Wednesday, 31 December 2008

New Year's Eve. A disappointing leg of lamb (a bit tough) but my last bottle of Monsieur Bachelet's 1998 red wine was in flawless condition.

As a musical hors d'oeuvre I listened to Simone Lamsma playing Elgar salon pieces; entirely admirable, both music and playing. Ms Lamsma knows that music like this must not be milked, but must be allowed to flow freely and swiftly. As a main work, I listened to Masaaki Suzuki directing his forces in Bach's Bach in B Minor. What a magnificent work this is! To my mind, one of the three pinnacles of Western music (the other peaks being the St Matthew Passion, and Beethoven's C sharp minor string quartet opus 131). Suzuki's performance is excellent, though in places he could allow the music a little more time to breathe (a common modern drawback in Bach performances). Now on to 2009 ...

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas 2008 has been dominated by Bach cantatas. Today I polished off the last Kuijken disc, and now await new issues in 2009. Following a reference in a book, I listened to BWV 054 (Widerstehe doch der Sünde) and picked the Gardiner version. Very good. Listening on to the next cantata on the Gardiner disc, however, I baulked at the large Monteverdi choir; large choirs for the coro in Bach's cantatas, to my mind, destroy the intimate, chamber character of the works. When it comes to performances of the baroque repertoire I am a bit schizophrenic (since I would happily deport the likes of Rachel Podger and her cohorts to Australia at the drop of a hat).

I also listened to Handel's Orlando: sheer delight. As an excursion from Bach and Handel I also played a (new) CD of the Soloisti di Moscow under Yury Bashmet in Grieg (Holberg), Mozart (Eine Kleine Nachtmusick) and Tchaikovsky (Serenade in C). But, alas, it was like interrupting the drinking of a bottle of 1995 Margaux grand cru premier classe in order to take a few sips of diet Pepsi-cola. There is not too much you can listen to after Bach and Handel.

Finally, I tried yet again to make friends with Shostakovich's 10th symphony. I love his first violin concerto, his piano trio and his piano quintet. But the symphonies just are not me. A pity.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

This weekend was occupied with listening to twelve Bach church cantatas! All performed by Sigiswald Kuijken and his team.

At the end of it, I am full of admiration for Bach and for his ability to churn out week after week high-class, high quality music of real and long-term interest. Also admiring of the Kuijken team for sustaining interest and performance standards; I now have one volume left to listen to of Kuijken's current seven volumes in his new cantata series.

This weekend has confirmed my view that Bach's instrumental parts in these cantatas are at least as important as the vocal parts (and frequently even more challenging for the musicians). I also, at last, now agree with Kuijken (and others) that in the church cantatas, it makes perfect sense to use just four voices for the choruses and chorales. Whatever the historical rights and wrongs, four voices confirm the intimate chamber music nature of these church cantatas. I will find it difficult to go back to the choirs of Gardiner or Herreweghe.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

My musical listening remains dominated by Johann Sebastian and Georg Frideric. This evening I sat back and basked in the new Acis & Galatea (John Butt). Music to sit back with and enjoy. Then on to three Bach cantatas directed by Sigiswald Kuijken; as I wrote very recently, what appeals to me about Kuijken in Bach is the exemplary concentration on clarity of texture; with Sigiswald, you hear all the notes. I must augment my collection of Kuijken Bach cantatas -- I am missing three of the current seven volumes.

Meanwhile, I have become the true champion cook of braised oxtail. The remains this evening were of world championship standard. I must embark on a new stew-up (oxtail, onions, carrots, mushrooms, many herbs, and good red wine, plus 5-6 hours of slow cooking).

Sunday, 7 December 2008

It is not often I sit down and listen to three different recordings of the same work. This weekend, however, I did just that to Bach's cantata BWV 21: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. It was Sigiswald Kuijken versus Philippe Herreweghe versus Masaaki Suzuki. The winner was: Sigiswald Kuijken, by quite a margin with a 20 year old recording with La Petite Bande and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. Kuijken's soprano (Greta de Reyghere) was as good as Herreweghe's (Barbara Schlick) and both were superior to Suzuki's (Monika Frimmer). Kuijken had Christoph Prégardien as his ever-admirable tenor. But what gave Kuijken his big advantage was the supreme clarity of his orchestral and choral textures. Bach's textures are often dense and complex (a source of much criticism during his lifetime), and in this cantata the bass line often has a key role in heightening the harmonic tension. With Kuijken, you hear all the parts, and his choir during the fugal passages thins down to just one or two per part. In additon, with Kuijken's direction you sense a deep love of this marvellous cantata by all concerned.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Nine times out of ten, it is wise to have alternative recordings of major works. One learns more about the music from different approaches by different musicians. There are exceptions: and Bruckner's 9th symphony is one such exception. The public broadcast performance on 7th October 1944 in Berlin by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic is one such exception. The performance is simply glorious, inevitable and hors concours. I no longer see any point in listening to the same work conducted by the likes of Horenstein (very good), Giulini (very good) and Knappertsbusch (very good) all of which I have. The 7th October 1944 Furtwängler performance is simply it, for this work. And the recording quality is quite good ! And thank you, DG, for the superb transfer from the original tapes.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

I think I have mentioned Stephanie-Marie Degand before, in this diary. Now,  a web download of Paganini caprices, the Ysaÿe third solo sonata, plus the Bach chaconne from the second partita, have given me enormous pleasure. Degand is one of those artists who simply pick up their instruments and play. No posturing, no preening, no attention-seeking, no artifice. Ms Degand makes music. And we listeners are privileged to enjoy it.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

It was interesting, this evening,  listening to Charles Mackerras's old (1969) recording of Purcell's sublime Ode to St Cecilia: "Hail, bright Cecilia". Mackerras, of course, is highly "historically informed",  as the saying goes. But the performance does illustrate the pluses and minuses of prevaling fashion. Forty years ago, women were frowned upon in performances of Purcell or Bach (the Taleban mullahs would have been happy). So here, in 1969, we have an assortment of boy tenor, counter tenors, and tenors, basses. They all cope well with the technical challenges without always sounding at ease in the vocal dextrity often demanded by Purcell.

The orchestra (English Chamber Orchestra) is a great treat, and it's nice to be rid of sour baroque bands ... for the moment.  The chorus, however, is sung by the Ambrosian Choir supplemented by the Tiffin Choir (presumably to stop any women appearing). It sounds massive and dwarfs orchestra, soloists and music; quite in the English choral tradition I have grown to dread -- along with my neighbours, I suspect, who must be blown out of their armchairs when these choirs sing at full, enthusiastic blast.

One day, there will be an ideal "Hail, Bright Cecilia" with superb, professsional soloists, a band of virtuoso instrumentalists, and a light, compact choir. I hope I shall be around to see it, since the music is superb.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The 1952 recording of the performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio by Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich has to be one of music's top 100 recorded performances. It is like four minds (including Tchaikovsky) singing the same song. I know, I have said it before. But this is a recording I keep near my CD player, since I often want to come back to it and, when I do, I always enjoy it. Well done the four Russkies ! And the new transfer by Jakob Harnoy just completes the excellent job.

Dvorak's Op 97 string quintet left me pretty cold, despite the 1968 efforts of the Budapest String Quartet. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Haydn, Dvorak and Liszt are a lost cause in so far as I am concerned. Odd, and personal, that I can love Handel but be bored by Haydn, like Mendelssohn and love Schubert, yet yawn at Liszt, and love Janacek yet always fall asleep in Dvorak. Mais c'est comme ça. Dvorak ain't for me.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Thanks to my good friend Carlos, I have a most interesting set of "Belgian Violin School" four CDs (transferred from four HMV LPs of recordings from the 1960s and 70s). The violinists featured are Rudolf Werthen, Carlo van Neste, Marcel Debot and Maurice Raskin (I have so far listened to all except Raskin). The music played is by Vieuxtemps, de Bériot, Léonard and Ysaÿe thus, an all-Belgian affair.
I am not a fan of Walloon Belgium ... but happily make an exception when it comes to the violin. Following on from my satisfaction with the French Philippe Graffin the other day, it is pleasant to re-encounter the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing with its sophistication, good taste and dedicated artistry. The Russo-Israeli-DeLay school of power playing may be appropriate for Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich; but not for Ysaÿe. Interestingly, the other day I switched on my car radio to catch the end of someone playing Chausson's Poème. Wonderful full-blooded romantic playing, I thought; but hardly suitable for Chausson. When the performance ended, I learned that it had been David Oistrakh, Charles Münch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Enough said. Take me back to the Franco-Belgians in that kind of music.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

I bought and have listened to the Hyperion CD of Nikolay Roslavets' two violin concertos (the first early in his life, the second much later). The first concerto (1925) strikes me as interesting and expertly written. Let down, as so often with so many composers, by the lack of any melodic or thematic gifts; the first two movements last nearly 30 minutes but cannot summon a theme between them. The third movement is more attactive -- a sort of Ukrainian saltarella -- and at last produces a couple of worthy themes. The second concerto (1936) strikes me as Soviet People's Music at its uninspired worst. Throughly admirable soloist in both works in Alina Ibragimova: the thinking man's violinist.

