Friday, 31 December 2010

I do not have too many prejudices (Me? Prejudices?) But I am wary of singers who sing in a language that is not their own, and I am wary of male altos (would you be comfortable meeting a male alto on a lonely street at night?) So I was both surprised and delighted to enjoy most thoroughly Gérard Lesne singing solo alto cantatas by the Bach family (Johann Michael, Johann Christoph, Johann Sebastian, plus an interjection from Georg Melchior Hoffmann, in a piece long attributed to J S Bach).

This is good music, very well sung with superb diction, and ably backed by Il Seminario Musicale (Naïve. 2001). My pilgrimage through my Bach vocal collection commenceth. If I eat and sleep but rarely, I'll finish around 2016.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

I have kilos of CDs of Bach cantatas and I really must begin to sort out some kind of priority ranking. Not all Bach cantatas are of equal quality, and certainly not all performances are of equal merit. I started today with an excellent example: cantatas BWV180, 49 and 115 performed by the excellent Ensemble Baroque de Limoges directed by the equally excellent Christophe Coin (Astrée Auvidis E 8530, recorded 1993).

All three cantatas are 24 carat Bach, and Coin has a first-rank line-up of soloists: Barbara Schlick, Andreas Scholl, Christoph Prégardien and Gotthold Schwarz (a very good bass). First-class solo voices are very important in Bach, and frequently an area of weak points in many recordings. Not so here. Coin uses a small choir rather than the econo-choirs favoured by modern accountants and performance managers. I prefer my choruses and chorales sung by small choirs.

I note there are two other CDs of Bach cantatas from the same forces; I have ordered them today without hesitation.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Back home with Christmas out of the way for another year. Most unusually for me, I had a Mozart evening. The symphonies number 39 and 41 (Klemperer, of course) and the string quintets K 515 and 516 (Grumiaux and friends, of course). Highly enjoyable. I haven't listened to Mozart for quite a while. Criminal neglect.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Tale of Two Cities. In New York in November 2010, Leonidas Kavakos and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos performed the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (which I downloaded to listen to). It was a bravura performance, greeted by ecstatic audience noise after both the first and last movements (in this concerto, the New Yorkers didn't get the chance between the slow movement and the finale, played without a break). Kavakos and the orchestra both played at white heat and the old warhorse fair galloped along.

In Berlin in April 1939, Georg Kulenkampff and the Berlin Opera House Orchestra conducted by Arther Rother performed the same concerto (well transferred by Michael Dutton). Alas, Berlin won by many furlongs. This is a very well played and very musical performance of this much-performed concerto. I enjoyed it greatly, even with the absence of the somewhat hysterical razzmatazz that marked the New Yorkers. Both Kavakos and Kulenkampff are on my list of preferred violinists. But Kavakos and the New Yorkers should not have flogged the old warhorse to the extent they did.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Schubert's B flat sonata D 960 is definitely one of my top works for listening to. I got to know it decades ago via an LP with Clifford Curzon. I now have thirteen recordings of the piece which is, for me, at the very peak of piano sonatas. Recently The Gramophone magazine ran a brief survey of the 113 (!) known recordings. That by Wilhelm Kempff came out top, so I took it off the shelf and listened to it again. For my taste, it's very good but with a slight air of routine; it doesn't sound as if it were that special a piece for Kempff on that day. Curzon is still very good (especially in the second movement) but, for me, his playing of the piece is too studied and too precious, and he does not make the all-important (for me) exposition repeat in the first movement.

I have previously praised the recording by Leif Ove Andsnes so I took that off the shelf. I still like it very much. Andsnes plays with a simplicity and naturalness that makes one imagine Schubert is in the room. Much of the music is resigned and world-weary and does not need elaborate pointing by the pianist. Andsnes makes the first movement repeat (as does Richter) and I think it is very necessary for the overall form of the work (presumably so did Schubert, which is why he wrote some extra bars as lead-in to the repeat). I must go back to Richter (a performance in Moscow that I like) and also re-sample the recording by "Joyce Hatto" -- who was actually playing I know not, but I remember liking the performance a few years ago.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Albert Sammons was a major violinist. Almost entirely self-taught, he shunned an international career, concert tours and recording marathons -- like many other highly talented artists. Being little known does not automatically mean being of little value. The admirable Pristine Audio has issued rare recordings of Sammons playing the Beethoven Kreutzer sonata (1926) and the Fauré first sonata (1938). Both performances are admirable. I am not usually a fan of the Kreutzer, but I love Sammons' drive here; he reminds me of Isabelle Faust in his refusal to draw attention to his playing and away from the music. Although much of the violin playing is extraordinary, it's the music you remember. Which is as it should be in these works.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Naxos re-issues have now reached Jascha Heifetz's 1950 recordings (transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn) so it is good to find a new excuse to listen to Mr Heifetz playing the violin. The first of these reissues contains the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (Phiharmonia conducted by Walter Susskind, 1950), the Conus concerto (1952 with Izler Solomon), Sarastate's Zigeunerweisen (1951 with Steinberg) and the Korngold concerto (1953 with Wallenstein). The transfers seem to be excellent, though I have not compared them head-to-head with the RCA transfers of 15 years or so ago.

The Romantic repertoire suited Heifetz down to the ground, and he is in his element in all these works. No one, ever, has been able to sound like Heifetz, and the palette of sounds he draws from one small violin remains extraordinary. The current CD also suggests some of the drawbacks from Heifetz recordings: his preference for back-up groups or accompanists rather than partners, and his insistence on being placed well forward. Heifetz must have been mystified by Adolf Busch's rejection of his own studio recording of the Beethoven violin concerto in 1942 because Busch and his violin were "recorded too forward" (Busch had been made to stand on a wooden box next to the microphone).

No matter in the repertoire on the current CD, however. The works by Tchaikovsky, Conus, Sarasate and Korngold can get by with the likes of Susskind, Steinberg, Wallenstein and Solomon waving distant batons and close-up Heifetz playing at his magical best. One can also admire Heifetz's sense of line and phrasing, and the fact that his unwillingness to indulge in sentimental lingering gives all these works a welcome sense of form and cohesion. Heifetz eases up slightly for tender or sentimental passages, but he never wallows as do so many other violinists.

Monday, 6 December 2010

I have made the acquaintance of the playing of the pianist Eduard Erdmann (courtesy of six CDs from Ronald). One of the unfortunate large band of European musicians who came on steam during the years 1930-50 when the time was not propitious to make an international reputation -- especially if you were German or Russian. In terms of piano tradition, Erdmann belongs with Arthur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer and Elly Ney. Along with Alfred Cortot, he is a pianist for those who value musical performance above all, with 100% digital accuracy being less important than 100% musical credibility. Erdmann has a beautiful sound (he is billed on one CD as being a "Poet of the Keyboard"). Maybe he plays a bit too beautifully? There are players (Jascha Heifetz comes to mind) where you can too often find yourself marvelling at their playing, rather than at the music. With artists such as Fischer, Ney, Klemperer or Adolf Busch -- to pick a few random examples -- one marvels at the music.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Back to Bruckner. The admirable Pristine Audio has just released a transfer of Bruckner's seventh symphony (1949, Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwängler, a performance I have known and loved for many, many years). As usual, one can only listen with admiration to the "new" sound on this latest transfer. And one can also admire the fact that, in 1949 and only some 48 months after the end of the second world war, with the virtual destruction of the major German cities, that 100 or so men were able to produce a performance such as this. Light and hope amongst the ruins. Now, Mr Rose, for a transfer of Bruckner's eighth with the same forces (either the 1944 or 1949 version). Then my personal Bruckner canon of 4, 7, 8 and 9 will be complete.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Wheels turn, and what was once down starts to go up. Interesting on Tuesday 30th November to find the BBC broadcasting both the Britten violin concerto (James Ehnes) and the Korngold (Jack Liebeck). Written in 1939 (Britten) and 1947 (Korngold) the two concertos are almost contemporaneous, and both suffered the wrath of the critics who were all hung up on the compositional style du jour as epitomised by figures such as Dallapiccola, Nono, Boulez, Stockhausen, et al. I remember distinctly sniffy comments concerning the Shostakovich violin concerto after its premier in Britain around 1957 -- of the sort "well, Russian composers have to write this people's stuff, you know". Well, the composers du jour of the middle of the twentieth century are definitely on the down-circle of the wheel, and the people's stuff coming up. It's good to see Korngold and Britten going up; I have a soft spot for both concertos, though I am ambivalent about much of Britten's music (with important exceptions).

Monday, 29 November 2010

Why do we not hear ... many works that, for no apparent reason, are seldom if never played? More specifically, this evening, why does no one play the violin concerto in G minor of Reinhold Gliere? Almost finished in 1956, it's a lovely, autumnal work with echoes of Glazunov and Rachmaninov. Lush melodies, well written, enjoyable to listen to. But pretty well never played. I cannot discover an easily available modern recording of the work. The one I have and listened to this evening was played (very well indeed) by Boris Goldstein in an old Russian recording with a Moscow orchestra (LP transfer). The compositional style is pretty unfashionable for 1956 but, after well over half a century, should fashion matter?

Food this evening was a three-egg omelette stuffed with girolles. Absolutely delicious.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

10th November 1910 was the premier of Elgar's violin concerto in London (soloist was Fritz Kreisler). Ten days later, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra played the concerto in Bournemouth. 10th November 2010 the orchestra played it yet again, with Simone Lamsma as soloist and David Hill (who is he?) as conductor.

