Thursday, 29 September 2011

Fleeing the advancing armies, or tidal wave, or whatever: which CDs do I grab and take with me? Do I choose work, or performance? This involves also the perennial question of recording quality, versus performance.

For me, performance of a given work is always the No.1 consideration; recording quality comes second. Where there is a clear “winner”, rival candidates can safely be left behind. So I will tuck under my arm Albert Sammons in the Elgar violin concerto (1938), Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin in the Schubert Fantasia (1931), Wilhelm Furtwängler in Bruckner's 9th Symphony (1944), the Busch String Quartet in the late Beethoven quartets (mid-1930s), Julian Sitkovetsky and Niyazi in the Khachaturian violin concerto (1954). From my recent purchases I would add Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in the Lekeu sonata and the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane in the Elgar Piano Quintet. For Kreisler pieces, I will always go for Kreisler himself during the first three decades of the last century. For the great Bach choral works I will defy contemporary wisdom (and the BBC) and pick Otto Klemperer in the Mass in B minor, and the St. Matthew Passion (1960s).

For most works, however, it's a toss up. There are many recordings of the Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Sibelius and Shostakovich violin concertos, some from great players of the past in poor or average sound, some from excellent players of today in average or very good sound. Which CD do I seize for the first Shostakovich violin concerto? There are so many good ones; Batiashvili? Josefowicz? Fischer? Khachatryan? Kogan? Oistrakh? Repin? Vengerov? And some of these have recorded many versions; there is no obvious choice, as there is not for the Sibelius violin concerto, nor the Mendelssohn, nor the Bruch. Bruch's Scottish Fantasia is a fight between Heifetz and Rabin, with everyone else standing in the wings. Many candidates for the Paganini caprices but, for the first Paganini violin concerto, a fight between Rabin and Kogan (with many runners up, however).

I am extremely happy when I discover a new “golden classic” that can overtake older recordings – one reason why I was pleased with Thomas Zehetmair's 2008 recording of the Elgar violin concerto which, although it certainly does not overtake Sammons' classic version, certainly provides a thoroughly acceptable modern alternative. But otherwise, when the great wave bears down, which version of the Sibelius violin concerto do I grab and run with out of the 50 on my shelves?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Somewhere around I have all 21 Brahms Hungarian Dances played by: Marat Bisengaliev, Aaron Rosand, Hagai Shaham, Oscar Shumsky .. and Baiba Skride. A vast assembly of individual violiinsts plays a selection of one or more indidual dances, from Leopold Auer to Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz, and beyond. I have no doubt as to the winner of the complete 21 dances: Baiba Skride and her sister, Lauma, take the jackpot. One of those rare cases where I need no other recordings. I am mortally ashamed that I left Ms Skride out of my recent list of top-notch young female violinists. She is a superb player.

Monday, 26 September 2011

After enjoying my recent Naxos CD of three Russian violin concertos, I turned to Julia Fischer on a PentaTone CD where she plays three more Russian concertos (Khatchaturian, Prokofiev 1, and Glazunov) accompanied by Yakov Kreizberg and the Russian National Orchestra. A pity Ms Fischer has left PentaTone; it's a company that currently produces some of the best quality recordings.

I greatly admired these performances of both the Glazunov and the Khatchaturian concertos (I haven't yet re-listened to the Prokofiev). The Glazunov “belongs” to Heifetz, Rabin and Milstein, of course, but Fischer is competitive. I have always enjoyed Khatchaturian's melodic and attractive violin concerto (although some miserable critics tend to sniff at it since it is not “progressive”). The great recorded performance of this concerto is that of Julian Sitkovetsky with the Romanian Radio Orchestra conducted by Niyazi (1954) a searing and scintillating performance that will probably never be equalled on record. Julia Fischer, however, does well and is, of course, better recorded than poor old Sitkovetsky back in 1954. The twentieth century Russians certainly produced many highly attactive violin concertos.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A new Naxos CD of “Russian Violin Concertos” makes pleasant listening. The three concertos are quite undemanding of the listener and pass an enjoyable 64 minutes. The violin concerto by Julius Conus is (relatively) well-known. The Concertino for violin & string orchestra by Mieczslaw Weinberg claims to be a world première recording; the piece, dating from 1948, was only published in 2007. I enjoyed it greatly. The third concerto is that of Anton Arensky; it appealed to me less, mainly because – unlike the Conus and the Weinberg – is does not have much in the way of memorable thematic material.