An excellent CD comes from Philippe Graffin. Under the vague heading Hungarian Dances he assembles 26 short bits. "Hungarian" is to be interpreted broadly: the selection includes Debussy's La plus que lente, Vecsey's Valse Triste, and Liszt's Romance Oubliée. But an attractive and varied selection, really well presented by Graffin who may not have the PR clout of Janine Jansen or Joshua Bell, but who is a violinist to be listened to with interest.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The evening started well with one of my favourite steak koftas (lots of garlic and coriander). We continued with Joyce DiDonato's new CD of Handel arias (with Christophe Rousset): Furore. DiDonato is an excellent singer for this music: passionate, involved, dexterous. A bit like the younger Fischer-Dieskau, she is sometimes just a little too involved for comfort and almost seems to be "hamming" it. But no great matter; it's a most enjoyable 75 minutes listening to her in Handel's varied and inventive music.

Then on to "Laureates", a CD from Russia consisting of excerpts from the public recitals of violinist winners of the Tchaikovsky Prize in Moscow. Six violinists: Ruben Agaronyan, Sergei Stadler, Rafael Oleg, Viktoria Mullova, Ilya Kaler .. and Akiko Suwanai who really takes the biscuit with a scintillating and devil-inspired rendition of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasia. The Russian audience (quite properly) goes wild. Quite difficult to listen to anyone else in this piece after this public performance by Ms Suwanai.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Handel's 1707 cantata (written when he was 22 years old) Aminta e Fillide must be one of the loveliest musical works ever written. Hit follows hit, broken by short recitatives. The new recording from La Risonanza (directed by Fabio Bonizzoni) is near ideal, as so often in this series from the Glossa label. The singers, Maria Grazia Schiavo and Nuria Rial, are exemplary and it is nice to hear Italian sung by Italians, for a change (though Rial is Catelan, of course but doesn't sound it here).

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Back from France and from Eisenach. The city of Bach was really enjoyable -- calm, serious and newly prosperous. The Hotel Kaiserhof just by the city gate was an extremely pleasant place to stay; I must go back there.

To celebrate my return, I listened to the Stratton String Quartet and Harriet Cohen in a 1933 recording of Elgar's Piano Quintet. Since I encountered this music around ten years ago (at a concert in Boxgrove Priory) it has become something that touches me deeply -- more than anything else by Elgar. This "authentic" recording also astonished me by the fidelity of the sound: well balanced, and with beautiful burnished string tone. Three stars in my catalogue.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

After feeling somewhat bored recently listening to four short violin & piano pieces by Medtner, it made a pleasant change to be thoroughly entertained listening to a whole CD of violin & piano pieces by Antonio Bazzini. The music is light, tuneful and holds the attention; almost Handelian, in fact.

The CD was very ably played by Chloe Hanslip, who had all the necessary virtuosity for this technically challenging music, as well as a lightness of touch that suits Bazzini well; a change from Power Violinists such as Alexander Markov. Miss Hanslip is doing well (and is also, commendably, avoiding the hackneyed bye-ways of everlasting Beethoven, Kreisler, Ravel and Brahms). The only silly feature was an annoying outer sleeve (why, Naxos?) with a colour photo of Miss Hanslip staring at the camera, a bit like a rabbit caught in car headlamps. However, the outer sleeve is easily jettisoned and all the information, minus the photo, is on the jewel case. Presumably someone thought young men would queue up to buy a Bazzini CD if a pretty girl were on the cover. Some classical recording promotion personnnel have even less intellectual acumen than derivative investment bankers. I'll keep this Bazzini CD handy; a good disc to put on when one wants to be dazzled and entertained. Her Ronde des lutins is, however, too rushed for my taste (comes in under 5 minutes). Fast playing can be exhilarating; but we do need to hear the notes and the music cleanly and clearly, and speed for speed's sake is not a good idea.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Prom performance this summer of Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending by Akiko Suwanai (with the Philharmonia under Susanna Mälkki) is pretty well ideal in terms of balance, recording quality and performance. One of those rare occasions when everything comes together.

Earlier, I plunged into Handel's Athalia. I am usually a bit wary of Handel's oratorios, with all those Old Testament Israelites. But the music of Athalia (written for and first performed in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford) is completely and utterly first class. The Drabinghaus & Grimm recording (directed by Peter Neumann) is also excellent, although I do have doubts about Simone Kermes here; when drama or emotions run high, any concept of bel canto appears to fly out of the window with Ms Kermes.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Sunday, and another three and a half hours of George Frideric Handel, this time the 1725 opera Rodelinda. Over three  hours of exquisite music, and Handel at his best. Il Complesso Barocco was directed by Alan Curtis -- a reliable Handelian -- and Simone Kermes headed the caste.  Along with Schubert and Mozart, Handel was the greatest consistent melody writer of all time.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

I have never come across the Norwegian Henning Kraggerud before, but his new CD of the six solo sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe is most impressive. Kraggerud does not differentiate the individual works quite as remarkably as did Fanny Clamargirand in her recent traversal, but his Guarneri del Gesù makes a lovely gritty sound and his playing is spot-on accurate and quite up to Ysaÿe's severe violinistic demands.

It's attractive music and has been lucky on CD. At around 67 minutes it is tailor-made for CD, of course, and record companies also love the fact they only have one artist to pay. Apart from Kraggerud and Clamargirand, there are Shumsky and Kavakos, plus a number of other excellent recordings. I like all six sonatas ... as long as I am not required to play them.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Recently, I listened with enjoyment to Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos played by members of the Philharmonia orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer. Going back even more years, I now really liked the six concerti as played in 1935 by Adolf Busch and the Busch Chamber Players. What Bach needs to be convincing is love, a sense of rhythm, a sense of style, and musical intelligence. Harpsichords v pianos, flutes v recorders, baroque violins v modern violins really do not matter, since Johann Sebastian rarely wrote with precise sounds in mind (unlike, say, Debussy or Mahler). Busch is great and fully  deserves his high reputation over 70 years on. EMI has done well to reissue the Brandenburgs (plus the four Suites) in new transfers in its Great Recordings of the Century series. Three classic CDs for all time and all ages ... pace the Baroque Brigade.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Back from France, well full of various shellfish. L'Ecailler in Boulogne-sur-Mer is truly terrific: not just a great selection of all sorts of ocean fodder, but all fresh, fresh, fresh and at very reasonable prices. I returned to England with a magnificent 1 kg crab (just €6.18). With deep regrets I turned aside from the 1 kg plaice (carrelet). Almost opposite L'Ecailler is an excellent boucherie with a vast range of first-class pâtés, terrines and rillettes; I bought a couple of specimens, including a truly excellent frommage de tête. And, of course, I was accompanied home by 48 bottles of Le Chevalier Collier (2005 St. Emilion).

Awaiting me were numerous CDs, including a two-CD pack of Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace in the six Bach duo sonatas for violin and keyboard. Exemplary performances; tasteful, well recorded and well balanced. No "baroque" stuff from Zimmermann, thank the Lord, and no harpsichord as per Mullova's recent ill-judged sortie into these pieces. I know the sonatas well, both from playing them and from listening. The quality varies from movement to movement, but the works are never less than interesting, especially when played as well as they are here.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

It is utterly incredible that I have had to wait until now to listen to the twelve Op 6 Concerti Grossi by Handel. They contain magnificent music! All completely new to me. I confess that I bought my current recording (Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt) because the 4-CD set was very cheap and thus a good way of investigating the works. But the 30 year old recordings are a bit musty and a bit "early baroque" in sound, so I must find good newer versions. The four Harnoncourt (not my favourite director) CDs also contain Handel's six Op 3 concerto grossi which still await investigation.