It's been a lucky concerto in recordings, right from 1928 with Albert Sammons. I really enjoyed the Simone Lamsma performance; she plays with deep commitment and puts her heart into it. Lamsma has already well earned her Elgar credentials with a CD of Elgar salon pieces (plus the violin and piano sonata). On 10th November 2010 in Poole she really carries you along. Helped by the orchestra that really knows this music; this is not an occasion when you need Leonard Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic. I now have to add this recording to my favourite four or five (and the second by a Dutch girl, since I much liked the off-air recording by Isabelle van Keulen a few years ago). A lucky concerto when it comes to recordings. As I have remarked (when talking of Thomas Zehetmair's performance) this is one of those concertos where the orchestra and conductor also play a vital role. Lucky 10th November.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Lovers of violin playing owe much to the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians and the Romanians. Returning back home, it made for a very pleasant evening listening to Antal Szalai and Joszef Balog playing 15 pieces arranged by Leopold Auer (another Hungarian). All of the pieces are well-known (apart perhaps from Auer's own Rhapsodie Hongroise Op 2) and all are attractive. Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Chopin, Wieniawski, Rubinstein, Achron, Paganini et al. all ripple happily past us, and Szalai has plenty of opportunity to show off a very fine ability to play a true cantabile. A happy musical evening with a strong Hungarian flavour. Szalai impresses as someone who just puts his violin under his chin and plays. No posturing, no striving for effect, no histrionics. And he and Balog certainly sound as if they have that music in their veins.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A pretty astonishing new CD from Simone Kermes, in excellent partnership with Claudio Osele and Le Musiche Nove. What amazes is the fact that a) so much of the music is outstanding and b) so much of the music is "first recording". Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara and Giovanni Bononcini predominate, though we also come across people such as Antonio Maria Bononcini. What an incredible period for musical compositions was that of 1690-1740! Especially by the Italians (not to forget J.S. Bach and Handel). Kermes sings with her usual verve and aplomb; the music sounds as if it were written especially for her.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

"You get what you pay for" is not always true, at least not in the case of CDs. Brilliant Classics' CD of three sonatas for violin and piano by George Enescu contains thoroughly idiomatic playing by Antal Szalai (violin) and Jozsef Balog. The recording, and the recording balance, are exemplary (the engineers of the recent Wigmore Hall Live CD of Ibragimova and Tiberghien should take careful note and strive to emulate). At Brilliant Classics' £5 price, this CD is an excellent buy.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

It is becoming a little disconcerting to realise just how much better many things were done during the first half of the twentieth century in so far as the Central European music repertoire is concerned (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner). After 1950, things progressed in leaps and bounds in terms of recording technique and, in particular, instrumental technique. But the ability to play music naturally? For this, all too often, we have to go back to the archives.

A thought prompted by my recent re-listenings to Furtwängler conducting Bruckner and Scubert in the 1940s and 50s, and now with my acquisition of a CD box in which Edwin Fischer plays 14.5 hours of Bach, Schubert, Mozart and Brahms. When it came to piano technique, Fischer was no Vladimir Horowitz. But then, when it came to playing Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart, Horowitz was no Fischer. In the piano world, Edwin Fischer, Elly Ney and Arthur Schnabel were at the summit in this repertoire, just as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg, Hans Knappersbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler dominate the orchestral scene. Since then, things have become slicker, technically more reliable, more widely promoted. But better performances of much of Bach, Beethoven, Scbubert and Mozart? In my view: rarely. About time Adolf Busch recordings were re-jigged in good sound. Advances in sound restoration by the likes of Michael Dutton, Ward Marston, Mark Obert-Thorn, Andrew Rose, et al promise to open up this veiled promised land for everyday listening. More Fischer (EMI transfers are so-so at the best). More Adolf Busch. More Elly Ney. More Alfed Cortot. More Georg Kulenkampff!

The recording industry created expectations of complete technical perfection by instrumentalists, singers and orchestras. Thus those "take 180" tracks, and recordings of one concerto that took 2-3 days work for a 35 minute piece. Modern musicians are petrified of any error -- encouraged by reviewers such as the BBC critic recently who eliminated Janine Jansen's superb performance of Britten's Violin Concerto because it appears Jansen miscalculated one (ONE)note towards the end of the first movement. So goodbye Janine! And I can't even hear the miscalculated note, unlike Herr Beckmesser. We have talked ourselves into a ridiculous situation.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The duo partnership between Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien is a very fine one, and their second Wigmore Hall Live disc of Beethoven violin & piano sonatas contains some world-beating playing. The recording, however, has a bad balance between piano and violin; when the piano is playing softly, it can always be heard. But when Ibragimova plays softly (which she often does) you have to strain your ears. We need 15% more violin, and 15% less piano. The violin sound, on the higher strings, is a little bright and steely. A great shame. The duo should hire some better sound engineers.

Friday, 5 November 2010

This blog is rapidly becoming a fan club for Pristine Audio, Andrew Rose, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. So here we go again. I downloaded the new transfer of Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic playing Bruckner's 4th Symphony (broadcast tapes, October 1951, Stuttgart). The sound is little short of incredible, with most of the coughs and splutterings cleared up, into the bargain. Now, for probably the first time, one can just sit back and enjoy the music and the performance without having to make many allowances. Good times are here. I now sit and wait for comparable transfers of Furtwängler in Bruckner's 7th and 8th Symphonies. And then, quite frankly, one can throw away all other versions.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The three violin concertos of Camille Saint-Saëns make an attractive CD (72 minutes) and I enjoyed the new Naxos on which Fanny Clamagirand plays the three works. Here, she is a gentle violinist, a little hesitant in places, and does not have the sheer charisma of Tedi Papavrami on his recent disc of Saint-Saëns, Chausson and Ysaÿe where so much of the playing was quite magical. And Papavrami's 2005 Christian Bayon violin does sound so much sweeter and more powerful than Clamagirand's 1700 Matteo Goffriller (as recorded here). Good to hear 72 minutes of old Camille again, and a pleasant change from yet more Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn or Sibelius. The second Saint-Saëns concerto is rarely heard, but I have always liked it ever since an old Ivry Gitlis recording (with some very weird vibrato in the second movement; weird even for Gitlis).
The Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler must surely have been the greatest orchestra/conductor combination of all time. I have just been listening to Pristine Audio's miraculous reconstructions of Schubert's 8th Symphony (Titania Palast, Berlin, 15 September 1953) and 9th Symphony (Alte Philharmonie, Berlin, 8 December 1942). The playing is simply stupendous, and the conducting miraculous. Add to that Pristine Audio's €9 price for the FLAC download, and it is clear we live in a golden age for those who enjoy great performances of great music. It is tempting to acquire the Pristine transfer of the 1942 Beethoven 9th with Furtwängler, but I really cannot take the finale of that work; a great pity Beethoven didn't have second thoughts and write an alternative.

Friday, 29 October 2010

No listening to music for me. I spent the week in Vienna. The city is wall-to-wall Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You would never think that composers such as Schubert, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss and Korngold also lived there for long periods. Alles ist Mozart. I like Mozart, but regret the obsession that the Vienna Tourist Board appears to have with the only Viennese composer. There is even a chain of Mozart shops (managed by Constance?) including a branch at the airport. Gurr!

Friday, 22 October 2010

I have been a bit negative recently. Here are two positive entries:

1. My oxtail stew was world-class. Tail of an ox; good red wine; onions; beef consommé; parsnips; carrots; herbes de Provence; bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaves); salt; pepper. Cook for two hours. Leave for 48 hours. Re-cook for one hour and eat some; leave for a further 48 hours; eat some more; leave for ... etc. By the end, the whole thing when cold is just solid jelly.

2. Saint-Saëns' third violin concerto, and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso; plus Chausson's Poème -- have not wanted for superb recordings over the past 80 years. But these three works, plus Eugène Ysaÿe's Poème Elégiaque, are truly superb on a 2009 CD from Tedi Papavrami (Aeon). The Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège is conducted by François-Xavier Roth. I have enthused over this disc before, and I enthuse again. Because:

* Of the four works on the CD, it is difficult to think off-hand of better versions.
* The playing is idiomatic, accurate and excellent.
* The recording is first class.
* Papavrami's bow (2008) and violin (2006) illustrate that the claim only "old" instruments are really good is simply not true.

Throughout the 57 minutes of this CD I found myself (unusually) admiring the sheer sound of Papavrami's instrument. A CD I keep by my player, since I love the music, the playing and the sound.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The performance of Bruckner's 9th symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin on 7th October 1944 has always been very special. With the Red Army and Götterdämmerung only six months away from Berlin, there is an air of intense focus in both the conducting and the playing. And, it must be said, the broadcast tapes of that era are of exceptional quality.

