Monday, 28 December 2009

Arabella Steinbacher plays the Beethoven violin concerto beautifully and intelligently (especially the Larghetto). I love her playing (and the recording quality). But she is too slow. The first movement weighs in at a massive 26'32 (compared to Janine Jansen's recent recording where she takes a healthier 22'56). Beethoven marked the tempo allegro, for heaven's sake (with ma non troppo as a qualifier). And the concerto dates from 1806, not 1875. To me, much as I love Ms Steinbacher's playing, it all sounds too long and too precious. A shame.
Home coming after Christmas, full of good food. Started my evening with Sandrine Piau singing Handel (quite glorious), followed by Astor Piazzolla playing Astor Piazzola (courtesy of Carlos), then ended with Pavel Sporcl's CD Gipsy Way [as it is spelled on the sleeve]. Sporcl is a highly impressive violinist, and this CD is probably one of the best compilations of gypsy-inspired music that I know; worth the CD for the Zigeunerweisen alone.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

As a change from the Berg concerto, I feasted yesterday on a new recording of Max Bruchs' G minor concerto played by Sarah Chang. This is the kind of music that suits Miss Chang down to the ground; she is a highly romantic player, emotional rather than cerebral. In music like Bruch, Mendelssohn or the Goldmark concerto she is most enjoyable (and still a very fine violinist). I must dig out her Goldmark concerto again; I remember doing a movement-by-movement comparison in this concerto between Chang and Joshua Bell; and Sarah Chang won hands down. Having criticised EMI's recording technicians recently, it must be said that they do a good job for Sarah Chang (and for the superb Dresden orchestra under Kurt Masur).

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Only once did I purposely buy a recording of Alban Berg's violin concerto, and that was in the early 1980s (Kyung-Wha Chung) when I was curious to hear the work. I listened to it several times, with complete incomprehension, and the LP later ended up in a landfill site somewhere. Since then I have had the misfortune to acquire NINE further recordings of this tuneless, themeless, melody-less, meandering concerto. The latest was yesterday evening, when Arabella Steinbacher had a renewed go at convincing me. I listened and listened ... and still hate the piece. There are so many better violin concertos written in the twentieth century (not least the under-appreciated one by Benjamin Britten). Ms Steinbacher has the Berg concerto as a filler to the Beethoven, which I shall listen to with much more interest, since she is a fine violinist. As for Berg: Bah!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

An unexpected pleasure. I don't remember what made me click my mouse on the début CD of Sophia Jaffé, but it certainly wasn't because I had read or heard of this young Berlin-born violinist. Probably it was the selection of works on the CD -- eclectic, but not hackneyed. So we have the Four Pieces by Josef Suk, the Bach E major partita for solo violin, Ysaÿe's second solo sonata, and Beethoven's Op 96 sonata. This is the only recording of the Suk four pieces I posses bar one by Ginette Neveu that I have loved since the original LP came to me back in the 1950s.

Miss Jaffé is impressive. A marvellously deft right arm. Strangely, the four works on this 78 minute CD could almost have been recorded by four different violinists, since Jaffé is very good at varying her approach, sound and style to suit the different composers and the different periods. Only in the Beethoven Op 96 (very well played) did I feel she sounded slightly "conventional". But the Ysaÿe and Bach were joys to listen to, and the Suk yielded little to my cherished Ginette Neveu recordings. Why are these Suk pieces not played more often? The fourth piece -- Burleska -- temporarily found favour with violinists as a virtuoso encore piece, but otherwise performances seem to be rare. Probably what first attracted me to Jaffé's CD. But I received a lot more pleasure than I had bargained for! If Miss Jaffé manages to pick a similarly enterprising programme for a second CD, I'll be there.
Unfortunately, the two CDs of Schubert works by the Belcea Quartet are not a big hit with me. I have already commented on the undesirability of long, first movement exposition repeats in a recording for frequent consumption. Here, the Quintet's first movement weighs in at 20 minutes. The first movement of the D 887 Quartet extends for a massive 22 minutes. And even the Death and the Maiden's first movement is 16 minutes. Particularly in the case of the first two works, I find their structures become unbalanced.

More annoying, on re-listening, is the wide dynamic range of the recording. Set the volume control so that the frequent fortissimo passages are not too loud, and I then have to strain my ears to listen to the frequent pianissimo passages. Maybe listening through headphones would partly solve the problem; but not the problem of the repetition in the first movements. Quiet playing is a good, and rare, thing. But not if you can't hear it!

Friday, 18 December 2009

I am new to the music of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and came across it only recently when I was highly impressed by a couple of arias on a Simone Kermes compilation. Apart from having some of his music purloined by the avaricious Igor Sravinsky (always looking for cash from musical arrangements) I knew none of his works. Rectified this week by the purchase of his famous Stabat Mater and Salve Regina (Claudio Abbado conducting in Bologna). What music, and what a talented composer! Dying at the age of only 26 hardly helped his long-term career prospects. But for what he left us, we should be truly thankful. More Pergolesi will enter my collection shortly.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

I sometimes wonder about EMI. It does seem to me that I have often felt dissatisfaction with many of the company's post-1980 recordings. I enthused recently over Harmonia Mundi's recording quality in Isabelle Faust's Beethoven violin sonata set. Listening to the Belcea Quartet's Schubert recordings (2009, EMI) doubts surface. Individual instrument sounds and characters are lost, since there is no "air" round the recording; it almost sounds as if it were mono, recorded through headphones. It could be argued, of course, that a string quartet should sound like a blend of four instruments, not a collection of four distinct players. But the Busch Quartet was marvellous in the 1930s and one could still admire Adolf, Hermann and their colleagues.

The actual performances by the Belcea are excellent; the broad dynamic range (specified by Schubert's dynamic markings) gives the three works a sharp, bitter edge that sounds most un-Viennese but is probably much what Schubert wanted. More controversial, for me, is the Belcea's decision to obey the repeat markings in the opening movements of both the C major Quintet and the last G major quartet. Composers mark repeats for all kinds of reasons: from habit or convention, to form a logical, balanced structure, or to enable newcomers to recognise the new material being presented before the subject matter is developed in the development section. It is this last reason, I suspect, that persuaded Schubert to mark the long expositions of the first movements of these two works to be repeated (as he did with the last, B flat major piano sonata). However, with a recording that one can play over and over again for years, this "familiarity" reason disappears. The first movements sound too long, and the overall structure of the works is disrupted.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

After well over 50 years of serious music exposure and listening, there is a long list of works and composers I love. Two special favourites to whom I return again and again are Handel, and Schubert. This morning I took delivery of a two-CD set of Schubert's Death & the Maiden quartet (D 810), G major quartet D 887, and the C major String Quintet D 956. Works of inexhaustible beauty. The new set comes from the Belcea Quartet and I shall listen with great interest.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A pleasant surprise listening to Henry Merckel on a Music & Arts CD. He plays the Saint-Saëns third violin concerto, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, and a couple of bits. I really thought my days of listening to the Symphonie were over, but it was good to listen to the refined, sophisticated sound of the Franco-Belgian violin school. Merckel's trills are a pleasure, and his right arm articulates the music and points the phrasing. Somewhat sad that this kind of lithe, sophisticated style of playing was soon to be buried by the popularity of the organ-toned sound of a new generation of violinists such as Menuhin, Oistrakh, Rabin and Stern. But great to discover that Merckel's sound and style still lives on in these recordings from the 1930s (with the Pasdeloup Orchestre).

By coincidence, I also listened to a "Musique en Wallonie" CD on which someone called Charles Jongen plays Vieuxtemps' Fantasia Appassionata Op 35 and Henri Léonard's 4th Concerto Op 26. Highly attractive music, highly competent violin playing. Alas, there are not even any second-rate Belgian orchestras, let alone first class, so the Orchestre Symphonique de Liège fumbles around in the background. But no one buys Vieuxtemps or Léonard for the orchestral bits.

Monday, 7 December 2009

A big cheer for Simone Kermes and her new CD of twelve arias from "18th century Naples". A CD I really hesitate to file on my shelves; I need it close to hand! Astonishing, and scandalous, that nine out of the twelve arias are claimed to be "world premier recordings". The music from Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Nicola Antonio Porpora, Leonardo Vinci, Leonardo Leo and Johann Adolf Hasse is as delightful as strawberries and cream on a warm summer's day. Nearly as delightful as Kermes' singing is the band of Le Musiche Nove conducted by Claudio Osele. A 24 carat gold CD. I am next in line for whatever Simone Kermes comes up with in the future.
We all have our blind spots. In music, even after over 50 years of really trying, I still cannot warm to the music of Josef Haydn or of Antonin Dvorak. A friend has just sent me a fine recording (Panocha Quartet) of two Dvorak string quartets and, true to form, I was bored to tears when I put them on. What is it about Haydn and Dvorak that makes my eyes glaze over?

