otto Klemperer again; he seems to be becoming my House Conductor. This time it was the 1957 concerts with Claudio Arrau at the Royal Festival Hall, and the piano concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 5 (I was actually in the audience in September 1957 for the fourth concerto!)
I am perfectly happy with these performances and recordings. Don't need any others. Somewhat to my surprise, I particularly enjoyed the third concerto. In the fourth concerto, the orchestral sound is a bit backward. But good, evergreen classics.

Sunday, 5 September 2004

Gloroius Bernard Haitink! At 75 years old, his 3 September Promenade concert with the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra saw an exemplary performance of Mozart's Jupiter symphony, and a truly marvellous performance of Bruckner's 7th symphony. Listening to this Bruckner performance, it is quite clear that the work demands an orchestra with the sonorities of Central Europe, and a conductor who concentrates on the paragraphs rather on than the sentences. A great, classic account. It's fortunate I captured it on CD.
Another Britten violin concerto! This time played by Frank Peter Zimmermann (broadcast March 2004 from Paris, courtesy of Ronald de Haas). Confirms my love of this concerto. I had never really considered Zimmermann before, but he is revealed here as a major violinist. His encore, Paganini's variations on God Save the King reveals quite incredible virtuosity (unlike the Ricci live recording I have of the piece, with intonation there all over the place).
I must brush up on Zimmerman recordings. I have him playing the Beethoven concerto (with Jeffrey Tate) but it never really registered. Goodness only knows how I am going to find it, in the bowels of my collection, somewhere.

Monday, 30 August 2004

This evening was Akiko Suwanai evening. She really is a very fine violinist -- perhaps the current violinist I would take to a desert island with me. Impeccable technique, of course, but also a passionate and highly intelligent player. I listened to her in three Wieniawski pieces, in Rachmaninov's Vocalise, in Walton's violin concerto, and in Prokofiev's second concerto (the latter two with Sakari Oramo).

Confirmed my view that I don't really like the Walton concerto (the Britten concerto of the same year is turning out to be very much superior). Walton is clever, with great craftmanship. But it's not a work of passion, feeling or expression. A bit like a violinistic Façade.

Started the evening with Sibelius (first symphony in 1952 with Anthony Collins, with my father in the LSO's double bass section). Also took in the fifth symphony (Colin Davis). But the evening belonged to Akiko.

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

Thoroughly enjoyable performance of Britten's violin concerto from Theo Olof and John Barbirolli (1948, and first recording of the work before it was revised in 1950). For some peculiar reason, Britten seems to have vetoed its issue, so it didn't hit the streets until over 50 years later. An excellent performance (and a perfectly decent recording rescued from 78 rpm test pressing by EMI). Olof was a considerable violinist. Another mystery; why did he not achieve worldwide fame?

Monday, 23 August 2004

Not a good Sunday evening. I listened to Leila Josefowicz playing the Bach B minor sonata (with piano) and found it somewhat skimmed over. The performance of Bach's violin works appears to be undergoing something of a crisis, as classical violinists abandon one school of practice and haven't yet found another that does justice to this music. Too fast, too superficial, no love. From the Josefowicz disc (off-air of a Wigmore Hall concert in April of this year) I found myself preferring John Adams' Road Movies piece.
Then on to Herbert von Karajan in 1949 with Brahms' German Requiem. I don't think I have ever really liked this piece (except for the alle Fleisch movement). And I didn't like it much here, either, though Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings beautifully during her small amount of music. Most of the stuff is choral, however.
Then Shostakovich's fifth symphony (Rostropovich conducting the LSO in a recent off-air recording). I love so much of Shostakovich's music. But I really struggle with the symphonies. I think that I like him best in more intimate music -- the second piano trio, the piano quintet, the string quartets, the first violin concerto. I didn't enjoy the fifth symphony and suspect it will now remain on the shelf for a good long time.