Well done (again) Naxos. No good relying on the “old” record companies of the world for this kind of CD. The violinist in all three concertos is Sergey Ostrovsky, a name quite new to me. He plays well like a good little Russian, with a sound world heavily influenced by the smooth sound of the Oistrakhs who left a deep imprint on Russian violin playing. Excellent back-up with the undemanding orchestral parts by the excellent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling (son of Kurt). And finally, and most welcome, Naxos gives all three works an excellent recording, with good balance between orchestra and soloist. A real bargain for £5.50, or thereabouts.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

In any recorded performance of the Brahms violin concerto, the important elements – apart from the composer – are the violin soloist, the conductor, and the recording engineers. Despite my recent massacre of my CD collection, I have still ended up with 79 (!) recordings of Brahms' Op 77. The most recent is by Baiba Skride, with Sakari Oramo on the Orfeo label.

It is excellent. Miss Skride plays beautifully, intelligently and with a perfect technique. Oramo – himself a violinist – gives maximum support with the Stockholm Philharmonic. And Orfeo achieves the rare feat of an excellent recording with ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. An ideal balance between one solo violin and an orchestra of around 100 players is easier said than done; in the concert hall, the conductor is supposed to look after questions of balance. In recordings, it is down to recording and balance engineers who too often get things wrong (usually spotlighting the soloist). In a concert hall, the eye can help the ear in, for example, feeding the information that the soloist is scrubbing away desperately even when the orchestra is at full throttle. In a recording, the ears are everything, and unaided, and thus deserve a little help from the balance engineers. For Baiba Skride, the Orfeo engineers get it just right.

This recording balances the “macho” Brahms with the more feminine and lyrical side of his music. I liked it very much indeed. Yet another Brahms violin concerto to add to the highly recommended list. And yet another young female violinist deserving international fame. I have been disappointed with several recent recordings of this concerto; I am delighted with this one. Technique, tempo, interpretation, collaboration and recording all come together. As an encore, Orfeo and Baiba Skride (with her sister Lauma) offer Brahms' Hungarian Dances (all 21 of them, arranged by Joachim). The playing here reminded me often of Toscha Seidel in Brahms, and there can be no higher praise than that.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

When I was younger, most major pianists were bald-headed men: Solomon Cutner, Wilhelm Backhaus, Sviatislav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, et al. But after enthusing recently over Lise de la Salle, I have now to enthuse over Yuja Wang. Her recital CD of Stravinsky, Scarlatti, Brahms and Ravel is one to keep close to the CD player. She displays cool intelligence, plus an incredible technique. Which does not necessarily mean I long to hear her in the Beethoven Diabelli, or the Bach Goldberg. But her Brahms Paganini variations scintillate, as do her two well-known Scarlatti sonatas. Ravel's La Valse sounds suitably demonic and sinister, and the suite from Stravinsky's Petrouchka does not really need an orchestra when Ms Wang is around. A three-star CD.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I first heard Elgar's Piano Quintet at a concert at Boxgrove Priory many years ago and was immediately attracted to it. For some reason it has often been disparaged by critics, some of whom no dealt felt that, because of its date of composition (1918-19) Elgar should have been dabbling in serialism and electronic synthesisers, or whatever.

For me, the music is saturated in nostalgia, in mourning for the end of an era and for the 5.5 million young English, French, German and Austrian men who died in the terrible years of 1914-18. It is End of an Era music, rather like Strauss's Four Last Songs of nearly 30 years later.

