Saturday, 31 December 2011

There are not too many violinists whose violinistic voice one can recognise within seconds; Heifetz, Rabin, Kreisler and Elman come immediately to mind, and then one has to think a bit. It was good to hear Mischa Elman again this evening, in a BBC studio recital from 1961 when he was 70 years old. Immediately one smiles at the plaintive sound of his violin, and the deliberate articulation with his bow. Technically he was all there even at this age, and it's good to have this additional souvenir of him. Elman always complained about the fact that he found it difficult to get recording contracts; his sound was too dated, and too out of fashion. The first recording I have by him dates from 1906. The last from 1966. His playing didn't change much over those 60 years. I have always had a soft spot for Mischa Elman and his link with the old fiddler way of playing back in the Russian lands in the nineteenth century. His rendition here of Vitali's Chaconne is an object lesson in violin technique. The recording quality is surprisingly mediocre for its date; the German radio networks did a lot better than this much earlier on.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A violin-loving friend in Brussels sent me a DVD of Alina Ibragimova, the violinist who can do no wrong, playing the fourth Mozart violin concerto (with the Deutsche Kammerphilhamonie Bremen and Paavo Järvi). It is an entrancing performance. Ibragimova plays with immaculate technique, immaculate taste and immaculate musicianship. What is rarer: she communicates a real sense of enjoyment in her playing of this youthful work – and she plays her own cadenzas that fit very well and are not too long or “virtuostic”. A three-star DVD.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

I finished listening today to all six CDs of Josef Suk recordings from the 1950s and 60s. Not too much to add concerning my deep admiration for Suk's violin playing: accurate, silky but not over-sweet, intensely musical and, in the duos, with the real musicianship of a superb chamber music player. I would just add that I enjoyed all 26 works on the discs – even including the works by Jaroslav Jezek and Arthur Honegger. And never once in all 26 works did I have any doubts concerning the tempi adoped by Suk and his collaborators (who include André Navarra). Most unusual (I often find performers post-1960 tend to err on the slow side). A great box, and I'm glad I bought it. Very hard to think of a modern violinist who could give so much pleasure for over six hours in such varied repertoire.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

About to start listening to Disc V of my six-CD pack of Josef Suk (all very good, so far). Waiting in the wings is a 2-CD pack of Mischa Elman (BBC recordings from 1961). Then this morning arrives a 10-CD box of Josef Szigeti. There never were such times. The Szigeti box cost me £9.99 from Amazon (including postage).

Friday, 23 December 2011

My father, who played his double bass in the London Symphony Orchestra throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, had an immense regard for Pierre Monteux and one can hear why in a recording by Monteux and the LSO (1959) of Sibelius's second symphony. A commentator to this blog pointed me towards this recording: fortunately. It's a CD I picked up a couple of decades ago, probably in America in the days when one could ferret around in foreign record stores and come up with something unobtainable elsewhere (the CD notes are entirely in French, so I may have picked it up in Boston as an over-stock from Canada. Whatever). I complained about Riccardo Chailly not allowing his Beethoven works to “breathe” – whatever that may mean. What it does mean is what you can hear with Monteux and the LSO; the music sounds exactly right at Monteux's tempi, and there is a luminousity about the orchestral playing that puts this performance right at the top. Also on the CD is Elgar's Engima Variations played by the same forces, a recording that was highly thought of in its day and still strikes me as pretty well ideal. I can hear why my father liked Monteux so much (and, as an orchestral player, he generally did not think much of conductors). Monteux gets the orchestra to play, without drawing too much attention to the conductor. That is a great and welcome art. I am tremendously glad I had this recording in my voluminous archives; it won't be buried again.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Riccardo Chailly - Beethoven Symphonies

I bought this new set mainly to have a well-played and well-recorded set of the Beethoven symphonies suitable for my new headphones. I did not expect Chailly to supplant Klemperer in Beethoven; but, then again, I rarely listen to the Beethoven symphonies any longer.

Day One: the first symphony. I like this performance. Under Chailly the performance dances along and does not try to find much gravitas in the work. The first symphony is pretty pseudo- Haydn to my ears, without much depth. Suits Chailly and his tempi very well. I will move on to the second symphony.

Day Two: the second symphony. Somewhat to my surprise, I find I am not all that familiar with this work. It’s a minor piece but, again, Chailly seems at home and OK. Good playing, good sound.

Day three: the fourth symphony. For the time being I have skipped the Eroica, the first two movements of which I esteem very highly and I cannot imagine anyone coming near Klemperer there. So on to the fourth symphony which contains much first class music. I admire the playing of the Leipzig orchestra; the players really are first class. I admire the Decca recording. I admire Chailly’s emphasis on Beethovian dynamics and sforzandi. I do not like his tempi in the first two movements, both of which sound rushed and take us back to the bad old days of Toscanini. There is wonderful music in the first two movements and I wish Chailly had found the time to savour it a little rather than rushing ever onward as if he had a train to catch at the end of the concert. Music often needs to breathe, and Chailly does not give it time to catch its breath.

