Saturday, 21 January 2012

Pristine Audio's latest release brings us the familiar recordings of Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot in sonatas by Franck, Debussy and Fauré, with a couple of fill-ups from Fauré and Debussy. Like meeting old friends again. Difficult to know whether to admire more Cortot or Thibaud. Or the original recording and balance engineers from the late 1920s, or the miraculous transfers from 78s by Mark Obert-Thorn. Thibaud's portamenti may date the style a little, but these are solid gold recordings that have given enormous pleasure to the world for over 80 years now – and will probably still be loved in 80 years time. Not that I'll be around to see it. I have many transfers of these recordings, but Obert-Thorn's are the best yet – and probably give the best sound since 1927-9 when the recordings first saw the light of day.

Listened again with enormous enjoyment and admiration to Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic in Shostakovich's 10th Symphony (Naxos). The work appeals to me more and more. The recording is exceptional. The conducting sounds spot-on. And the orchestral playing confirms my suspicions that a second-tier orchestra playing its heart out is often preferable to a major international orchestra on auto-pilot. I am ordering the same forces playing the 5th and 9th symphonies and expect to enjoy them nearly as much. Shostakovich's symphonies and string quartets have remained unknown territory for me for too long (not too surprising given the fact he wrote fifteen of each).

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

I had intended to listen to Sibelius's seventh symphony this evening, but became side-tracked when looking for a particular disc and ended up listening to Paganini's 24 Capricci instead. Highly enjoyable; the violinist was the extraordinary Tianwa Yang when she was young (!) – only 13 years old when this recording was made. But her considerable virtues as a violinist were much in evidence, even then: a silvery tone that becomes rich and golden only when justified by the music; a refusal to wow us with a stream of beautiful sound; an amazing clarity of diction and articulation (to borrow from practitioners of the spoken word); a formidable bowing arm; impeccable intonation; impeccable taste; her sensitivity to the nuances of the passages she is playing. Her accuracy in double-stopped passages is quite amazing, and it sounds almost as if two violinists are playing a duet. The CD is an object lesson in the performance of these evergreen exercises-cum-vignettes.

A good evening was completed with a simple but highly enjoyable meal of smoked salmon, filet steak, fresh fruit salad. A good Monday evening.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

In the good old days, you went to a record shop, found an LP that looked good, asked to hear it, then sat in a listening booth and listened. You could do this even into the 1960s; I remember sitting in a booth in Oxford High Street when I was a student there, listening to La Bohème from start to finish – I had tears in my eyes at the end. I bought the two LPs (Beecham, Björling, de Los Angeles).

After 55 years or so of listening and buying, I now know more or less what suits me. But novelties come along and I currently read American Record Guide, Classica, The Gramophone and International Record Review. When re-subscription time comes round, I hesitate for Classica and Gramophone (ARG is emailed to me free by a friend). When someone enthuses over something that might tempt me, I listen and consider. John Hughes in IRR enthused over a recital disc of 18th century opera arias by Teodora Gheorghiu: “this is an impressive issue by a small company” he said, giving it an outstanding rosette. Since I like 18th century opera recitals, I bought the CD.

However. Richard Wigmore, writing in The Gramophone, is decidely sniffy. “In sum, a recital of mixed pleasures, longer on virtuoso brilliance than on imagination and involvement” quothe he. Listening to the 77 minutes of the CD, I have to admit that most of the music is pretty small beer – Cafaro, Myslivecek, Borghi, Jommelli and Mozart at the age of 10, or whatever. Teodora Gheorghiu sings prettily, but mezzo-forte throughout (and the band under Christophe Rousset doesn't have much to do). Not a CD that is going to grow hot from being removed constantly from my shelves. Difficult to branch out into unknown artists and repertoire these days when one cannot audition complete discs before buying.
A sudden whim yesterday evening saw me take Otto Klemperer's mono recording (1955, Philharmonia) of Beethoven's Eroica symphony off the shelf -- and listen to it with very great pleasure. It really is a great classic recording of Klemperer at his finest. One admires the forward woodwind and reduced strings that really bring out the essential of Beethoven's revolutionary symphony. Not an ideal recording for listening to through headphones, unfortunately. But one cannot have absolutely everything. I even really enjoyed the finale in this performance; something I rarely do.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Maria Callas in Tosca or Norma; Edwin Fischer in Bach; Otto Klemperer in Beethoven; Wilhelm Furtwängler in Bruckner or Wagner; Walter Gieseking in Debussy: to these I would add Tianwa Yang in Sarasate. Prompted by a remark from a friend, I indulged myself in 68 minutes of Miss Yang playing Sarasate and was sorry when the 68 minutes were up. I did not admire the playing; I did not admire the sound of the violin. I just sat back and enjoyed Sarasate's music played by a master (as the saying goes), which is what great performances are all about. Yang and Sarasate belong in the lifetime collection of anyone who loves the violin, violin playing, and Sarasate's music. And, once again, bravo Naxos.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Odd that Sibelius's fourth symphony seems to have escaped me for my past 55 or so listening years. It appears I (now) have four recordings of the work, but I had pigeon-holed it in my mind as being noisy and rampaging. How wrong can one be? On my new traversal of Sibelius, I listened to the fourth this evening and really took to it (it was reputed to be one of Herbert van Karajan's favourite symphonies). It comes over well with Colin Davis and the LSO in this evening's performance and I am really re-warming to Sibelius; perhaps his time will come again once the managed craze for Gustav Mahler's long and noisy symphonies has faded. Sibelius's seven symphonies are simply better than Mahler's nine.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