I decided that it must be because I like my music to have an occasional dash of lemon or of tabasco. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert provide this .. as do Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Shostakovich. But, for me, Haydn and Dvorak just write simple, happy peasant music. No twists. No emotions. No forebodings. I might have added Mendelssohn to the list of simple souls, but at least his Opus 80 F minor string quartet shows that he was capable of real emotions from time to time. Sorry Antonin; sorry Joseph. Your superb, professional music is just not for my ears.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

I am greatly enjoying the C major violin concerto Op 30 of Moritz Moszkowski. I have now listened to it three times -- with pleasure. It has attractive themes and is very pleasant listening. A bit over-long at 37:43, but far above the meandering efforts of "composers" such as Weingartner, Bruno Walter, or Furtwängler.

The playing of Thomas Christian is accurate and tasteful. But one cannot help wishing the concerto was being played by Janine Jansen, Alina Ibragimova, Renaud Capuçon .. or Kreisler, Heifetz or Michael Rabin. In pleasant music such as this a committed violinist with personality makes quite a difference. Still, all praise to Thomas Christian for actually playing the work, in the first place.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The music critics and academic musicians of the twentieth century have a lot to answer for. Their systematic denigration of anything they considered to be "traditional" music -- ie, non-revolutionary -- made composers such as Sibelius shut up shop. I recall the premier of Shostakovich's first violin concerto being damned with faint praise, as was the premier of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. All music was post- Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Nono, Stockhausen, Boulez, et al. Bartok was suspicious, Stravinsky was admitted cautiously for his later, cerebral music. In England, William Glock and Hans Keller reigned supreme at the BBC and made sure that no 20th century music with even the hint of a tune or melody was allowed on the air. Practising musicians -- and audiences for music -- may have hated the dodecaphonists and all their followers and hangers-on. But few such people worried what musicians and audiences liked.

Slowly, the hidden music of the 20th century is being brought to light. To read one of the initial criticisms of Rachmaninov's fourth piano concerto, quoted by Yevgeny Sudbin, is to realise just what composers were up against: "It is neither futuristic music nor music of the future. Its past was present in Continental capital half a century ago. .. Mme Cécile Chaminade might safely have perpetrated it on her third glass of vodka". Thank you, learned American critic. On a new CD, Sudbin plays the original, uncut version of Rachmaninov's fourth piano concerto and makes a very fine job of it. The concerto was dedicated to Nikolai Medtner -- another victim of writing "unrevolutionary" music -- and the CD couples this with Medtner's second piano concerto, dedicated to Rachmaninov. Sudbin writes his own programme notes and opines, concerning the Medtner: "Why this concerto is not performed more often nevertheless remains a mystery and is nothing short of scandalous. It offers everything a pianist, or a conductor, can wish for". Bravo Yevgeny Sudbin for the (excellent) performances. And bravo BIS for recording the two works and making them available. Stockhausen's second piano concerto, anyone?
There is no shortage of recordings of Beethoven's complete set of 10 sonatas for violin and piano; from sets I have, Kreisler-Rupp (1930s), Szigeti-Arrau (1940s), Ferras-Barbizet (1950s), Grumiaux-Haskil (1950s), Pamela and Claude Frank (1990s) and Christian Tetzlaff with Alexander Longuich all spring to mind. I have now added Isabelle Faust with Alexander Melnikov; the new set is of a very high standard indeed but somewhat "different". Faust goes from pianissimo to fortissimo; her tone goes from sweet to (intentionally) somewhat harsh. Her bow darts around. The firm end result for me was intense admiration -- for Beethoven's music. Played by Faust and Melnikov he comes over as a true revolutionary of 1800, writing music that is often experimental and frequently "different". Too often this music can sound like a wannabe-Brahms; but not here. Maybe the second movement of Op 30 No.3 doesn't sound as beautiful as usual; but you turn to Faust and Melnikov for excitement, variety and astonishing mood changes, not for simple beauty.

The recording (Harmonia Mundi) is excellent, with a good balance between piano and violin. Faust and Melnikov have a true duo partnership. Kreisler and Rupp are still around after 70 years; maybe Faust and Melnikov will have a similar long life. I have long been a fan of Isabelle Faust, and this new CD set confirms my admiration.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

My appetite is returning, so the virus is abating. Just a question of multiple boxes of Kleenex for a while.

I embarked on the latest instalment of Sigiswald Kuijken's Bach cantata series (Volume 9). I am now a fan of the series (and of the music). The instrumental contributions are usually excellent, and the vocal contributions variable, but usually good. One complication is Kuijken's claimed "discovery" of Leipzig pitch at A=465 Hz, versus Dresden pitch at A=415 Hz. This seems to be based on organ tunings. For instruments this is no great problem, of course -- they either tune higher or lower, or transpose. But voices can sound a bit desperate at A=465, with the bass, Jan Van der Crabben often sounding more like a basso castrato, and the tenor, Christoph Genz, sounding even weedier than usual; no Heldentenor, he. What with Marco Vitale's "Roman pitch" of A=392, and Kuijken's "Leipzig pitch" of A=465, those who claimed to possess "perfect pitch" (whatever that was supposed to be) must be having a hard time of it.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Back from travels to Brussels and Paris. 'Flu has struck and I am laid low with a vast pile of new CDs to choose from. What will I pick first? Well, first was Paul Agnew singing Purcell songs; yet another Purcell song disc for my collection, but no one can have too many such discs. Agnew sings very well indeed; the three accompanying instruments are excellent (Elizabeth Kenny et al) and a special note for the recording quality; one notices right from the start the excellent balance between the four participants and the excellent "space" around the music. I like Purcell.

Second was Chloë Hanslip's new CD of Hubay (Naxos) that comes with a special "glamour" outer cover of the podgy Chloë (presumably paid for by her mother, since Naxos does not usually push young flesh). Once discarded and binned, the tasteless outer sleeve reveals a normal CD inside with a cover picture of Jenö Hubay; much more appropriate, given that he composed all the music on the disc. Hubay was not a great composer, but he wrote some attractive late-romantic music. Ms Hanslip plays very well and partly makes up for the tacky outer sleeve. At least she habitually gives us Hubay, Bazzini, et al and not yet more Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Brahms and the other usual suspects.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A big pat on the back for Brilliant Classics for Volume I of its promised complete Handel cantata series. Prices are eminently sensible (ie, low) for these CDs. The performances of the first four cantatas conducted by Marco Vitale, with Contrasto Armonico and Stefanie True are excellent. Vitale uses a compromise "Roman pitch" of A=392, and this gives an attractive mellow sound without the screeching and rasping that often characterises "baroque" performances.

Ms True is Canadian, and although her Italian sounds accurate, she does not relish individual words in the way a native Italian speaker would. A pity; but at least she sings prettily and in tune. It is a problem with vocal music that no one sings it quite like a native-speaker does. Anyway, a very minor flaw in a superbly recorded, performed and sung CD.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Opus Kura has issued new transfers of George Enescu's 1929 studio recordings of Corelli, Chausson, Kreisler, Pugnani and Handel, together with a 1950 recording of him playing his own third sonata (with Célingy Chailley-Richez). These 1929 Enescu recordings (almost the only ones he ever made, in his prime) are a whole master class in the art of violin playing and illustrate why the voice, the piano and the violin have triumphed over all other musical instruments when it comes to repertoire and popularity.

With Enescu, we hear incredible right arm techniques, truly magnificent trills, a highly sophisticated range of vibrato, the ability to paint with a broad palette of colours, the ability to combine rubato with firm rhythmic control. Corelli's La Follia variations illustrate almost every aspect of a violinist's art -- and also show you do not need to indulge in baroque follies in order to play 18th century music with no excesses of 19th century romanticism.

I expected Enescu in 1950 to sound well past his prime (he was partly crippled with a spinal disorder). But his playing of his own third sonata, despite the obstacles, is still better than anyone else I can think of. It is really tragic that the recording industry did not fight to record Enescu during the 1926-33 period; we have very few performance souvenirs of this great violinist.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Two Christians; two Joachims .... a CD sent to me by a friend seemed to have things in common. Joseph Joachim's first (Op 3) violin concerto is played by Thomas Christian in a recent off-air broadcast (WDR). Joaquin Rodrigo's Concerto d'Eté is an old recording by Christian Ferras (with Ataulfo Argenta).

But there the similarities end. In truth, Joseph Joachim's first violin concerto is a pretty stodgy and uninspired work. Thomas Christian sounds like an accurate player, but he is neither inspired nor inspiring. The work drags on and sounds like many dutiful violin concertos that have never survived the test of time.

Joaquin Rodrigo's violin concerto came like a welcome draught of clear spring water. The concerto is immediately attractive, with good thematic material. Moreover, Ferras communicates a love of the work and his playing (in 1953) is charismatic. Ferras might even have been able to breathe life into Joachim's first concerto ...

There is a strange symmetry between the lives of Christian Ferras and Michael Rabin. Both were truly first-class violinists. Both had an enthusiasm and joie de vivre in their playing. Both sprang on the world in the early 1950s. Both reached their zeniths in the early 1960s. Both fell to earth in the 1970s, one the victim of alcohol, the other of narcotics. On this current CD, it is good to have the playing of Ferras in the Rodrigo concerto preserved.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Perplexing CD of James Ehnes playing short pieces on a variety of old Italian instruments (CD kindly supplied by Lee). Perplexing because Ehnes scores 10/10 as regards violin playing -- intonation, bowing, fingering, intelligence, style. No faults; not one.

