Friday, 30 November 2012

Brandenburg Boult

I was moved last month when I visited Köthen in the province of Sachsen-Anhalt. I visited the Schloss where Bach spent a number of years composing mainly instrumental music – including the six Brandenburg concertos. Standing where Bach had stood some 295 years ago was a humbling experience.

I grew up with the Brandenburgs, and made their acquaintance again in a monster box of orchestral music conducted by Adrian Boult, no less, in the early 1970s. These Brandenburgs join those by Klemperer and the Busch Chamber Orchestra on the “old fashioned Bach” shelf. But, to tell the truth, Bach responds to almost any treatment as long as the musical texture is transparent, the rhythmic integrity is preserved, nothing is too fast or too slow, and the players have a somewhat extrovert dexterity when called for. Boult's Brandenburgs impress; only in the third concerto (strings only) did I long for a smaller band of players. Elsewhere, the LPO forms a tutti band, and the LPO principals have a field day playing their instruments (during that period, the LPO had some excellent principals on the main desks). Boult, as ever, conducts impeccably; he was never a man for airs, graces and attention-seeking. I saw him twice in person: once when he was rehearsing an orchestra (in the Schubert Great C major symphony) at a hall in Birmingham, and once at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham where he was having breakfast alone at a table next to mine. On both occasions, he had the same smiling, unruffled expression on his face. No eccentricities with Sir Adrian and, to my surprise, he suits Johann Sebastian Bach perfectly.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Three Violin Recitals

Over the last week of so, various friends have sent me a number of CDs, including violinists, of course. Over the last few days I listened to Rachel Barton Pine, Konstanty Andrzej Kulka, and Ingolf Turban.

Kulka – recorded around 1980 – plays a phenomenal Devil's Trill, Ysaÿe's Ballade sonata, two pieces by Wieniawski, and Paganini's Nel cor più. All the pieces are superbly played, but I take exception to the Paganini since Kulka seems fit to add an entirely spurious and unnecessary piano part; the piano plunks away, adding nothing to the music, but spoiling the violin line. At one time this sort of thing was all the rage; Mendelssohn provided a piano accompaniment to Bach's solo violin works, Schumann to the cello suites … and to the Paganini caprices. Kreisler used to play solo Bach with a piano, and Heifetz the Paganini caprices with a piano. But it is highly undesirable, not on the dubious grounds of “authenticity”, but because Bach and Paganini were perfectly capable of writing for solo violins and cellos.

Ingolf Turban is not someone whose playing I have met often before. On a CD called “solo” he plays 13 works for solo violin, including Nel cor più, thankfully without a piano. He dispatches all 13 works efficiently and with aplomb but, to my ear, without love and without affection. A typical case is Ricci's arrangement of a Spanish Ballad, which in Turban's hands becomes an exercise in ricochet bowing, at great speed.

Barton Pine also includes the Spanish Ballad (albeit in a different arrangement). Her CD is called “Capricho Latino”. Her playing seems to have improved in the twenty years since I found her Sarasate recital disappointing. The Spanish Ballad (known also to we oldies as the theme tune from the film Jules et Jim) is played with expertise, but also with affection for its haunting melody. My main gripe with Barton Pine's disc is that, of the 14 tracks, too few are of really attractive music; she concentrates mainly on music written post-19th century, and this really was not a good time for violin vignettes (apart from those of Fritz Kreisler). So Tarrega, Ysaÿe, Quiroga come off well, but much of the rest is musically sub-standard (do we really need 10 minutes of Ferdinand the Bull, with narration?) My “go on to the next track” button was quite busy. It does, of course, make a change from the endless repetitions of Schön Rosmarin and Banjo & Fiddle; but could she not have found some better pieces to include?

