Saturday, 28 December 2013

Vilde Frang - Again

My Christmas period had been scheduled to be based on Johann Sebastian Bach. Instead, because of postal deliveries, it ended up being based on Vilde Frang playing Tchaikovsky, Nielsen, Prokofiev and Sibelius. She really is a wonderful violinist; as well as the freshness I've already noted, there is much tenderness in her playing -- a somewhat rare quality, not to be confused with sentimentality, that often reminds me of the playing of Fritz Kreisler. In the hands of Miss Frang, Tchaikovsky's concerto reminds us that it was written for and with his then-current boyfriend on an idyllic holiday near a lake in Switzerland. The violin part of the concerto is full of tender melodies and reflections, and it was good to hear the work transformed from the usual macho Russian violin warhorse it has become. Vilde Frang is currently touring with the Britten and Korngold concertos, and I really hope she records them soon. I would have much preferred them to Carl Nielsen's concerto that is played with the Tchaikovsky; I'm not yet old enough to appreciate the Nielsen violin concerto.

Little music over my New Year period that will be spent in France helping to reduce the oyster population of Europe.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Vilde Frang, and Young Artists

Si jeunesse savait. Si vieillesse pouvait, runs the French adage. This is often applied to musicians; young musicians are go-getting and bursting with technique, but lack musical wisdom. Old musicians know the scores, but find difficulty in playing them as they would have wished, due to failing hands, arms and co-ordination.

Thus speak most critics. However, many young musicians give pause for thought such as, at the moment, Vilde Frang (violin) and Igor Levit (piano). I have already praised young Igor Levit and his courageous -- and highly impressive -- traversal of the late Beethoven piano sonatas. I have now discovered the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang and thoroughly enjoyed her playing of Prokofiev's first violin concerto (and also the Sibelius concerto, on the same CD). The term that comes to mind when listening to Miss Frang is: freshness. She has, of course, technique to spare. But what appealed greatly to me was the freshness and enthusiasm she showed in her playing. The enthusiasm of youth, but Prokofiev was only 24 when he began to write his first violin concerto -- about the same age as Miss Frang when she is playing it -- and it is not some deep, profound work that reflects on human destiny. Some works -- the late Beethoven string quartets, the later Bruckner symphonies, for example -- may need to reflect the wisdom of age and experience. But much music benefits from being played with love and enthusiasm, and it is probably often easier to summon up love and enthusiasm when you are in your early 20s and works are still fresh, rather than when in your later 50s and you are giving your 250th performance of a popular concerto, with your reputation made long ago and an adoring public applauding “the star”. Experience does not always trump youth, and it is not as clear cut as many critics maintain, as shown by Igor Levit or Vilde Frang, inter alia.

Vilde Frang was an EMI artist. EMI has now been acquired by Warner Music, an American "entertainment" company that bears the same relationship to European classical music as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut do to good restaurant eating. Americans are excellent at some things -- such as guns, weapons, computer software and aircraft manufacture. But they don't really "do" European classical music on a long-term investment basis. Hopefully, BIS, a Swedish company, will snap up Miss Frang.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Fritz Busch and Don Giovanni

There is a band of Opera Lovers (OLs) who remain somewhat distinct from Music Lovers. OLs set great store by opera plots, even if before the 19th century, most opera plots were pretty formalised and often downright ridiculous. OLs are keen on staging, however absurd the staging may be, and the stage director gets their preference over the music conductor. OLs are positive groupies when it comes to voices and singing, but give little attention to the orchestral playing or the conducting.

I am definitely not an OL. For me, it is very much a case of prima la musica e poi le parole. My rare visits to opera houses have usually seen me with my eyes shut; if the score says “a rocky cliff in Brittany” I do not want to find that some trendy director with an ego problem has read this as “a cell in the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay”. It is easy to see a rocky cliff in Brittany, or a room in a castle in Seville, or a harem in a Turkish fortress -- in one's mind's eye. I am not a purchaser of operas on DVD, but I do have a largish collection on CD. Yesterday I ventured into Mozart's Don Giovanni and revelled in ... la musica. La musica came from the famous 1936 recording by the then Glyndebourne forces conducted by Fritz Busch, with a good, solid, professional group of singers. The transfer (Ward Marston) is excellent though, inevitably, the orchestral detail is somewhat smudgy and remote. We hear a good, solid, well-rehearsed performance of a great opera and, my ears tell me, it really does take place in Seville many centuries ago; no one, striving for notoriety, has “updated” it.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Masaaki Suzuki's Final Cantata Volume

I bought the 55th (and final) volume in Masaaki Suzuki's journey through all of Bach's cantatas (numbering some 200, in all). The earliest I have was recorded in 1995; the latest in 2013. The overall consistency has been excellent from my sampling over the years, and all praise to Masaaki Suzuki, Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert von Bahr (of BIS records) and the Bach Collegium Japan in Kobe. The last volume features the current line-up of faithful soloists: Hana Blazikova, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk and Peter Kooij, making this mammoth venture a true Japanese-European one.

