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.