Also a very pleasant surprise is Devy Erlih's 1969 recordings of Bach's solo partitas and sonatas; the postman has so far only brought Volume 1. Volume 2 is on its way. Erlih zips through the works at Heifetz-like speed, and his technique is formidable. I enjoyed all three works on this first disc, not least the long first partita that, in most hands, seems to go on for ever with its doubles and repeats after each movement. In the hands of someone like Julia Fischer and even Lisa Batiashvili, the first partita just sends me to sleeep, since its somewhat routine melodic and thematic material really cannot hold the attention for over half an hour. But in Erlih's hands the work zings along, with many of the doubles in quadruple rather than double tempo ... no bad thing. Hard to imagine why a violinist of Erlih's stature was, and remains, completely under the radar. Or why I have had to wait over 67 years to hear Handel's twelve concerti grossi Op 6!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

When the new CD of Lisa Batiashvili playing the Beethoven violin concerto arrived, I wondered why on earth I had ordered it, since I already have no less than three off-air recordings of Batiashvili in this concerto. But no regrets with the newcomer; for me, this is a version of the Beethoven concerto to shelve with those of Erich Röhn, Georg Kulenkampff and Adolf Busch.

As usual, Batiashvili avoids all showing off or reveling in the joys of her 1709 Strad. She just absorbs herself in the music; I have never heard a performance of this concerto with so much piano and pianissimo playing. She also directs the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Dresden herself; a daring task, but the performance is remarkable for the way the (small) orchestra and the soloist really listen to each other. The concerto, for once, sounds almost like large-scale chamber music and one is suddenly conscious that a piece of music written in 1806 just does not need a large symphony orchestra fresh from playing Brahms and Bruckner.

The absence of a conductor leads to a couple of fluffs (mainly concerned with balance between orchestra and soloist) but the pluses far outnumber the minuses. The recording, too, is exemplary and one of the best concerto recordings I know in terms of naturalness of sound and balance between orchestra and soloist. A triumph all round. And, not least, the "coupling" is highly enjoyable: six pieces by Sulkhan Tsintsadze (arranged for violin and orchestra by Daddy Batiashvili). Novel, interesting and so much better than yet another Mozart concerto as filler.

A Sunday morning catching up with old half-friends. Schumann is not really my cup of tea, but I make an exception for his A minor violin and piano sonata, and the 1968 recording by Roman Totenberg (thanks to Ronald) proved highly satisfactory. Then on to his opus 39 Liederkreis recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore in 1954; I still have my original German 10 inch LP of this, much worn since the 1950s.

On to Mahler (thanks to a new Naxos CD), another half-friend. I am not much of a Mahler fan, but have always had a soft spot for his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Fischer-Dieskau and Furtwängler) and the Kindertotenlieder (Fischer-Dieskau with Rudolf Kempe). All a bit morbid, but nice to listen to. I have always had mixed feelings about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but today I really enjoyed his exemplary diction and articulation; with too many singers it can take you 20 minutes to work out in what language they are singing .. but not DF-D (nor Callas, Pfiaf or Johnny Cash).

Thursday, 11 September 2008

I have never been a great fan of choral music; for me, it is too often associated with churches (viz organs, as well). But I have to make an exception for Handel's choral anthem "The Ways of Zion do Mourn". Somehow Handel takes the religiosity out of religion. On the same CD is his "Utrecht" Te Deum; equally good, and equally a discovery thanks to Jonathan Keates' biography of Handel that I read recently. Many undiscovered gems around in the music of the past.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Sunday was violin day, thanks to Michael in Germany. The fact that I could listen with pleasure to four hours of violin recitals pays great tribute to the skill of the (long-gone) violinists of other generations. Difficult to imagine inflicting four hours of the likes of Tasmin Little or Gil Shaham on my poor ears.

Jeanne Gautier (21 tracks including the Ravel sonata) and Devy Erlih (Ravel, including sonata, plus Kreisler) made me warm once again to the old French school, with its bon ton, fluidity, variety of tone and bowing and immaculate taste. All the pieces were played at the "old" tempi (ie, before things began to slow down in the 1950s in the name of soulful expressivity).

Christian Ferras and Pierre Barbizet, caught at their zenith in Germany on German radio in 1954, 56 and 57 underlined just how much we lost with Ferras's decline soon after. His playing was as natural as breathing, and he and Barbizet form a perfect team in this CD of Mozart, Kreisler and Schubert, with Ferras contributing a world-beating Bach third unaccompanied sonata (Frankfurt, 1956).

Then off to California. Frances Berkova, in acoustic recordings of nine short pieces, brings a breath of the old world. Her daughter, Saundra, plays six pieces in the 1940s when she was 14 and 15 (with S-S Havanaise from 1956). What an incredible child prodigy! Unlike the French players above, there is not much evidence of her enjoying the music, nor the violin. Her playing is much like that of a gifted chimpanzee -- all imitation. But what a chimpanzee! No one has ever played the violin with greater technical ease and perfection. As often, Los Angeles and its show-biz environment proved inimical to artistic development, and Saundra vanished from the visible scene after being caught in a drug bust in 1957.

Remaining on the waiting pile from Michael's haul are Henryk Szeryng in 17 short pieces from 1949, and Cecilia Hansen in the Frank sonata from 1953. It all makes a change from Bach and Handel, but three new Handel operas are on the for-listening pile at the moment ... As a p.s., it is really exciting that Europe' radio stations are unearthing good recordings of classical broadcasts from the past fifty years. Think of the treasures that must still be awaiting issue!

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Listened with great pleasure to three hours of Handel in Radamisto (Joyce DiDonato, Patrizia Ciofi, Maite Beaumont, et al with Il Complesso Barocco directed by Alan Curtis). Handel knows how to keep his listeners' attention with a stream of contrasting airs and recitatives, with stunning and varied orchestration.

For a change, a stream of CDs going out, rather than in (though new ones keep arriving). So exeunt various recordings of Gil Shaham, Maxim Vengerov, Joshua Bell and Kyung-Wha Chung. Who knows: maybe in five years time I'll just be left with Heifetz, Handel, Bach and the late Beethoven string quartets.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Jonathan Keates' truly excellent biography of Handel is proving an extremely expensive read. As soon as Keates enthuses over something or other by Handel that I do not have, the temptation is too great not to speed to my computer and order the work online. He even has me ordering a CD of cantatas by Nicolò Porpora! Still, it makes a change from ordering Tchaikovsky's violin concerto.

On a different note, it was interesting to hear Jakob Shapiro in Brahms Op 40 Horn Trio (with Gilels and Kogan in 1951 -- excellent Doremi transfer). French horns do not usually blend at all satisfactorily with solo violins. But Shapiro's soft-toned Russian horn with typical Russian vibrato blends in extraordinarily well and makes one realise -- at last -- that Brahms knew what he was doing.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

For some reason, I have never previously come across Borodin's D major piano trio. But I enjoyed it this afternoon played by Emil Gilels, Dmitry Tziganov and Sergei Shirinsky (Moscow, 1950). Followed it with Fauré's Op 15 quartet for piano and string trio (Gilels again, Kogan, Barshai and Rostropovich). Moscow, 1958.

The Soviet Union was a pretty grim place back in those days. But it did produce an astonishing crop of first-class musicians and musical performances. Compare it with Switzerland's contribution! The two transfers from Doremi are extremely good, and the company appears to have mended its glassy, over-filtering ways of the past.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Yesterday evening I was most impressed listening to Cornelia Vasile playing the Paganini 24 Capricci. Her bowing was an object lesson in violin technique, and even Paganini himself would have been amazed at Vasile's ability to overcome any hurdle, seemingly effortlessly.

The recording comes from Bucharest (1967) and makes you realise how many unknown superb instrumentalist there were (and still are) out there. Vasile's Capricci are so much better than Ricci's somewhat hit-and-miss playing; yet it is Ricci who gets the renown. Unfair!

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Jonathan Keates' revised and updated biography of Handel is an excellent read, closely integrating life, history and music. A model of its kind. Spurred on by Keates' enthusiasm, I spent Sunday listening with great pleasure to Handel's Agrippina -- one advantage of having a vast library of CDs that have rarely been listened to more than once.