Violinists such as Kreisler, Rabin, Heifetz, Elman, Kogan ... and now Jansen, Ibragimova, Josefowicz, Kavakos, et al -- bring to their playing a mixture of warmth, affection, emotion, love, exuberance, grace, style and charm == either as regards their violins, or the music: or both. For me, Ehnes' playing -- like that of past maestros such as Kubelik and Prihoda -- is devoid of emotional involvement. "A" for violin playing; "A" for musical intelligence; "C" for emotional involvement, that magic Ingredient "X" that transforms marvellous performances into great ones. Emotional involvement is often present in recordings; one has only to think of Leila Josefowicz's searing performance of Shostakovitch's first violin concerto (2006), or Lara St. John's recent recording of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. But it ain't present in Ehnes's current recital.
Whether I favour Bach or Handel seems to depend on which one I listened to last. What is certain is that their music is as different as chalk from cheese. At the moment, I am in a Bach mood, having just finished listening to four cantatas on Sigiswald Kuijken's latest disc. As usual, Kuijken's instrumental ensemble is excellent and prominent; there is no choir, with the chorales being taken by the four soloists. The soloists are mainly excellent, with the bass, Jan Van der Crabben being especially good, and the tenor, Christoph Genz, being a bit weedy.

The weekend's food is again my usual range of mussels, squid and crab, supplemented with a little ham and saucisson. Wine is usually the extraordinarily good 2006 Gigondas red (La Ferme du Mont) that I bought from Cirencester.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Good ear-friendly CD from the Bulgarian Svetlin Roussev and the Russian Elena Rozanova playing Franco-Belgian music. Hard to say anything new about César Franck's sonata or Ysaÿe's third sonata. But I enjoyed hearing again Saint-Saëns's Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso. Also an entirely new six minute piece -- an Andantino Quietoso by Franck that I have never heard before. Violinists should take it up as a alternative to the hackneyed Méditation from Thaïs or the crumby Banjo & Fiddle. It probably never made it to the established short-piece list because, at six minutes, it was too long for a 78 rpm side during the vital recording period 1905-50. "Too long, Monsieur Franck".

Roussev plays well, and Rozanova is a highly intelligent player; when I make my long-delayed Carnegie Hall début, I'll choose Rozanova as my partner.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Back from Spain, with a big pile of unlistened-to CDs awaiting me. Of course, I made a beeline for Sandrine Piau singing Handel oratorio arias. A highly satisfactory CD; lovely music, lovely voice, excellent accompaniment (Accademia Bizantina). Handel's music is truly wonderful, and neither German, English nor Italian.

Not so Sergei Rachmaninov; he may have been a wandering cosmopolitan from necessity, but his music is 100% 24 carat Russian. I followed up Handel with Rachmaninov's The Bells (Evgeni Svetlanov from the late 1970s). I have never heard it before, but will listen to it again with interest and pleasure.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Against the oddds, I find myself enjoying Renaud Capuçon's new CD very much indeed. The tempi in the Korngold violin concerto and the Beethoven violin concerto are all slow -- with little exception. Not usually favoured by me. And Capuçon's tone is unfailingly sweet -- a kind of 1909 Kreisler mixed with Heifetz mixed with Itzhak Perlman. Not usually favoured by me. But Capuçon convinces in both works -- how, I don't really know. He plays so well, he sounds so lovely, he is so intelligent. I will re-listen to these works. In the Beethoven he plays the inevitable Kreisler cadenzas, even though there are plenty of alternatives. The Rotterdam Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin sounds almost like the Vienna Philharmonic. Perhaps it's all a trick of the recording engineers. Whatever: a good disc.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The violin concerto by Benjamin Britten has had a chequered history. The first recording was in 1948 (Theo Olof), after which it more or less languished for around fifty years, with sporadic performances, and recordings more as a filler than a central work. It is a dark concerto, anguished and multi-layered; and highly impressive, much more so than the slick Walton concerto. Gradually, however, it is coming into its own with recordings by Mark Lubotsky, Vengerov, Mordkovich, Frank Peter Zimmermann ... and now Janine Jansen.

Ms Jansen is a superb player of this work. She obviously loves it, and plays it often (I also have an off-air recording of her playing it a few years ago). She dominates the work and plays it from "inside", giving the impression she knows exactly what she is doing, and why. And, to boot, she is a fine violinist playing on a fine 1727 Strad. A three star performance of what I am rapidly concluding is a much-neglected three star concerto. Britten is not one of my preferred composers (as with Mahler, I just like bits and pieces of his output). But this is my kind of concerto.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

I have now listened to all six solo sonatas and partitas of Bach played by Alina Ibragimova. The fast movements are entrancing ... many of the doubles in the B minor partita, the finale of the third sonata, the Prelude of the third partita. In the slower movements (such as the first movement of the third sonata) the baroque violin sound whines and rasps a little; violins do not sound at their best playing long notes with no vibrato. However, grouches about the current "original instrument" fad aside, this is a truly excellent set of the Bach works. Ibragimova's technique is exemplary, her bow dashes and darts, her dynamics are beautifully varied from a true pianissimo to occasional fortissimi, and she evokes a myriad of colours. And, very importantly, she plays the music as if she really enjoys it; there is none of the solemnity one gets with players such as Julia Fischer or Johanna Martzy. Ibragimova dances her way through these six works.
The boys' voices / white tone movement seems to have been vanquished when it comes to baroque vocal works. Maybe there is hope for the violin yet. Anyway, Ibragimova goes into the top three. Hyperion's recording is excellent.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

In strict Moslem societies, women -- even pretty women -- are obliged to cover themselves in public with some variety of burka. In the modern musical world, violinists -- even pretty young violinists -- who want to play or record Bach in public are obliged to chose a dry sound with no vibrato. It is not surprising that when Kreisler, followed by Elman and Heifetz, burst upon the world with warm vibrato, the old order of non-vibrating violinists was swept away pretty quickly.

In her new recording of the complete Bach unaccompanied partitas and sonatas (Hyperion) Alina Ibragimova sounds as though she is playing on a somewhat harsh violin. No warming vibrato anywhere. Which is a shame (and Johann Sebastian Bach would probably have thought so too). It's the current fashion, Herr Bach. It's a double shame, since Ms Ibragimova is a very considerable violin talent indeed. Unlike her rivals such as Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Joshua Bell, et al she eschews major publicity. She just plays the violin, very well indeed. I remarked before (17 February) how I was amazed to enjoy someone playing Bach's B minor partita; the music is good quality professional rather than inspired, but Ibragimova has you hanging on to every note. Remarkable, even with the dry, wirery sound of a baroque violin. So far I've only listened to the first sonata and first partita in the new set. I have little doubt, however, that I'll love all six works, despite the violin sound. Here's hoping the sound fashion changes while Ms Ibragimova is still in top-flight form, as here.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A little disappointed with my new "Trout" Quintet played by Martin Helmchen, Christian Tetzlaff, et al. The brook in which this little fish swims is too crystal clear for my liking. I prefer Schubert with a little Viennese warmth to him -- the sort of thing Kreisler would have brought to the music had he ever recorded it. That will teach me to pay attention to all the critics, who thought the Helmchen performance the best thing since sliced bread. I'll go back to some of the classics: Schnabel and the Pro Arte Quartet, or the Vienna Octet, or to my recent much-liked recording with the Capuçon brothers and Frank Braley.

This evening: the first of my Thai fish soups of the season!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Given my love of much late Romantic music, it is strange that it has taken me around 55 years to connect with César Franck's symphony. After 55 years, I only have two recordings of the piece, both acquired "accidentally" as part of compilations. Beecham's 1940 public performance comes in a large, cheap box. And Giulini's 1957 performance comes as part of a two CD Giulini "profile".

At any rate, I have discovered Franck's symphony at last! It is glorious music and, to my mind, much preferable to all the Mahler and Dvorak symphonies that are churned out endlessly, even if the first five minutes sounds like a note-for-note crib from Die Walküre. I cannot recall noticing Franck's symphony on a symphony concert programme (though doubtless it must be played sometimes, somewhere). Giulini's performance sounds good to me, and it's nice to be reminded what a good orchestra the Philharmonia was back in 1957.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Well, my eleven hour retrospect of Fritz Kreisler the violinist is over. Even when the music is not to my taste (the finale of Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata, for example) there is plenty of compensation in listening to Kreisler's vioin playing, to his sense of rhythm and rubato, and to his sound, which is sweet without being cloying. A CD set to keep; every violinist ought to be issued with one, since they could learn more from listening to Kreisler than from years of lessons and master classes with well known figures. Interesting that Kreisler never had a formal violin lesson after the age of twelve -- much like Nathan Milstein and Albert Sammons.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

I am, somewhat bizarrely, embarking on an 11 hour marathon of listening to the violin playing of Fritz Kreisler -- even if it involves me in listening to two Beethoven violin concertos, two Brahms, two Mendelssohn and two Mozart 4th. It is, however, a most interesting experience and I can think of very few violinists who could hold a listener's interest during 11 hours consecutive listening.

