Saturday, 27 October 2012

Handel's Lotario

The neglect of Handel's opera Lotario is quite baffling. First performed in December 1729, it flopped and was not performed again until the 1950s … when it again flopped. The resuscitation I listened to today was from 2004, with Alan Curtis and his Complesso Barocco featuring a first-class list of today's singers, including Sara Mingardo, Simone Kermes, Sonia Prina and Vito Priante. I even liked the tenor (Steve Davislim) and appreciated the absence of male altos (Curtis uses female contraltos, in deference to my prejudices).

The music is first-class. Curtis apologises that, to accommodate the work on two CDs, some recitatives and some da capos had to be cut in order to bring the work in at 2 ½ hours rather than three. He need not have apologised to me: I have no objection to having the essence of Lotario, rather than every single note, and I am not in the slightest concerned with following the nuances of “the plot” (which is pretty ridiculous, as usual, and all in Italian, anyway). Nice just to sit back and bask in fine music and fine singing for two and a half hours.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Isakadze, and Faust

Off hand, I can only think of two Georgian violinists -- though there must be scores of excellent ones: Lisa Batiashvili, and Liana Isakadze. I've always had a very high opinion of Batiashvili, and have been a faithful fan of Liana Isakadze, having met her playing via her recording of Otar Taktakishvili's second violin concerto (a work I greatly like, but which remains obstinately completely unknown to practically everyone else). On a CD kindly supplied by Ronald, she plays the Beethoven violin concerto (recorded round about 1980), plus two concertos by Vivaldi (with the Georgian Chamber Orchestra) and the usual Polonaise by Ferdinand Laub. There is a freshness about Isakadze's playing that I find most attractive. In the Vivaldi concertos, there is none of that nonsense about no vibrato, and the long-held notes in the slow movements in particular sound so much better; long held notes on a violin with no vibrato can grate on the nerves, which is presumably why so many "authentic" fanatics indulge in ugly bulges. She plays the Beethoven reasonably "straight" and I like the performance. The Beethoven violin concerto is usually OK unless tempi are extreme (either much too slow, or much too fast) and unless some ridiculous cadenzas are imported for the sake of novelty. Isakadze sticks to the Kreisler cadenzas, and her tempi are perfectly acceptable. Well over an hour of attractive and spirited violin playing.

Isabelle Faust stands in a long line of celebrated Austro-German violinists that includes Carl Flesch, Georg Kulenkampff, Erich Röhn, Adolf Busch, Gerhard Taschner, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Thomas Zehetmair, Arabella Steinbacher, Julia Fischer .. and many others. On 19th October 2012 she gave a recital of unaccompanied Bach at a place identified by the BBC as simply “St. Luke's Church”, wherever that may be. She played the first and third sonatas, and the third partita. I enjoyed all three very much indeed. Her playing is in the German classical tradition. She is not an artist who seeks to show off her technique or lovely sound. In addition, she is technically on top of everything. This is Bach one sits back and enjoys.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Furtwängler's Pastoral

Re-united with an old friend this Friday: Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1952 in Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the recording with which I grew up on LP in the 1950s, despite all the forewarning and head shaking of the critics of that period. The recording has been re-transferred and cleaned up by the admirable Pristine Audio, and the sound now is perfectly listenable-to without having to make many allowances.

What comes over in this performance is love: the Vienna Philharmonic obviously loved the work, as did the conductor. The opening allegro ma non troppo is quite definitely non troppo in this leisurely performance and, as critics remarked at the time, it is not much different in tempo from the following andante molto mosso. Who cares? It's a lovely performance in which life is breathed into Beethoven's music; one feels he would have been much taken with this rendition of his Pastoral. A happy day in the Viennese countryside with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The task of the conductor and orchestra, of course, is to breathe life into notes on paper, and to attempt to re-create what was in the composer's head when he wrote it. (It goes without saying that what the composer heard in his head at the time might well not have been the following performance that he awaited with resignation or trepidation: “What do I care about your wretched fiddles when the spirit comes over me?” Beethoven is alleged to have remarked).

Anyway, after 60+ years, this classic recording from another age and another world lives on. In Furtwängler's hands, it lasts for 45 glorious minutes; conductors such as Chailly or Norrington probably dispatch it in half the time and then speed on to the next work on the list.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Tatiana Nikolayeva

Picasso had his cubist periods and his blue periods. I seem to have a Russian period at the moment. Current source of delight is Tatiana Nikolayeva playing the 24 Shostakovich preludes & fugues Op 87, a Russian recording from 1987 available very cheaply from Regis Records. I bought the Nikolayeva set partly on the recommendation of a friend (Martin White) and partly because I so enjoyed the recent set by Alexander Melnikov and wanted a second option.

The quality and variety of music in the 48 sections of the 24 preludes and fugues is amazing. This is music to listen to regularly; like Bach's music, it satisfies both cerebrally and emotionally. The sound world oscillates between the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. I keep listening to five or so of the pieces at a time. As to Nikolayeva versus Melnikov: I have no idea who is “best”. I just know I like both of them very much.