I have collected this performance in its various incarnations (the last being on DG). But Andrew Rose's new effort for Pristine Audio in "ambient stereo" is truly excellent. I downloaded the FLAC files today and wrote them to a CD. One of recording history's great masterpieces lives again in truly exceptional sound (for its age). I am only sad to think I won't be around in 30 years time to hear the ultimate in sound restoration of performances such as this.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

After vowing "no more CDs of the Brahms violin & piano sonatas" (since I have so many) I bought another one, urged on by my enjoyment of Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in the first sonata. The new candidate is Jack Liebeck, whose début CD I much admired some years ago. Liebeck plays attractively and sensitively on the new disc, but his pianist, Katya Apekisheva, is a bit of a Russian tank ... and balanced forward, in addition. I'll wait for more Ibragimova.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

I did not like Arabella Steinbacher's recent recording of the Beethoven violin concerto, finding it too slow and sentimentalised -- sort of Beethoven / Bruch. But I do like her performance of the second violin concerto of Shostakovich and here, with a better balance, the orchestra plays a much more important part than in the recent Czech performance with Bohumil Kotmel (which I may have over-praised at the time).

No danger of over-praising Elly Ney. Ronald kindly donated two CDs of her playing, and I am highly impressed. Has the adagio molto semplice of Beethoven's Op 111 ever been better played, with more understanding? I suspect not. The recordings (German, mainly from the mid-1930s) are quite extraordinarily good.

And while I am in a praising mood: Marks & Spencer's lamb Rogan Josh is far better than any Indian dish from any other British supermarket. Succulent, tasty, delicious.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

I have 38 recordings of Shostakovich's first violin concerto, but only 8 of the second, which is some indication of their relative popularity. Listening to the second concerto today, I feel that the low esteem in which it is held is undeserved. Shostakovich's first violin concerto grips you with its raw emotions; the second exudes a kind of numb pessimism (above all in the first two movements) with sparse textures and little drama. It's an old person's music, and not the kind of thing with which you would inaugurate a new concert hall. But I enjoyed it today, on a very good Supraphon recording from a public concert in Prague on 15 and 16 February 1996. Excellent soloist is Bohumil Kotmel (who?) which just goes to show that because a soloist is unknown does not necessarily mean he or she is not top rank. Mr Kotmel empathises with Shostakovich's bleak music, and can also play the violin very well, which is all one should ask for. The Czech Philharmonic gives excellent backing (though the full orchestra plays little part in this music). I especially liked the ripe sound of the Czech horn section.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

French evening. The French market is in town, with superb cheeses, the world-winning baguette and the miserable old sod with his charcuterie stall with whom I spend £58 without him even offering me a free saucisson.

But the cheeses this evening were really three star Michelin: Pont L'Evêque, Camembert, and Livarot. All non-pasteurised and in perfect condition. No one this evening eat better cheeses than I. Nowhere.

On to a new CD of Ravel played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, with Pierre Boulez conducting the orchestra in the two piano concertos. I have long had a soft spot for the music of Maurice Ravel. Aimard and Boulez do the two concertos magnificently (with Aimard all alone in the Miroirs). Deutche Grammophon recording; that company is still streets ahead of anyone else when it comes to recording quality. Aimard is an exemplary pianist in Ravel. Boulez is a much better conductor than he ever was composer; let us hope he turns next to accompanying violinists in Vieuxtemps, Ysaye, Rhode, Joachim, Hubay, et alii.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Shows how old I am: yesterday I bought my very first music download (flac files, from Andrew Rose's Pristine Audio). After a bit of faffing around, I managed to find a program that would convert the flac files to wav files that I could write to a music CD. Et voilà! The works I wanted to investigate for their boasted transfer sound qualities were two old Casals recordings: the Brahms double concerto (1929) and the Dvorak cello concerto (1935).

The sound quality was quite astonishingly good (for the vintage of the originals). Three stars for Mr Rose. I have both recordings in other guises, but the Pristine Audio beats them all hands down. As for the works: I have never really taken to the Brahms double concerto, where Brahms' usual muddy, bass-heavy orchestration suits the cello but not really the violin which stands out like a girl in a men's rugby team. Violin and cello make unsatisfactory concerto partners (which is probably why there are not many concertos for violin and cello). Here, Casals sounds magnificent (with a full tone for his cello). Jacques Thibaud hovers in the background, and Alfred Cortot conducts the Catalan orchestra. A classic performance of a less-than satisfactory work.

In the Dvorak concerto, Pau Casals is again magnificent and George Szell and the Czech orchestra now come over in pretty good sound quality. But it's not a concerto I particularly warm to, and I do not think the cello is really cut out to be a bravura solo instrument. Such things are best left to violins or pianos.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sarasate was a product of the Paris Conservatoire in the mid-19th century and his playing, from many descriptions and from the few recordings he made at the end of his life, is stamped with the Conservatoire's aims of brilliance, delicacy and good taste. Full-blooded bravura playing was not considered appropriate. Tianwa Yang, in her fourth Sarasate CD for Naxos, exemplifies what might be termed "the Sarasate sound" -- at least when she plays Sarasate's attractive and tuneful music. Hopefully these four CDs (of a projected seven) will popularise Sarasate and not just the few bits everyone plays. Three stars, again, for Ms Yang; listening to her rendition of the ever-popular Carmen Fantasy, you realise just how many virtuoso passages many other players smudge over. No smudging for Tianwa; she plays every note perfectly in tune -- and with the utmost delicacy. A real pleasure to listen to.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

I've been having second thoughts about Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in Brahms' G major sonata for violin and piano. Maybe it's not a little slow and sentimental; maybe that is just the way the two musicians think it should be played. On a second hearing, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it reminded me of something Julia Fischer said in a recent BBC radio interview, talking about playing pieces everyone knows all too well [in the case in point, the Franck sonata]. Julia Fischer said you need to forget about "making your own mark" and concentrate on playing the music as you think it is meant to be played. Sounds as if Alina and Cédric are following her advice, and I like the result.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The duo partnership of Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien is a very fine one and I greatly enjoyed a new off-air recording of them playing the first Brahms sonata, plus the Strauss sonata. It's also good to hear Ibragimova in full-blooded Romantic music, since she often seems to stick to the 18th and 20th centuries. The Brahms was a bit sentimental and slow for my taste, and there really should be a twenty year moratorium on anyone playing the Brahms sonatas, fine as they are. There are so many excellent violin and piano sonatas that rarely get an airing -- Saint-Saëns, Alkan, Shostakovich, et al -- that it's a great pity violinists are always forced to play Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel and Prokofiev. At least Ibragimova and Tiberghien ventured into Strauss's fine sonata; a pity he did not write more of them.

Monday, 13 September 2010

I have (almost) four recordings of the third concerto (G Minor) by Jenö Hubay. I have not been an avid Hubay fan in the past, but I have quite taken to this third concerto. Earliest recording is from Efrem Zimbalist in 1930 who, for some strange reason, only seems to have recorded the second and third movements (and I find the first two movements easily the best). Next in 1975 comes Aaron Rosand, followed by Vilmos Szabadi in 2000 and Ragin Wenk-Wolff in 2005. All suffer the usual fate of being accompanied by small-town orchestras and unknown conductors so that it's a miracle the music still makes a good impression.
Ragin Wenk-Wolff, the latest acquisition, annoys by always playing fortissimo in her violin's lower registers (and making a rich, warm sound) while the upper registers of her violin sound a bit weedy (she would have been better making use of higher positions on the "A" string, as Heifetz would have done with such a fiddle). The final result, however, is not very satisfactory as an example of violin sound, which should favour a smooth transition over different strings and registers. The recording may also be against her; it's a bit bass-heavy and the orchestral violin strings lack bite and sheen.
Well, if we ever get Vadim Repin, Janine Jansen, Alina Ibragimova or Leila Josefowicz in Hubay's third concerto, I'll be first in line -- especially if the partners are the LSO under Claudio Abbado. Some hopes.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Every generation has its over-venerated composers. To my mind, the current generation has an entirely unrealistic view of Gustav Mahler, but no doubt time will correct all. Similarly, many composers are under-venerated (one thinks of Franz Schubert who, until half a century or so ago, was usually dismissed as just a very talented song writer).

To my mind, Henry Purcell has usually been under-rated. Not by Handel, at least, who, by all accounts (and to paraphrase his reported comment) said around 30 years after Purcell's untimely death that "if Purcell had lived, we'd all be out of a job". Thoughts on listening to yet another fine Purcell anthology entitled "Love Songs" (Dorothee Mields). Purcell was a genius at setting the English language, at modulating, at harmonising. His music is always clever, lovely and intriguing. Critics have riled at the backing by the Lautten Compangney Berlin. I am not worried; creative and unorthodox the group may be, but I am sure Purcell would have approved, just as I am sure that after listening to his violin music played by Jascha Heifetz and Rachel Podger, Johann Sebastian Bach would have been enchanted by Heifetz.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Long, long ago in central Italy (in the 1960s) I came across spaghetti alle vongole. I loved it. It re-appeared in my life (rarely so good) with Fishworks in Bath (a few years ago) and the Carluccio chain restaurants; This evening, armed with Mitchell Tonk's cook-book, and 300 grammes of clams from New Wave in Cirencester, I cooked my first, very own, spaghetti alle vongole.

In one word: superb. What a dish. A source of really fresh clams is a problem, But I will succeed. Thank you Cirencester fish shop. Thank you Mitchell Tonks. And thank you the many Italian simple restaurants that, back in the 1960s, introduced me to spaghetti alle vongole.Sea salt, Garlic. Parsley. Olive oil, chilli. Fresh, fresh, fresh clams, white wine. And that it it.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A very fine new CD from Tedi Papavrami on which he plays familiar French pieces, with orchestra (Liège Philharmonic). I first came across Papavrami in 1993 when I bought his excellent recording of Alkan's quite unjustly neglected sonata for violin and piano. Papavrami excels in the music on this new CD: Saint-Saëns' Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso and third violin concerto, Chausson's evergreen Poème, and Ysaÿe's Poème élégiaque (the piece that inspired Chausson to write his Poème). Papavrami plays very much like someone from the French school of violin playing, which suits this music. His sound is refined, delicate and far from the "power playing" favoured particularly on the other side of the Atlantic. And his violin (Christian Bayon, 2005) sounds just right for the part. I love this music, and the playing. I'll keep the CD close to hand.