The first thing about Kreisler's playing to impress is the fact that he obviously plays music he loves and music he knows. There is never the feeling that "my manager said I should programme this to enhance my reputation". Secondly, although he was a superb violinist, Kreisler never sought to impress anyone with his playing; he never sought to make jaws drop. He just put his violin under his chin and played, lost in the world of music making. I am less impressed with his Mozart K 218 concerto which often sounds languid to my ears, especially in the 1939 re-make with Malcom Sargent. But that is a question of taste.

Kreisler's trills impress, and I am conscious that I always notice the trills of many of the older generation of violinists, never the modern (has anyone ever admired Tasmin Little's trills?) George Enescu was famous for his trills. With Kreisler; I notice them with appreciation. It's also good to hear Kreisler's superb sense of rhythm and rubato; very Viennese. I enjoy the occasional plaintive sound of his violin, with echoes of gypsy and klezmer playing from Central Europe.

In general, the 1926-7 concerto performances (with Leo Blech) in Berlin please me more than the 1935-6 remakes with Barbirolli, Sargent, et al. Partly, one suspects, because in 1926 Kreisler was "only" 51 years old but, by the mid-1930s, he was in his sixties. Never a great fan of practising, and somewhat lazy, there are more fluffs with Kreisler than with modern hot-shots. But, there again, he recorded (from 1904 onwards) well before the age of tape-splicing, and one cannot imagine Kreisler agreeing to multiple re-takes; he was not that kind of musician. We have to learn to live with fluffs; and why not, if the overall magic is there? His 1926 Mendelssohn in Berlin with Blech is one of the best I know; fleet and sweet. I had forgotten it, but now give it three stars.

A sense of Gemütlichkeit, ravishing sound, plus truly interesting violin playing: what more could we ask for? The EMI transfers seem to be fine.

Friday, 11 September 2009

A sixty minute recital of 18 short violin pieces. Who could hold our attention from Minute 1 until Minute 60? The answer is: very, very few violinists. Heifetz, certainly. But also Fritz Kreisler, as per my listening this evening. What did Kreisler have that Tasmin Little or Julia Fischer do not? That is a difficult question to answer. The answer is certainly not "technique" (though Kreisler is usually almost faultless in this respect). It is partly a question of style, of empathy with the piece being played. And partly a question of articulation; Kreisler used mainly just the middle of his bow, with bow hair very tight, and he pressed hard on the strings. He thus uses his violin to articulate and this, coupled with his preference for playing where possible on just one string, and using his warming and tasteful vibrato throughout, gives his playing a unique stamp.

The new EMI Kreisler box of 10 CDs cost me just £17. Where, oh where, were such incredible bargains when I was an impecunious youth? There is no excuse for everyone not to buy this box, and to feast on the contents. Kreisler was born in 1875, and so he was probably the first "19th century" violinist to be accessible in reasonable recorded sound (the earliest pieces in this box date from 1904, when Kreisler was already 29 years old). Music from another time and another place. But how lucky we are to have it encapsulated for all time.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

I first heard Mendelssohn's violin concerto around 1952-3 when I was given a set of 78 rpm records with Menuhin playing, Enescu conducting -- it's still a very fine performance, the last recording of Menuhin's "youth". Over the past 55 years I've heard the work far too often; it's a bit of a mystery why it's featured non-stop on conference programmes and in recordings. Yes, it's a most attractive concerto in a light-weight manner; but so are many others by de Bériot, Spohr, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Saint-Saëns and others. Maybe because, at least since Ferdinand David, there have been so many Jewish violinists, and the Mendelssohn concerto is about the only real one written by a Jew. British violinists have to play Elgar; Finnish violinists have to play Sibelius; Norwegian pianists have to play Grieg. And Jewish violinists have to play, and record, the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

It has had many bad performances. The worst I encountered in concert was given by Andrew Haveron, who reminded me what it's like following a car down a winding road where the nervous driver's brake lights come on every 30 seconds. Kreisler, Szigeti, Heifetz, Menuhin, Kogan, Oistrakh, et al would ease up a little during the sentimental passages in the first movement. Many violinists post-1960 keep stamping on the brakes every time a melody appears. All praise then to Leonidas Kavakos, in a new recording, for playing the music lightly and intelligently and letting it speak for itself without grotesque underlining by the soloist. Kavakos conducts the Camerata Salzburg and it's a fine performance. I have liked Kavakos for many years; a very underestimated violinist, in my view.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Felix Mendelssohn was a curious composer. Fluent, melodic, attractive. But rather like composers such as Haydn or Saint-Saëns, his music reveals almost nothing of himself, or his feelings. The shadows and emotions that enliven composers as diverse as Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner or Shostakovich are absent from Mendelssohn's music (apart from the wonderful Op 80 string quartet in F minor).

So I listened with pleasure to Leonidas Kavakos, with Enrico Pace and Patrick Demenga in the first and second piano trios. Agreeable music, very well played and recorded. But no emotions are stirred. It's like being at a polite and well-behaved tea party.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Guillaume Lekeu died at the age of only 24. The few works he left behind, however, contain some remarkable music. This evening I was listening to his piano quintet; Lekeu died before he could complete the work with a third movement but, like Schubert's Unfinished, or Bruckner's ninth symphony, it does not seem to matter; the first movement and the lent et passioné slow movement are feast enough. The recording I have by the Eugène Ysaÿe Ensemble (Brilliant Classics) seems good.
An enjoyable new CD of music by Astor Piazzolla, played by various combinations of Jacques Ammon (piano) and the Artemis string quartet. Enjoyable (and interesting) listening. These pieces when played by Piazzolla and his quintet (bandoneón, piano, guitar, violin and double bass) emphasise the earthy, folk side of the music, with its blend of tango, folk, jazz and European classical. When played by the Artemis, one is more aware of the European classical influences. One needs both CDs! But it strikes me that this is how classical music should have developed over the past fifty years, with an instinctive blend of folk, jazz and classical traditions. Back and underline the words "instinctive blend"; we certainly do not need the stark commercialism of so much "fusion" or "cross-over" music, designed to appeal to "yoof". But Piazzolla's music rings true.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Schubert, Handel and Bruckner have become very good old friends. This evening it was the turn of Handel and Bruckner. The new recording of Handel's La Resurrezione di Nostro Signor Gesù Cristo conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm is excellent, with spirited and intelligent playing from Le Concert d'Astrée. I would query some of Haìm's tempi, but there is nothing too out of the way. The five vocal soloists are fine, and I especially warmed to Kate Royal and Luca Pisaroni -- good to have a bass singer who does not bluster. This is my fourth recording of La Resurrezione; what astonishing music it is, for a precocious 23 year old, casually demonstrating all his powers and pulling rabbit after rabbit out of his hat.

Then on to Bruckner, and his ninth symphony. I did not think I would particularly enjoy any other performance after the famous 1944 Furtwängler one, but there are many attractions with the new CD from Sony with Fabio Luisi conducting the wonderful Staatskapelle Dresden. For a start, the sound is superb, recorded in the Semperoper in Dresden. Then there is the orchestra, with beautifully integrated sonorities. Luisi's conducting is sound on structure -- all too important in Bruckner who suffers too often from episodic interpretations. After Furtwängler, Luisi's tempi do sound measured, and one misses the sheer passion that Furtwängler brought to the 1944 performance. But I shall return to Luisi with pleasure; his is a serious and enjoyable performance.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Loud rock music all weekend in the field next to where I live. Makes normal life impossible. I have had to take to listening to loud music through my (quite good) Sennheiser headphones. Thus I re-discovered Marin Alsop's broadcast performance of Elgar's second symphony and I have to say it's pretty good in a rough and ready sort of way. Alsop knows you must not linger in Elgar, and she propels the orchestra through the four movements, all to great advantage. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has some good wind players and exuberant brass, though the violins always sound a little weak (too many anorexic girls in the band). Still, the orchestra makes up with enthusiasm what it lacks in finesse. This was an enjoyable performance that, at times, defeated the sounds of the rock band. A fortuitous selection from my CD shelf.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

It's official: I really, really do not like Heinrich Ernst's variations on "Last Rose of Summer". I listened to the piece again played (impeccably) by Feng Ning. The first few minutes are quite fun, but after that it goes on and on and the pyrotechnics begin to sound just ridiculous. After four minutes, I've had enough. Nor did Mr Ning impress me greatly, outside this piece. He played La Ronde des Lutins as if it were nothing more than a qualifying event at the Olympic Games. Few violinists seem able to bring much fun or enjoyment to the goblins' merry dance, and I recently greatly disliked Chloë Hanslip's super-fast version. Mr Ning's rendition of Tchaikovsky's Méditation sounded carefully studied, bar by bar, and we were a long way from the sorrowful outpourings of a Kogan or an Oistrakh.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

A Schubert evening: Imogen Cooper again in the A major D 959 sonata (with the slow andantino) and Wilhelm Furtwängler's legendary 1951 recording of the "Great" C major symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic playing like angels. Played like this, it is a very great symphony indeed, and this performance is a classic of all time. The reconstituted sound (DG Originals) is almost miraculously superb. I love the way Schubert's moods and harmonies twist and turn in these two late works. Definitely my kind of composer.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The inhabitants of the flats above and below mine are away, so I can indulge in Bruckner and Wagner to my heart's delight at full volume. Spent a pleasant day with Handel's Resurrezione -- my third recording of this lovely work, with a fourth (Emannuele Haïm) on order and due any day now. This latest acquisition is a Dutch affair conducted by an Italian (Marco Vitale). It uses "Roman pitch" of A=392 Hz, and some of the tempi are somewhat stately, so it often sounds as if Handel is in murky Glasgow rather than sunny Rome. A pleasant performance and recording, though my hackles rise at the sound of the San Giovanni (Marcel Beekman). To me his voice sounds unctuous and oily, though his diction and Italian are exemplary.