Sunday, 15 August 2004

After my recent disappointment with Nina Beilina, it was good to be able to wax lyrical about a new (2004) Arte Nova solo CD from Mirijam Contzen. Contzen's playing holds the interest, with a truly excellent dynamic range, a lightness of bowing and a quite extraordinary accuracy of intonation that shows itself in some exemplary double stopping. She plays Bach (E major sonata), Bartok solo sonata, and the fourth Ysaye sonata. In Bach, the Beilina disc showed some of the drawbacks of the "Russian" school, with its high coefficient of solidity and sonority. Contzen is a product of Tibor Varga, and her sensitivity and tonal variety show one of the strengths of the "Central European" school. An excellent CD (and cheap, too!)

Thursday, 12 August 2004

Listened to Nina Beilina playing Bach (public performances from 1989). She was Russian -- Moscow Conservatory -- but now seems to be based in New York. Russians appear rarely to be successful in Bach (Milstein was one exception). Beilina sounds goods and plays accurately, of course. But for 63 minutes everything appears to be played mezzoforte; I have rarely heard so little in the way of varied dynamics. Not a CD I shall be spinning often. The largo of the D minor concerto for two violins is taken as andante con moto, and this is a pity. In general, "historically informed performance" style has ruined so much Bach playing by mainstream violinists who sacrifice classical violin playing without gaining some of the advantages of the baroque violin. Disc came to me from the US in exchange for a copy of my much-in-demand Boris Goldstein CD of the three Brahms violin & piano sonatas.

Monday, 9 August 2004

A thoroughly enjoyable recital by the exhilarating Magdalena Kozena (Radio 3, Wigmore Hall) made a good pair of CDs (86 minutes). I am not normally a fan of particular singers, but I will always make an exception for Kozena. She has a lovely voice but, more importantly, her singing sounds both intelligent and natural. Her recital embraced Kozeluch, Schumann, Moussorgsky, Janacek, Debussy, Novak and Mahler. Well worth recording and listening to.

Friday, 6 August 2004

I am becoming increasingly fond of the violin concerto by Benjamin Britten. I really cannot understand why it is not played or recorded more often. The 2004 off-air performance by Janine Jansen (BBC Orchestra, Gianandrea Nosada) seems to me exemplary: suptle, melodic, passionate and played with zest and conviction. It's a complex concerto and needs concentrated and frequent hearings. But it repays the effort. As the saying goes: it is rarely off my turntable at the moment. I also have a 1961 recording by Bronislaw Gimpel that I must hear again. But it didn't seem to leave much impression the first time I heard it. Jansen, however, is something else.

Sunday, 18 July 2004

As a long time follower of James Ehnes, it was good to find a new recording from him that I really enjoyed. Usually, he has impressed with his incredible and effortless technique, but there has often been something missing, for me. His new Smetana / Dvorak / Janacek CD is superb, however. The music moves; no lovingly stretched out sections that bog things down. Ehnes has an excellent and appropriately wide dynamic range for this music, and there are plenty of nuances of colour. The phrasing is usually excellent, though I might query the fourth of the Dvorak Four Romantic Pieces. Although his playing of these four pieces doesn't quite pip Akiko Suwanai, his version is right up there with hers. And his Janacek sonata is also good.

Sunday, 11 July 2004

Kippers, koftas and Château de Belle-Coste rosé. Not bad. Then Camilla Wicks in Wieniawski, Ravel and Kreisler, plus Oistrakh and Haitink in the Prokofiev first violin concerto, a CD rescued from the anonymous morgue. Listened to the new off-air recording of Vadim Repin playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (yet again -- LSO, Rostropovich). A typical good recording. Listened to Albert Spalding in 1948 playing -- carefully -- Bach, Corelli, Chausson, etc. Neat, careful, immaculate. I can't help feeling that Spalding's main claim to fame was that he was the first American to be able to play the violin. Good fruit season -- rasberries, pineapple, apricots, peaches. My pile of "to be listened to" CDs is shaming me. Time for a little brutality.

Thursday, 8 July 2004

Listened yesterday evening to Benjamin Britten's violin concerto and was most surprised to find myself really enjoying it. I already have one recording (Bronislaw Gimpel) but don't remember being impressed. However, the off-air performance by Janine Jansen really caught my attention. After one (remembered) hearing, I certainly rate it above the Walton concerto. Good to find a new concerto! And unlike so many 20th century concertos, at 30 minutes it does not outstay its welcome nor stretch its material too far. I look forward to a second hearing this evening.