Monday, 30 August 2010

'Tis apparently the season of obscure violin concertos. Following on from Rodolphe Kreutzer, yesterday evening saw me listening with pleasure to the A minor concerto of Julius Röntgen. This is a work that deserves a regular hearing. Röntgen was born in Germany in 1855 -- he later became Dutch -- so this work has echoes of Brahms, Joachim, Bruch and Goldmark. Competent violinist is Ragin Wenk-Wolff who is stronger on beef than on subtlety or nuance, but she is enjoyable to listen to and appears to like what she is playing. I listened to the concerto twice over, and have it out for a third hearing. Not too usual for me with a new "minor" work.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Back to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations Op 120. A couple of years ago I really admired a 1988 performance from Richter. Now I am really admiring a 1985 live recording by Grigory Sokolov from St Petersburg. Beautiful pianism in a performance that emphasises much of the mystic nature of many of these variations. I am not an uncritical Beethoven fan, finding some of his music a little bombastic and sometimes trivial. But the Diabelli Variations are a high point and I shall keep Sokolov alongside the 1988 Richter.
Back safe and sound. Triumphantly put on my newly-arrived CD of Philippe Graffin playing Ysaÿe and Saint-Saëns ... only to realise I already had the admirable CD on my shelves. Money down the drain. I turned instead to three violin concertos of Rodolphe Kreutzer (numbers 15, 18 and 19) kindly supplied by Ronald. Pleasant, easy-listening music, well played as usual by Laurent Albrecht Breuninger whom no one can accuse of always playing the same old hackneyed pieces. Good times; can one imagine a recording of three Kreutzer violin concertos appearing in the 1950s-90s from the likes of RCA, Decca, EMI, Philips, Columbia, etc?

Monday, 16 August 2010

I hesitated before recording the 15th August 2010 performance of the first Shostakovich violin concerto that Julia Fischer gave at the Proms with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. First of all, I already have 38 recordings of this concerto with artists such as Oistrakh, Kogan, Repin and -- my favourite -- Leila Josefowicz. So why record another, especially since Ms Fischer had been a bit prim and prissy in Bach, Mozart and Schubert (although I admired her Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Khatchaturian)?

Well, I am glad I did. Julia Fischer gave a magnificent performance of what, to me, is the No.1 of all violin concertos. Her starting point is complete and utter technical mastery of what she is playing. A good starting point: but then? In this performance, she used her technical mastery as a vehicle to launch into Shostakovich's complex, neurotic, fantastic world. And she took us with her, bar by bar. Magnificent. Josefowicz may have been even more involved? Fischer is even more technically assured? You need both girls.

The first Shostakovich violin concerto is one that needs a true partnership between soloist and orchestra (in the same way as the Beethoven and Elgar concertos). Equal honours here to Jurowski and the London Philharmonic. A performance to remember, and a very welcome No.39 to my collection.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

I am currently working my way through the three hours of Handel's Berenice, so a slight digression from music to praise the film "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" which I watched yesterday on DVD and enjoyed thoroughly. Not often a film of a good book is also enjoyable, but this Swedish film continues Sweden's excellent cinema heritage. Sweden may not be a great place for gastronomy (from my recollections). But it does produce excellent novels, films and furniture.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

I didn't think I'd be writing enthusiastically about Rachel Barton. In the past, my acquaintance with her playing hasn't caused me much interest, and I had put her down as a kind of modern Bronislaw Gimpel or Alfredo Campoli -- worthy, but somewhat dull. But I find myself liking her "Instrument of the Devil" CD. Technically, she is highly impressive, even making Ernst's Erlkönig caprice quite listenable-to. And I also admire the sheer gusto with which she approaches her "devilish" music -- Danse Macabre, Mephisto Waltz, Ronde des Lutins, Le Streghe, et al. Attractive programme compilation, attractive playing; Ms Barton is never afraid to slash at her violin when the occasion warrants it. A CD for the "play again" pile. As I say: unexpected. But highly welcome and a disc that stands out from most of the routine compilations that spring up almost monthly. I am less sure about Tartini's Devil's Trill played here with a harpsichord and cello that add nothing to the music, and shorn of the cadenza in the Kreisler version to which I always look forward. But the Tartini is only around 16 minutes of a generous CD that lasts 79 plus minutes.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Back to Monsieur de Bériot and his highly attractive and tuneful second violin concerto (in B minor, Op 32). Having enjoyed the work played by Philippe Quint, I put on the same work played by Albrecht Breuninger. I must confess, I prefer the German. Quint is a superb violinist, but he doesn't show as much affection for de Bériot's work as does Breuninger. And the German seems more relaxed and at home in the idiom, whereas Quint is more the international power-violinist.

However, it's a good new world where we can find at least two good modern recordings of this likable violin concerto; things would have been difficult back before the CD era.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Saturday evening had three heroes: Charles-Auguste de Bériot, Leonard Walker, and Edouard Leclerc.

Monsieur de Bériot provided the music (played by Philippe Quint). Mr Walker provided (once again) the truly excellent rib-eye steak. And Monsieur Leclerc provided the acceptable red wine (Côtes de Bourg) at only €2.79 per bottle. Cheeses and salad from various contributors.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Not often these days you find me listening to the too-well-known Beethoven violin concerto. But twice in one evening? That is a measure of how impressed I was with a recording from last week's Promenade concert in London where Hilary Hahn (extremely ably assisted by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie under Parvo Järvi) gave a remarkable performance of the work. Miss Hahn rarely raised her voice -- making us listen to her, rather than just sit back and hear. Her performance was commendably fleet, serious and without affectations and distortions. The violin playing was lovely. The refusal to linger or wallow made a welcome contrast to the performance by Arabella Steinbacher on which I commented recently.

Hilary Hahn is quite a violinist. She can be a bit prissy and literal on some occasions; but, when she lets herself go and follows an inspirational thread, as in this performance, she can come across as pretty well unbeatable. This was a Beethoven performance in the Adolf Busch tradition. As mentioned, the orchestra and conductor were inspired equal collaborators. A classic performance of this much-mangled work. And well-balanced by the BBC in the Albert Hall cavern.
It seems to be Paganini week. Last night was his first and second violin concertos, played admirably and accurately by Rudolf Koelman (a violinist whose Paganini 24 caprices I have long admired).

Koelman is a very fine violinist and sails through Paganini's pyrotechnics more or less spotlessly. Interestingly, the CD also contains a performance of Rossini's contemporaneous overture to Matilde di Shabran and one realises that Paganini could easily have written this overture, and Rossini the violin concertos (at least, the orchestral parts). Both composers wrote in the highly spiced operatic idiom of early 19th century Italy, with swooning, sentimental arias and histrionic climaxes. I have always suspected that a performance by the great Nicolò would have been an occasion of high drama, of exquisite rubato, of nail-biting pauses, of long-held notes ... in short, the world of an opera house in Parma around 1810. Rossini claimed he had only shed tears three times in his life: when his father died; when a chicken stuffed with truffles fell into the river during a boating excursion; and when he heard Paganini play.

Well, Mr Koelman pleases us greatly and has an intelligent appreciation of this music. But he would never make us cry. We badly need a recording of Paganini playing.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Good steaks are hard to find. But to find THREE good steaks in a row is not far short of miraculous. All praise to Leonard Walker (butcher) in Malmesbury for having changed my steak horizon. I'll be back. And all praise to me for having judged the cooking of Steak No.3 to absolute perfection.
Sibelius's one violin concerto is undoubtedly the most popular work of its kind written in the 20th century. Pretty well every violinist (apart from Milstein) has played it. I came to know it as a teenager, with an LP of Ginette Neveu, and I pretty well played it to death. At the age of 20 I was in the Festival Hall in London to hear Heifetz play it (not much to watch with Heifetz -- just a moving left hand and right arm, and that was it for 35 minutes). The result of all this is that, for me, the Sibelius concerto is just too familiar for me to be able to approach it with fresh ears. So I was delighted this morning to be able to sit back and enjoy a CD featuring Christian Tetzlaff, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard.

I think it helps that the performers here are Scandinavian and German. Too often the Sibelius concerto is mauled around, sentimentalised, given extra colour and warmth, dragged towards becoming a kind of Scandinavian Tchaikovsky. The music doesn't need it and does not benefit from it (viz the highly undesirable recording some years ago from Vengerov and Barenboim). Tetzlaff is an excellent, capable and intelligent violinist who plays the music straight and who doesn't mess around with the tempo too much (though one might query his concept of allegro ma non tanto for the finale; the polar bears here seem to be dancing in a veritable frenzy). Dausgaard and the Danes collaborate to give us a true black and white Nordic Sibelius, not the technicolour version that is often dished up. I never thought I'd really enjoy the Sibelius violin concerto so much again, but I did here -- even to the extent of re-starting the work when the telephone interrupted it around 10 minutes in.