I interspersed Handel with Schubert, and delved into the first of two recent CDs from Imogen Cooper. Nice playing and nice sound (and terrific music; late Schubert really is very special). But when I was learning music, andantino was not Italian for "at the pace of an elderly snail".

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Yet another talented young violinist. Yawn, yawn. There are now so many one loses track. Especially if they are Asian, as so many seem to be. So I put on a CD of someone called Chuanyun Li playing potboilers and prepared to like the technical perfection but to find the playing anodyne and pasteurised. But it turns out Chuanyun Li is very, very good indeed and I was reminded of my first tentative experimental listening to David Nadien. Li plays superbly (of course) but he also has a sensitive musicality and a good sense of style. After hearing his rendition of Paganini's almost impossible Nel cor più non mi sento I think the piece should be banned to all but those of Li's technical stature; there have been some pretty doubtful renditions of nel cor since recording began.

I was prepared to smile condescendingly at Li's performance of Strauss's Op 18 sonata, thinking back nostalgically to Heifetz and Repin. But, no: even here Li and his pianist (Robert Koenig) are well worth listening to. It should also be remarked that the (Chinese) recording is perfectly balanced and recorded.

Hunting round for something to criticise: it's a pity young violinists seeking to make their marks do not look round for attractive violin miniatures outside a selection from the usual twenty or so. There must be around 400 good pieces available, but here we get the same old Zapateado, Salut d'Amour, Kroll's mediocre Banjo & Fiddle, Gluck-Kreisler Mélodie, etc. Only things missing are Liebesfreud and Massenet's Elégie. But Mr Li does turn in a very good Ronde des Lutins.

Monday, 17 August 2009

In his interesting book Fiddling with Life, the Canadian violinist Steven Staryk expounds on the importance for teachers of communicating the concept of different styles of performance to their pupils. Staryk's words came back to me listening to Ivan Zenaty and Antonin Kubalek playing Dvorak's music for violin and piano (a Dorian recording from 1992). Leaving aside Zenaty's violin playing, Kubalek's piano playing and Dvorak's music, one is very conscious of how, stylistically, everything sounds right. Actually the playing, and much of the music, are also right.

Nationalism in musical performance is a dangerous area. Once one admits that the Russians are a bit special in Russian (and Slavonic) music, the French and Belgians in French music, and the Central European school of Czechs, Hungarians, Austrians and Germans in the music of Central Europe: what about all those superb instrumentalists in Israel, North America, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, etc? What are they supposed to specialise in? (The Americans only have the Barber concerto, for Heaven's sake).

And there are well-known examples of chameleons who cross the boundaries. Heifetz's sophisticated and subtle playing is well suited to the French repertoire, and his playing of César Franck, Lalo, Vieuxtemps and Saint-Saëns easily rivals the performances of the Gallic Artur Grumiaux or Christian Ferras. Gioconda de Vito's Brahms was famous, and the Canadian Leila Josefowicz sounds superbly at home in Shostakovich. However, as a generalisation, the nationalistic bias has some foundation in practice: after 80 years, the English Albert Sammons is still my first choice in the Elgar violin concerto, and the Germans Georg Kulenkampff and Erich Röhn fight it out over the Beethoven violin concerto.

Perhaps the best example of non-style is Yehudi Menuhin who sounds exactly the same in Bach, Bartok, Brahms, Enescu or Lekeu. No chameleon, he.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Handel considered Theodora to be one of his best oratorios, and one of his best works. It was not very successful in 1750: "Ye Jews won't come, 'cos it's a Christian theme. Ye women won't come, since it's about a virtuous woman" Handel is reported to have said, philosophically. 250 years later, I spent a highly enjoyable Sunday evening listening to Theodora (being neither Jewish, nor female). The work has an attractive unity and flows convincingly from melodic aria to chorus to recitative. Handel was right: it is one of his best works (though pretty well unknown since 1749 when he wrote it).
Thanks to Lee, I am conducting a re-appraisal of the playing of Itzhak Perlman. So far I have listened to de Bériot's delightful Scène de Ballet, and Viott's Concerto No.22 in A minor. Perlman has never greatly appealed to me; I once heard him live around twenty years ago (in London) playing the Sibelius violin concerto and recall that, although being highly impressed by the accuracy of his playing, I found the end result somewhat bland and nowhere near the classic performances by violinists such as Heifetz or Ginette Neveu.

My impression is confirmed by the present CD. It is difficult to imagine better violin playing; it's almost a text book. However, the unfailing and relentless sweet tone begins to jar after a while, and the Viotti concerto seems to go on for ever. As well as a beautiful sound, perfect taste and perfect technique, a violinist has to have variety of sound in his or her playing. Perlman is Mr Sugar. I never liked his playing of the Paganini Capricci and always found them too bland and too monochromatic.
Further explorations of the baroque organ in Saxony and Lower Saxony. I have made some new friends: Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627-93), Johann Jacob Froberger (1616-67), Johann Pachebel (1653-1706), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). Much of the music on the two CDs (listened to so far) is a welcome addition to my listening repertoire -- I think of Johann Froberger's Toccata V da sonarsi alla levatione, or Samuel Scheidt's Variationen über eine Gagliarda von John Dowland. A touch of variety is provided by a piece by Theodor Grünberger (1756-1820): Neue Orgelstücke nach der Ordnung unter dem Amte der heiligen Messe zu spielen. The liner note writer pinpoints Grünberger exactly: "a kind of amiable, countrified descendant of Viennese Classicism".

On these two CDs, Klemens Schnorr plays the baroque organ at the Basilica in Benediktbeuern, and Dietrich Wagler plays the Zarachias-Hildebrandt organ of the church in Langhennesdorf. Still to be heard is a CD of Pachelbel played by Wolfgang Rübsam.

One puzzling casualty in my organ listening is J.S. Bach. One is very conscious here that Bach was something of an anomaly, a high baroque throw-back to a more polyphonic age. Although most of the composers mentioned above composed and played around Bach's country just before his time, one is conscious that Bach is different. Personally, I find the magnificent, magisterial and complex sound of much of Bach's organ music unsuitable for my living room (much as Mahler's symphonies turn out to be just too noisy for my lounge). Mahler's noisier music probably needs a large concert hall, and Bach's noisier organ music a big, big church.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Naxos CD of duos by de Bériot contains some excellent music. My opinion of de Bériot goes up and up. On a summer's afternoon, with a glass of Crémant de Loire in hand, there is little that could beat this music. The playing by Christine Sohn and John Marcus, two New Yorkers, is fluent and professional. You would not mistake the duo for Heifetz and Milstein, and they lack the individual sound and style that these two would have brought to the music. But the CD is very welcome indeed and makes one wonder why these attractive pieces of music are not played and recorded regularly. I'm also sad that I never had the chance to play them in my violin-playing days.

Friday, 7 August 2009

I am quite pleased with myself. It is good to find I am not yet too old as to overcome prejudices. Give me a jazzy-type CD featuring a quintet playing South American-type music (all those sambas, tangos, rumbas and -- for all I know -- tongas), and throw in the fact that the lead player squeezes away on an accordion, of all things: a recipe for the back of a back shelf. But a CD featuring a quintet (in 1963) led by Astor Piazzolla playing the music of the said Piazzolla has given me a great deal of pleasure. The music is highly sophisticated and the instrumental combination -- violin, guitar, piano, double bass, and accordion -- interesting and eclectic. A disc to re-listen to often. Supplied courtesy of Carlos.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Old buffers such as Norman Lebrecht like to talk about the "golden age of recording" in the 1930s, 50s and 60s. But in truth, during that age there were only 6-8 recording companies distributing records internationally, which meant that only a dozen or so violinists and a dozen or so pianists and a dozen or so conductors had any look-in. If you wanted Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart performed by well-known names, you were OK. But demand Charles-Auguste de Bériot's 12 Scènes ou Caprices Op 109 for solo violin, and you would need to wait many decades.