I already have the work recorded by John Ogdon and the Allegri quartet, Peter Donohoe and the Maggini and Harriet Cohen and the Stratton quartet (1933) but I launched out on the new recording by Piers Lane and the Goldner Quartet, on the grounds that one can never have too many recordings of the Elgar piano quintet. I am glad I did; the Goldner performance is a revelation and knocks spots off all the rivals. Despite all the participants being Australian, they get to the very heart of this complex, multi-faceted but very English score. I love this performance, which is very well recorded (Hyperion) with a model balance between piano and string quartet. The CD also contains the string quartet to which I have never really taken; perhaps the Goldners will convert me.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

It is a little difficult to understand why the music of Henri Vieuxtemps isn't played more. His music is melodic, well written and immediately appealing. It is, however, pretty well absent from concert halls, and rare in recordings, apart from the fifth violin concerto, for some reason.

These are good days for lovers of rarer music in recording. Yesterday I took delivery of a boxed set of all seven Vieuxtemps violin concertos for the price of less than three hours work at the English minimum wage. The set, from Fuga Libra, would never have existed thirty years ago. The orchestra – Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège – would never be mistaken for the Vienna Philharmonic, but it plays with affection and enthusiasm and is well recorded. The seven concertos are given to seven different soloists, all young and from Latvia, Armenia, Russia, Belgium and Australia. Many are pupils of Augustin Dumay, who is also the “artistic advisor” for the seven concerto recordings.

The first concerto is a long work (over 37 minutes) and extremely difficult to play. Vieuxtemps must have had a formidable right arm since whole stretches of the concerto demand incredible bow control by the hard-pressed soloist. As with the music of Spohr and Sarasate, the Vieuxtemps concertos are on the whole light on bravura and rich in melodic violin figuration. Vineta Sareika (Latvia) plays the first concerto extremely well and no allowances need to be made for the fact she is an unknown violinist. The 1690 Gofriller she plays sounds just right for this music. As with the orchestra, there are probably many pluses to featuring lesser known musicians; probably Joshua Bell and the Philharmonia orchestra would sound more polished, but they might never achieve the commitment and enthusiasm evident in these recordings. “We try harder” is not a bad motto; the results can be rewarding, as here.

In the second concerto, the Armenian Hrachya Avanesyan is perfectly good, if not as exceptional as Vineta Sareika was in the first; it's a question of naturalness and fluency -- the Armenian sounds as if he has only recently learned the concerto, and he is not as good a violinist as the Latvian. He sounds as if he has been coached to play in a style that does not come naturally to him. The wisdom of having Dumay as artistic director comes across; however disparate and contrasting the Latvian and the Armenian may be as violinists, their approach to Vieuxtemps is similar.

The Russian Nikita Boriso-Glebsky is given the third concerto, to my mind the least interesting of the first five. He is technically immaculate and copes with the music effortlessly. Stylistically he sounds something of a crossover from the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos, a quite different world from that of Vieuxemps. A word of praise for the conductor, Patrick Davin, who gives excellent support (at least, in the first three concertos).

On to the fourth concerto, which is my favourite. Such a pity Heifetz truncated and mutilated the orchestral part for his recording with Barbirolli. For the current recording, the soloist is the Belgian Lorenzo Gatto. An admirable performance, though quite a few fluffs. He and the orchestra manage the difficult scherzo well – Vieuxtemps indicated that, if it were found too difficult for the performers, it could be omitted. A couple of momentary miscalculations by the orchestra in the slow movement have it sounding a bit like Stockhausen.

The main problem is that Gatto simply does not have the authority that a soloist needs in a concerto such as this. Authority is difficult to describe or define (though not too difficult to recognise). When a soloist such as Heifetz, Julia Fischer, Michael Rabin or Alina Ibragimova – to pick four at random – start to play, you prick up your ears (even during a blind listening session). That is 'authority'. For the fourth concerto, I stick loyally with Arthur Grumiaux, a man with much quiet authority.

Concerto No.5 is given to Iossif Ivanov (born in Antwerp, despite his name). In this work he comes face to face with Jascha Heifetz, and it is pretty obvious that Ivanov knows the Heifetz performance extremely well. He does not quite equal Heifetz (who can?) but he is a gold medal runner-up. On a wet Sunday evening, after a good meal, one could almost be forgiven being confused between the Heifetz rendition and that of Ivanov. A big hit for the Fuga Libra set (the first big hit since Vineta Sareika in the first concerto). On to numbers six and seven ..