I never thought much of Efrem Zimbalist as a violinist. He has always seemed to me a somewhat pale and characterless pupil of Leopold Auer, albeit one with an exemplary technique. However, I was strangely impressed with his E minor string quartet on a new Naxos CD (Fine Arts Quartet). Written in 1931, the quartet is highly likeable; the musical language sounds turn-of-the-century Anglo-French – somewhat bizarre, seeing that Zimbalist was a turn-of-the-century Russian Jew who settled in America and apparently became rather rich through buying and selling violins and stocks and shares. Despite all that: he wrote a most attractive string quartet (as well as some excellent music for violin and piano). The Naxos disc claims to feature the “world première recording” of the Zimbalist quartet; if so, the world is a strangely fickle place when you consider all the mediocre string quartets that have been recorded over the past one hundred years.

Also on the disc is Fritz Kreisler's lovable A minor string quartet from 1919. Unlike the rootless Zimbalist, Kreisler's music remains firmly turn-of-the-century Viennese, a kind of mixture of Korngold and Zemlinsky. It's a quartet I have always enjoyed. The disc ends with Ysaÿe's soporific Harmonies du Soir for string quartet and orchestra.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

“Good news! Monsieur Ysaÿe has escaped the German armies and is on a boat for England. Unfortunately, it is said he is bringing all his music with him”. So goes a well-known Eugène Ysaÿe story from the first world war. I know of none of the six violinists to whom he dedicated his six solo sonatas who recorded them (but the mid- 1920s was not a good time for adventurous recording projects). When asked by someone in later life whether he played the third sonata, dedicated to him, George Enescu is reputed to have replied: “I hate that music”. So much for contemporary opinion. Fortunately for us, the six sonatas have gradually and increasingly established themselves in the repertoire of violinists, and lovers of violin playing – I have twelve recordings of the complete six, the latest from Thomas Zehetmair. I have to admit that even 80+ years on, the sonatas can at times be pretty challenging to listen to; hardly the kind of thing your local supermarket is going to pipe through the shop to entertain happy shoppers.

Germany and Austria have produced an admirable crop of violinists over the past couple of decades, including Christian Tetzlaff, Frank Peter Zimmerman, Benjamin Schmid, Katrin Scholz, Arabella Steinbacher and Laurent Breuninger. I am a relatively recent convert to Thomas Zehetmair, but I greatly enjoyed his traversal of the six sonatas. His technique is fully up to it, and his playing is intelligent and varied with no showing-off. A word of praise also to the recording (by Manfred Eicher); solo violins are not that easy to record, and far too many producers make the mistake of miking too close to make up for the violin’s perceived limited dynamic range. Herr Eicher gets it just right, with enough air and space around the sound to make listening a pleasure. This new candidate goes up to the top few of my eleven other recordings.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Ah ! My pot au feu d'agneau; or lamb stew; or Irish stew; or merveille d'agneau aux fines herbes. Or any other pretentious name that can be conjured up. Anyway: take a good lamb stew stock from the freezer (from the last time of this dish). Add more leeks, carrots, parsnips and onions and – above all – mixed herbs and rosemary. Simmer. Then add barley, and more lamb – scrag of lamb, stewing lamb, neck of lamb; whatever is cheapest. Simmer for around two hours. Cool, and keep in fridge. On eating day, extract enough for (one) meal, then re-heat for around one hour.

When the day comes and all the meat is eaten: freeze the remainder ready for stock for the next time. No wonder there is a long queue at my door this meal time … Only difficult ingredient to obtain is the bouquet of dried herbs for lamb (French supermarket, but never seen north of Calais). The bouquet(s) of dried herbs is essential; probably fresh herbs would make the dish 120%.
2011 ended with a stuffed, boned pheasant and a good bottle of Côtes du Rhône wine. Then on to what, for me, is the pinnacle of Western music and the high point of High Baroque: Bach's Mass in B minor. It is a work I associate with special occasions, and I usually play it at the year's end. Coincidentally, it was the very first work I heard at a concert (at the age of around 13 in St Wilfred's Church in Rose Green where I was conscious of being the only person in the audience under the age of about 60).

The recording I listened to to usher in 2012 was, of course, the 1967 performance conducted by Otto Klemperer. To my mind, he is the conductor who brings out the greatness and splendour of this work. His sense of structure and architecture are crucial in giving shape and form to well over two hours of music, and his insistence on clarifying all the strands of Bach's complex orchestral and choral part-writing means that the work comes over with more clarity than most of the current minimalist, high-speed performances. His chorus of 48 voices is ideal in the context. Klemperer's tempi may often seem to be deliberate, but they add up to a glorious and satisfying whole. Add to that the fact that the work is well sung, well played, well recorded and well transferred to CD, and you have a great recording of a great work. 2012 has begun well. For Klemperer, Bach's Mass in B minor was "the greatest and most unique music ever written". It certainly sounds it, in this truly noble performance.