Friday, 30 July 2010

What would we give to have heard Paganini playing, even in a recording? He apparently mesmerised his audiences; but how? Just by incredible technique? His collective works suggest that it was not all technique.

I wonder this when listening to a good new recording (Naxos, of course) by Philippe Quint in which he plays an hour of Paganini-Kreisler arrangements with piano (not, alas, including the rather interesting first movement of Paganini's first concerto in its Kreisler re-write, with orchestra). I do not like Paganini's caprices with a plonking piano "accompaniment" (nor do I like a piano added to Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas à la Schumann). The Paganini caprices just do not need a piano filling in harmonies in the background. Quint plays three of the caprices, and I wish he had played them solo.

I have never before heard, nor owned a recording of, Paganini's Variations on "Non più mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola (twelve and a half minutes). Which is where I would have liked to be able to compare Paganini to Quint, and others. These variations (like the "di tanti palpiti" variations also on this CD), contain many passages where the violin plays melodies in double-stopped harmonics. As every violinist knows, to play extended passages in double-stopped harmonics is extremely difficult. Quint plays all such passages carefully and with grim determination ... and accurately. But did Paganini just toss them off insouciantly and with much aplomb? Or did he approach them in the same way as Quint, and others?

I admire Quint's accuracy and style. I do miss the kind of swashbuckling, daredevil approach I suspect Paganini would have brought to the originals. I would like to have heard Kreisler play all these works a 100 years ago when he would have been 35 years old and in top form; I suspect Kreisler would have brought much charm to the music. Quint does well, and his pianist, Dmitriy Cogan, plonks and plinks discreetly where required. But I suspect I would have preferred Nicolò Paganini, or Fritz Kreisler in his prime.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

After 55 years, it takes a very special performance of the Brahms violin concerto to hold my interest. So I was pleased today to be able to listen with avid interest to Sergey Khachatryan broadcast from the Royal Festival Hall, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia orchestra (14 June 2010). This is a warm, mellow, lyrical performance of the work from both soloist and conductor. A few fluffs and rhythmic instabilities from time to time, but the recording studio has lied to us that violinists can play a 40 minute concerto without one doubtful note (thanks too often to 186 takes and patches).

Not the least remarkable, for me, was the quality of sound on my CD-R disc, recorded from the BBC site off the web. I have many, many recordings of the Brahms concerto that are worse than this in terms of balance, violin sound, and recorded sound.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The latest Cembal d'Amour CD of David Nadien is pretty good. Nadien plays the Franck and Debussy sonatas, a couple of short bits, and the Prokofiev sonata for two violins (with Ruggiero Ricci). Perfectly acceptable recording quality is from 1970.

All the usual Nadien attributes are to the fore: fleet tempo, fast vibrato, spot-on intonation, and a suave dynamism. Admittedly the Debussy and Franck sonatas sound more American than Franco-Belgian, but one listens to Nadien for great violin playing, not necessarily for authentic interpretations. The duo sonata with Ricci comes off very well indeed and makes for enthralling listening.

The pianist, someone called David Hancock, is a bit of a weak link in the Franck and Debussy which are true duo sonatas and call for complete equality of charisma between violinist and pianist. Hancock belongs to the Emamuel Bay school of accompanists, and one can never confuse him with Alfred Cortot (in partnership with Jacques Thibaud). As soon as the violin plays, Hancock retreats obsequiously to the background. But one buys a David Nadien CD to sit back and listen to incredible violin playing, not necessarily for ideal interpretations. With dozens of recordings of the Franck and Debussy in my collection, I can look elsewhere for well-balanced interpretations, if necessary. For the Franck sonata, there are Kyung-Wha Chung and Radu Lupu, Christian Ferras and Pierre Barbizet, Arthur Grumiaux and Georgy Sebök, Yehudi Menuhin and his sister in 1936, Vadim Repin and Nikolai Lugansky, Thibaud and Cortot, plus many others. For the Debussy there are Chung and Lupu, Ferras and Barbizet, Graffin and Désert, Grumiaux and Hajdu, Ginette and Jean Neveu, Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes, Thibaud and Cortot ... plus, plus, plus as they say in American hotels.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A correction to my comments on Thomas Zehetmair playing the Elgar violin concerto: the recording is really quite good, after all. You just need to turn the volume up a few notches then "dim and distant" vanish. I just hope my neighbours are Elgar-lovers.

And the performance really is exceptionally good. Knocks the socks off most of the competition (except, perhaps, the 1938 Sammons). But the recording certainly beats Sammons! This is probably the Elgar performance I shall now take down off the shelf any time I want to wallow in the violin concerto. Zehetmair has not, in the past, been a violinist who showed up on my radar; mainly, I suspect, because he rarely has played the kind of music that appeals to me.
Much of the music of the late- or post-Romantics is full of angst and neuroses: one thinks of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Rachmaninov and Elgar. Some musicians ladle kilos of extra angst on the music, viz Bernstein in Mahler, or Nigel Kennedy or Menuhin in the Elgar violin concerto. Others choose to play the music "straight" and let the neurotic bits speak for themselves, viz Haitink in Mahler, or Albert Sammons in the Elgar.

I prefer the straight approach, which is why, in a concerto so lucky with recordings, I have always liked Sammons, Heifetz, Kyung-Wha Chung, Dong-Suk Kang and Isabelle van Keulen rather than Menuhin, Kennedy, Zukerman, Campoli or Hilary Hahn. Also why I prefer Casals in the Elgar cello concerto to the famous Jacqueline du Pré.

And which is one reason why I have enjoyed the new recording of the Elgar concerto by Thomas Zehetmair. He plays it straight, and does not slow down and wallow in sentimental passages à la Kennedy (who verges on the ludicrous at times, but not as ludicrous as Igor Oistrakh in a highly unmemorable Russian recording). Only slight minus for the Zehetmair is the Hallé recording, which is a bit dim and distant with the violin entombed in the general orchestral sound. But the performance as a whole is highly enjoyable. A plus is the idiomatic and no-nonsense accompaniment of Mark Elder with the Hallé Orchestra. My sixteenth recording of the Elgar violin concerto. And one well worth having.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

In classical music, fame is somewhat fickle and unpredictable. Mediocre conductors can become "famous". Talented violinists and pianists can become international stars. Exceptional pianists and violinists can remain relatively unknown as, for more obvious reasons, can potentially famous conductors.

These thoughts on listening to Willem Noske (who?) playing Mozart's 4th and 5th violin concertos, plus Henriëtte Bosmans's (who?) Concert Piece for Violin and Orchestra.

Mozart was only 19 when he wrote K 218 and K 219 in 1775. It is thus somewhat ridiculous to hear them played by Yehudi Menuhin and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by von Karajan (for example) or Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Willem Noske is ideal; accurate intonation, and happy to project this young man's music. Too many cadenzas -- which may be historically accurate, but they do jar. No wonder that, after Mendelssohn, many composers took to dictating their own cadenzas. In these live performances, K 218 dates from 1940 (Concertgebouw Orchestra) and K 219 from 1971 (Residentie Orchestra). I like these appropriate performances a lot.

Ms Bosman lived from 1895 until 1952. Her concerto is by no means nondescript; in fact, it is a lot more interesting than most 20th century violin concertos. Alas, unknown and probably never played today; this live performance dates from 29 September 1962. The finale maybe is not up to the rest of the work, but that tends to be a feature of many concerto finales. Off-hand, only the Shostakovich 1st concerto, and the Elgar concerto, have 20th century finales that I quite look forward to.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Yesterday saw the demise of my entire LP collection, plus LP player. The collection that I started in 1955 has now been given away (except for a few nostaligic LPs from the 1955-7 period). About 100 or so LPs were left from the last savage cull of 3-4 years ago. Sad to see them go; but I never have played them over the past ten years, and coupling up the LP player took up valuable space. And, also, I have more than enough CDs that are too seldom played. I still have one LP deck that plugs directly into a computer USB port for transfers from LP to CD, so I can still do the occasional transfer.

My spicy squid dish has now reached perfection. But I must cut back on the chillies and Cayenne pepper!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

It is difficult to hold the attention of a listener for a solid hour of "salon pieces" for violin and piano. Even if the composer is Sarasate. But, I have to say that Tianwa Yang managed it this evening. Many, many violinists have recorded a selection of Sarasate's Danses Espagnoles: Heifetz, Hassid and Kogan spring immediately to mind as benchmarks. But Ms Yang is a virtuoso in the true sense of the word and, moreover, she has a sure instinct for Sarasate's style and for the colour palette of the violin. St Klaus of Naxos has signed her up to record all Sarasate's music and I shall buy the complete collection with alacrity as and when the CDs are release. Playing like this is not to be missed.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Not often these days I am found listening to the music of Johannes Brahms. I find his thick textures unpalatable, and I suffer from indigestion. But I have been greatly taken with a CD on which Alexander Rabinowitsch (piano), Philippe Hirschhorn (violin) and David Geringas (cello) play the string sextets Op 18 and Op 36. Arranged by whom, I know not. But the two works make very digestible piano trios, and all three musicians are excellent (especially Hirschhorn, of course). An unexpected pleasure.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

It may be time to reconsider my doubts about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He could be "gusty" in his singing. But a giant box of him singing over 400 Schubert Lieder on 21 CDs lasting 24 hours recorded 1966-72 with Gerald Moore suggests much of the gustiness of the 1950s has gone (or has been tamed by a new team of DG engineers). Whatever; I can now admire his beautiful light baritone voice and, most particularly and most welcome, his exemplary diction and articulation. With some singers it can be difficult to ascertain in what language they are singing; with DFD, you hear every word and fluent German speakers have no need of a copy of the libretto (which can be downloaded from the Internet if required, nearly 200 A4 pages thereof).

