Saturday, 26 November 2011

After many years and many tries, I am beginning to enjoy Shostakovich's tenth symphony. The performance by Vasily Petrenko conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic sounds excellent to me, and the recording (on a cheapo Naxos CD) is first rate. This evening, however, I decided that for such music I have to invest in a pair of wireless headphones. Click, click on Amazon; the headphones will be delivered Monday. Symphony orchestras and apartment buildings just do not get on well together. My neighbours will be happier.
What happened to “classical” music after around 1950, both in terms of writing, and performance? Having greatly admired Josef Szigeti yesterday (1940 recordings) I find myself today bowled over by Walter Gieseking in Beethoven sonatas (1938-40). Giesking plays like, I imagine, Beethoven might have done, with an appropriate wildness to much of the music.

Difficult to think of much significant classical music after 1950, apart from a few last stragglers from Shostakovich or Britten. For performers, Heifetz, Klemperer and a few others made it for a few more years after which, apart from welcome oddities such as Sviatislav Richter, there not many great names that come to mind. Historians in a hundred years or so will probably discover that music became “mediatised” after the second world war and that there were plenty of marvellous composers, pianists, singers and violinists except their output never saw the light of day since they did not fit the perceived commercial mould. We are very fortunate that music – written or performed – has been preserved for eternity on paper or recorded media.
Yesterday evening I dipped into Josef Szigeti (with Andor Foldes) playing short pieces by Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Hubay, Kodaly, Mussorgsky, Lalo and Debussy (recordings from 1941, on a Biddulph CD). It was striking how violinists of the pre-1950s era were able to invest each short piece with its own colour and character. One listens to Szigeti, and the 33 minutes or so occupied by the pieces speed past. Modern violinists are churned out of violinists factories to play every piece with a beautiful, seamless, golden flood of sound; Szigeti uses his bow to invest different colours and to point up rhythms. I enjoyed the experience immensely, which would not have been the case had a technically expert violinist such as Chloë Hanslip or Joshua Bell been playing. A salutary re-discovery, and I was also pleasantly surprised how well the old Biddulph transfers came up (Lewis Wiener, produced by Eric Wen). Peter Biddulph knew about violin sound and seems to have insisted on fidelity. I am glad I have so many Szigeti recordings; his playing and sound are no longer fashionable; but fashion ain't everything, and quality, is.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

I was disappointed a few weeks ago revisiting Guido Cantelli in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony; it seemed to me simply too fast and too Toscanini-like. However, the Pristine Audio reincarnation of Cantelli's 1950 Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony restores this famous performance to life. Also on the Pristine disc is Cantelli's 1951 Romeo & Juliet Overture; this is a work I love, and this is the performance with which I grew up (it was on an LP with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll on the other side of the disc). Evergreen classics, and it's good to have both the Tchaikovsky works again in very passable sound (Mark Obert-Thorn transfers).

Less keen revisiting James Ehnes in his recent re-recording of Paganini's 24 Capricci. Being Ehnes, the playing is technically and stylistically impeccable. But in this Paganini playing I do miss a sense of joie de vivre, of exhuberance, of sheer revelling in the music. I must investigate some of the other recordings I have (I remember liking in particular that by Leonidas Kavakos).

Monday, 7 November 2011

Monday, and finishing up things since I shall not be eating in again until Saturday evening. So a good start with pâté de foie de canard, followed by perfectly cooked langoustines, followed by a truly excellent sirloin steak, followed by the remains of a very ripe Camembert. The whole accompanied by a good green salad and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône. No dessert, alas.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Three and a half hours go by quickly when listening to Handel's Agrippina. I listened to the 1991 recording on Philips conducted by John Eliot Gardiner which is excellent, with a good spacious sound and with Gardiner less manic than often. The singers are very good, though sometimes lacking in theatrical thrust. The singers (with not an Italian amongst them) simply do not relish the words in a way a native Italian speaker would. But what music! Music positively streamed out of Handel who apparently wrote the entire three and a half hour opera in just three weeks. I liked the work so much I have just ordered a second version for comparison – the new recording conducted by René Jacobs. Reports in due course.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

People who like drawing up lists of “top three” or “top ten”, or whatever rarely have much problem with the three greatest composers, and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven almost always romp home. But the second tier? And the third tier? Almost as difficult for list-builders as “the greatest French / English / Italian composer”.
However, Handel (and Schubert) must always come immediately after the top three. Listening today to a new CD of arias from his oratorios (late Handel, composed 1744-50) I marvel anew at his sheer musicality and his incredible gift for simple but memorable melody where he is on a par with Mozart and Schubert. Many, many composers wrote arias for operas and oratorios or cantatas; very, very few are on a par with the caro Sassone.
The present CD features two Canadians – Karina Gauvin (soprano) and Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto). The Complesso Barocco is conducted by the reliable Alan Curtis. All are completely beyond reproach. A happy disc.