As has been usual, the BIS engineers have produced a well balanced and well recorded disc.The project started in 1995 in Kobe, and over the course of 18 years BIS and Suzuki have marched triumphantly side by side. The smaller companies such as BIS, Naxos and Harmonia Mundi can do these kinds of things. Music lovers must always regret that in America – that was safe and wealthy during the decades 1930-60 – the large music labels such as Columbia and RCA were sparing in their fidelity and long-term views, thus RCA refusing to record its exclusive artist, Sergei Rachmaninov, in all of his own music, or to give much recording space to Mischa Elman or Toscha Seidel. Would that BIS or Naxos had been around at that time!

Friday, 13 December 2013

Nathan Milstein, and Lisa Batiashvili

It is good to see old classic recordings being re-issued in improved sound. The latest I have received is Nathan Milstein's rightly famous 1957 recording of Goldmark's genial violin concerto. This is Milstein in his prime, and in his element. It seems to me that, like Jascha Heifetz, Milstein is heard at his best in works that enabled him to show off his superb violin playing; certainly his playing in the Goldmark grips the attention and invokes smiles of delight. The Praga Digital refurbishment in SACD sound produces astonishing results; the solo violin sound, in particular, is of demonstration quality.

Also on the CD, and also in excellent sound, is Milstein playing the Brahms concerto with Anatole Fistoulari and the Philharmonia (1960). The two Ukrainians give a fleet performance, ignoring Brahms “non troppo” qualification for the first and third movements. The adagio is pretty rapid, and the Philharmonia throughout the work sounds like a loyal accompanist rather than an equal participant. The genial Brahms from North Germany is not too much in evidence. Exciting it doubtless is, and played effortlessly by Milstein; but is it Brahms? Turn to Lisa Batiashvili and Christian Thielemann with the Staatskapelle Dresden to find a different world, and a far more mellow Johannes Brahms. In her way, Batiashvili is as fine a violinist as Milstein, and her track record in the Beethoven, Brahms and first Shostakovich violin concertos suggests she is also a musician of considerable stature. Milstein's violin playing in the Goldmark concerto is what matters there, but in the Brahms concerto we need more than just superb, breathtaking violin playing.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Wilhelm Kempff

Being driven in either a bus, a taxi or a car, there are times when one sits back relaxed and confident. Then there are times when one winces and tenses on frequent occasions. It depends on your feelings about the driver. Thus, for me, with soloists and conductors in music. Either you feel at ease and bask in the music; or you tense up.

The parallel occurred to me listening to Wilhelm Kempff playing Mozart in the 1960s and 1970s. When Kempff is playing Mozart, you suspend your critical faculties and anxieties and just sit back and enjoy the music and the playing. On a double CD pack, Kempff plays the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th piano concertos, plus the youthful No.8. Performances I have known for around forty years, and still enjoy immensely.

My double CD pack arrived (at a cheap price) from Kentucky in America, courtesy of Amazon and prompted nostalgia for the days when I would browse LP racks (later CD racks) in large classical records emporia starting with my home towns, then London, then Paris, then New York, then San Francisco, then Vienna. One would return with treasures; my original Ginette Neveu Angel LP was hunted down for me by a much grumbling sister on a visit to New York, a city where I also later hunted down LPs of the (then) rare Michael Rabin (accompanied by a much grumbling daughter). In Vienna I hunted down Russian Leonid Kogan LPs. Those were the days. Hunting today is just mouse clicking, and I acquired my new transfers of the Kempff Mozart recordings from Kentucky via four mouse clicks. Times change.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Spendor Speakers

The hunt is over. After four sets of loudspeakers in three years, my fifth set is perfectly fine for everything except my bank account. I bought the smallest, cheapest pair of Spendor bookshelf speakers in the company's catalogue. I am happy, at last. The sound is well-rounded, violin-friendly and entirely high fidelity to the sound on the original medium. That's it, for the next 15 years.