The songs on the CDs are in chronological order, starting with Eine Leichenphantasie D 7 -- which will probably turn out to have been written when Schubert was only two years old -- and ending with the so-called Schwanengesang D 957 assembled from unpublished songs left over after Scbubert's untimely death in 1828. Pretty well every song for male voice is in the mammoth set; some of the "songs" are more like substantial Gesangszenen, or operatic scenes, than traditional Lieder: thus Eine Leichenphantasie weighs in at 19 minutes, Der Taucher at a record-breaking 24 minutes, Lodas Gespenst at 12 minutes, Die Erwartung at 11 minutes, Der Liedler at 13 minutes, Einsamkeit at 18 minutes and Viola at 13 minutes. But pretty well everything else follows the 1-5 minute pattern where Schubert seems to have been at his best (in so far as Lieder were concerned). A veritable feast of listening. Gerald Moore, as always, is a very welcome partner in Lieder recordings, taking over when the music demands it, and staying back when appropriate. The CDs cost me around £2 each, which has to be the bargain of the century.

Friday, 18 June 2010

There can be something exhilarating in witnessing a talented young musician trying to make his or her mark on the over-crowded musical world. It would have been interesting to have heard the young Vladimir Horowitz or Nathan Milstein back in the early 1920s, long before laurels were rested on and a certain inevitable sense of routine took over. I found the new CD by Chinese pianist Yuja Wang a superb experience. Here is a real keyboard athlete, but with excellent musicality to boot, trying hard to impress us: and impress us, she does. Has anyone played the Three Movements from Petrushka as stunningly as this? And Brahms' Paganini Variations whiz by.

True, Ms Yang is 24 years old and very pretty (seemingly a prerequisite for any modern musical artist). But all that is forgotten once Stravinsky's music whistles past and Ms Yang can be considered simply as a remarkable pianist. I shall add her to my list of "consider all her CDs carefully and probably buy". The Chinese are turning out some formidable instrumentalists; Yuja Wang joins the violinist Tianwa Yang in my Chinese musical pantheon.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Listening to Yevgeny Sudbin playing sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti is an enjoyable way to pass an hour or so. Sudbin convinces. And the "shuffle play" facility on my CD player really comes into its own; the problem with a CD containing 18 sonatas is that numbers 1-10 tend to be listened to often, and numbers 15-18 remain relatively unknown. Shuffle playing resolves the problem.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Must have been a Black Saturday, since I slept all the afternoon and, in the evening, listened to Rachmaninov's second symphony, followed by Tchaikovsky's sixth, followed by Elgar's first. A late romantic, gloomy, symphonic evening. However, many thoughts for my one-day treatise on ethnicity, race and nationality in the performance of music (in the order of the above works, LSO-Gergiev, Philharmnonia-Cantelli, and Philharmonia-Barbirolli).

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Happily, as a teenager, I learned the texts of many German lieder, so I can now sit back and listen to the music without having to simultaneously read a translation. Yesterday evening I really enjoyed listening again to Schumann's Liederkreis Opus 39. Schumann is not normally one of my preferred composers, and our paths rarely meet. But the Opus 39, plus the Dichterliebe (plus Schubert's Winterreise) were the staple diet of my teenage years and I still love those lieder cycles very much.

Yesterday's recording by Werner Güra (with Jan Schultsz, piano) was less than ideal. The voice is balanced back from the piano; not good. And Güra's diction and articulation are also less than ideal, with a result that many of the words are inaudible, especially in soft passages. I have three other Liederkreis recordings (including Fischer-Dieskau from the 1950s, the recording with which I grew up). But maybe I'd better be in the market for a new version (I also have Bostridge and Partridge, but German lieder really need native singers -- as do French or Russian).

Sunday, 30 May 2010

At last, I have found the perfect way to cook squid, for me. A sauce of tomatoes (with fresh tomatoes). Olives, garlic, salt, pepper, birds-eye chilli peppers. Olive oil, and cayenne pepper (on the squid, prior to adding to the sauce). Delicious! Eat with rice.

Visited the French Market in Tetbury this morning and came away armed with Livarot, Camembert, Pont L'évêque, many saucissons, Bayonne hams, rabbit pâté, and a hot baguette. Food for a few months! This French market is a very fine institution. I must find a fool-proof way of getting its advance itinerary.

Music mainly provided by Franco Gulli; my musings on him, and nationality in music performance, in due course.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

After all, there are advantages to being a compulsive collector of this year's favourite violinist. True, it has given me immense collections of Oistrakh, Milstein, Gil Shaham, Maxim Vengerov and others (now considerably weeded out). But it also means that when I pass an enjoyable evening listening to Hagai Shaham playing the 21 Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dances, I am able to reach out and listen to ... all 21 again.

Hagai Shaham is a first class violinist. But I was dissatisfied. There was a sameness about the 21 dances that was a bit illogical. Not too much variation in dynamics, attack or tempo. I have felt this same mixed admiration before about Hagai Shaham. So I turned to ... Oscar Shumsky (an advantage of being a compulsive collector of the violinist du jour). 42 Hungarian Dances in one evening! But it was well worth it: the music was the same, but Shumsky provided everything that Shaham lacked, especially dynanimcs and variety.

I have a lot of Shumsky recordings: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Kreisler .. and Pierre Rode, and Glazunov. Thank goodness. As time passes and as my Gil Shaham and Maxim Vengerov CDs vanish off to charity shops, and Oistrakh and Milstein languish unplayed, there will always be Shumsky to retrieve affectionately off the shelf. Like Heifetz, I only heard Shumsky in person once (Beethoven violin concerto, Festival Hall, London). But the impression is indelible.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Just enjoyed a three hour Phillippe Hirschhorn festival, courtesy of Ronald and Doremi. Hirschhorn belonged to that enormous band of supremely talented violinists who, for one reason or another, never recorded for a major company so remained comparatively unknown: one thinks of David Nadien, Oscar Shumsky (before 1980), Joseph Gingold and a horde of Germans, Austrians, Russians, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, when Hirschhorn was young and ambitious, recording companies were devoting their violin repertoire to the Korean Kyung-Wha Chung, to the Israelis Pinchas Zuckerman and Izhak Perlman, and to the Latvian Gidon Kremer (somewhat ironically). No room for yet more supreme violinists, and not yet the horde of smaller recording labels that would bring hope and exposure to more violinists.

Hirschhorn favours deliberate tempi in pretty well everything he plays; just as Heifetz seemed to have a rapid internal tempo clock, so Hirschhorn has a slow one, which has the advantage of allowing us to hear all the subtle bowings and notes that are usually glossed over in more rapid traversals. We hear intense concentration from this violinist, and a very sharp focus on his violin and the notes he is playing. The playing is highly committed. His vibrato belongs to the "odd" school along with that of Tossy Spivakovsky, Zino Francescatti and Ivry Gitlis. Often, in his intensity, Hirschhorn reminds me of Ginette Neveu. Janine Jansen was a Hirschhorn pupil, and it shows in her intensity.

An excellent way to spend three hours. Hirschhorn made no commercial recordings, and all the recordings we have of him come from radio or festival archives. My guess is he was one of those people who were best heard live, and that in a studio he might have lost much of the élan that permeates these performances.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Philippe Hirschhorn's live 1967 recording of Paganini's first violin concerto is one of the classics of the recording corpus. Yes, it's live and, yes, it's a young man's competition bravura performance. But it's not only live; it's also ALIVE! Just like the audience at the end of the first movement and at the end of the concerto. At the 1967 competition Hirschhorn beat Stoika Milanova into second place (and Gidon Kremer into third). With playing like this, you can certainly see why. A tonic in an age of over-careful, edited, polished, studio performances. For a change, Doremi's transfer is exemplary.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Unforgettable classics: Heifetz playing Saint-Saëns Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso in the 1930s. Maria Callas declaiming Mori! Mori! Mori! in Tosca in the 1950s. And, and, and .. And also Patricia Petitbon singing Ah! mio cor, schernito sei! from Handel's Alcina in 2009. A lovely voice; incredible music; an interpretation at one with the notes; and George Frideric Händel's superb empathy with the outpourings of a spurned woman.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The recital that David Nadien gave on 17th January 1973 in the Town Hall of New York City makes a truly memorable CD. Most remarkable, perhaps, are the Vieuxtemps 5th concerto (with a piano accompaniment, but this does not detract greatly from the work) and the Chaconne from the second partita for solo violin by Bach. I know Jascha Heifetz also recorded the Vieuxtemps and Bach works; he was fully the equal of David Nadien in both.

Three excellent encores (Wieniawski, Veracini and Kreisler). The only work that shows the age of the recording is Beethoven's duo sonata Op 12 No.1 given, as often in those days, with an obsequious piano accompaniment; not even Samuel Sanders' mother would buy this CD to admire the piano contribution. But I'll play the CD again and again as an example of great violin playing.