Tuesday, 29 June 2004

A truly three star performance of the Shostakovich first violin concerto from Vadim Repin, with the Orchestre National de France under Kurt Masur (broadcast from Paris, 8 April 2004). CD thanks to Akiko.

In this concerto, he just gets better and better. This is only the third I have of him playing the work, but everything has been re-thought, honed and perfected while leaving plenty of room for improvisation and spontaneity. A marvellous performance (well appreciated by the audience). Masur must not be forgotten; he gives a solid Central European bass-line to the music, all aided by an exemplary recording. This really does put in question the value of "official" studio recordings of such things. Bravo, Vadim Repin !

Friday, 25 June 2004

My dislike of slow performances has been much trumpeted. But there are exceptions: Richter in the first movement of Schubert's B flat major sonata; Furtwängler in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony; Elisabeth Batiashvili in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And now a new recruit to the exceptions: Michael Erxleben in Shostakovich's first violin concerto (sent by Sidoze).

Erxleben takes 47 minutes over the concerto - 21 minutes over the Passacaglia and cadenza! Normally this would be death. But he has the requisite control and concentration to bring it off, and to keep you with him. His sound is quite extraordinary, and somewhat unique; it sounds as if he is playing a large viola. Added to which, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under Claus Peter Flor plays well and all is immaculately recorded. A real serendipitous find -- I only asked Sidoze to send it so I could jeer at the length of the slow movement.

The Shostakovich first violin concerto is very lucky on record. And I still have yet another version from Vadim Repin to listen to (from Japan).

Thursday, 24 June 2004

Settled down yesterday evening to enjoy a 2-CD set of a Vadim Repin concert given in Paris this February (CDs courtesy of Japanese friend). Repin is still a truly excellent violinist (third Grieg sonata) but the recital is, as usual, spoiled by the banging Itamar Golan. I remember disliking him at a Vengerov recital in London, and on a couple of Vengerov CDs. The man just bangs the piano and is too loud. What possessed Repin to give him the job I cannot imagine; Boris Berezovsky must have been indisposed.
Same package contained Repin performing the Mendelssohn concerto (Brugges, April 2004) with the Philharmonia under Christoph von Dohnanyi. Some exciting fiddle playing, especially in the first movement, but it sounds a bit too under-rehearsed to become a great classic. One can fault Repin on his choice of piano partner, but never on his tempi; to my mind, Repin is one of the few modern players who does not fall into the so-slowwwlly trap.

Tuesday, 22 June 2004

Plus ça change ... I have found myself listening with great pleasure to Furtwängler (Beethoven symphonies in the early 1950s on CPO) and Klemperer (Hamburg concerts of Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner from 1955 and 1966). After all the conductors have come and gone, Wilhelm Furwängler and Otto Klemperer are left standing taller than ever. I even enjoy Klemperer's Mozart recordings; his typical wind-forward orchestral balance, and his concentration on tempo, balance and phrasing have come to mean that his performances come over as timeless classics. It is extremely fortunate that both recorded in Germany and in Europe, and late enough so that not too many allowances need to be made for inferior sound. Klemperer's Bruckner seventh, to which I listened yesterday evening (Hamburg, 1966) seems to me much better than his studio version with the Philharmonia. But, there again, I am coming to the conclusion after fifty years of listening that almost all live recordings are to be preferred to studio versions.

Friday, 11 June 2004

By a very happy chance, I bought the debut CD of Ayako Uehara, the first Japanese, and the first woman, to win the Tchaikovsky prize in Moscow (2002). Quite simply: she convinces. She has technique to spare (sometimes she sounds like Horowitz on steroids) but, more importantly, she has that all-important way of making whatever she plays sound just right. You cannot imagine things otherwise. The music she plays is not that enthralling (seven short Tchaikovsky pieces, plus the Op 37 piano sonata). But her playing is quite entrancing. One of those lucky, spontaneous purchases.
I also listened to the 1941 recording by Gioconda de Vito of the Brahms violin concerto (Berlin, with Paul van Kempen conducting). What an amazing viola-like sound she had! The performance is superb -- much better technically than her poor effort with Furtwängler in Turin -- but I find the finale a bit sedate.