I have no connection whatsoever with Spendor (except as a happy customer). And no connection whatsoever with Audience, the hi-fi shop in Bath. But, together, they have solved my listening problem as a lover of violin playing and music. If there are any benevolent benefactors out there: the only thing that could please me more would be a couple of upper-range Spendor speakers. Only a thousand or two or three more, when all is said and done.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Katrin Scholz

Composed in 1806, Beethoven's violin concerto can sound like either the last of the classical violin concertos, or the first of the romantic. Played by violinists such as Heifetz, Oistrakh, Stern, etc it was firmly anchored in the 19th century tradition. In much of the German tradition, however, it comes over as a late classical work, which is the case with the very fine recording by Katrin Scholz with the Kammerorchester Berlin under Michael Sanderling. Scholz plays the work on a double Berlin Classics CD album that also contains the main three Mozart violin concertos (3rd, 4th and 5th) plus a violin concerto by Haydn. Scholz's playing in all the works here is firmly in the tradition of violinists such as Busch, Schneiderhan, Röhn and Kulenkampff, eschewing any suggestion of a "grand international virtuoso" approach; nothing is over-inflated, and I enjoyed all the works immensesly.

Katrin Scholz first came to my notice several years ago when I acquired a recording of her playing pieces by Sarasate, of all people. Sarasate is not that easy to play, stylistically, but Scholz played with a delicacy and sense of style that was utterly convincing (much as, later, the Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang is so convincing in Sarasate). Ms Scholz is not a heavily promoted international star. But she is a superb violinist and a superb musician. Forget the hype and the PR make-overs. For a paltry £9.58, the two and a half hours of music and violin playing on these two CDs have given me immense satisfaction, with the three Mozart concertos being absolutely top rank; competition is fiercer in the Beethoven, but Scholz holds her own. She conducts and plays in all but the Beethoven concerto, where Michael Sanderling takes over the rostrum. And, yes, the Berlin recordings are also very fine.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Shostakovich, and the Hammerklavier

I did not much like Shostakovich's fourth symphony on a first hearing, so yesterday I gave it a second hearing – and still did not like it much. It did not seem to have much depth to it – a lot of posturing and clever writing. Almost certainly not the fault of the talented Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic. A disappointment. Still, Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies and some of them I like very much indeed; you can't win them all.

So on to Ludwig van Beethoven and his Hammerklavier sonata, a work I have struggled to enjoy for many decades as played by Pollini, Gilels, Yudina, Solomon, Schnabel .. and now Igor Levit. The first two movements are fine, but the long, long, long adagio finds my concentration wandering, and the finale sounds pretty bizarre in places, even played by the supreme pianistic gallery above. In his final years Beethoven seems to have wandered off frequently into obscure pastures: the Große Fuge is a wonderfully strange work, but Beethoven's friends were certainly right in persuading him to detach it from the B flat major quartet – if only someone could have persuaded him to abandon the inflated finale of the ninth symphony, an ending that always spoils the fine first three movements for me.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Mattieu Arama, and Igor Levit

Vaguely alarming, this immense deluge of highly talented young pianists and violinists. Every day seems to bring a handful of great new violinists, mainly from France, Germany, Hungary, Czech & Slovakia, Russia, Japan, Korea and China -- with a good dash of Canadians. Were there always such numbers in the past, but it was just that they never had a chance to make their names before the advent of several hundred record companies, YouTube and music downloads? Yesterday saw me listening to Matthieu Arama's début CD on which he offers a number of attractive virtuoso works by Wieniawski, Paganini, Sarasate et al, interspersed with welcome morsels from Elgar and Tchaikovsky. His technique is exemplary; the musicianship impeccable; the recording excellent. Most enjoyable. Arama is French, and hails from Bordeaux. As with pretty well all these modern virtuosi, one does not get the individuality of a Kreisler, Szigeti or Heifetz. But then, one also does not get the peculiarities of Jan Kubelik or Bronislaw Huberman, or the later precarious technique of Ruggiero Ricci.

Then on to Igor Levit, a Russian who grew up in Germany and who has now reached the advanced age of 26 years old and has been heralded as a genuine great pianist by pretty well everyone in the universe. Swayed by the crowd, I bought his début recording -- the last five piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. Some début. Beethoven's later works - sonatas and string quartets - are the works of an individual who was no longer too concerned about wowing audiences, nor about catering to the foibles of sundry pianists or string players. The works are ideally interpreted by someone who eschews all posturing and external effects, and who forgets about the 18th century, critics, and audiences. Levit here is such an interpreter. I admire his concentration, his refusal to play to any gallery, his immaculate technique (of course) and his total immersion in these difficult works. I know the last sonata, Opus 111, extremely well having first acquired it in the 1950s played by Julius Katchen. Suffice it to say that, as played here by Igor Levit, all other versions I possess are quite blown away by this latest one. Marvellous playing, and marvellous musicianship. I long to hear Levit next in late Schubert.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Ah, I see ....