I thoroughly enjoyed the three and a half hours of Agrippina which is, of course, packed with Handel's "hits". The 1991 recording by John Eliot Gardiner and an almost entirely British caste is excellent (though I still deplore Eliot Gardiner's habit of autumatically adding "molto" whenever he comes across an allegro, vivace or presto).

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Naxos is a pretty marvellous record company; along with Harmonia Mundi, the two companies seem to provide most of my purchases of new recordings (as opposed to re-issues of old recordings). With Naxos one can admire the price, the daring repertoire choices, the consideration for purchasers over 30 in having track details etc in large type, the absence of scantily-dressed bimbos on CD sleeves, the "no delete" policy, etc. I have just really enjoyed what is apparently Volume One of a complete two-volume set of the music for violin & piano of Nikolai Medtner. Talented violinist is Laurent Kayaleh (I have never heard of her, but she plays a lovely Guarneri violin of 1742 that used to belong to Carl Flesch). At this price, one can buy without too much hesitation. And the third violin and piano sonata of Medtner is well worth getting to know -- alongside such large and mainly unplayed sonatas as those by Alkan or Lekeu.

Naxos, Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion are all record companies founded and run by music-loving men who were more interested in repertoire and recording than they were in "stars" and profits. Imagine EMI, DGG, Sony, RCA or the old American Columbia bringing out a two-volume Medtner set!

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Demand to know my "10 favourite CDs". This is a bit of a conundrum, since does Tristan & Isolde, for example, count as four, or one? Are we talking "works", or CDs? And what about a CD with three works on it? Whatever, here goes in purely random order, since to select My Ten Essential CDs and then put them in order of preference would be too much and quite haphazard.

1. Bach: 48 Preludes & Fugues. Edwin Fischer. Just timeless classic.
2. Beethoven: Late string quartets. Busch Quartet. Again, timeless classic.
3. Handel: Amadigi di Gaula. I have to have some Handel, and there are so many candidates. I like Amadigi and it contains some excellent Handel, so it will have to do. Probably choose the Minkowski version, since he underlines the contra-bassoon in the lovely Pena Tiranna aria.
4. Heifetz: The recently re-vamped CD of the Vieuxtemps fifth concerto, together with Bruch's Scottish Fantasia and G minor violin concerto.
5. Michael Rabin playing Wieniawski's first violin concerto. I'll cheat and add to this Leonid Kogan playing the first Paganini violin concerto since, after all, they would both fit easily on to one CD!
6. Bach: Mass in B minor. I have to include this; probably choose the Klemperer recording, despite the slow Kyrie. But I like Klemperer, and like the clarity of his (smallish) chorus.
7. Schubert's B flat major sonata D 960. One of those works you keep coming back to. Choice of version is a bit hard: Richter, Schnabel, Lewis or Andsnes? And there are others ... Curzon, for example. But I have to have the first movement repeat, so Andsnes.
8. Shostakovich: Violin concerto No.1. Needs to be in the list, since it is probably my favourite violin concerto. Big, big choice of versions. But I'll settle for Leila Josefowicz, since her CD also contains a definitive version of the elusive sonata for violin & piano.
9. Bruckner: Symphony No.9. The ninth spot must go to Bruckner and his ninth symphony. There is only the recording of the public performance on 7th October 1944 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwängler; no other performance comes within 10 miles of this one .. and the recording is astonishingly good through large loudspeakers.
9.99. Elgar: Sospiri conducted by John Barbirolli. Cheating a bit, but it can't be left out.

Well, Number 10 is going to need some reflection. There must be over 50 candidates for the one slot.

10. Josef Hassid: violin recital. Well, No.10 has been chosen. Not Wagner, not Sibelius. Just eight short encore pieces recorded by Josef Hassid between the ages of 16 and 17. If ever one wants to hear just what a violin can do, it is enough to listen to Hassid playing Sarasate's Playera. Leaves Heifetz on the starting line (and that is saying something!)

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Back from my trip to Senigallia (Le Marche). Al Cuoco di Bordo was as good as remembered; the raw seafood -- including langoustines -- is quite amazing. I also have fond memories of I Cappuccini in Arcevia, and of Al Contuccio in Urbino.

Feasted today on squid (butter, garlic, parsley and white wine) plus this evening a big dish of moules marinières enhanced with clams. Excellent. Wines were a cheap Côtes du Rhône, plus a cheap white Rioja (both good, and both from Tesco Online).

Then, in the evening, to what is becoming my musical Bible: Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues played by Edwin Fischer. When listening to Fischer's playing of this inexhaustible music, one is very conscious of Bach's introductory inscription: "... to execute the same well, but above all, to achieve cantabile style in playing ... " Bach would have approved of Edwin Fischer. I have a feeling that these three CDs of the "48" will never be shelved and filed away by me.

Friday, 25 July 2008

In the Elgar violin concerto, Albert Sammons (1929) has always held first place in my esteem. Yesterday evening I listened to a performance that replaced it as my Number One (based, so far, on just one hearing). The violinist, incredibly enough, was Nigel Kennedy, back at the Proms on Saturday 19th July for the first time in 21 years; he was given a two minute ovation when he appeared, and there was a great sense of occasion.

As a person, Kennedy is off-putting, with his jazzy, mockney way of speaking and his desire to stand out by looking bizarre. But with a violin under his chin, the Elgar violin concerto, and a sense of a great event in the air, he can certainly play the fiddle! The Elgar basic tempi were swift, and Kennedy's playing mirrored every twist and turn of Elgar's complex personality; he seemed to be playing from inside the music and showed complete empathy with the music. When the violin was allowed to let rip, Kennedy was off like a rocket, revealing a technique that was quite astonishing. And his Guarneri del Gesù gave Kennedy everything he needed for this virtuoso performance. This performance also firmly underlined the ability of "special" live performances to be vastly superior to even the best studio recordings.

Well, so far I've only heard the off-air performance once, but I was quite bowled over. Only negative note was what sounds like periodic attacks by Taliban guerrillas firing rifles at key moments during the performance. Quite distracting. But maybe it wasn't Taliban guerrillas; maybe it was Kennedy leaping in the air, or stamping his hoof, during exciting moments and landing on the Royal Albert Hall stage with a distinct thud. Taliban apart, I don't think I have ever enjoyed a performance of the Elgar concerto so much -- and I do have 15 different recordings of it, most of them either good or very good.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Good birthday today; another year older. In the office until 3 (lunch at Chef's Table) then home to listen to five piano trios. But the piano trios were all played by Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich, so the time passed very agreeably. For string quartets, you need a permanently constituted group; for piano trios, well-rehearsed star soloists are highly desirable (cf. also Cortot, Thibaud and Casals).

Listened to i) Haydn D major, ii) Schumann D minor Op 63, iii) Shostakovich second trio in E minor Op 68, iv) Tchaikovsky trio Op 50 and v) Saint-Saëns F major Op 18. Transfers were by Jakob Harnoy (DoReMi) and his technique has improved immeasureably since the over-filtered, glassy sound of just a few year ago. These transfers are excellent.

Whisky was 12-year old Caol Ila. Wine was white and red Rioja (latter 2001). San Daniele ham was from Quayle's. One kilo of mussels was from Chef's Kitchen. Fresh apricot compote was by me. Welcome phone calls from the G, and from Flavia (e suo papa). Roll on 23 July 2009!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The 20th century boasted a plethora of great pianists -- even more than great violinists. Of them all, however, I find that Alfred Cortot, Artur Schnabel and Edwin Fischer have the greatest universal staying power. All three were at their peak in the 1920s and 30s, and it is interesting to imagine Abbey Road in the 1930s where Schnabel was recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and Fischer was at work on the complete 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach -- to which I have just begun to listen with very great enjoyment. One wonders at the sheer courage of EMI/HMV in those days -- four hours of Bach; on 78 rpm discs!

One characteristic of all three pianists, I sense, it that one feels listening to their recordings that they were essentially playing for themselves; not for a microphone, posterity, a jury, the gallery. There is an entrancing feeling of communion when Fischer plays Bach. To be continued ...

Sunday, 13 July 2008

At last: I was able to do some "back-list" listening! Handel's Tolomeo (Alan Curtis) as well as Vilmos Szabadi in Leo Weiner's two violin concertos, plus Joachim's Variations for Violin & Orchestra. If you put 20 music connoisseurs in a room and played them Leo Weiner's music, not one would be able to identify the music's time or place; it sounds like "post 1850" and a mixture of Bizet, Berlioz, Vaughan Williams and Mahler. Enjoyable, however.