Monday, 10 May 2010

A new love: Patricia Petitbon. A really entrancing CD of early 18th century Italian opera arias. Petitbon has a lovely, expressive and versatile voice. As Maria Callas was to 19th century Italian opera arias, so Petitbon is to their 18th century equivalents. A CD I am very happy to have bought.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

I greatly admired Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov in the Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin. I now have to start admiring the new set (first disc just out) featuring Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live). These live performances from 2009 are in the same class. German and Russian v Russian and French. Maybe the latter gain with their sense of a live performance? Whatever; we are in better days than when the sonatas were played by Heifetz and Emanuel Bay. Anyway, good times for the Beethoven duo sonatas.

Monday, 3 May 2010

As I thought, my squid with a sauce made by me was far superior to any squid soaked in something concocted by the laboratories of Kraft or Unilever. My sauce was fresh tomatoes, garlic, black olives and fresh chilies.

Too much chili; I bought four, but two would have been quite enough. The sauce would have caused Thais and the inhabitants of Madras to flee in terror from the fiery Sauce de Malmesbury. But it was good! Not more bottled sauces for me. The remainder of the sauce can decorate an exceptionally nondescript chicken remains in due course.
I enjoyed the new Hyperion CD of Vieuxtemps music for violin and orchestra (fourth and fifth violin concertos, and the 18 minute Fantasia Appassionata which is practically another concerto). You would never have found such a recording issued by RCA, Columbia, HMV, Decca or DGG in the old days!

Viviane Hagner is the excellent soloist. The recording is well balanced. An unexpected pleasure was the contribution from the Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Martyn Brabbins; all too often the orchestral part in these kinds of virtuoso works is somewhat perfunctory, but one advantage of having a "provincial" orchestra is that often the players more than make up in enthusiasm and dedication for what they lack in ultimate polish.

Hagner does not efface memories of Heifetz in these works (who could?) But she does very well, and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic certainly leaves Heifetz's various accompanists standing at the gate. Vieuxtemps gains in stature. I'll return to this disc.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

I really must cut down my rate of CD purchases. For every surprise triumph, there are many one-listen disappointments. The two CD set of Oscar Shumsky playing unaccompanied Bach was a major and unexpected success. But the new Nikolaus Harnoncourt CD of three Bach cantatas really added nothing to my (vast) collection. I bought David Nadien playing the Brahms violin concerto not to listen to the Seattle Youth Orchestra, nor to the Brahms concerto that I know so well. I wanted to listen to David Nadien playing, but he is balanced so far back you can hardly hear him, so it's all a bit of a dead loss and the CD will go into the "unheard" rack.

Still, the CD of Yevgeny Sudbin playing Scarlatti was a great and unexpected success. The Volume II of Naxos transfers of Fritz Kreisler's acoustic recordings from 1911 and 1912 is a model of transfer technology; the 90 year old recordings come up nearly as good as new, and Kreisler's inimitable tone is preserved, merely at the expense of a bit of background hiss from the 78s. But the sound is of a quality I missed in the over-scrubbed, squeaky-clean Pristine Audio transfers of the Busch Quartet recently. With these old Kreisler recordings, you forget about the music -- which is mainly frightfully light-weight -- and just wallow in the sound of Kreisler in his prime.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Schubert's later piano sonatas and string quartets have a special place in my affections, so it was good to renew acquaintance with the G major string quartet D 887 (coupled with the earlier B flat major, D 112). When it comes to Schubert, the Busch Quartet was very special indeed, and I enjoyed Pristine Audio's latest re-incarnation of these 1938 recordings. The sound is a little "clean", and lacking warmth and reverberation. However, the original sound and balance were so good that minor quibbles can be forgotten and I much prefer listening to this presentation of the D 887 quartet compared with my recent disappointment with the Belcea Quartet. Adolf Busch and friends -- like Hanna Shybayeva who impressed me recently in two of Schubert's late piano sonatas -- make sure the music is generated from within itself, and not adorned with layers of varnish and Affekt. Schubert doesn't need additives.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Of all things, I am enjoying a recording of Liszt's 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendante. I gave up on Liszt long ago (and have never taken to his sonata). But the études, at least as played here by Lazar Berman in 1963, are pretty thrilling stuff. I see I also have them played by Cziffra and I must also dig into those. Perhaps also invest in Boris Berezovsky for a post- 1960s recording (the Berman recording sounds a bit tinny).

Yesterday evening saw me eating the best "bolognese" sauce ever. Whether the inhabitants of Bologna would recognise it, is another matter. But it was meaty, tangy and succulent. Well done Chef Collier (for once).

Sunday, 11 April 2010

A somewhat eclectic food weekend. I bought three large squid and decided to cook them in a tomato and chili sauce (from a jar). Good, but next time I'll use my own tomatoes, chili and garlic rather than a processed concoction. Then the "special offer" rump steak turned out to be excellent, somewhat to my surprise. And the fillets of plaice were super. So not a bad weekend from a gastronomic point of view. But one needs to avoid ready-made sauces, since they do not measure up to The Real Thing.

I confirmed my previous view that Hanna Shybayeva in Schubert is truly excellent. There is music that needs a charismatic intermediary -- one thinks of Thomas Beecham in Saint-Saëns, Delius, Fauré etc. And there is music that just needs to be played, like Oscar Shumsky in Bach, Bernard Haitink in Mahler ... and Hanna Shybayeva in Schubert.
I did not recall having heard Ottorino Respighi's 1917 sonata for violin & piano, even though I have recordings of it by Heifetz, Politkovsky and Shumsky. It's a work with many attractive moments and lasts for 27 minutes in its latest re-incarnation by Frederieke Saeijs and Maurice Lammerts van Bueren. The works sounds like something by Guillaume Lekeu crossed with Richard Strauss, with a dose of Nikolai Medtner. The well-played and recorded Naxos CD also contains Ravel's somewhat hackneyed violin & piano sonata, plus a nondescript sonata by Enrique Granados (that sounds like anything but Granados).
The 24 caprices by Nicolò Paganini are staple diet to advanced violinists, but they are not that easy to play; some, in fact, are pretty difficult. The caprices also contain some very attractive music, and this is sometimes lost while the violinist struggles to play three parts at once in different parts of the sound spectrum. Thus, the new recording of the caprices by a string quartet does, in fact, make for pleasant and interesting listening. Paganini's not-inconsiderable musical and melodic gifts can be fully appreciated -- especially in some of the caprices that are technically difficult on the violin. The recording is by the Wihan quartet, and the excellent arrangements by William Zinn. A thoroughly worthy enterprise all round, and something that should enter the repertoire of string quartets.

Also a happy listening experience is the re-issue of the 1986 recording by Oscar Shumsky of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. I have many, many versions of these in my collection, but Shumsky appeals greatly. As to be expected, he plays simply and in an undemonstrative manner; it is as if the only people in the world were Bach, Shumsky and a violin. No grand-standing here. And how nice to hear Bach played with an attractive sound, warming vibrato, and dead-accurate double-stopping almost worthy of Fritz Kreisler's playing. Oscar goes into my select few for these works.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Bernard Coutaz, the founder of Harmonia Mundi, died on 26th February at the age of 87. I have many recordings, and quite a sizeable number of them are from Harmonia Mundi, a company that proves that, in the musical world, small can be both beautiful and powerful, and that one individual can make an enormous difference. Thank you, Monsieur Coutaz; and rest in well-deserved peace.
Like most people, I imagine, I had never heard of Hanna Shybayeva until I read a review in the American Record Guide extolling her CD of Schubert sonatas. The best adjective for Ms Shybayeva's playing is probably level-headed. She does not draw attention to her pianism; attention is focussed strictly on the music. And what music! Schubert's later piano sonatas have everything that I missed in Chopin the other day: a sense of a real person behind the music, a person of ever-changing moods and ideas -- in 12 bars, Schubert can encapsulate three or four different modulations and mood changes. The music is enough by itself and needs a first-rate pianist who finds the right tempi and concentrates on communicating the music. This Hanna Shybayeva does to an exemplary degree. Originating from Belarus, she now appears to be based in Holland from whence this very cheap and very desirable Brilliant CD comes. The sonatas on the disc are the A major D959 and A minor D784, both supreme works in the piano repertoire.

Monday, 29 March 2010

George Frederic Händel's music was like an iceberg: after the composer's death in 1759, nine tenths of his music was submerged and lost from the world of music. Astonishingly, it has only been over the past twenty years or so that Handel's music has re-appeared in popular view. Until recently, Handel was The Messiah, Water Music, Fireworks Music, and a few bits and pieces.

How impoverished were the generations from 1759 until around 1990! So much extraordinary and beautiful music simply lost from the scene. This evening I listened (again) to the CD where Sandrine Piau sings Handel arias -- mainly from the oratorios. Wonderful music. Wonderful singing, and also top-grade backing from Stefano Montenari and the Accademia Bizantina. A recording for the "do not file away" pile. And a recording of music one would probably never have found before 1980.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Alice Sara Ott playing Chopin's complete waltzes. She plays them very well, and most expertly. I bought the complete waltzes long ago played by Dinu Lipatti. He also played most expertly but I was disappointed by the music. I am still disappointed by the music, even when played now by Miss Ott. 19th century salon piano music is not for me, I fear. When it comes to piano music I enjoy Scarlatti, Bach, Schubert, Medtner, Rachmaninov, and many others. But not Chopin (or Liszt).