How refreshing to listen to the two Russian piano-babes, Maria Yudina and Tatiana Nikolayeva. Pretty obvious neither was selected for their sex appeal or luscious curves. The two are famous and still listened to because they were marvellous pianists and musicians. How many of today's violin or piano babes (or their male equivalents) will still be famous and listened to in fifty years time? The insatiable desire of the “music industry” to commercialise, commoditise and earn large amounts of money short-term is highly detrimental to musicians. Yudina, Nikolayeva, Casals, Elman, Heifetz, Beecham and their like would never get further than the doorman at modern international recording companies.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Richter, Bashmet, Kagan, Shostakovich

Regis Records is a small British company that specialises in remastering and reissuing older recordings at extremely reasonable prices. From my experience, the remastering is also done with skill and taste. Latest acquisition is a splendid CD of Shostakovich's late violin & piano sonata, with his very late viola & piano sonata. Pianist in both cases is the incomparable Sviatoslav Richter. Violinist is Oleg Kagan (1985 public performance in Moscow) and, in the viola sonata,Yuri Bashmet (same place, 1982). These are truly classic performances of two great works. Neither Kagan nor Basmet have featured among my favourite performers but here, in the 1980s in front of a Russian audience and with Richter the exemplary partner, they both triumph.

For Melodiya recordings at public concerts in the 1980s, the recordings are excellent (I noticed only one disturbing cough). The remastering (by Paul Arden-Taylor) is very good indeed. The price – I paid £5.50 for my copy – is remarkable. “You get what you pay for” is not always true. Two superb performances of two superb works for the price of four litres of diesel fuel is the bargain of the century. The disc goes into my “never be without” rack.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Daniil Trifonov

Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto is an old warhorse. It's also a very good piano concerto when played well, with an opening that is dramatic, and as memorable as the opening of Beethoven's G major piano concerto. I listened to it yesterday evening played by Daniil Trifonov (born 1991) accompanied by Valery Gergiev, with the Mariinsky Orchestra recorded in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in St. Petersburg. In one word: stupendous. Trifonov has power when needed, and poetic musing when needed. He does not try to “wow” us with his playing. He brings out all aspects of Tchaikovsky's work, the lyrical as well as the grandiose. This is some 21 year old!

The Russians seem to be well over-quota when it comes to producing world-class pianists and violinists. Trifonov makes me question, once again, whether it is necessarily true that artists give better performances when they mature, as maintained by conventional wisdom. Young artists can come to a work with fresh eyes; they also have reputations to build and establish. Older artists can fray a bit after playing the same work 200 times in public, and often no longer have a need to establish a reputation, but just to appear on stage and to play a work without making a mess of it.

This remarkable performance (of a remarkable work) also reinforces my feeling that nationalism does have a role in musical performance. In the current traversal of Tchaikovsky, the combination of a Russian soloist, a Russian conductor, a Russian orchestra playing Russian music in a Russian concert hall seems to me to give the music an extra 10% of authenticity. Everyone involved here plays with fervour and with feeling. Three stars.

For the rest of the CD, Trifonov gives us solo piano pieces – mainly of very welcome Liszt arrangements of Schubert songs. But I am so entranced with the Tchaikovsky that I haven't yet managed to listen beyond it.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Ignatz Waghalter (who?)

An hour's violin music by Ignatz Waghalter (1881-1949) does not suggest that here we have a newly discovered great master. The word that constantly comes to mind listening to the (agreeable) pieces on this Naxos CD is: generic. The music is generic German in the line of Brahms, Schumann and Bruch. The playing of the soloist, Irmina Trynkos, is generic modern efficient violin playing. The Royal Philharmonic orchestra sounds like a generic modern London orchestra. The finales of the violin concerto and the sonata for violin & piano underline how difficult it is to come up with really meaningful finales. On the whole, I prefer the violin & piano sonata to the orchestral concerto, which does sound a bit inflated and post-Joachim.

An odd liner note from one Michael Haas of the “International Committee of Suppressed Music at the Jewish Music Institute, London University”. He spends much of his text fulminating against the fact that Wagner didn't care much for Jews – though what that has to do with Ignatz Waghalter, or the price of fish, it is difficult to fathom. We are even informed that Anton Webern was not Jewish – in case anyone was interested. Apparently Mr Haas is a bit of an obsessive.

All praise to Naxos for providing – yet again – a cheap opportunity to explore unknown repertoire from the past. Maybe Waghalter would have benefited from a more subtle violinist such as Janine Jansen or Alina Ibragimova (not to mention Jascha Heifetz). Anyway, it all makes a change from endless Bruch, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

Patricia Petibon

I seem to have a crush on nightingales; the latest soprano to hit my letterbox is Patricia Petibon whose new CD – bizarrely called Nouveau Monde – joins those by Sandrine Piau, Diana Damrau and Simone Kermes. Petibon has a lovely voice, she is technically agile and has an infectious personality, though perhaps she does overdo some of the whoops and shouts in the South American folk music on the disc. However, for all I know, that's how they do things in Peru.

The disc almost qualifies as “crossover” music with its mixture of baroque era folk and classical. The South American pieces are catchy, with traditional songs side-by-side with José de Nebra and Henry Le Bailly. As usual, I find the French baroque pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Marc-Antoine Charpentier of lesser interest; I think French music only found its stride starting with Berlioz well into the 19th century. Petibon sings a very moving “Dido's Lament” from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas – surely one of the very greatest laments ever written. She also does a moving “Greensleeves” and a well-sung Fairest Isle (Purcell).

The conductor, Andrea Marcon, does go a bit overboard with drums, castanets, guitars and South American harp, possibly on the ground that since so much of the music is sung in Spanish, all sorts of percussion can be wheeled up and let loose. However, listening to Nouveau Monde and Patricia Petibon is an excellent way to spend an interesting and enjoyable hour or so.