The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin -- Luca Fanfoni

This disc is a compendium of Bach’s violin artistry, where 18th-century stylistic connotations are set aside in favour of a musical invention that appears free from any marked temporal designation."

Monday, 28 October 2013

Jan Sibelius

Sometimes, after the Angst of late Mozart, Schubert or Shostakovich, it is good to drink a glass of cool, clear water. Such as the cool, clear water provided by the music of Jan Sibelius. I am old enough to have grown up with Sibelius and to have digested his music over the decades. This evening, my mind demanded something un-fraught, so I turned to Sibelius and his fifth symphony. My trusty companion, as so often in Sibelius's music, was Colin Davis conducting the LSO (the late vintage LSO recordings). Vocal contributions from Sir Colin and all, this is 24 carat Sibelius playing and I treasure these recordings, just as I treasure this music from the north.

Havng plugged Czech and Hungarian musicians for a while, I might also get in a word of praise for Domaine Fenouillet (JeanJean, Faugéres 2010). One of those not-expensive French table wines from the Hérault region that simply complements meal after meal at a very modest price -- around €5.25 a bottle at a Super U supermarket in France. Goes well with practically anything, especially, this evening, with the music of Sibelius.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Pavel Sporcl

It seems to be Pavel Week. No sooner had I finished praising the Pavel Haas Quartet playing Schubert, than I find myself greatly admiring Pavel Sporcl playing an admirable selection of Czech salon pieces by well-known Czech violinists: Frantisek Drdla, Jaroslav Kocian, Jan Kubelik, Ferdinand Laub, Frantisek Ondricek, Vasa Prihoda, Otakar Sevcik, and Pavel Sporcl himself (a piece entitled Bohemian Nostalgia). Fourteen highly attractive pieces of Czech music, most of them familiar from previous Czech players such as Josef Suk, Jan Kubelik, Vaclav Hudecek and Vaclav Snitil.

Sporcl is my kind of violinist. He has a casual way of tossing off the most difficult violinistic passages – much as Jascha Heifetz used to do. His playing is of the no-nonsense variety, much in the Czech tradition, and he saves his exteriorising to his pony tail, clothing and blue violin (a Czech violin made in 2006 that sounds superb in Sporcl's hands). The lands of the Czech-Slovaks, Romanians, Hungarians and Ukrainians have produced more top-class violinists than America has produced lawyers. Sporcl is another auto-buy for lovers of fine violin playing. It is also refreshing to have fourteen salon pieces without the inevitable Kreisler, Hora Staccato or Banjo & Fiddle. The recording, and all-important balance between violin and piano, are excellent (Supraphon).

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Pavel Haas Quartet plays Schubert

After 60 years of serious music listening I am hesitant about awarding three stars for musical performances. However, the Schubert CD containing the Death and the Maiden quartet, and the C major string quintet, played by the young Pavel Haas Quartet deserves three stars for the playing, three stars for the recording and (of course) three stars for the music. There is little music that is greater or more profound than the 92 minutes of Schubert on this CD; I am always amazed at the utter simplicity (and profundity) of the principal melody in the quintet's slow movement.

String quartets must be a challenge to record; too often the first violin -- or the cello -- are over-prominent. Not so here, and all praise to Supraphon. All praise as well to the Pavel Haas Quartet who play with an intensity that is riveting, as well as showing a complete empathy with the music; Schubert is not romanticised here, and we are a long way in this music -- and in the playing -- from Herr Song-Writer. Not since the Busch Quartet have I enjoyed string quartet playing so much and I await, money in hand, for the Pavel Haas to record Beethoven, Shostakovich, or more Schubert.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich - again

Well, I am back after a long excursion to the Paris area, Corsica, Vienna, then back to Paris. Awaiting me when I arrived home was yet another recording of a Shostakovich symphony -- the eighth, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.