Which is a pity, but the current real golden age means not only do we have instant access to all those recordings by Menuhin, Heifetz, Schnabel, Furtwängler et al; we also have access to the concertos, solo violin pieces and duets for two violins by Monsieur de Bériot. In this case, courtesy once again St Klaus of Naxos. The new CD of 68 minutes of solo violin pieces played by Bella Hristova reveals some very attractive and melodic music -- quite as interesting as Paganini's capricci. Ms Hristova (who grew up in Bulgaria but now lives in America) is an entirely competent and accurate player. I miss, however, the variety of sound and colour needed to hold one's attention for 68 minutes of solo violin playing, the kind of variety that I so admired in the playing of Fanny Clamagirand (Ysaÿe solo sonatas) or that Heifetz would have brought to these pieces. (Miss Clamagirand has, apparently, just recorded the three violin concertos of Saint-Saëns, and I'll be waiting in line for these).

A second de Bériot CD (St Klaus again) of duos played by Christine Sohn and John Marcus awaits listening by me. Not much de Bériot music was available during Norman Lebrecht's golden age of recording, which is a great shame since it is highly enjoyable music.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

For many decades now I have settled down to listen to Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata Op 106. Whether played by Gilels, Solomon or Schnabel, I have invariably found it a perplexing work that always leaves me on the outside looking in. And so it was this evening, even with Schnabel playing. A distinct relief to follow it with Sandrine Piau singing Handel operatic arias. No problem connecting with them.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Taste is a complicated matter, as are opinions. I spend a lot of time denouncing "beautiful" violin sound. Then I listen to Christian Ferras playing Guillaume Lekeu's truly wonderful sonata for violin and piano ... and I wallow in Ferras's beautiful (and musical) playing. Next thing I know I'll be praising the music of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. I must embark on a re-listening of Ferras, a violinist who has faded from popular view (except in France) but a violinist who, until he went downhill, could be numbered amongst the most significant and most enjoyable of the last century. Difficult to think of a bad Ferras recording (though I seem to remember not liking his recording of Chausson's Poème, a work in which I would have expected him to excel, but I think he only recorded it just once, in 1953, early in his career, and with a Belgian orchestra).

Saturday, 25 July 2009

I took delivery of my very first organ CD! In my youth, I bought a very small number of organ LPs, but they did not last long. My antipathy towards the organ centred upon a) its prominent place in churches and the Christian religion and b) the unholy racket it could often unleash upon the unsuspecting listener.

A re-think was occasioned by the 30 minute organ recital I heard in Halle a couple of weeks ago (on "Handel"'s organ, see a previous entry). Suddenly the organ became a cousin of the wind choir, and not necessarily an instrument for accompanying lugubrious hymns or chorales. So this weekend on the turntable went Klemens Schnorr playing the Simnacher-Kubak organ in the Jesuit Church of Mindelheim (Augsburg region). Short pieces by a meriad of unknown (to me) composers: Buxtehude, Scheidt, Bruhns, Kerll, Kobrich, CPE Bach, Corrette, Balbastre, Vierne, Grison and Knecht. The only piece where I had to press the "next piece" button was Jules Grison's Toccata in F major, which reminded me of a young man in a car with dual, modified exhaust pipes playing loud rap music with all the windows down. But most of the music was delightful, viz Claude Balbastre's Noëls: Au jô deu de pubelle, Grand déi, ribon ribeine [if any reader dead or alive can translate this, please do and let me know]. I shall buy more baroque organ recordings. With care.

The listening period was greatly enhanced also by Clara Haskil, a "cult" recording artist with whom I have only had a nodding acquaintance for the past fifty years. But her Audite recordings of Mozart concertos (19 and 20 -- the latter in two versions) plus Beethoven 4th concerto, had me entranced by the sheer effective simplicity and purity of her playing. She even (nearly) won me over to Schumann in the fill-ups -- Schumann's Bunte Blätter Op 90, plus the Abegg-Variationen Op 1. But I could have done without the Abeggs.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

My birthday. 68 today. 120 months left? Anyway, a thoroughly gastronomic day, with lunch at Quayle's (grilled garlic prawns and a glass of rosé) and dinner at home (fresh crab, very good ribeye steak from Jessye Smith, cheeses and apricots from Quayle's). Plus a bottle of red wine.

Stars of the evening? The wine (a 1998 from Margaux: Château Desmirail). And the Lincolnshire "poacher" cheese. Plus, of course, the final Nespresso. I think in my next life Ill live in a humble house, buy one CD a year, and spend my money on buying great wines early. I can't remember where the 1998 Margaux came from, but I think it was a present in Nîmes during the period 2001-3. It was quite superb and constituted the ideal birthday wine.

After dinner music was provided by Herr Artur Schnabel playing two more Beethoven sonatas. The Beethoven piano sonatas are welcome new food; all my life I have had a fleeting acquaintance with them all, but in only three cases -- Moonlight, Appassionata and Op 111 -- are they over-familiar.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Wednesday, so it was two very welcome crabs from the fishman in the Tetbury market. Especially succulent today. Plus the arrival of a mammoth box of 8 CDs played by Artur Schnabel. After eating one of the crabs, I especially enjoyed Schnabel in two Beethoven piano sonatas. The sound is very 1930s, but that really does not matter since it is so refreshing to hear playing that is so relentlessly focused on the music, not on beauty of tone, clever rubato -- or liner note photos of the artist in provocative poses. After 75 years, Schnabel in Beethoven still sounds so right. Of how many artists recording now will we be able to say that in 2084? I probably won't be around to see.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

After over fifty years of listening, it is now very rarely that I enjoy a performance of Beethoven's violin concerto; the piece is just too familiar ever since my days at Pagham and the Vox LP of Bronislaw Gimpel with Heinrich Hollreiser (I still have the battered old LP). Thus my surprise this evening in re-listening to Julia Fischer in the piece, with David Zinman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra recorded off-air in May 2007. Those who like Nathan Milstein will like Julia Fischer; there is a no-nonsense approach to the work, with swift tempi, and the violin playing is quite superb. An unexpected pleasure. I must not forget this recording.

I came back to it by accident, having pulled out the CD to check Lola Bobescu playing the Vieuxtemps fifth violin concerto (with Karl Böhm in 1963). Again, the Bobescu performance proved to be totally superb, even though this really is Heifetz's concerto. However, Lola yields little to Jascha in an exhilarating performance. This remarkable compilation CD is completed by a classic performance of Dvorak's Four Romantic Pieces Op. 75 played by Ivan Zenaty and Anton Kubalek; a most enjoyable performance of one of the few works of Dvorak I can listen to over and over again. The performance by Zenaty almost makes me forget the favourite recording by Akiko Suwanai. All together, a CD to treasure (HC 266).

Friday, 17 July 2009

Some thoroughly bad performances find their way to commercial recordings; but not many. A few really classic performances are recorded; but not many. The majority of recordings -- say the 600 or so recordings of the Sibelius violin concerto that possibly exist somewhere -- fall somewhere in between and much ink -- liquid as well as electronic -- is spent trying to decide and describe which one is "better" than the other one and thus comes 150th in the list rather than 151st.

Recording quality is another factor and, when many instruments are involved, recorded balance starts to become significant, at least for me. When it comes to performances of the "classical" 19th century Austro-German repertoire, I find myself inclining more and more to "old" German performers such as Furtwängler, Klemperer, Kulenkampff, Busch, Schnabel, Fischer, et al The works of Beethoven, Scbubert, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner and Bruckner often seem right in their hands. "Right" here means simple, inevitable, tempo giusto, how one would wish to play it oneself.

Reflections prompted by listening this evening to Hans Hotter and Michael Raucheisen in Schubert's Winterreise, recorded in 1942, and Edwin Fischer in the Schubert impromptus recorded in 1938. There is a familiarity and inevitability about these classic performances that removes them from all thoughts of competition.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Excellent lunchtime concert today in the Marienkirche in Halle on the Reichelorgel (on which Handel learned to play the organ). At the other end of the church is the big organ that J.S. Bach inspected in 1716. Handel was baptised in the Marienkirche, and W.F. Bach later became organist there, so it is an interesting place. The 30 minute recital included short pieces by Johann Kaspar Kerll, Pachelbel, Telemann, Gaetano Valeri and Samuel Scheidt, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe I'll take to the organ yet! But one needs a big, big room in which to listen to an organ.

The Hallesches Brauhaus serves good food and its own truly wonderful beer. A diet of beer and dumplings is going to do wonders for my figure.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The firm posthumous reputations of Joseph Haydn and Bela Bartok have always been something of a mystery to me. It is almost exactly 50 years since I carried home in triumph an LP of Yehudi Menuhin playing Bartok's first violin & piano sonata together with the solo sonata (a 1957 recording with Hepzipah). Now 50 years on and after multiple listenings of multiple performances by multiple violinists and I realise this is a work that is never ever going to appeal to me.

