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.