Number 6, and the Belgian Jolente de Maeyer. An excellent player, and not a bad concerto but it confirms the difficulty of writing finales; we rarely look forward to a finale, with a few exceptions such as Mozart 41, Beethoven 7, Schubert Unfinished (!), Bruckner 9 (!), Das Lied von der Erde, and Brahms 4, and Vieuxtemps is no exception.

The Australian Harriet Langley has the seventh concerto and does extremely well; it's not a bad concerto either, written, like the 6th, when Vieuxtemps had retired to Algiers (like Saint-Saëns after him; what is it about Algiers? I spent a few days there in the 1970s and hated the place. Perhaps it was better in the nineteenth century). The slow movement has a definite couscous sound to it. Anyway, Ms Langley does very well indeed.

So, to sum up: nearly four hours of highly enjoyable music, well recorded and, in the main, extremely well played. It is good to have the seven concertos all in the same sound and stylistic world. Maybe, individually, some of the concertos might sound better elsewhere, but it's a set I'll return to with pleasure. Well done, Fuga Libra, and Augustin Dumay.

Friday, 2 September 2011

There are certain 'golden classics' of recorded music such as: Abert Sammons playing the Elgar violin concerto, Jascha Heifetz playing Saint-Saëns' Havanaise, and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, Wilhelm Furtwängler in Bruckner symphonies … and more. Having listened almost obsessively many times to Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien in Guillaume Lekeu's sonata for violin and piano, I sense that a new golden classic has arrived. Budding violin and piano duos from now on may consider recording Lekeu's sonata but, after auditioning Ibragimova and Tiberghien, hastily change to Franck, or Brahms, or Debussy.

Be it for an enthralling performance of the sonata, for an exemplary example of supreme duo playing, for a state-of-the-art example of what a violin is capable of, or for how entrancing a 1738 Pietro Guarneri can be made to sound: Hyperion CDA 67820 is an instant modern classic. I really love this performance.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

When someone commented to Leopold Auer that he thought Heifetz played a piece too quickly, Auer is reputed to have replied: “Maybe, but you listened to every note, did you not?” And it is true: Heifetz had such a chameleon sound, with infinite variety of bowing, fingering, colouring, rubato and dynamics that we sit glued to the sound of what he is playing.

I remembered Auer's remark when listening to the latest CD (Hyperion) of Alina Ibragimova with Cédric Tiberghien. Along with perhaps Julia Fischer, Ibragimova has a wonderful palette of sound and dynamics, and the Ibragimova-Tiberghien duo is rapidly gaining the stature of such past combinations as Grumiaux-Haskil or Busch-Serkin. I love listening to the playing of Guillaume Lekeu's sonata for violin and piano on this new disc, and although I appear to have 82 (!!) recordings of various aspirants playing Ravel's Tzigane, Ibragimova is well up in the top echelon (though not up to Kopatchinskaja).

Ibragimova is unusual in that she seems equally at home (and impressive) in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Brahms, Debussy, Hartmann, Ravel, Lekeu, Roslavets, Strauss and Szymanowski. The only music she does not appear to play is the virtuoso repertoire (Paganini, Ernst, Sarasate, et al). Probably understandable; she is a supremely musical violinist and her incredible technique is put at the service of what she is playing, rather than flaunted. But I would love to hear her in Vieuxtemps and Spohr, for example. Still, she is only 23 or 24 and probably could not add much to the 32 versions of the Ronde des Lutins that I currently have on my shelves.

Another impressive thing about Ibragimova is that she is always photographed as a normal young woman, rather than posed as some super-model showing maximum flesh. The current CD has just one black and white photo of the violinist, in a warm-looking Icelandic sweater. A refreshing change from some of her competitors amongst the fleshy violin-babes.

We do, however, live in an incredible age when it comes to violin playing. To mention only younger female violinists whose playing I know and like, there are: Alina Ibragimova, Julia Fischer, Lisa Batiashvili, Liza Ferschtman, Janine Jansen, Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Sarah Chang, Simone Lamsma, Tianwa Yang, Arabella Steinbacher, Isabelle Faust, Patricia Kopatschinskaja … and no doubt a horde of others whose names escape me for the time being.