This evening I listened to the violin & piano sonata played by Menuhin (1947) with Adolph Baller. The New York recordings were excellent with a true balance. The Naxos transfers are demonstration class. Menuhin after 1936 could be a variable violinist (to say the least) but in this recording he is at his astonishing best and it is difficult to imagine a better performance of this piece and I greatly enjoyed the violin playing. But I still don't like the music and know I now never will.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Georgy Catoire is a little-known Russian composer, and I made his acquaintance via Carlos who kindly sent me some of his works, including the violin & piano sonatas played by David Oistrakh and Alexander Goldenweiser (1948 and 52). Catoire sounds like Wagner mixed with Fauré and César Franck. Unfortunately the Oistrakh / Goldenweiser CD was a wash-out; the balance was 65% violin and 35% piano (as so often in those days with recordings from Russia or America). But, even worse, it had been "processed" by the DoReMi team purifiers and poor old Oistrakh's Strad in its lower registers sounds like an alto saxophone. DoReMi gets hold of some really interesting and rare material -- then promptly usually proceeds to ruin it by over-filtering. This is far from the first time I have cursed with disappointment.

So I bought a CD of the "complete" violin & piano works of Catoire, since I like his music and the very-late Romantics are one of my favourite follies. The new CD, much better balanced and recorded than poor old Goldenweiser, features Herwig Zack (violin) and Bernd Zack (piano). Presumably, two brothers. I like the Zacks in this music, and I welcome the recording with its lifelike sound and equal balance between piano and violin. The filler is a couple of pieces by Ravel, and they fit a Catoire evening just fine. A good CD.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

It is always exhilarating to listen to Michael Rabin's violin playing. There is a verve, complete technical mastery and enthusiastic identity with the music being played when Michael wields the bow. The new Audite transfers of Bruch's G minor violin concerto plus bits by Sarasate, Wieniawski, etc from 1969 are very well played. The CD also contains a Saint-Saëns Havanaise from 1962 --perhaps the ill-fated Berlin tour where Rabin was booed by a disappointed audience. All the recordings come from RIAS in Berlin.

Disappointingly, the transfer of the violin sound is over-bright (except in the 1962 Havanaise). Someone ought to leave all these transfers to Mark Obert-Thorn.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The twentieth century -- particularly the first half -- saw many important and interesting composers of music. In several decades time, when all begins to fall into perspective, I suspect that the major figure of the century will prove to be Dimitri Shostakovich. For a start, his music is completely distinctive and can never be confused for one moment with the music of Bartok, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Sibelius, Britten ... or anyone else. This evening I listened with very great enjoyment to Shostakovich's G minor piano quintet, played (extremely well) by the "Amsterdam Chamber Music Society" in an excellent 6-CD box I picked up very cheaply. Fine music, beautifully played.
A task for the next few years is to get to know and digest the 15 string quartets of Shostakovich, and the complete major operas of Wagner. A major challenge.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Fame, and who becomes famous, has always been fickle. In the violin world, distinctive giants such as Kreisler, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Elman and Milstein have usually achieved prominence. But so many good, and even great, players have languished unseen and unheard of. And it is no different today. In what may be labelled "The battle of the PR men" very good violinists such as Joshua Bell, Chloe Hanslip or Nikolaj Znaider achieve popular renown. While truly first class violinists such as Liza Ferschtman remain relatively unknown. I listened to Ms Ferschtman yesterday evening with great pleasure in Stravinsky, Franck, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich pieces. Her playing had everything I wanted and I could not imagine better performances of each piece (and her piano partner, Bas Verheijden, was also excellent).

Ms Ferschtman obviously does not have the same weight of PR man as her superb compatriot, Janine Jansen. Which is her loss, but also ours since, in my opinion, she is a far more interesting and musicianly violinist than Bell, Hanslip or Znaider.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A critic a couple of years ago wrote an anguished piece on the subject of "musicians do not always know much about music". The critic had talked to a professional violinist, who had avowed that the music of Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascuéz was a lot more interesting than that of Luciano Berio (an avant-garde Italian composer). The critic squawked with outrage. But the violinist was right; for over a hundred years violinists have loved playing the music of Sarasate, and audiences have loved listening to his tuneful and interesting salon pieces.

Anyone tackling the Sarasate pieces comes up against strong competition and immediately invokes comparisons. In Zapateado, there are two extraordinary 17 year olds: Jascha Heifetz and Josef Hassid. In Playera there is the haunting sound of Hassid, a performance never equalled, in my opinion. In the Romanza Andaluza there are numerous recordings by Leonid Kogan with whom the piece was something of a speciality. And looming behind them all are the recordings of Sarasate himself in 1903 at the age of 60, performances that are straightforward, elegant, poised and in perfect taste.

In a 1989 recording, Mark Kaplan does well in fourteen Sarasate pieces. "Doing well" in such a context means that the listener is still enjoying every piece once the 66 minutes of playing are finished; it is not easy to hold attention over fourteen salon pieces one after the other unless you have a variety of sound, colour and bow strokes. Mr Kaplan does not rival Heifetz, Hassid or Kogan. In Playera, for example, you miss Hassid's superb bow articulation, and in Zapateado Hassid's incredible rhythmic control. But Kaplan does well, and I'll add it to my Sarasate collection with pleasure.

Monday, 15 June 2009

To my mind, the "greatest" of all the violin concertos is the A minor Op 77 by Shostakovich. I have 37 different version of it (with one more on order, lost somewhere). The competition is very fierce, with Oistrakh, Kogan, Vengerov, Repin et al putting forth their best. But I persist in finding the January 2006 concert version (Warner Classics) by Leila Josefowicz and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Orama as being head and shoulders above the competition. Josefowicz identifies body and soul with the changing moods of this piece of music, and her violin playing is suitably abandoned and ecstatic. The recording and balance are excellent. Rare in any much recorded classic I would claim a "best" version. But this is it. There is also a very fine live Promenade Concert version by the same performers (July 2006, off-air). But there is something very special about the January 2006 version. A shame about the other 36!

Appearing in the same year (1947) but a very different kettle of fish, is the violin concerto by Korngold. As different from the Shostakovich as Los Angeles is from Moscow. I have always had a soft spot for this melodic, nostalgic concerto, however. The new Naxos version by Philippe Quint is truly excellent and is probably my favourite of the eleven versions I have -- and that includes two by Heifetz! Out-doing Jascha is quite a feat, but Quint does it (partly, of course, because of a much better recording and integration with the orchestra). Anyway, Shostakovich Op 77 and Korngold Op 35 made a good evening that started with an excellent Jambon de Bayonne, fresh crab, and Pont L'Evèque and Camembert cheeses, finishing with a good espresso coffee from Nespresso. Wine from Saint-Emilion (2004).
Poor old Max Bruch. His first violin concerto was extremely good. His Scottish Fantasy is not bad at all. But the rest is pretty second rate. I cannot understand why I bought the new Naxos CD of his second and third violin concertos. Despite good playing by Maxim Fedotov, the two later concertos are, quite frankly, thoughly boring. The CD is filed on the shelf and may well never leave it during my lifetime.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

I have a large collection of "gypsy" music - which covers much of the folk music of Central Europe. Some renditions are excellent, some good, many indifferent. One of the very best is the CD of a concert by Pavel Sporcl and the group Romano Stilo. Sporcl and the boys never stray into jazz music -- a frequent problem with folk groups. Nor do they dabble with pop music. Sporcl is a phenomenal violinist who has the gypsy idiom at his finger tips, together with the true commanding stature of a real primas. An excellent round up of gypsy-type music from Central Europe played with panache and a true sense of style. A CD I keep near my player. Many thanks, Supraphon.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Even Mike the postman is beginning to think I have too many CDs. But, just occasionally, owning a big collection pays off. This weekend I had a sudden whim to listen to Mozart's string quintets. And I just happen to have a complete set of them played by the "Grumiaux Trio". I originally had these recordings dating from 1973 on LP, later updated to CD. What incredible music, and what ideal performances and recordings! I have loved the G minor quintet K 516 ever since I bought a Pye-Nixa LP of a 1951 recording by the Amadeus Quartet over half a century ago (I still have the LP).
Arthur Grumiaux is not a violinist who had popular fame in the same way as Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh, Stern or Perlman. But he was a supreme self-effacing violinist of the Franco-Belgian school who did not tour much but who made many, many recordings for Philips (thank goodness). In any recording collection, Grumiaux's performances of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the French composers such as Ravel, Franck, Debussy et al are absolutely de rigueur. His playing was always flawless, his taste impeccable, his bowing and tone infinitely subtle. Maybe not a first choice for Tchaikovsky, Bruch or Shostakovich; but often first choice for almost everything else in the violin repertoire. In particular he, often in partnership with Clara Haskil, had a true empathy for the music of Mozart.
I rounded off my rare Mozart weekend with a most enjoyable performance of the K 563 divertimento for string trio very well played by Augustin Dumay, Gérard Caussée and Gary Hoffman (1990). Dumay seems to have vanished, but he was an excellent violinist in the right kind of music.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

For many years I have had a soft spot for Erich Wolfgang Korngold; probably the only 20th century Viennese composer who will remain in popular affections over the next century. The new Naxos CD of his music features Philippe Quint in the violin concerto, and an extremely fine performance it is, too. Quint is not a well-known name; but in the Korngold violin concerto he is really in his element. The -- somewhat surprisingly good -- orchestral partner is the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mineria conducted by one Carlos Miguel Prieto. A long way from Vienna, but it all comes over well. This is my eleventh version of this concerto, and it is one of the very finest.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Somewhat unusually for me, a weekend of songs. First was the entirely admirable and enchanting Carolyn Sampson in an intelligent selection of songs by Henry Purcell, all beautifully accompanied by an ensemble headed by Elizabeth Kenny. A CD that is always in my "favourite 12" rack. Next was the equally admirable and enchanting Sandrine Piau in songs by Chausson, Strauss, Debussy, Zemlinsky, Koechlin and Schönberg. Finally, Dietrich Henschel in songs by Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Pizzetti and Duparc -- four composers and four languages in all four of which Henschel convinces. I keep buying song recitals and rarely listen to them. But when I do, as now, I thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Food was provided by plaice fillets, mussels, sea bream and crab. I seem to have morphed into becoming 80% piscavore. But it's just what my body tells me to eat. Maybe I'll live to the age of 69 years yet.

