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.