Monday, 27 August 2012

Guillaume Lekeu

Belgium is not a country to which I warm. I prefer to fly over it. Or to drive through it rapidly (rapidly, in so far as possible, given that all its major routes are choaked with lorry traffic, taking a main artery from east to west). However, one of my favourite musical byways is the music of Belgians Henri Vieuxtemps, Eugène Ysaÿe and …. Guillaume Lekeu. My CD of the moment features Lekeu's piano trio (1890-1) and the unfinished piano quartet (1892) played by the Canadian Trio Hochelaga (with Teng Li, the viola in the piano quartet). On a wet English afternoon in August, Lekeu's music captures the mood of the moment. His melancholy suggests he knew he would die the day after his 24th birthday. I have long been a lover of Guillaume Lekeu's music – the few compositions he left us.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Xiayin Wang in Rachmaninov

In the process of digesting Yuja Wang in Rachmaninov, and others, I divert along the way to a new CD featuring Xiayin Wang in Rachmaninov. All these talented Wangs! I find Xiayin entirely enjoyable and convincing. Technically, she is completely on top of the difficult pieces on this disc. Her musicality and sensitivity shine through in such contrasting pieces as the 6th and 7th of the Op 16 Moments musicaux – the first being quite breathtaking in its murmurings, the second devastating in its power and command. Throughout the CD, I particularly admire Ms Wang's ability to twist and turn with every nuance of Rachmaninov's music; here is a pianist who is living the pieces she plays.

My kind of pianist. I like pianists called “Wang” and must investigate Xiayin further. And Rachmaninov's music is growing on me apace. Like all the turn of the century composers, he had a bad press with many of the critics, the avant-garde and the so-called opinion makers. But a hundred years of so on, Sergei Vasilievich's music has survived and enjoys constant and widespread popularity with both performers and listeners. Including me.

Joseph Szigeti

I have long had a soft spot for the playing of Joseph Szigeti (1982-1973). A pupil of Jenö Hubay, he came from those rich lands in Central Europe that also gave us Joseph Joachim, Leopold Auer, Jenö Hubay, Carl Flesch … and many, many other violinists. One doesn't go to Szigeti for lush sounds, vibrant vibrato or swooning melodies; his playing is characterised by an uncompromising honesty and refusal to play to the gallery. Even after nearly 80 years, his recording of Prokofiev's first violin concerto still gives rise to warm admiration. A recent 10-CD box from Membran cost me the princely sum of £9.85 and is a veritable treasure trove of around 10 hours of Szigeti's playing. His peak period was probably 1915-40 after which his technique declined (arthritis). The earliest recordings I have of him date from 1908 (playing Hubay, and Bach). Like so many of that generation, he missed out on the better years of recording technology but, with Szigeti's playing, the absence of a plummy sound does not matter too much; the essence of Szigeti comes over loudly and clearly.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Gillian Welch

This evening, in a complete change from Diana Damrau, Leonidas Kavakos or Sandrine Piau, I plugged into ... Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, two hill-billy singers from East Tennessee / Kentucky. Fortunately I had a copy of the song texts; I have as many problems with their local accents as the inhabitants did with mine, when I was there. Good folk music (when it is found) is a great treat, and is one reason I love the folk / gypysy music from Central Europe. Ms Welch here sings straight from the heart, and the two CDs I have are mercifully free from commercial pop. Many of the songs are truly memorable and paint vivid pictures of the everyday life of the under-privileged in that region of the world. CDs I get off the shelf at regular intervals.

Leonidas Kavakos

For a couple of decades now I've been a great admirer of the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. An incredible virtuoso (hear his Paganini) but also a supreme musician. He has never had much of an official recording career – probably fortunately, since this has enabled him to steer clear of monthly doses of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bruch, etc. A fair percentage of my Kavakos recordings come from off-air performances, the latest being last week's recital with Nikolai Lugansky at the Edinburgh Festival at which they played the Janacek and Respighi sonatas, plus Brahms' first and Stravinsky's Duo Concertante – a typical interesting Kavakos programme. Be it Paganini's 24 capricci, Ysaÿe's six solo sonatas, Brahms' violin concerto or a recital of Kreisler salon pieces: Kavakos is up there with the best. His current recital with Lugansky is mellow and highly musical, as one would expect from such a combination. Anything with Kavakos almost always comes with three stars.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Gardiner, and Kulenkampff

Back to Bach's St John Passion. After my big disappointment with Budget Bach Jos van Veldhoven, I went out and bought John Eliot Gardiner (2003 recording, Solo Dei Gloria). Much more my cup of tea. Since the 1980s, Gardiner appears to have mellowed, and a degree of mellowness never hurts Bach. Good soloists (a little recessed in the recording) and an excellent choir, unlike van Veldhoven and his puny line-up. Not a counter tenor nor a male alto in sight, thank goodness. The Jewish crowd sounds suitably vicious in Gardiner's -- and Bach's -- hands. I must dig out the 1987 version with Sigiswald Kuijken that I have lurking on a shelf somewhere.