Day Four: the fifth symphony -- not one of my favourites. It often sounds pompous, banal and pumped-up. I have no problems with Chailly, Decca or the magnificent Leipzig orchestra in this performance, but I do have problems with Ludwig van Beethoven. The first movement goes very well with Chailly, and his swift tempi and lightness of touch remove the puffed-up extremes in which too many conductors indulge. The second movement has always disappointed me: a set of variations, with a refrain that comes round three times too often, has never struck me as an inspired way to continue a symphony that -- in Chailly’s hands at least -- starts well. After the scherzo and trio, we have that over-blown finale, sounding like something the young Gustav Mahler might have written. Beethoven should have learned from his hero, Handel, that triumphal music should not last too long. But how many really good finales are there that actually add something to a major work? Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique; Mozart’s Jupiter; Beethoven’s Seventh; Brahms Fourth; Schubert’s Unfinished (!); Bruckner’s Ninth (!). It’s a short list; revelatory finales are hard to write.

Day Four (continued) and the Pastoral symphony. On the whole, Italians are city and town dwellers and rarely feel at ease in the countryside. Chailly sounds as though he wants to keep his visit to the countryside as short as possible. His traversal of the work reminds me of the days when my “record player” had a control where you could select 78 rpm, 45, or 33 -- and sometimes I would select the wrong speed. The first and second movements speed by; the rustic third movement is tossed aside. The finale isn’t bad but, by then, it’s too late. This is a pretty disastrous rendition of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. Both Furtwängler and Klemperer came in for plenty of criticism in their day over tempi; this is a difficult tone poem / symphony to bring off. But I sense that, true Italian that he is, Chailly just does not like the countryside. On to symphony number seven, leaving the sixth to others better qualified.

Day Five: Symphony No.7. I prefaced this with the Egmont Overture: good, but not grim and black like Klemperer. Somewhat against my expectations, I took to Chailly’s version of Op 92. Again, superb recording and superb playing. An excellent middle-of-the-road interpretation (thank goodness the scherzo and trio were taken briskly; obviously, Beethoven hadn’t counted on people having listened to this 86 times in their lifetimes). Any niggles? Well, in 50 years time people will speak of Beethoven performances by Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer, Mengelberg, Weingartner, Knappertsbusch … and a few others. But not, I suspect, of the Beethoven of Chailly which, in the last resort, lacks the 12.5% that separates “excellent” from “great”. But, this is a Beethoven 7th to which I will return happily in years to come.

Day Six: Symphony No.8. Fast, frantic and full of sforzandi. I did not enjoy it. For all I know, this was echt Beethoven. But, for me, bring back Tommy Beecham and a little late 18th century charm and elegance.

Day Seven: Back to the third symphony. I have always thought the first two movements to be among Beethoven’s greatest and half wish he had abandoned the work after the funeral march; the third and fourth movements, to my taste, simply are not up to the standard of the first two. Klemperer for me defines this symphony, perhaps above all in his mono recording with the Philharmonia (1955; better than the 1959 stereo re-make -- Otto was a pretty variable conductor). I have no problem with Chailly’s basic tempo for the first movement. But I do have a problem with his refusal to adapt his tempo to the music being played. He gives the impression of putting the orchestra on autopilot and brings to mind the “Italian bandmaster” jibe made à propos Toscanini by (Beecham? Furtwängler?) No rubato here, no easing of the tempo, no reaction to some of the wonderful music in the score. The music does not breathe. No relief in the second movement; Chailly sets up a giant metronome and goes off for un espresso, leaving the orchestra to cope bravely. None of Klemperer’s grim darkness, lit by occasional rays of light. The order is: “Get it over with in 12 minutes and 11 seconds, and forget about all that adagio assai stuff”. Halfway through I lost patience and skipped on the the third movement. The third movement and finale go much better for Chailly, aided by his superb orchestra and excellent recording. Reinforces my growing conviction over the 37 movements of the Beethoven symphonies that the less emotionally and musically complex the music, the better Chailly comes over. I suspect he’s a dead cert for the William Tell overture of Rossini. But on to the ninth symphony, and how will he measure up to Furtwängler’s incandescent 1942 Berlin classic?