To end the weekend: David Nadien in short salon pieces. He really was the most extraordinary unknown violinist; in this kind of music, fully the equal of Heifetz and Kreisler (and better, technically, than Kreisler). Thank goodness he left some recordings, and more than his close rival, Josef Hassid.

Good that I did some back-list this weekend, because next week sees the arrival of 3-CDs of Bach's "48", plus 3-CDs of symphonies by Albéric Magnard, plus a couple of other CDs.

Friday, 11 July 2008

I am not normally a fan of the Mozart violin concertos. They are youthful works, and I have heard them too often (and played them often). Just too familiar for their own slender good. I made an exception this evening, however, for the 1954 recording by Theo Olof; old-fashioned violin playing (complete with a few tasteful portamenti!) that held my interest.

Which is more than can be said for John Ireland's E flat piano concerto, or Walton's viola concerto (Nabuko Imai). I can just about enjoy Walton's violin concerto from time to time -- in the right hands, and when I'm in the right mood. But the rest of his music always sounds very dated, in the derogatory sense of the word. This weekend I'll have to turn to more solid fare, and Ireland and Walton can go into storage.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Russian Bach evening. Tatiana Nikolayeva playing keyboard transcriptions, and Oleg Kagan playing the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas (1989, Amsterdam). How nice to hear romantic Bach away from the Richard Egarrs and Rachel Podgers of this world! Like sampling great Bordeaux wine after drinking vinegar. Bach would have been well pleased, I suspect.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

I agree with my friend Carlos that Henri Vieuxtemps is a vastly under-rated composer, having just spent an enjoyable evening re-hearing his second and third string quartets (Maurice Raskin Quartet). Music that is well written, well conceived and with memorable themes. It was Vieuxtemps' misfortune never to write a Big Hit (unlike Bruch with his G minor violin concerto, or Holst with The Planets). He also suffers from not having written anything for piano players, unlike Schumann, Chopin, Debussy or Liszt whose music has been taken up over a century and a half by horde upon horde of piano players. For Vieuxtemps, you need a violin (or viola). This makes him a minority composer. However, I do like these two string quartets, plus the 4th and 5th violin concertos (including one other ... the second? I forget). His music for viola is highly memorable, especially on the CD played by Pierre Lénert. He also wrote many remarkable short pieces for the violin (though we could do without his American pot-boilers).

Second evening of my latest remarkable Thai Seafood Tom Yum. Benefited from a kilo of clams along with the mussels, the squid and the langoustines. Enough left for one evening's full meal. The Livarot cheese is, however, now finished. RIP.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Ended a good Sunday with Bruckner's eighth symphony (2 June 1957 with Otto Klemperer in Cologne with the Radio Symphony Orchestra). Excellent sound and transfer (Medici Masters). The Germans of the old school - Klemperer, Wand, Knappertsbusch, Walter, Furtwängler, Böhm, Jochum, Kabasta -- plus the non-German Horenstein -- understood Bruckner's ebb and flow, his internal structural logic and his internal pacing. The German orchestras of that era had the music in their bones. Not much advance in Bruckner (or Wagner) performances over the past 50 years; it seems to be music of a byegone era. We are lucky to have some excellent souvenir performances (including the present one, newly discovered and issued from radio archives).
Good food Sunday. The day started well with a breakfast of lambs' kidneys and bacon. Continued with an excellent lunch of fillets of John Dory (St Pierre) cooked to perfection with butter and chives, followed by a fully ripe Livarot cheese and a first-class bottle of Beaune Premier Cru 2000 (Bouchard). Ended with cherries. This evening will be devoted to langoustines (courtesy of Morrison's). All accompanied by the music of de Bériot.
Listened with great enjoyment to three violin concertos by Charles-Auguste de Bériot. It is a complete mystery to me why concertos such as these, plus the Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski concertos, are not played routinely. Some unplayed violin concertos (Godard, Milhaud) deserve their neglect. Concertos such as those by de Bériot certainly do not; they are well written and full of catchy tunes, themes and melodies. The second concerto, in particular, made a good impression on me at this first hearing.

The performances of concertos 2, 3 and 5 on the new CD (kindly supplied by Lee) are good (Philippe Quint) but the recording (2006) is a bit dim and the soloist struggles to stay in the forefront. This is a pity. It would be nice, but probably quite unrealistic, to imagine that this is the start of a de Bériot revival and that we can soon expect rival performances from Leonidas Kavakos, Alina Ibragimova, Sergey Khachatryan, Janine Jansen, Alexandra Soumm, Hilary Hahn, et al.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Re-listened to the young folk. Alina Ibragimova's Prokofiev stands up well (not least because of the superb balance between violin and orchestra that, for once, lets you hear the important orchestral part). Gets my three stars.

As does, on a re-hear, Alexandra Soumm. She is not afraid to dig into the violin when called for, nor is she afraid to play piano when she should; no one has yet ironed out her dynamics, and I hope no one ever does. The Bruch was excellent -- though a tendency to linger shows up at times, unlike Ibragimova (or Janine Jansen) who have not given in to that post-1950s temptation. In the days of 4'45" takes on a 78 rpm recording, artists were not encouraged to linger, and the performances (usually) benefited from this.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Evening of young girls. I began with an off-air recording of Alina Ibragimova (born 1985) in a superb performance of Prokofiev's first violin concerto. Well accompanied (BBC Symphony Orchestra) and in good off-web sound (256kbps).

Then on to Alexandra Soumm (Viennese) born in 1989 and playing the first Paganini violin concerto. Absolutely stunning! All the requisite schmaltz, showing-off and exhibitionism that this concerto requires (plus, of course, complete technical command). Again, the orchestra joins in with gusto. A performance to rival Kogan, Mullova and Rabin; perhaps even to top them. Miss Soumm is quite a girl and has appeared from nowhere. Also on the CD is Bruch's G minor concerto. That awaits me tomorrow.

In complete contrast, finished the evening happily with Julie Hassler and La Rêveuse (Mirare label) in Purcell songs and instrumental pieces. Purcell, Bach and Handel are my daily bread, butter and jam. The CD was a lucky find in the Harmonia Mundi shop in La Rochelle yesterday morning.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

I seem to spend a lot of my time listening dutifully to music I really do not like. This evening ended with Darius Milhaud's second violin concerto (in a 1971 recording by André Gertler). If something has not been accepted into the popular corpus of music after 60 years, there is (usually) a good reason. Milhaud's concerto is just note-spinning, and I really do not like it.

The two dishes I eat today today were pre-packaged meals. I don't know why I buy these things; the meals I prepare and cook myself are invariably superior. To bed this evening feeling disgruntled, not helped by an unwelcome phone call. Maybe tomorrow will dawn bright and clear.
Hopefully Robert Schumann wrote better for the piano than he did for the violin. Listening to 60 minutes of his music for violin and piano, I am all too conscious of the fact that he rarely writes for the violin above "C" on the stave. It's music for the violin's G, D and A strings only.

The saving grace of this new CD is the violin playing of Stéphanie-Marie Degand, plus the excellent sound of the newly restored 1883 Steinway piano, plus the demonstration recorded sound and the balance between violin and piano (Olivier Peyrbrune plays the Steinway). The first sonata is its usual welcome self; the three Op 94 Romances are mildly enjoyable. The second sonata never inspires me, mainly because of its vast and nondescript first movement (over 13 minutes in length). But bravo Stéphanie-Marie -- she is one of the very few violinists who is equally convincing as a "baroque" violinist or a modern one -- and bravo the recording company (Ligia). Most unfair that the French currently have so many very fine violinists, pianists and cellists.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Saturday afternoon, and Handel's Tolomeo. In a baroque opera, the composer is vital, and Handel is on good form here, with satisfying music following satisfying music for nearly three hours. Second to the composer are the performers, above all the singers. In the current recording, Ann Hallenberg, Karina Gauvin, Anna Bonitatibus, Pietro Spagnoli and Romina Basso are all well balanced as a team, and each is on top of his or her (challenging) vocal music. Ann Hallenberg has a lovely way with her "rrrrs" when she is angry. Il Complesso Barocco is on its usual fine form in the "orchestra pit".