Monday, 25 May 2009

The new recording of Handel's Faramondo is very fine. A director of whom I have never heard before -- Diego Fasolis. A cast of unknowns, apart from Philippe Jaroussky in a relatively minor role. But Max Emanuel Cencic, Sophie Karthäuser and Marina de Liso are good, solid singers and In-Sung Sim is an excellent bass. The recording integrates voices and orchestra well -- so important in Handel whose writing for the band is always more than interesting. The band, I Barocchisti, performs very well indeed.  A happy new addition to my extensive Handel opera collection, with three hours of well played and well sung top-notch music.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Two hours of Handel operatic duets this evening, and not a moment too long. Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato get three Michelin stars for their CD. Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo also get three, plus one extra for the greater contrast in their voices (Mingardo is a true contralto, whereas DiDonato is a mere mezzo-soprano). Mr Handel gets three stars for his music, and three extra for the sheer melodic variety. Handel, Mozart and Schubert were the Melody Trio of all music.

Sinced childhood in Pagham I have bought, caught or eaten many, many crabs. But none better than yesterday's large crab bought in Fishworks in Bath.  It sets a new standard. Much of the secret is that at 11:00 it was playing football with its friends, and by 12:30 when I collected it, it had been boiled and was cooling on ice ready for me to take away and eat that evening. Accompanied with tomatoes, ciabatta, brie de Meaux and mayonnaise (all from Quayle's) and a glass of excellent rosé wine (Château Kefraya 2006 from the Bekka Valley in the Lebanon).  A bank holiday weekend coming up, so I look forward to some music listening; a new recording of Handel's Faramondo is awaiting me beside my CD player.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

I have always been a reluctant fan of the music of Karol Szymanowksi. In principle, I like it; but in practice, it rarely warms my heart. Which hasn't stopped me really liking a new Hyperion CD of his complete music for violin and piano played by Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberthien.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that Ibragimova is quite a violininst. In her sheer violinistic dexterity and seeming ability to play anything in any position, she resembles Nathan Milstein (though with more fire and drive than old Nathan was wont to show in his recordings). This CD is something of a demonstation disc as to the full range of colours and sounds a violin can produce. I listened entranced to the 76 minutes of the CD, not so much for Szymanowski's music, as for Ibragimova's violin playing. In a world bursting at the seams with incredible violinists, Ibragimova is beginning to stand head and shoulders above the competition.

All praise to Ibragimova for sticking to less-played repertoire -- and to Hyperion for recording it. Had it been EMI, Sony or Universal, she would have been playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto, coupled with the Tchaikovsky. And also all praise to Hyperion for not sexing-up Ibragimova (or Tiberghien). Alina is a vey pretty girl in her mid- twenties, but she gets just one demure black-and-white photo inside the booklet (as does the pianist). How it should be. I hope this CD sells and sells and sells, despite Mr Szymanowski's somewhat wayward music.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Came back to Nicolai Medtner's interesting third sonata for violin & piano; why on earth do not more people play and record this work? Admittedly, it's over 40 minutes long, but its four movements sustain interest right through to the end. To my surprise, the version I listened to yesterday -- with David Oistrakh and Alexander Goldenweiser -- was impressive. Oistrakh is not normally a violinist I warm to, since too often he plays -- always immaculately -- on cruise control and auto-pilot. But in the 1959 recording, he seems involved and inspired (and Goldenweiser is no slouch as a duo partner). Like all recordings from that time, the "star" violinist is somewhat spotlit, but not nearly as badly as the distorted balance on which Heifetz always insisted and thus ruined almost all his duo recordings for enjoyable listening. A pleasant surprise to be able to enjoy an Oistrakh performance, thanks to the recording from Carlos.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Home again. Nice to listen to music. A sudden whim took me to Angela Gheorghiu singing Verdi arias; "Draculette" may not be a very nice person (as rumour has it) but she can certainly sing with an authentic, commanding diva voice.  Beautiful woman; beautiful voice; highly intelligent singing. A bird outside my window was so impressed it joined in the singing from time to time.  And it's nice to wallow in Italian opera arias after weeks of Bach and Handel. That, after all, is one advantage of having a large collection of recordings; one never knows too far in advance where musical fancy might lead.

Additional music listening was a disc of violin music by Léon de Saint-Lubin (enticingly labelled as Volume I). The music sounds like minor Schubert (none the worse for that). Impressive violinist is the totally unknown (to me). Anastasia Khitruk -- yet another attractive Russian young violinista. The disc is in the series making available lesser known violin works of the 19th century.  From St Klaus di Naxos, of course. Once again: what would lovers of violin music and playing do without Naxos?

Good also to tuck into fish, scallops and langoustines again. It has been a while.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

No new posts, alas. I am in Kentucky so musicke and food are nothing to write home about (though some very good pork ribs the other evening). Tomorrow I am back to Boston, from whence I fly to England on Thursday. So the coming weekend should see shoals of shellfish and scores of musical works -- jet lag permitting.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Bought two good crabs from the Tetbury Market fish man yesterday, and these provided me with two excellent meals yesterday and today. Music was Handel: duets. I dug out an old Hungaraton double-CD pack from the early 1980s with Maria Zadori (very good) and Paul Esswood (not so good). I think I much prefer female altos à la Sara Mingardo to the somewhat hooting sound of male altos such as Esswood. A pity, since the music of Handel's duetti is superb, effervescent and full of invention. Off to Boston tomorrow. Handel and fresh crabs are fitting send-offs.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Lunch was at the Brasserie Roux in the Sofitel at Terminal 5, Heathrow. A good quenelles de brochet; a good aile de raie (but the chef had forgotten to seaon it with salt and pepper). Wine by the glass was a surprisingly excellent Château Neuf du Pape. Dinner was my very own moules marinière (excellent). Music supplied by Diana Damrau singing Mozart arias; she is quite superb, and Mozart is quite a rival to Handel in operatic arias. No higher praise.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Sad how, when it comes to sonatas for violin & piano (of which there are so many) record companies and concert promoters insist on the same hackneyed handful: Beethoven Spring and Kreutzer, Brahms 1, 2 or 3, Franck, Debussy, Ravel. For the really daring, there is Schumann or Fauré. A shame, just having listened to the 43 minutes of Nikolai Medtner's third sonata for violin & piano; a magnificent work that, despite its length, does not outstay its welcome for its four movements.

This evening's performance, by Boris Berezovsky and Vadim Repin, is well-nigh perfect. Both are first class instrumentalists and musicians. They play the sonata as a true duo, with 100% commitment and acute intelligence. It also strikes me how important recording balance and perspective are in such works; very often, the violin -- or the piano -- are too close. Often they are balanced unnaturally. In the Berezovsky-Repin recording, the perspective is natural, and the balance admirable. All praise to Erato for recording and issuing the CD (briefly) before the company was swallowed into the Philistine maw of Warner Music, and Repin, Berezovsky and Medtner were never heard of again in that company.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

I have a known allergy to churches and church choirs, so I was surprised to hear myself enjoying Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil ("Vespers"). But there is something mystical and other-worldly about Russian Orthodox choral singing that I find most attractive.

My mood was maybe enhanced from having eaten half an excellent crab, followed by three giant langoustines cooked on my new electric plancha. Like Russian Orthodox choirs, these three langoustines were simply out of this world.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Dmitri Shostakovich seems to have been a tortured soul, and growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s cannot have been all roses and fountains. However, had he been born and raised in Switzerland during the same period, he might have been a less impressive artist. I have no idea whether or not Leila Josefowicz is another tortured soul, but her "Shostakovich" CD of the first violin concerto, and violin & piano sonata, seems to live right under Shostakovich's skin. Every (varied) note of the violin parts sounds like the real thing. One of those (very rare) recodings that suggests you might as well throw away all competitors. Praise in the concerto for Sakari Oramo, and in the violin and piano sonata for John Novacek; both make major contributions to Josefowics's quite masterly recordings of this anguished music. Astonishinly, I have 37 different recordings of Shostakovich's first violin concerto ( a measure of its modern classic status). But, really and truly, I could throw 36 of them away and just keep Josefowicz.