Thursday, 10 June 2004

A very useful CD from a contact in Argentina; Gioconda de Vito playing the Brahms concerto (1941) and Vasa Prihoda playing the Dvorak concerto (1943). Both with Paul van Kempen conducting in Berlin. The sound of the Dvorak is really extraordinarily good. This is reputed to be the best of the Prihoda versions, and I certainly liked it. His accuracy when playing was extraordinary; spot-on intonation at all times. Haven't yet heard the de Vito. I also enjoyed the new Colin Davis / LSO release of Sibelius's sixth symphony; definitely my favourite symphony, of the Sibelius seven. The performance is fine, but maybe a bit impersonal. I miss the old 1955 Karajan version with the Philharmonia. And although the 2003 sound from the Barbican is perfectly acceptable, it is not too great an advance on Walter Legge's 1955 recording for Karajan !

Thursday, 3 June 2004

Concert in Portsmouth yesterday evening. Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted the Philharmonia (Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, plus Scottish Symphony). Sarah Chang played the Dvorak violin concerto. Chang played with much brio and much passion, and deadly accuracy. I didn't think her violin sounded that great (perhaps she was trying out a spare one?) The E and G strings sounded OK, but the middle range lacked power and sounded a bit rasping on occasions. And the orchestra was allowed to play too loudly, so Chang had to turn up the dial just to be heard, even in quieter passages.
I thought the orchestra was too big for the hall; they just didn't need all those violins, cellos and six double basses, especially for the Mendelssohn ! And I really would have liked the first and second violins to have been divided; as balanced by Ashkenazy, we only really heard the first violins and the cellos. Everything else, stuck away behind, just didn't get a look in. Woodwind was usually swamped. I don't think Ashkenazy is a very good conductor.

Friday, 14 May 2004

Hurrah for Katrin Scholz ! I first discovered her by serendipitous accident, picking up her CD of Spanish Dance while browsing in Bath Compact Discs (bought entirely on the fact that the CD contained lots of Sarasate). That CD gave me a lot of pleasure, as has the second that arrived this week: Martinu (second concerto) and Saint-Saens (third concerto). Good back-up is from Hamburger Symphoniker under Sebastian Lang-Lessing. I can't say that Martinu's concerto doesn't really deserve its neglect; it is thematically very weak and something of a pastiche. But Stolz does the best that can be done for it. I like the way she is a violinist who doesn't linger -- albeit she and Lang-Lessing do drag out the chorale theme in the finale of the Saint-Saens, to the detriment of structure and attention. But Stolz plays with considerable virtuosity throughout; in particular, she has a curious way of emphasising the rhythm when she is playing (something that stood her in good stead in Spanish Dance). I shall buy more Stolz, if I can. She doesn't record much. However, she and Gleusteen do underline the fact that it really isn't necessary to hunt for "star" names when it comes to buying good performances. Of course, star names are "brands" that assure quality; or not. One is often better off buying Gleusteen, Batiashvili -- or Katrin Stolz.

Monday, 10 May 2004

Rummaging around putting CDs away, I came across Paul Lewis's CD of the two last Schubert piano sonatas (A major and B flat major). I ended up listening to both, since there is something about later Schubert and its ever-changing moods that is most attractive. Enjoyed the A major this time round. Lewis's playing of D 960 is OK, but it does sound too thought-out and lacks spontaneity. Ideally, such restless harmonies, key and metre changes demand a feeling of improvisation. And we don't get this from Paul Lewis, nicely as he plays. I really like Richter in this music.