It was quite a relief to turn back to Handel, and a new CD of opera arias sung by Johannette Zomer. Much more my cup of tea.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The twentieth century was rich in violinists. Probably Kreisler and Heifetz stand out as the two greatest. But the third greatest? A long list of candidates, including Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh and Michael Rabin. But, to my mind, after listening to him again for 50 minutes this evening, the third greatest violinist of the last century was ... David Nadien. Emphasis on violinist, on the craft of playing one of music's most difficult and contrary instruments. But Nadien (almost) trumps them all when it comes to mastering the four strings with a wooden stick strung with horse hair.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

I seem to have entered a piano-listening phase. I certainly enjoyed the CD from a British teenager called Benjamin Grosvenor. Quite incredible playing, worthy of the young Gilels or Cortot, with extreme sensibility to both the piano and the music. I could have done without the three bits by Nikolai Kapustin, since I prefer jazz in a jazz environment and not juxtaposed with Scarlatti, Albéniz, Chopin, et al. The same goes for the George Gershwin piece. However, all in all the CD offers a feast of attractive music and quite remarkable playing. On the CD cover and back, it is, however, remarkably difficult to make out the name of the pianist.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Back home from a truly wonderful trip to Bangkok and Hanoi. I should have discovered that area of the world much sooner in my life! And I eat four meals a day and also managed to lose weight.

One advantage of being back home, however, is being able to listen to music again. I made the acquaintance of Franco Gulli, playing Paganini back in the 1960s. Wonderful technique and a lovely sound. A bit short on dynamic contrasts, but nevertheless highly enjoyable listening (and that is not always true when violinists attempt Paganini). Also renewed acquaintance with the stunning Liza Ferschtman, another Dutch girl of incredible talent. Her programme of Bach (first sonata and third partita) and Ysaÿe (first and second sonatas) is a most attractive juxtaposition. And it's good to hear a violinist playing Bach without trying to imitate what a violinist may have sounded like in 1720.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Perhaps, when I make my long-delayed Carnegie Hall début, it will be with the Concertgebouw orchestra in an all- Saint-Saëns programme, with the three violin concertos (around 75 minutes). The orchestra can fill in with some of the orchestral pieces such as Le Rouet d'Omphale.

I have just listened to the three violin concertos with much pleasure. In common with Handel, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote music that was stress- and angst-free, but with good tunes. The Swiss CD, with the Romanian-born but Swiss domiciled Liviu Prunaru playing tastefully and impeccably, is excellent. Prunaru, like most of Saint-Saëns' music apart from his "Organ" Symphony, seems to have passed into obscurity. A shame; popularity is fickle and I would give 50 hours of Gustav Mahler's music in return for one hour of Saint-Saëns.

Two of the three concertos were dedicated to Sarasate (the last two, confusingly numbered 1 and 3) and Prumaru plays much as one imagines Sarasate would have done: suave, sophisticated and tasteful, with a sweet and sonorous violin from the Guarneri family (1676).

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Bit fixated on stewed neck of lamb with dumplings at the moment, the stew well seasoned with thyme and bay leaves. But it's so cold every day! Life needs lamb stew with 2007 Côtes du Rhône wine. I probably will need a change of diet in Bangkok next week, however.

Shuffle-play on CD players has a very limited use for classical CDs. But I discovered yesterday evening it is a great invention for tackling Paganini's 24 caprices which, apart perhaps from No.24, have no really logical order and Paganini would certainly not have expected people to play, or listen to, all 24 in the printed order. Shuffle play here is great, since all too often the first 12 or so caprices are listened to more often than the final 12. Shuffling the order gives everyone a chance to be heard.

Monday, 22 February 2010

When Henry Purcell died in London in 1695 at the age of 36, Handel was just 10 years old and 10 years away from the start of his meteoric career. Purcell wrote his Hail, Bright Cecilia in London in 1692; Handel wrote his A Song for St Cecilia's Day in 1739; both Purcell and Handel based the poems on Dryden's words (more tastefully, in Handel's case).

The two works make a fascinating juxtaposition on a new CD conducted by Marc Minkowski, with his Musiciens du Louvre. He has assembled a thoroughly competent team of singers -- special mention to tenor Richard Croft and glorious soprano Lucy Crowe -- and it is nice to hear a real choir again, as opposed to the economy quartets favoured by recording impresarios, concert promoters and financial advisers. Minkowski uses a pitch of 415hz, which avoids a lot of the "baroque rasp" that comes from playing stringed instruments with no warming vibrato. All in all, an extremely attractive coupling of two extremely attractive works. The two CD set has a filler a performance of Haydn's Cäcilienmesse but, given my allergy to most church music and indifference to Haydn, it may take me some time to get round to listening to this.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

James Ehnes is a violinist I usually admire rather than warm to. But his new (2009) recording of the evergreen 24 Caprices by Paganini is very fine. All 24 caprices are extremely challenging to play, of course, but not all are exercises in red-blooded virtuosity, and Ehnes provides plenty of (welcome) contrast when he tackles the many legato and melodic passages. I like the varied dynamics Ehnes brings to the pieces, and I like his judicious observance of most repeats; the caprices have always been a problem in both LP and CD eras in that they (barely) fit on to one CD if all the repeats are made -- Ehnes weighs in here at just over 78 minutes. This is definitely a set of old Nicolò's pieces to keep with the best, since Ehnes is a very fine violinist and ace technician.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Well, of all things, I enjoyed listening again to Sibelius's violin concerto; probably the 20th century's most played and best loved concerto. It was an off-air recording with Janine Jansen playing the solo part, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. A bit untidy in parts, and the balance was often a bit out (in favour of the orchestra). But the (live) performance was very much on its toes and, as usual, Ms Jansen impressed enormously by her verve, technique and commitment to the music. An excellent performance. What Milstein and Oistrakh were to previous generations, Janine Jansen is to this: thoroughly dependable and recommendable, like pretty well all performances by this young Dutch violinist.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

From all accounts, and from a few (very late) recordings, Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués was a violinist noted for taste, technique, refinement of sound, and sensibility; no red-blooded, high-octane bravura. And this sound world is perfectly reproduced in the admirable Naxos recordings (planned to cover all of Sarasate's works on twelve CDs). Where would we lovers of the violin literature be without the likes of Naxos? Waiting patiently for EMI, Philips, RCA, Sony or another of the old "major" labels who failed so dismally in this repertoire from 1910 onwards?

Volume III of the projected twelve has just appeared, and features Sarasate's works for violin and orchestra. The quality of the music varies, a little; Sarasate was no Mozart or Schubert. The recording quality in this latest volume is adequate (an orchestra in Navarra). But the violin playing of Tianwa Yang (born in Peking in 1987) really impresses. Miss Yang may not produce the right sound or style for Bruch or Brahms (for all I know). But her feeling for the music of Sarasate is emphatically right. Jiggle with the labelling a little, and it could even be Pablo himself playing the violin. And with Miss Yang's dead-on sense of style is her truly incredible mastery of the violin; there is nothing Tianwa Yang cannot play with 100% accuracy. The final section of the over-familiar Zigeunerweisen is truly breathtaking and goes immediately to first place in front of the 75 (!) versions I have. Step back, Mr Heifetz!

"Oriental" violinists are sometimes denigrated for being technically superb but lacking rapport with the music they are playing. In my view, Tianwa Yang's rapport with the music of Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués is complete (as a quick cross-refence to Sarasate's few recordings in 1903 will confirm).

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The second Cavalleria Rusticana this evening, following the recording by Riccardo Muti I listened to a week ago. And the winner is: Giuseppe Sinopoli, with no doubts. The Sinopoli recording has superior pacing, superior dynamic shading, superior playing from the Philharmonia (the same orchestra as for Muti) and a superior recording. The violence blazes in the hot Sicilian sun much more vividly for Sinopoli.

Earlier, I enjoyed again Dietrich Henschel singing Vaughan Williams (Songs of Travel), Mahler, (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen), Pizzetti (three songs) and Dupac (five songs). Henschel manages his multi-lingual programme well (with French coming off worst, however). I prefer the Mahler with piano rather than orchestra, and the fahrenden Gesellen is one of the few Mahler works I can really enjoy. The 69.50 minute programme is a bit gloomy on a grey February afternoon, however. Henschel's excellent pianist is the delightfully named Fritz Schwinghammer.
I love the music of Henri Vieuxtemps, and pass few opportunities to purchase new recordings when they come out (which, alas, is somewhat rare). The recording of Vieuxtemps' viola music by the violist Thomas Selditz is good, and Selditz plays like a true viola player rather than as a wannabe violinist. I am less sure about the pianist, Vladimir Stoupel, however, who plays more like the Russian he is rather than the Belgian he is not. Despite Selditz's fine viola playing and sound, I'll stick to Pierre Lénert and Jeff Cohen in this attractive viola music.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

There have been many fine sets of the Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano since recording began; one thinks immediately of Szigeti and Arrau, of Grumiaux and Haskil, and of many others. I do find the new set by Ludwig van Beethoven, Alexander Melnikov and Isabelle Faust to be completely satisfactory, and the above order of the artists is deliberate. From this set one comes away with an admiration of Beethoven, and with a consciousness that the piano has the lion's share in these sonatas. This is far from decrying Faust's contribution; she plays to perfection the part allotted to the violin by the composer. A set to keep, with a fine recording quality and balance, to boot. At times Faust reminds me of Adolf Busch in Beethoven, and there is no higher praise than that.

An excellent Thai fish stew this evening, without mussels but with lots of squid and plenty of fish bits. I am improving steadily !