Three discs providing a mixed bag, then. But Kulka's Devil's Trill stays in the mind; the piece is a violinists' old warhorse, written to show off the violin and violin technique, and tongue out to those earnest critics who want it played in an “authentic” manner, without Kreisler's marvellous cadenza, to boot.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Otto Klemperer

Yesterday evening, I really took to the conducting of Otto Klemperer. There are many other celebrated conductors: Furtwängler, Toscanini, Kleiber, Karajan, Bernstein, et al. However, listening to Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, I marvelled at the clarity of the orchestral parts, at the exemplary internal balance of the orchestra, at the prominence of the woodwinds, the antiphonal left and right first and second violins, the lack of eyebrow-raising tempo or dynamic distorions – all trademarks of Klemperer's approach to conducting. I have never marvelled so constantly at Berlioz's avant-garde orchestration.

This spurred me on to listen to Klemperer's recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, one of the few Mahler works I actually enjoy, despite the high-stress opening song. Klemperer's soloists are Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich, and the performance is an evergreen classic. Most admirable and an excellent 64 minutes of great music making despite the recording having been made over the period 1964 and 1966 due to the Walter Legge upheavals at the time.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Arabella Steinbacher plays Prokofiev

Probably no violinist makes a more beautiful sound than Arabella Steinbacher. On a new CD of Prokofiev works (the two violin concertos, plus the solo violin sonata) this can sound at times somewhat incongruous; this Prokofiev has expensive aftershave and neatly trimmed nails. One suspects that if and when played by Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Prokofiev would have mud on his boots and roots in Russian peasantry.

No matter; Steinbacher is technically highly proficient, the Russian National Orchestra under the admirable Vasily Petrenko is tunefully authentic, and Pentatone produces a well-engineered and well-balanced Super Audio sound. Steinbacher's 1716 Stradivari violin has us all bewitched for 64 minutes. An excellent new addition to the annals of these much-recorded works. I like Arabella, who is not just a pretty face.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Patricia Kopatchinskaja in Bartok

Despite some 55 years of constant effort, I have never really taken to the music of Béla Bartok. For me, there is a coldness, impersonality and aloofness at the heart of almost all his music. Yesterday I ventured once again into Bartok's music, this time with Patricia Kopatchinskaja playing the violin concerto. I don't know this concerto too well (though I have eight other recordings of the work – it's reasonably popular with violinists). Kopatchinskaja's performance seems to me absolutely ideal (she was the reason I bought this CD); Bartok's music should not always sound sweet and beautiful, and the sound of Kopatchinskaja here is worlds away from how I imagine Nicola Benedetti, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, et al would sound in this concerto. On occasions Kopatchinskaja tears into the music with real, throaty gusto. Bravo!

Also on the current 2-pack CDs is the violin concerto of György Ligeti that I have never heard before. It sounds worth a second hearing, at least; a good idea to have the violin cadenza right at the end of the work. As for Seven by Peter Eötvös that Kopatchinskaja also plays for around 20 long minutes; it is what I think of as “sound effects music” with predictable clunks and clicks and squeals and plonks. Once was enough.

Moldova (Kopatchinskaja's native land), Romania and Hungary have produced whole armies of world-class violinists over the years. Not too many world-class composers, however and that's a pity since this is very much Patricia Kopatchinskaja's native violin language that she expounds so well. Anyway, she is a formidable violinist outside the routine mould of concert violinists and I enjoy her playing immensely.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Otto Klemperer

For a total outlay of £2.27 per CD, I obtained a thunderous duo package of 20 CDs of Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1950s and 1960s. The ten Beethoven CDs give me shelf-space as I remove the old, bulky CDs; the package that contains all the symphonies, often in several versions, also contains Klemperer's performance with the strings of the orchestra of the Große Fuga, a performance I have loved for decades – I bought the LP when it first came out in 1957.

The other 10 CDs see Klemperer in Romantic repertoire – three Schubert symphonies, all the Schumann symphonies, lots of Mendelssohn, the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, the symphonies by Berlioz and César Franck. A good box to dip into from time to time. Yesterday I listened to Klemperer and the Philharmonia in 1966 with César Franck's Symphony in D minor. I enjoyed it immensely. The sound was good. The playing of the Philharmonia was still good. Klemperer's skills in architecture, balance and maintenance of pulse were well to the fore. This evening I may well dip into Klemperer and the band in 1963 in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. For music lovers, there never were such times.