I've probably written enough about my new-found love for Shostakovich. Also about my conviction that Russian orchestras play Russian music as if they really understand the language. So we can take it for granted that this evening's performance pleased me greatly. Some critics may winge a little; Gergiev is no polite little conductor with his head buried in the score and his metronome ticking away, but this performance of Shostakovich's eighth symphony really grabs me. There are many pointless exposulations concerning “best” and “greatest”; I recall some piffling little journalist once attempting to compile a list of the seven (why seven?) greatest composers of the twentieth century. A bit like sterile arguments concerning the “greatest” French composer (or Swiss composer). My personal opinion is that if one has to nominate just one “greatest” composer of the twentieth century, it has to be Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich; amongst his 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets and 24 preludes and fugues, there is some great music that speaks from the heart, to the heart. Time will confirm all -- though I am unlikely to be around in five decades time, or whatever. This evening I really enjoyed Shostakovich's eighth symphony. Tomorrow the postgirl is scheduled to bring a new recording (Petrenko) of Shostakovich's fourth symphony, a work I have never heard before in my entire life. To be continued ...

Monday, 30 September 2013

György Ligeti

Why is it so difficult to create a memorable theme, tune, motive or melody? Give Franz Schubert a few notes and a few manuscript bars and he could create highly memorable themes at the drop of a hat (think of the simplicity of the opening theme of the Notturno in E flat for piano, violin & cello D 897). Or think of the opening theme of Beethoven's Eroica symphony; simple, but effective. Why do so many contemporary composers find themes such a difficult concept? Ever the determined explorer, I gave György Ligeti a second chance, and started to re-listen to his violin concerto. My two thoughts after around five minutes? The first was: “codswallop”. The second was from the old days of television, when the picture would temporarily go haywire and a message would appear on your screen: “Do not adjust your set. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible”. Mr Ligeti is now filed on the furthest filing shelf I can find. Life is far too short, and attractive music far too plentiful, to persevere with this kind of stuff.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tianwa Yang's penultimate Sarasate Volume

The postgirl brought the penultimate volume (the seventh) of the complete works of Sarasate played by the wonderful Tianwa Yang. This fourth volume of music for violin and orchestra joins the three volumes of violin and piano pieces. Of Ms Yang's playing, I cannot do better than quote a Gramophone reviewer who is quoted on the Naxos CD: “ ... Splendidly equipped as a Sarasate violinist, with her clear tone, pure intonation, impressive dexterity and light touch ... startingly beautiful”. Well, that's it, in a nutshell. If you like Sarasate's music -- and who couldn't? -- and like beautiful violin playing, this set of seven CDs is the set for you. The latest volume contains the same selection of enjoyable music; in the “Fantaisie sur Der Freischütz de Weber”, it is easy to understand why 19th century audiences loved Sarasate (and made him a very rich man from his earnings). Naxos, being a serious recording company, gives us a photo of a warm, smiling Chinese girl (Ms Yang) rather than some sultry bimbo. A warm thank you to Naxos, and a very warm thank you to Tianwa Yang for having brought eight hours of Sarasate's music very much to life. The final volume -- violin and piano -- is due out next year. I'll be waiting.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Decca, Walter, Ferrier, Mahler

The British publication The Gramophone published this month its annual awards for “the best” in various categories (excluding the all-important category of historical transfers). Improbable Artist of the Year was a blond, female trumpeter (British, of course). What raised my eyebrows was the accolade of Record Label of the Year going to ... Decca (British, in origin, of course).

There are myriad record labels out there, some doing great things in rare repertoire and with first-class artists. I was reflecting on this when, this evening, I made another small step in eliminating duplications in my collection: I have two transfers of the classic 1952 recording of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter, Katheen Ferrier, Julius Patzak and the Vienna Philharmonic. One transfer is Naxos (Mark Obert-Thorn). The other is from the original company Decca (96KHz 24-bit Super Digital Transfer). I listened to a one minute sample of each. One minute was enough.

The Decca sounded like a hi-tech machine transfer; the Naxos sounded like an audio craftman's transfer. Naxos won hands down -- so much so that I had to stay and listen to every note of the final Abschied as rendered by Ferrier, Walter and the VPO. Very moving, and in quite acceptable (Naxos) sound. Record Label of the Year. My foot.