Final Day: Beethoven’s 9th. Contrary to my expectations, I quite enjoyed this, not least because almost all my other recordings of the work date from the 1940s and 50s and, with this new release, I hear so much more detail than I have done before. That said, the first movement is pretty relentless, and many favourite wayside flowers in the music are trampled underfoot in the headlong rush through the music. Again, the music isn’t allowed to breathe. The adagio lacks the ecstatic quality that Furtwängler brought to it. The long and ugly finale -- an infuriating mixture of sublimity and banality -- is greatly helped by the recording quality. Not a great Beethoven 9th, then, and certainly not one to any way rival Furtwängler in March 1942. But not bad.

The grand old conductors of the past such as Weingartner, Mengelberg, Knappertsbusch, Furtwängler and Klemperer all had their quite different approaches to Beethoven, Brahms, et al. But what comes through in all their performances is a humanity and a love of the music they are conducting. These are the qualities I miss in Chailly’s Beethoven: that sense of love and veneration. Like his fellow Italians of previous generations -- Arturo Toscanini and Guido Cantelli -- Chailly is a virtuoso conductor who can make an orchestra do anything he wants. But, to stick with Italians, there is more warmth and humanity in Victor de Sabata’s 1947 performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony (with the Santa Cecilia orchestra of Rome) than in the whole of Chailly’s Beethoven cycle. It may well be that Riccardo Chailly’s Beethoven set is one for the 21st century. But I do not feel it is one for someone, like me, born in 1941. Great virtuosi -- of the bow, the keyboard or the rostrum -- are not necessarily the greatest musicians.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Josef Szigeti, Oscar Shumsky and Josef Suk were all violinists of the first rank who eschewed low-cut dresses, TV shows and all the other “celebrity” razz-matazz. They were simply first class violinists of the old school. Working my way through a six CD box of early (1950s and 60s) recordings by Josef Suk, I find myself in immense admiration of his playing. So far I've heard his early Dvorak, Suk, Janacek and Smetana; and no one, but no one, plays it better.

In another world and time, I am also working my way through Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in all nine Beethoven symphonies. Heard five of them so far; four to go. Report in due course.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Sibelius seems to have fallen out of fashion for the moment, although back in the 1950s and 60s he was all the rage (just as, at the present time, we suffer from wall-to-wall Mahler). Almost by chance, this evening I pulled his second symphony off the rack (LSO conducted by Colin Davis) and I enjoyed it immensely. A big plus for my wireless headphones, this ability to listen to the thundering climax at the end of the finale without feeling guilty because of my neigbbours. I must listen to Sibelius more often; strangely enough, I've never been able to take to the third and fourth symphonies – though I like all the others and have a very soft spot for the somewhat uncharacteristic sixth symphony. Davis and the LSO are good in Sibelius whose symphonies inhabit that fin-de-siècle land that also contained Rachmaninov and Elgar.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

I rarely venture outside of Western “classical” music. But one of the other paths I enjoy is gypsy music, and the other is selective American folk / country music. Listening this evening to Nina Simone was a very great pleasure. She was a singer who sang from the heart and mixed black, country, jazz and classical streams. I first came across her in the late 1950s singing “Love me and leave me” with a very Bach-like fugal accompaniment; she was a pianist who trained at the Juilliard school. I even went to one of her concerts in London in the early 1980s. She was one of a kind, an abrasive individual with an immediately identifiable persona (a bit like Edith Piaf, Elvis Presley or Leonard Cohen). She died a couple of years ago in southern France where she lived in voluntary exile from America where she was born and where she grew up. Her voice lives on and I have many recordings of her, much cherished.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Susan Graham sings a very fine version of Chausson's Poème de l'Amour et de la Mer (with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier, 2004). Nice to hear a singer really engage with the words and the music. Chausson's early death (in a bicycle accident, of all things) was yet another sad loss for music. I've had a long love affair with Chausson's sad song cycle, starting back in the late 1970s with an LP and Janet Baker. The music still tugs at the heart strings after all these decades.
After being somewhat diappointed with James Ehnes's re-recording of the Paganini Caprices, I am pleased to give a good welcome to Thomas Zehetmair and his 2007 recording of the same works. I particularly enjoyed Zehetmair's subtle and prevalent variation of dynamics -- from pp, to ff. And Zehetmair, unlike Ehnes, brings out much of the showman character of these capricci. Welcome to the Paganini stable.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The recent superb Beethoven violin concerto recordings by Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Christian Tetzlaff and Liza Ferschtman were spoiled for me by their bizarre choice of cadenzas (when so many good alternatives exist). It would not have taken much to put the cadenzas on a separate track and thus give us the option of inserting some other version. That (should be) an advantage of the digital age. There are many good cadenzas for both the Beethoven and the Brahms violin concertos, and any decent violinist should have 2-3 in his or her repertoire. Give us a choice, and avoid having excellent performances spoiled by bizarre cadenzas. After Brahms, pretty well all composers became wise and wrote their own cadenzas (or supervised the contribution of some virtuoso). Ruggiero Ricci produced CDs of both the Beethoven and Brahms concertos with a wide selection of alternative cadenzas; so it can be done.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

It is pretty self-evident that a significant proportion of current “famous” young classical performers owe as much to their looks as to their prowess with the bow, the keyboard, the larynx or the baton. How many young fat, be-spectacled young performers can you remember with front-rank billing?