Sunday, 9 May 2004

After enjoying the first CD of Kai Gleusteen and Catherine Ordronneau (Avie 0023 with the Janacek and first Prokofiev sonatas, plus Shostakovich Preludes) it was good to find their second CD (Avie 0037) where they play the Franck Sonata, Dvorak Sonatina, plus the third Grieg sonata. They play as a true duo, and the tempi all seem to be well chosen (well flowing and not erring on the slow side, as so often today). There are better recordings of each work to be had; but these two CDs make a handy mini-collection of two hours of highly enjoyable violin & piano music, well played and well recorded. What is particularly welcome is the absence of evidence of studio playing; the playing sounds as if it were for real.

Saturday, 24 April 2004

Spent a pleasant two hours discovering Renato de Barbieri (died 1992). A formidable violinist (particularly in his 1973-75 recordings of Handel, Tartini, Paganini, Ysaye, et al). I confess I had never heard of him before. Just shows just how much the "fame" of well-known names such as Stern, Zukerman, Bell, etc is due to PR managers and publicity machines. Renato de Barbieri was a major violinist, particularly in the bravura repertoire.

Mention must also be made of the highly superior Crémant de Loire and Pinot Noir d'Alsace that I brought back from Paris on this trip. Excellent accompaniments to de Barbieri !

Monday, 12 April 2004

Easter has been a big time for catching up, and also making some CD copies for Dave Gomberg and Ken Gerberg. It was interesting to meet Ida Haendel again (1999 in Boston, with the Dvorak concerto). For someone in her 70s her technique is marvellous. Rock steady, well articulated, spot-on intonation. Her playing is still very reminiscent of Carl Flesch but, like her teacher, she has always lacked any sense of fantasy or real emotion in her playing. A flawed dame of the violin.

I had to modify my views on Oleg Kagan, who had always struck me as a "critics' violinist". But the live performances of him playing the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich First concertos revealed a violinist with a lot of heart and a real willingness to go for broke. If, alongside the very greatest (including Repin and Stoika Milanova) he did not quite come out on top in the Shostakovich, it remains a very memorable performance. His unaccompanied Bach is excellent, but very "Russian"; no trace of any dances, and all very solemn and grand manner. But well played.

Also sat back with enjoyment and listened to Tossy Spivakovsky playing the Bartok concerto in the 1950s. However, I really do not like the Bartok concerto -- and in fact very little of Bartok's music. It is music without heart, without emotion.

Sunday, 21 March 2004

This was Mischa Elman weekend (plus Jamieson Whisky, moules marinière and good Tetbury steak). The eight CDs from Testament arrived, comprising all the Decca recordings 1954-56 that have been unavailable for so long. This also enabled me to tidy up my Elman collection, and amalgamate a few old CDs -- as well as throw out a few Ace of Clubs and Ace of Diamond LPs.
I was surprised to like Elman in the two Mozart concertos, as well as in the Beethoven. Whatever: the man was inimitable and one of the 4-5 great violinists of the twentieth century. The Elman sound is completely unique. Sad that he was soon deemed "unfashionable" and condemned to linger unheard except by a few violin-loving fanatics. Anyway, this weekend I shall have had around six hours of Elman listening, and feel better for it. There are not many violinists who could keep me interested for six hours in one weekend!

Tuesday, 16 March 2004

Back to Vasa Prihoda, with a recital of musical snippets in 1958 (Turin). Paganini, Hubay, Dvorak, etc. He really was an extremely proficient player and a truly formidable technician. Strange how people such as Ruggiero Ricci received the acclaim and the recording contracts back in the 1940s and 50s, rather than Prihoda (who was miles in advance of Ricci, technically).

Also bought the new Sarah Chang recording (with Lars Vogt). She plays the first Saint-Saens sonata, the Ravel sonata, and the Franck sonata. The recording is a problem, with a high dynamic range. A bit like Flesch's description of Hubermann: "He either shouts, or he whispers". Well, as recorded here, the duo blow you out of the room at climaxes; if the volume is turned down, the many admirable pianissimi become well-nigh inaudible.

Over all, the combination of German and American doesn't sound too much at home in this recital of very French music. The Saint-Saens, in particular, sounds ill-digested (almost as if it is being -- very well -- sight-read at times). I have always admired Sarah Chang, but think she is more attuned to Romantic music than to this French period. Not surprisingly, the Franck sonata probably comes off best. This is not an encouraging CD, and I shall no longer buy Sarah Chang automatically.