Clara Haskil in Mozart

I am not old enough to have heard Mozart play his piano concertos. But I think that Clara Haskil is a good substitute for Wolfgang Amadeus, particularly in the D minor concerto K 466 which she played at the Lucerne Festival in September 1959 with the Philharmonia conducted by Otto Klemperer. Despite the 1959 recording (and the poor balance, with the piano grossly favoured over the orchestra) one can see why Haskil regarded it (in a letter to a friend) as an exceptional concert. She and Klemperer work together as in a perfect musical marriage; the somewhat grim music of K 466 seems to suit both admirably. A performance in a thousand, happily recorded and issued for posterity by Audite. Clara Haskil, like Klemperer, favours clarity, balance and note values. Such a pity the partnership never survived the dictats of the recording companies of that era.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Josef Spacek

Along with neighbouring Hungary and Romania, the Czech-Slovakian lands have produced generation after generation of fine violinists. The latest one to come to my attention is Josef Spacek who first appeared when I heard his very fine CD of pieces by Ernst where he revealed himself as an extremely musical virtuoso. A new CD from him -- with Miroslav Sekera at the piano -- features two of my favourite violin and piano sonatas: the sonata by Janacek, and Prokofiev's first sonata. A lovely CD; Spacek has an immaculate technique and a breathtaking pianissimo. The Janacek sonata comes over as more melancholy and less passionate than usual, featuring a more leisurely approach to the first movement which Janacek marked simply con moto (whatever that may mean. How can music be senza moto?)

So yet another fine duo disc; in addition to the Janacek and Prokofiev works, there are Smetana's two Z Domoviny pieces, plus the Prokofiev solo violin sonata. A word of praise for the Supraphon engineers who have achieved the difficult feat of balancing violin and piano beautifully, with plenty of space round the sound so that even Spacek's examplary pianissimo playing can be enjoyed to the full. Three stars.

Finally, a plea from a friend to anyone who has, or who knows of, a video recording of Henryk Szeryng playing Paganini's third violin concerto (London, 1971, with Alexander Gibson conducting). Anyone able to locate this or offer a copy; please send me a message.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Two Georgian Girls

Thanks to an urgent recommendation from an American friend, I plugged into Lisa Batiashvili and Khatia Buniatishvili playing Schubert and César Franck at Verbier this year (22 July). In one word: truly magnificent, and thank you MediciTV for filming the concert and making it available. The film should be shown in every music conservatory as a prime example of true duo playing. Lisa and Khatia listened to each other, and responded to each other's music, creating a real musical dialogue. For over a decade now, Lisa Batiashvili has been my top favourite of the new wave (viz, tidal wave) of brilliant new violinists; not only does she make a beautiful sound, have a superb technique and have incredible poise; but she is also a real musician whose powers of concentration shape the forms of the music she plays.

Her dialogue with Khatia Buniatishvili was riveting in the Schubert Rondo Brilliant and the Duo Sonata, and in the César Franck sonata. The encore, Heifetz's arrangement of Debussy's Beau Soir, was deeply moving as played by the two Georgians. In true duo playing of violin and piano music, one hesitates between admiring the violinist or the pianist, trying to decide which to admire more. So it was with this concert. Khatia Buniatishvili is a real pleasure to listen to, as is always, Lisa Batiashvili. It is sad that since both Georgians are “exclusive artists” with different record companies, the chance of hearing them together outside the concert stage will probably be limited. Anyway, for this 65 minute concert: thank you Lisa and Khatia. And thank you Verbier Festival and MediciTV (as well as César Franck and Franz Schubert). Proof that in a world where so much art is now thoroughly commercialised, oases of civilisation still exist.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Liverpool Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko

The Liverpool Philharmonic is hardly the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic, but in Shostakovich conducted by Vasily Petrenko the Liverpudlians sound first class. As I've remarked before, a second-echelon orchestra playing its heart out is often more enjoyable than a top orchestra going through the motions. Jascha Horenstein was another conductor who could draw first class results from second-echelon orchestras. My latest sampling of Petrenko is with Shostakovich's eighth symphony, a work of which I am becoming very fond. Easy to lose one's tracks amidst 15 symphonies that I have only recently discovered – but I do recall having a special spot for numbers 8, 10 and 15 (plus one other, that I cannot remember). An aspect of Shostakovich's music that greatly appeals to me is its frequent mood changes – from sombre to merry, from savage to tender, from soft to (very) loud indeed. In the symphonies, Petrenko and his Liverpudlians come away as excellent guides. And the Naxos prices (and recording quality) also appeal. Listening demands either good quality headphones, or a manor on a secluded estate; the music can become very loud.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Klemperer in Mozart

Listening to two very enjoyable symphonies by Friedrich Ernst Fesca written around 1815, highlighted for me the gulf between great talent, and genius. Fesca was an immensely talented composer (with an early death at 37 years old). But turn to Mozart, or Beethoven or Schubert from the same approximate period, and the contrast is stark; we are in a different musical league all together. Unfortunately for Fesca, I am in the middle of a “Mozart period”, having taken delivery of not only an 11 CD box of Mozart operas, but also an 8 CD box of Mozart symphonies and serenades. Highly enjoyable; I have neglected Mozart for quite a while to wander in the pastures of Bach, Wagner, Shostakovich, et al. But Wolfgang Amadeus is welcome back into my life.