Baroque music needs an informed, talented and inspirational music director, and Alan Curtis is just what is needed. No Furtwängler or Toscanini is needed in Handel (nor in Bach or Vivaldi). Music directors need to be people who impose order and balance and dictate the tempo giusto (which, in turn, is dictated by the music, the words and the context). Handel doesn't leave you troubled, perplexed, ecstatic or plunged in gloom; he just leaves you happy and satisfied.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Soirée gastronomique (as the French would say). First, the wine:
Chassagne-Montrachet 1998 (Domaine Bachelet) from near Beaune. I bought it in the year 2000 from Monsieur Bachelet when it was still only around £9 per bottle. It is beyond superb.
Then the meat: Gambas (uncooked, but frozen) from Jesse Smith (500 gm).
Then the tomatoes (Dutch, cheap) bought 6 days before from Sainsbury's.
Then the herbs and spices: garlic, rosemary, basil, black pepper, salt, olive oil, butter.
It all took a long time, especially the "tomato sauce"; removing the skins is a major chore.
But what a dish! All preceded by an excellent pâté de foie gras. The good news is that there is more than enough sauce left for the second pack of Jesse Smith's frozen gambas. The weekend promises Handel, Bruckner .. and gambas. Followed the above meal with Act 1 of Tolemeo (Alan Curtis directing). Good Friday.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Ein Bachabend -- perhaps anticipating my projected pilgrimage to Eisenach (and Halle) later this year. Seven Bach cantatas in one evening! A record. The first three were directed by Sigiswald Kuijken, the last four by Philippe Herreweghe. Of the two, Herreweghe pleased me more, with a more solid approach, more solid sound, and superior soloists. Kuijken favours a "Bach-Lite" approach, and I really do not approve of "choirs" with just the four soloists -- and I'm sure Bach wouldn't like it, either. And Kuijken's energy can sound a bit frantic on occasions.

Bach's music is endlessly fascinating; and pretty difficult, too, for the singers on many occasions. Kuijken's soprano, Siri Thornhill, doesn't impress too much, with a thin, reedy voice. And his tenor, Marcus Ullmann, struggles on occasions. Herreweghe's team fairs better, but the tenor, again (Hans Jörg Mammel) often makes the difficult music sound difficult. Prompts the reflection that the extraordinary high technical standards now taken for granted in instrumental playing have not, for some reason or another, carried over into the vocal part of the music schools.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

An unusual evening (musically) in that it was devoted with pleasure to orchestral music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Snow Maiden were followed by Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, and Elgar's Enigma Variations, both the latter very ably performed by the Philharmonia under Malcolm Sargent around 1958 -- and very well recorded. Never thought I'd be enjoying Flash Harry conducting; but both the Vaughan Williams and the Elgar were exemplary, without any over-egging of the cake.

Then on to Sibelius's Sixth symphony -- still my only real favourite among Sibelius's seven. The LSO performance under Colin Davis (2002) at last supplants my von Karajan favourite from the mid-1950s. A highly civilised evening.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Georg Friderick Händel was born on the 23 February 1685 in Halle. About four weeks later, around 150 kms to the south west in Eisenenach, Johann Sebastian Bach was born. The two giant composers never met and led completely parallel lives, Bach never leaving Germany, and Handel roaming over Germany, Italy and then England.

At the age of just 22, Handel wrote -- among many other things -- the 2 1/2 hour oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. What a work! Jewel after jewel, smash hit after smash hit. No 22 year old in musical history (except maybe Bach) has written so much, so early, at such an exalted level; certainly not Schubert, Mozart or Mendelssohn all of whom wrote attractive early works. The performance I listened to this evening (Emmanuelle Haïm, with Natalie Dessay) is completely perfect, right down to the violin playing ("Corelli's part") of Stéphanie-Marie Degand.

Evening completed by half an excellent duck. To bed happily.
On a second hearing, I quite took to the Op 22 string trio by Sergei Taneyev (Borodin Trio, courtesy of Carlos). I shall persevere with this (long) work. There is a new recording by Repin, Pletnev et al, and I might invest in that also, since the Borodin can be a bit over-powering (closely miked, with not too much air around the sound -- sounds as if one is sitting right in the first row of the auditorium, next to the piano).

A work with which I shall definitely not persevere is the second sonata for violin & piano by Furtwängler; even more mediocre than his piano concerto! It sounds as if, in 1890, a violinist and a pianist engaged together in a meandering improvisation for 45 minutes. On the shelf with it! Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler were giant conductors, but pygmy composers.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Two lots of Bruch's first violin concerto: Vadim Repin with the Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle (Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire -- a video performance) and Sergey Khachatryan with the Cleveland Orchestra under Kurt Masur. Repin was better; he sounded involved with the music and played for all he was worth under the critical eyes of the Moscow audience.

Khachatryan sounded more involved with his violin than with the music, and concentrated on producing a beautiful sound at very broad tempi (the work seemed to go on for ever). Bruch does not have the depth to survive a long-drawn-out traversal. In addition, Khachatryan was given an "American" balance, with the violin too forward and the orchestra a little dim in the background. Khachatryan is a very fine violinist indeed, and I just hope he is not going to go down the modern slow-slow-slow path that so many confuse with deep feeling and profundity.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

In Brussels, my friend Daniel extols the virtues of Severin von Eckardstein (piano) and Michel Tabachnik (conductor) in an orchestral concert there.

Meanwhile, I spend a highly enjoyable few hours listening to Handel's Amadigi sung by Maria Riccarda Wesseling, Elena de la Merced, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir and Jordi Domènich. Al Ayre Español directed by Eduardo López Banzo. And what do they all have in common? The fact I have never come across any of them before! The recording of Amadigi must be one of the very few orchestral or operatic recordings in my collection performed by a group of Spaniards -- apart from one or two -- (excluding Jordi Savall in Monteverdi). And very fine it is, too. For Handel (as for Bach) you need singers with attractive voices and a fluent technique, a well-rehearsed and capable band of instrumentalists, and a director who concentrates on balance and tempo without imposing his (Eliot Gardiner) or her (Emmanuelle Haïm) ideas on the piece. I prefer this new Amadigi to that by Minkowski. And Jordi
Domènich is one of the few counter-tenors to whom I can listen with real pleasure.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Shostakovich again this evening (third string quartet). But I was really too sleepy to take it in properly. Evening began well with cappelletti, followed by a kilo of mussels from Michael in Tetbury; extraordinary quality, and I must make this a regular purchase. Much better than the supermarket mussels, and not really more expensive. Followed by an excellent camembert and a brie de Meaux (Quayle's in Tetbury), with half a bottle of St Emili0n (Le Chevalier Collier). Tomorrow will be Amadigi di Gaula (new Spanish recording).
Revelling in my new pile of 11 CDs awaiting listening, I plumbed for: the Shostakovich piano quintet, played by Richter and the Borodin Quartet (1966), a CD kindly sent to me by Carlos. Since I first began finding my way with different composers in the 1950s, Shostakovich's stock has risen and risen. Back in the 1950s and 60s he was treated condescendingly as a "socialist realist" and stooge of the Soviet régime and musically no better than Arnold Bax. But since then, the favourites of the 50s and 60s have faded, and Shostakovich has risen (quite rightly, in my view). I like the piano quintet very much. One day I really must listen seriously a few times to my collection of the 15 string quartets, but their number is daunting even though their quality seems to be high. I must also persevere with the symphonies -- especially the 10th that everyone admires but has never greatly appealed to me. There is so much great or interesting music still to be listened to!

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Wonders will never cease. This evening I found myself enjoying, for the first time in quite a while, a performance of ... the Brahms Violin Concerto! The pleasure was due to the playing of Christian Tetzlaff who played in "the old way", bringing back memories of Szigeti, Morini, Sevcik, Schneiderhan, et al. His tempi were similar to those of Szigeti and Heifetz in the 1930s: no wallowing, no dragging things out. Makes you realise how Oistrakh, Menuhin et al changed ones perceptions of the Brahms concerto.