Violin listening has featured Georg Kulenkampff. My kind of violinist. In Central Europe during that era, there was none of the pressure to play faster and louder than anyone else, and fellow violinists were colleagues rather than overt competitors. Things changed after 1945, but I really enjoyed and appreciated listening to Kulenkampff just playing the music. The Beethoven and Spohr No.8 violin concertos are particularly pleasing; there is a calm and naturalness about the playing that is good to listen to. Strange that, in the Beethoven violin concerto in particular, my desert island choices out of the hundreds of versions recorded would be – in random order – Kulenkampff, Röhn and Busch.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Back to Diana Damrau, and Franz Liszt

An unsettled day, musically as well. Michael Rabin, Martha Argerich, Günter Wand did not really suit my mood. This evening, I discovered the magic formula for today: Diana Damrau singing 76 minutes of Liszt lieder.

I did well to keep this CD in my “near at hand” file. Is it Liszt that so appeals to me? A bit unlikely, given my track record with Franz Liszt. Or Diana Damrau? I suspect it is the combination of this singer, in this music (with Helmut Deutsch as the perfectly balanced piano partner). In any case; the CD left me with a warm feeling and goes back on the “keep near at hand” file.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Michael Rabin

After the watered down Bach of van Velthoven, it was time for some red meat. And no meat redder than Michael Rabin playing Paganini and Glazunov concertos. What a superb violinist Rabin was! One to stand beside Kreisler and Heifetz as one of the very great violinistic voices of the last century. Ruthelessly exploited during his youth, and callously abandoned once he started to stumble, we are lucky to have many recordings of him in repertoire in which he excelled … whilst regretting all that might have been and should have been.

What a fine violin concerto Alexander Glazunov wrote; a pity he didn't write more. I listened to the recordings in Testament transfers, kindly donated to me by Lee. They are an improvement on the original EMI-Capitol CD transfers.

Bach's St. John Passion

Famously, as I have often mentioned before, Bach's music will survive almost anything. Recently, perhaps due to some raving critic, I bought a recording of Bach's St John Passion conducted in 2004 by Jos van Veldhoven. It is well recorded, and mainly well sung; I liked the Evangelist (Gerd Türk), the bass (Bas Ramselaar) and the soprano (Caroline Stam). I did not care much, as usual, for the counter-tenor (Peter de Groot). I am not a counter-tenor kind of person.

A glance at almost any Bach score will tell you that his is rich music. Bach liked many notes, and many layers of music and counterpoint. A Bach score is visibly very different and more complex compared with those by his contemporaries such as Handel or Vivaldi. It is therefore logical to imagine that, in his head as he wrote his major concertante works, Bach heard a rich sound. The St Matthew and St John Passions, as well as the Mass in B minor, need gravitas and an impressive depth of sound. A grave disadvantage of the current fad for “Budget Bach” is that in works such as the Passions, a handful of players just cannot sound rich and impressive. The Veldhoven performance seems to boast less than 20 participants in all, including “chorus”, instrumentalists, soloists and conductor. It all sounds too light-weight and super-economy. Poor old Bach; after suffering for decades with giant choirs and inflated orchestras, he now has to suffer from an augmented string quartet and an omnipresent plucking theorbo that at times threatens to dominate the instrumental line. Bach's Jews in their dialogue with Pontius Pilate in the St John Passion are audibly a nastier lot than the Jews in the St Matthew; here, alas, the jaunty light-weight chorus makes the Jews sound a jolly group of locals. The “orchestra” -- what there is of it --- plays discreetly and gives the impression of being a coven of musicologists trying to re-create 1726, or whenever.

Let us hope that the current fad for Budget Bach will run its course and we will eventually hear performances that are worthy of the character of the music. The vibrato-less singers who were all the rage in the 1980s and 90s seem to have died a welcome death, so there is hope for change over the decades to come. Most critics – with the honourable exception of some who write in the American Record Guide – go along with the fashion of the day. But critics die off and are re-cycled.