Thursday, 11 March 2004

After Ronald de Haas had described Vasa Prihoda as "the greatest violinist per se" I returned to my one Prihoda CD. And, yes, he was a phenomenal violinist, even heard in the Biddulph acoustic transfers of Paganini, Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski. Strange how good violinists such as Stern, Bell, et al become household names, whilst far superior ones -- such as Prihoda -- are known only to a handful of connoisseurs. Somewhat depressing. At any rate, I shall become an assiduous collector of Prihoda recordings. Yet another rising violinist whose career was blighted by the 1939-47 interruption to most musical careers in Europe.

Friday, 27 February 2004

Watched the Monsaingeon video "Art of the Violin" (at Steve's house in Kentucky). Interesting and well worth watching. Montsaingeon's bias towards Menuhin and against Heifetz shows. Perlman proves to be a more interesting commentator than he is violinist. Pity there wasn't more on Kreisler. Milstein had a big chunk, but I thought the Brahms concerto excerpt showed him on autopilot again. The Oistrakh excerpts were better than expected; in fact, he came out of it well. And it was interesting to watch Kogan playing; as Hilary Hahn remarked, he looked so awkward and uncomfortable while playing. I didn't think too much of Ida Haendel's contribution. Thanks to Dave Gomberg for the loan of the videocassette.

Friday, 20 February 2004

This blog has been a little neglected of late. Trying times. However, much to my surprise, I have very much enjoyed a CD (from de Haas) of Vaclav Snitil (violin) and Josef Hala (piano) playing violin & piano pieces by Ferdinand Laub, Frantisek Ondricek, Otakar Sevcik, Jan Kubelik, Jaroslav Kocian, and Vasa Prihoda. An all-Czech treat! Found another similar CD on the web by the same duo, and will get it. Snitil is an efficient violinist, rather than a charismatic one. But it is nice to hear short pieces that aren't yet another Liebesleid, Banjo & Fiddle or Humoresque ! And good to hear efficient, Czech-style fiddling rather than something luscious and long-drawn-out from the heirs of the Russian school of violin playing. Snitil and his music will be regulars on my turntable. A very serendipitous addition to my collection.

Sunday, 8 February 2004

Well, finally I have heard the famous 1950s recordings of Emil Telmanyi playing the Bach unaccompanied suites and sonatas with the Vega “Bach Bow”. Copies of Testament transfers kindly sent by Dave Gomberg.

I had put off listening for some time; a Hungarian with a funny bow playing Bach in the 1950s did not somehow appeal. However, when it came down to it, I enjoyed the performances very much. There are pluses and minuses to the Vega Bow. On one hand, much of the harmonised writing with double stops is quite entrancing, and many of the chords sound distinctly enhanced. However, some of the fugal writing sounds strained (but this may also be the results of the inevitable strain on almost all violinists when playing the fugues). And the richochet passages in the Chaconne just do not come off as played by Telmanyi. Still, much comes off very well indeed, and there is an old world charm to Telmanyi’s playing that is a welcome respite from hot-shot young violinists striving to make their marks. An admirable two hours of enjoyable music making.

Finished the weekend with von Karajan’s 1950s Philharmonia recordings of Sibelius’s sixth symphony, plus Debussy’s La Mer. These two recordings have now been giving me much enjoyment for 48 years! Though not normally a lover of von Karajan’s music making, I make an exception for many of his 1950s recordings with the Philharmonia when he was more concerned with clarity and first class orchestral playing and less with smooth effects.

Thursday, 29 January 2004

For about the first time, I was unable to listen to something to which I wanted to listen, because I couldn't find it! The multiple-disc Karajan set from the 1950s proved impossible to track down. I wanted to listen to Sibelius's 6th Symphony. But couldn't, because I couldn't find it. The time has come to do something about my CD collection and its chaotic organisation (for rarely listened-to works).