The admirable Tetzlaff performance (courtesy of Akiko Kose) came from 28 January 2006 with the NHK Symphony Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt. If I ever played the Brahms violin concerto, this is how I would like to play it. I must investigate Tetzlaff further.
Downloading a 1928 recording of Beethoven's "Ghost" piano trio (Op 70 No.1) recently, I was amazed to find I didn't already have a recording of it (though I do have a handful of "Archdukes"). Listening to the Ghost yesterday evening (Concertgebouw Trio), I concluded that -- as well as writing some of the greatest music ever written -- Beethoven did churn out a number of pot-boilers. His trios -- string or piano -- do not strike me as particularly imbued with genius. It is not surprising that I have not bought a Ghost in 50 years, nor that the trios seem, on the whole, to be somewhat neglected by the record companies. Compared with the piano trios of Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Ravel, et al, Beethoven here comes in very much as second best.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Back in England, at last. And the sun is shining and it's around 25 degrees! Desperate for cheese and fish after my American trip; but Quayles had no camembert, and neither Morrisons nor Sainsburys could come up with plaice, squid or mussels. Gastronomic gloom.

However, I greatly enjoyed a CD I plucked serendipitously from my shelves: Irina Muresanu playing the violin & piano sonatas of Guillaume Lekeu and of Albéric Magnard. 70 minutes and 28 seconds of gentle, fin de siècle music, and well played.

Listening to my latest Music & Arts acquisition (Furtwängler in Lucerne in 1947 and 1953) it was brought home to me just what a difference a major conductor can make in concertos. The first Beethoven piano concerto (Adrian Aeschbacher) and the Brahms double concerto (Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Enrico Mainardi) come over much stronger with a firm conductor at the helm. A pity the Brahms double suffers from inferior recording, since it's a very fine performance indeed.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Ordered five new CDs that should be waiting for me when I reach home next Friday: Bach, Bach, Handel (Amadigi), Bach and Vivaldi. Shows where my musical tastes are now leaning!

Friday, 2 May 2008

In America for two weeks, so not a good period for Musicke (or Food). But the load was lightened by hearing and watching on YouTube Sandrine Piau singing Vivaldi's In furore iustissimae irae. A voice of civilisation! It's a lovely piece of music; I have come to Vivaldi very late, having thought he was just a Four Seasons composer.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

After a pleasant, relaxed day yesterday, today was black. As usual with black days, the only music that is acceptable is that of ... Handel! Enjoyed Amadigi di Gaula this evening (Marc Minkowski version). The opera contains some really lovely music. The performance is good over all, but some of the singing is a bit squally (Eiddwen Harrhy) and I have never taken to Nathalie Stutzmann's somewhat un-feminine voice. I think I'll also invest in the new recording just out from a mainly Spanish cast. Can't have too many recordings of Amadigi!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

A superb large fresh plaice this evening; undoubtedly the best and cheapest de luxe dish that can be bought. Eaten with great pleasure.

Then I renewed my acquaintance with Shostakovich's piano quintet, an impressive work often reminiscent of late Beethoven. The 1949 performance by Shostakovich with the Beethoven Quartet sounds entirely authentic. Somewhere there must exist a better transfer than the Doremi disc I have, typically over-filtered and with a thin, shiny sheen to the violins. If only someone, somewhere would re-incarnate this performance coupled with the Gilels, Kogan, Rostropovich recording just a few years later of the Tchaikovsky piano trio! I would buy ten copies.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

An evening devoted, strangely enough, to Nicolai Myaskovsky. I listened first to the cello concerto (Jamie Walton) followed by the violin concerto (Vadim Repin, with Valery Gergiev). A pleasant evening, and I had half forgotten what a good violinist Vadim Repin is. Myaskovsky came over as very much a Russian contemporary of Vaughan Williams; equally rare on modern concerto programmes.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Renaud Capuçon is a most impressive young violinist; I must re-visit his recordings. On his new CD, a compilation of 21 small pieces, he comes over as a 21st century version of Nathan Milstein: suave, stylish, never striving for effect, and with a formidable amoury of colour, bowing and dynamics. Capuçon understands -- as did artists such as Milstein, Heifetz and Beecham -- that small salon pieces must never drag and must never be over-inflated.

This CD is 74 minutes of delightful music coming from the Guarneri del Gesù of Renaud Capuçon. Jérôme Ducros accompanies skilfully. André Tubeuf contributes a typically flowery and pompous liner note that tells you all about his literary pretensions and little about the music or the performers.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

It has been a while since I last enjoyed the music of Camille Saint-Saëns ("the greatest composer who wasn't a genius", someone said). But this evening I basked in his fourth piano concerto in a pretty definitive 1939 performance by Robert Casadesus, Pierre Monteux and the Concertgebouworkest. Super work, and inspired playing.
For dessert: Back to Bach (the cantatas BWV 18 -- Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt -- and BWV 106 -- Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit). The performances by the Ricercar Consort under Philippe Pierlot are near-ideal, to my mind. BWV 18 has the viola part that I used to practice so assiduously! Coming back to Bach after my recent diet of Handel and Vivaldi, I notice the sheer density of the music; everything is polyphony (but also, of course, highly melodic).

Saturday, 5 April 2008

When my father (born Short Street, Horwich, 1903) was in his last weeks, he asked for a music player in his room and listened over and over again to ... Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss. After three hours of baroque high-voice vocal music this evening, I suspect that one day -- far, far in the future -- I would wish to die to the vocal music of Bach, Purcell, Handel or Vivaldi. This evening was Simone Kermes in Handel (as already recounted) followed by Kermes in Vivaldi (Amor Sacro, and Amor Profano). Definitely music to die to.
A week's pause. Now back to cockles, squid, an incredible livarot ... and Handel sung by Simone Kermes and Maïte Beaumont (excerpts from Amadigi, Rinaldo and Alcina). Great food, and great music. When you put Handel and Vivaldi side by side, the Saxon wins every time.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Lise de la Salle is my kind of pianist: objective, technically adroit, with an admirable balance between left and right hands and a total adsorption in what she is playing. A Norman equivalent to Leif Ove Andsnes, another pianist I admire greatly. I listened to de la Salle this evening in Shostakovich (first concerto), Liszt (first concerto) and Prokofiev (first concerto). Re-discovered yet again that Liszt does absolutely nothing for me whatsoever; 50 years of perseverance have taken me no nearer to liking the man nor his E flat piano concerto.
Next week I'll be passing through Cherbourg, de la Salle's home town, and I'll think of her fondly. I look forward to her next ten CDs; it would be good to hear her in person some time.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Good weekend for important discoveries. Simone Kermes has already been mentioned, but her voice really is addictive. The other discovery was the cellist, Jamie Walton in the Elgar and Myaskovsky cello concertos (a very sensible coupling). As I have mentioned before, I am not very partial to cellists; but you would never know Jamie Walton was playing a cello! It sounds like a big viola. His performance of the Elgar is very fine indeed and brings out to the full the pessimism that permeats the work, without underlining it and wallowing in it as I find Jacqueline du Pré did. If Simone Kermes is the Heifetz of the baroque sopranos, then Jamie Walton is the Heifetz of the cello; a truly remarkable sound and technique. The recording quality in the Elgar and Myaskovsky is excellent, and the Philharmonia plays well.

The weekend Thai soup was well up to standard and would probably have won a silver medal in a Bangkok Tom Yum contest. If I could only find fresh galangal, I might even win the gold medal! Have to re-try galangal's cousin, fresh root ginger. And I also discovered bocconcini con prosciutto; quite delicious, but very expensive from Quayle's.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

I risk being unfaithful to Sandrine Piau, having now discovered Simone Hermes. In mottetti by Vivaldi, Hermes sings with incredible accuracy, perfect style, and with a soprano voice that is tinted with gold (whereas Ms Piau is tinted with silver). And I have now discovered Vivaldi's cantatas, duetti and mottetti, so there is no stopping me! I have already ordered Ms Hermes' second Vivaldi CD. The playing of the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon is exemplary. If I become a Mormon or a Moslem, I could live with both Sandrine Piau and Simone Hermes.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Worked at this weekend's Thai shellfish soup; preparation took 75 minutes today (mainly because of the quantity of smallish squid). We shall see what it turns out like tomorrow evening when I start eating it, but my heart was set on Thai soup this weekend.

In music, as in food, it's usually best to follow one's instincts. My musical instincts this evening demanded the Schubert B flat major sonata D 960 (played by Leif Ove Andsnes) and, yet again, the second Rachmaninov symphony conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. This time, though, I did toy with the Previn, Fischer and Litton versions; a glance at their timings, however, (slower) sent me back to Pletnev. Rachmaninov must not drag, and this is true of all the post Romantics. It is highly instructive listening to Rachmaninov and to Elgar in their own music; very pre- Herbert von Karajan.