Conductor of these mammoth boxes is ... Otto Klemperer, one of the side benefits of the EMI sale to Warner being the fire-sale of the great recordings from the EMI back catalogue. Klemperer lived a long time (dying at the ripe old age of 88 and active almost until the very end). Of him, the EMI liner note says: “ ... last of a generation of great conductors who had been nurtured within the late nineteenth century European culture where music was central to the intellectual and spiritual life of the civilisation it served”. I revel in Klemperer's Mozart conducting. All his many virtues are to the fore: care with note values; strict attention to balance and clarity; rhythmic integrity; balance between first and second violins; forward woodwind; avoidance of any suspicion of showmanship or playing to the gallery; attention to dynamics; complete integrity. Added to this, in these recordings, is the playing of the Philharmonia during the 1950s and 60s, plus the professionalism and care of detail by the EMI recording team nurtured by Walter Legge. All topped by the incredible fire-sale prices of the EMI back catalogue.

And tempi? In the main, I have few problems with Klemperer's tempi. For me, the secret of a “correct” tempo is that the interpreter must feel it, and believe in it. Thus slower tempi that can be found with artists such as Furtwängler or Klemperer can sound right, just as faster tempi with an artist such as Jascha Heifetz can sound right. Tempi sound wrong when they are chosen for extraneous reasons, such as “if I play it slowly, it will sound more profound” or “I will play it fast because that is what the composer's metronome specification says”. Tempi need to be generated internally, not from external factors.

There are -- for the moment -- Klemperer boxes of pretty well the whole Austro-German eighteenth and nineteenth century concert hall repertoire: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler. And, unlike his colleagues such as Bruno Walter, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, et al, Klemperer lived just long enough to be in pretty decent recorded sound. Anyone wanting core recordings of the Austro-German repertoire should invest in all these Klemperer boxes, immediately (the sale is unlikely to last too long).

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Fanny Clamagirand, and Camille Saint-Saëns

A sunny Saturday afternoon, and a new CD of the French violinist Fanny Clamagirand (with Vanya Cohen) playing violin and piano music of Camille Saint-Saëns. This is the third CD I have of Clamagirand playing Saint-Saëns; probably almost no one plays it better, with her French elegance and good taste. Saint-Saëns's music does not need pumping up; it just needs a sense of style. A lovely way to pass an hour or so, listening to highly agreeable music beautifully played in an entirely appropriate style. Naxos, of course.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Ysaÿe - Murray, and Barati

The six sonatas for solo violin written by Eugène Ysaÿe nearly a hundred years ago are popular with violinists and with lovers of violin playing – much as the semi-contemporaneous pieces by Alexander Scriabin are popular with pianists. The music of both composers is probably less popular with audiences; although Ysaÿe was born in 1858, his six solo sonatas breathe a somewhat modernistic air, and extended works for a solo violin can become monotonous, unless the violinist has a full quiver of sophisticated sonic arrows.

I do not usually do head-to-head comparisons of different artists, but having the six Ysaÿe sonatas played by Kristof Barati and by Tai Murray out for listening, I decided to listen to each sonata twice, played alternately by the two artists. It was an interesting experience, and brought to mind the now-ancient rivalry between fans of the Sibelius violin concerto with Jascha Heifetz (1935) and Ginette Neveu (1945). Both Heifetz and Neveu gave great performances, albeit of a very different character, and this came to my mind listening to Barati and to Murray. Barati is Hungarian and Murray American; both, on their respective CDs, prove to be technically completely competent in these difficult sonatas that contain many chords and many passages in double stopping. Barati is the Heifetz in this instance, with slightly faster tempi than Murray and with an overall elegance that holds the attention. He has superb double stops, an excellent range of dynamics and a myriad of different colours in his palette, holding my attention fully through each sonata.

I did not think Murray would be able to compete with this: but she does. Equally impressive dynamics, and an equally rich palette of colours. She is the Neveu of the two, bringing a sense of affection and passion to what she is playing – one suspects the sonatas are even closer to her heart than they are to the heart of Barati.