There are exceptions. I have always been somewhat mesmerised by the violin playing of Lisa Batiashvili – and still am, listening today to her in the Shostakovich first violin concerto (with Salonen) on a CD with a bizarre collection of fill-ups. Even through headphones, with the lights off: I can listen to Batiashvili for hours with real pleasure. And who cares what she looks like? She could well be the front runner for the title of “the most perfect violinist”.
Over an hour of virtuoso violin music is hard to bring off, but I enjoyed a new CD of opera fantaisies from an unknown (to me) young violinist, Haik Kazazyan (from Armenia). A past CD of opera fantaisies from Gil Shaham disappointed greatly a few years ago, but Kazazyan is an intelligent and sensitive player (as well as being a thorough virtuoso) and brings a wide range of dynamics and tone colour to the six pieces. The fantaisies by Zimbalist (Coq d'Or), Sarasate (Magic Flute), Wieniawski (Faust) and Ernst (Otello) are much to be welcomed. I would have preferred Sarasate's Carmen fantasy to that of the over-played Franz Waxman; and I could have done without Igor Frolov's over-long fantasy on Gershwin's Porgy & Bess (I don't like jazz or show-biz music on the violin).

A short word of praise for Kazazyan's pianist, Andrey Shibko, who is not the usual piano-thumper in the corner and plays most attractively when given the chance (he has quite a few good solo bars in the Wieniawski Faust work).
Three stars for Lucy Crowe! I have not really come across the young English soprano before, but her CD of cantatas and cantata arias by Handel really impresses. She has a lovely voice, with a golden timbre to it, and – oh joy! – she actually enunciates clearly so we can hear every word of the recitatives and arias. How rare, how welcome, and what a contrast to Alexandrina Pendatchanska whom I criticised severely recently for her unintelligible libretto.

A highly welcome Handel aria disc to join the many in my collection. Any niggles? Well, The English Concert is a little reticent as recorded and I suspect Georg Frideric would have wanted a livelier sound for his glorious music. And the CD does contain a pretty high dosage of melancholy lamentations; not a wise Christmas gift for a relative subject to depression.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Another recording of Handel's opera Agrippina, this time conducted by René Jacobs. Once again, I enjoyed every minute of the three and a half hours. Jacobs is much more theatrical than was John Eliot Gardiner, and he doesn't go for Handel's after-thought unsatisfactory ending, as did Gardiner. I prefer Gardiner's Agrippina (Della Jones) but much prefer Jacobs' Ottone (Bejun Mehta, versus Gardiner's Michael Chance). Very much swings and roundabouts when it comes to choosing an ideal version.

None of the two casts features real Italians, which is a great pity. Singers can learn to pronounce words perfectly, every vowel and every consonant; but it is usually only native speakers who can really relish the sound and significance of individual words. Jacob's Agrippina, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, sings dramatically and in tune; but even reading the Italian libretto while she sings, it is often difficult to make out just what she is singing. Do they not teach enunciation in Bulgaria? With Maria Callas you could understand every word she sang, even if you didn't speak the language.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

In the beginning, I listened to 78 rpm records on a portable (sort-of) wind-up gramophone where you had to change the steel needle after every side. I soon advanced to a record-playing deck (78s only) that plugged into the radio for sound. Then I had my very own record player (Pye Black Box) with an autochanger and the ability to play LPs. Things progressed over the years; I was a late adopter of CDs, since the sound of early CDs was inferior to that of LPs. But the mountain of releases of material not available on LP – notably the Heifetz recordings of the 1950s and 60s – had me buying a CD player. In the end, LP player and cassette players went and I settled down with two very large Acoustic Research speakers (each weighing around 25 kilos) and a succession of amplifiers and CD players.

Yesterday I fired up for the first time a pair of Sennheiser RS 170 wireless headphones: and a new era has begun. The sound from the headphones is superb and far better than from my 20 year old speakers. The sheer convenience is amazing (including the reception range of up to 80 metres). Only conceivable disadvantage is I can no longer hear the telephone when I am listening via the headphones. Expect to see my speakers on Ebay before long (buyer collects); I'll buy a pair of smaller speakers for when someone else wants to listen to something with me. However, the remarkable uncompressed wireless quality of the Sennheisers is remarkable and I now hear all sorts of details that were previously just a blur. Age VII has begun!