A bit ridiculous listening yet again to two old faithfuls given the number of "awaiting listening" CDs in my pile (with two new CDs due for delivery tomorrow). But if that is what one's body demands at the time ...

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Three Russian violin concertos, courtesy of Daniel in Brussels. Rakov first concerto. Kabalevsky Op 48 concerto. Shebalin Op 21 concerto. None of the three made any real impression on me. The 1995 performances by Andrew Hardy were unremarkable, with an "all-occasions" vibrato; no wonder I had never heard of Mr Hardy before, nor since. Not the musical find of the decade. The Russians during the Soviet regime produced some remarkable violin concerti -- Prokofiev (x2) and Shostakovitch (x1), plus Khachaturian, Myaskovsky and Taktakishvili. But not, alas, the three conceri on this Oympia CD.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Black, black, black Saturday. Fittingly, it ended with Rachmaninov's second symphony, and then Tchaikovsky's sixth. For black days, Russian music. Both works conducted, of course, by Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Symphony Orchestra. I really could throw away all competing versions.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Beethoven is not normally one of my preferred composers. But I will always make an exception for his late string quartets; timeless classics that are part of the Bible of the highest ranges of music. Especially, one might think, when played by the Busch Quartet. Listening this evening to the E flat quartet (Op 127) one marvels yet again about how right Busch was in this music. Other quartets may be more brilliant, more virtuoso and with better recorded sound. But Busch is right; he appears to have an uncanny knack of always finding the right tempo. Busch seems to start by identifying the pulse of the music, then fixing the tempo, then the dynamics, in a way that you never have any doubts or questionings as to whether things could be done differently. This pulse and tempo sense holds through to his Schubert playing (the quartets, and the fantasia) and also his performances of the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos. Finally, in his quartet playing there is absolutely no cult of personality; the four members play as they should, weaving in and out of each others' space. Quite and completely admirable.

Monday, 10 March 2008

A Medici Arts reissue of Michael Rabin warhorses prompts a short reappraisal of this meteorite of the 1950s. In the first Paganini concerto, his 1960 recording (with Goossens and the Philharmonia) is still one of the very top – though his original 1954 recording is perhaps fresher. And in both versions it really is a pity about the cuts and truncations; during the same period, both Menuhin and Kogan were showing that the uncut concerto works better. In the second Wieniawski concerto one can admire his violin playing, whilst pining for the characterisation that Heifetz and Elman brought to this piece; a great pity the Medici Arts people didn't choose Rabin's 1957 recording of the first Wieniawski concerto, where he is seen at his considerable best, and with little recorded competition. The refurbished sound of the 1960 Abbey Road recordings here is excellent (though it was not bad to begin with).

The 1959 "Hollywood" recordings (with Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra) illustrate something of the Rabin tragedy. Recordings in which the soloist is over spotlit, poorly balanced and with "virtuoso" violin playing taking precedence over the music. The sound in these pieces is maybe actually worse here than in the Capitol originals. One admires the fluency, the ease – and the trills! – in Rabin's playing of Saint-Saëns' Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, Dinicu's Hora Staccato, and Paganini's Moto Perpetuo. Technically he is superb, but the music doesn't come from within and we end up admiring the astonishing violin playing rather than the musical feeling.

As the 1967 Chicago recording of the Brahms concerto revealed all-too fleetingly, Rabin was capable of real musical intuition once away from the Hollywood circus. His life really was a tragedy and a condemnation of our culture's propensity to prefer instant exploitation to long-term growth and pleasure.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

A very enjoyable CD of viola concertos by Hoffmeister, Hummel, Joseph Schubert and Weber makes me growl anew at the stereotyping of repertoire. Viola players are supposed to limit themselves to the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, plus Berlioz's Harold in Italy. But the 58 minutes of playing by Gérard Caussé (with the Soloistes de Montpellier-Moscou) is really delightful. The 20+ minute concerto by Joseph Schubert (1757-1837) is much better than anything written by Franz Schubert when he was very young. CD courtesy of Lee.

Rounded off the evening with mélodies (Chausson) and Lieder (Strauss) sung beautifully by Sandrine Piau. She really does have a lovely voice.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Ilya Gringolts is quite something in his traversal of the music of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst – including all six of the Sechs mehrstimmige Etüden. Maybe a bit a short on charm, but no shortage of technique. Ernst's music can be a bit embarrassing in the hands of anyone who is not completely top-notch. But Gringolts copes supremely well.

Darius Milhaud was a contemporary of Dmitri Shostakovich, and also shared a superficially similar musical idiom But Arabella Steinbacher's immaculate survey of his violin and orchestra music (including the two concertos) shows that Milhaud was mainly froth and lacked the inner iron core of his Russian contemporary. Attractive froth it may be, but not music of substance, despite the best endeavours of the talented Ms Steinbacher.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Bravo Marina Chiche, with Vahan Mardirossian at the piano. The duo played all eleven movements of the three Brahms violin & piano sonatas (plus the F.A.E. scherzo) without rousing my ire or my eyebrows once. Good, passionate, committed performances by two young artists (Marseille for her, Armenia for him). Often these young performers give more pleasure than "big name" performances, particularly when it comes to balance and true duo playing. A nice CD, though my collection is a bit saturated with Brahms violin & piano sonatas; those who select repertoire are so lemming-like in their choices.

Friday, 29 February 2008

A big standing ovation for Lara St John, having just finished listening to the second CD of her complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin (AR 132, 2007). The liner notes are long, learned and exemplary. The recording is exactly how such things should be: naturally reverberant, not too close.
Technically, the violin playing is extraordinary; Lara can play faster than most, more accurately than most, louder than most, softer than most. A dazzling display of violin bow strokes, tempi, dynamics and finger dexterity. Every movement on the two CDs comes up sounding fresh. What shines through all of this, however, is Lara's love of, and feeling for, the music. The approach is not classical; it's not HIP. It's just right.
I won't throw away my complete sets of Heifetz, Martzy, Milstein, Kuijken, Fischer, et al. But I know that any time from now on I want to hear the Bach unaccompanied pieces ... I'll reach for Lara St John. Nice to hear music played by a master player who obviously loves what she is playing.
Anything negative to counter all this gush? I have no idea why this exemplary production is festooned throughout with Lara in model-like poses (around five different dresses). Having seen her, we all know she's no oil painting. So why the harping on the desirable female angle? The playing is more than enough to stand by itself.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Listened to the 2nd, 4th and 7th concertos of Charles-Auguste de Bériot and was strangely impressed with the music. Much of the 19th century concerto output is musical vapourware, but Bériot obviously had a stronger composing streak than, say, Godard, Ernst or Hubay -- or the concertos of Paganini, come to that. Not bad pieces at all.

That said; like all second or third rate music, it needs love, care and attention such as conductors like Beecham or violinists such as Heifetz, Elman, Kreisler or Rabin used to lavish lovingly on minor works. With the best will in the world, Laurent Albrecht Breuninger (violin) with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie under Frank Beermann are not in the Heifetz-Beecham class. And the recording is "acceptable" rather than demonstration class.

The music is played professionally and accurately. Who could do it properly amongst today's plethora of efficient whizz-kids? Perhaps Janine Jansen, Sarah Chang, Hilary Hahn or Lisa Batiashvili -- or even Maxim Vengerov. But some hope; we are lucky to have Breuninger and his helpers so at least we can hear the notes played accurately and in the proper order .. while waiting for these three concertos played by Heifetz, conducted by Beecham.

Found a kilo of fresh langoustines today. I suspect I have overcooked them, again. I must develop a better langoustine cooking calcuation method.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony never, ever fails to please me (if I'm in the right mood). No other symphony has such unity of emotion (gloom) nor such an incredible balance between its four movements -- there is not one movement of the Pathétique one can skip over. Far better, to my mind, than any symphony by Gustav Mahler or Robert Schumann. And Brahms? Well I'll take the Pathétique with me any day.
One of these days I must listen to one of the other excellent versions I have: Toscanini, Furtwängler, Cantelli ... But I always stick on the recording of Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra. Quite good enough for me.
The day also featured an excellent leg of young New Zealand lamb, perfectly cooked, for a change. Happy to bed.