But, by fortunate chance, I picked up Furtwängler and Erich Röhn in the Beethoven Violin Concerto (1944, Berlin). This really is probably the greatest recorded performance ever of this work, not the least because it is a true duo partnership, with Furtwängler playing the Berlin Philharmonic. The performance has muscle and vigour; after all, it is around 1803 and very soon after the 18th century. Would that the likes of Nikolaj Znaider or Hilary Hahn would listen and take note! But you do also need a conductor of genius.

Monday, 19 January 2004

Sunday evening (basking after "The Return of the King" on Saturday) listened with great pleasure to Michael Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. This is a work I really like. Tried to follow it with Mahler's 9th (Haitink) but this just didn't work; Mahler sounded all noise and not much substance, after Tchaikovsky. Turned instead to Chausson and the Poème de l'Amour et de la Mer. Chose the new version with Felicity Lott; this really is very good indeed.

A question mark under all these different versions; when I want to listen to the Pathétique, I always turn to the Pletnev recordings. And when I want the Chausson, I think I'll always turn to Felicity Lott. So what am I going to do with all these alternative versions? Mahler's 4th will always be Barbirolli from now on (with perhaps just occasional excursions into the old Kletzki). I think that one of these days I am going to have a truly massive throw-out !

Tuesday, 13 January 2004

Audition round-up (2)

Nicolaj Znaider's recital CD was fairly typical. Exemplary technique, lovely sound (followed by lovely sound, followed by lovely sound ... ) with slow tempi in slower places that borded on the ludicrous. Why did he not listen to Heifetz and Achron playing the Hebrew Melody before embarking on his adagio molto rendition? These marvellous salon pieces simply do not have the content or the stature to be dragged out endlessly.

Enjoyed Isabelle van Keulen playing the Elgar concerto (BBC, with Halle and Mark Elder). Following the unfortunate example of Menuhin with Elgar, she kept slamming on the brakes in the first movement, despite a promising allegro for the first movement overall. But the andante was andante, and the final allegro molto was allegro molto. An unfortunate passage in the finale, and an unfortunate chord in the same movement. But, taken altogether, the performance was full of energy. Good partnership with the Halle. She has come on as a violinist; I recall being unimpressed with her debut LP (Saint-Saens third concerto, plus Vieuxtemps 5th, back in 1986). But her Mozart in 1991 was better. And this Elgar was very fine; fully the equal of the impressive Hilary Hahn performance (2002, with Colin Davis).

Audition round-up:

Highly impressed with 13-year old Chinese Tian-Wa Yang playing the Paganini caprices. She plays many of them deliberately rather than rapidly, but this enables you to hear that she is playing every single note. Incredible intonation in double-stops (it probably helps if you have the slender fingers of a 13 year old Chinese female). And a truly incredible right arm.

A bit angry with "Chloe", Chloe Hanslip's debut CD. Seems to me everything is wrong except her playing:

1. I don't know why a CD presenting a new violinist is covered in posed photos of a 14 year old girl. Is the disc aimed mainly at the paedophile market?

2. She should not have made her debut in a variety of salon pieces with orchestral backing. The main point of a debut CD is to feature the playing of the young artist. The orchestral backing is a distraction from listening to Hanslip's playing (viz, Sarasate's Romanza Andaluza, with its castanets and trumpets). She should have stuck to a good pianist so her playing really stood out.

3. Most of the pieces are somewhat slushy. She should have chosen more carefully. The Paganini "Campanella" at the beginning is really good; after that: too much slush (not even thinking of Williams' mawkish film theme).

4. I am always advocating "natural" balance between violin and orchestra in duo music. However, in this kind of repertoire, where the only real interest is in how well the violinist measures up to her predecessors and competitors, a balance between violinist and orchestra more like that given to Rabin or Heifetz would, for once, have been useful. Miss Hanslip plays a del Gesu violin; we do not really have a chance to appreciate it.

5. The liner notes have too many gushing adjectives: thrilling, great, magnificent, acclaimed. Do they not teach the English language at Warner?

I am very impressed with Chloe Hanslip's playing. But I don't know that I think much of her artistic management, her (ex) record company nor, probably, her pushy family. Let the girl play!