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!