Which interpretation will I keep, alongside a few others, including the excellent Thomas Zehetmair? As so often in these cases, I'll keep Heifetz and Neveu in the Sibelius; and Barati and Murray in the Ysaÿe sonatas. Both the newcomers are well recorded -- no easy task with a solo violin -- though perhaps Murray is a shade too close to the microphone. Both violins sound fine, though Barati's 1703 Strad sounds a whisker better in the higher reaches than does Murray's 1690 Tononi. Kristof Barati sounds more masculine; Tai Murray sounds more feminine, and you never lose track of which one you are listening to. We live in great times for lovers of fine violin playing.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Klemperer in Wagner

It was moving this evening listening to the 85 year old Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia and Norman Bailey in Wotan's Farewell (to his daugher) from Act III of Die Walküre. It was almost the last music Klemperer recorded, and “Leb wohl, du kühness, herrliches Kind” has never sounded so sorrowful. It is slow (Klemperer, 1970) but in other words: it is authoritative, magisterial. Georg Solti, in the same passage, sounds almost as if he were in a hurry to get rid of his favourite daughter. Not Otto.

Wagner's music is music to bask in, and I am infinitely happy that amongst all the things I did as a teenager, absorbtion in Wagner's world of themes and motifs was one of the better activities. Composers come and composers go. And conductors come and conductors go. Among my preferred conductors of the German classics (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Richard Strauss) are: Furtwängler, Knapperstbusch, Klemperer, Böhm, and a few others. In some ways, the art of classical conducting from the first decades of the 20th century died with them. Fortunately, there are recordings -- as in the case of Klemperer going on into the very early 1970s. Klemperer in Wagner is really something to hear. They don't play it like that, now.


Just so I remember: today's lunch with smoked salmon followed by squid was excellent. The squid were cooked in ginger and chives, with salt, pepper and olive oil. Truly superb. Followed by cheeses. Fish accompanied by white wine; cheeses with red wine -- both from Le Marche (Italy). Awaiting me this evening: two sea bream.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado

As I've commented before, Beethoven's violin concerto is a difficult work to bring off successfully – particularly the long first movement. It does require a top-class Beethoven conductor, which it certainly gets in the performance with Claudio Abbado conducting his Orchestra Mozart. Good to hear the orchestral part in good, firm hands. Soloist is the entirely admirable Isabelle Faust; the work does not need some supercharged star virtuoso, but it does need someone who is intensely musical – a quality Ms Faust has in abundance, along with some lovely violin playing (including some super-soft pianissimo playing). I like the zippy finale in this recording; rondos can never be too fast for me. An excellent modern classical recording. It cannot supplant for me Röhn, Kulenkampff, Schneiderhan or Busch, but those classics are now well over 60 years old, so a new classic is much to be welcomed.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Khachatryan, Faust and a Musical Flood

A few years ago I was at a concert (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop) where the soloist was the teenage Sergey Khachatryan. I was very impressed with his playing (and also by the fact that the young Sergey had obviously grown since his jacket and trousers were bought for him, and both were too short on arms and legs; up and coming artists don't have money for constant new wardrobes). I bought Khachatryan's latest CD – the three Brahms sonatas – even though I really have no need whatsoever for yet another set of the three Brahms sonatas; this really has to be the last set. The performances, with his sister Lusine as the pianist, are expert and thoroughly musical. If only I didn't have so many competitors (including the superb set by Boris Goldstein).

At the same time, and for much the same reasons of loyalty, I bought Isabelle Faust playing the two Bartok concertos, though I am not fond of the two works, even if I find the second is marginally more interesting than the first. Both Bartok and Stravinsky seem to me to have written much de-humanised music (unlike their semi-contemporaries Rachmaninov or Shostakovich). But I really like Isabelle Faust's playing, just as I really like the playing of Kristof Barati and a few others. It is refreshing to listen to the more sober Central European style of artists such as Faust, Barati, Frank Peter Zimmermann and ChristianTetzlaff after the excesses of the Russian / American clones. Momentarily overwhelmed by a mammoth tide of things to listen to – I have just acquired Klemperer in four Mozart operas – I really must stop buying. Maybe there are Music Buyers Anonymous chapters?

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Masaaki Suzuki

Masaaki Suzuki has been labouring long over Bach's vocal works but has never received too much mention in this blog. An oversight for which I apologise. Suzuki and his Swedish record company (BIS) and his mainly Japanese Bach forces have reached Volume 53 of their Bach cantata recordings, and very good they are, too. Choirs and instrumental forces are not too minimalist (thank you, BIS accountants). Volume 53 has the quartet of faithful regular singers -- Hana Blazikova, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk and Peter Kooij -- plus the usual Bach Collegium Japan. Year after year, Masaaki Suzuki has been a "best buy" in the Bach cantata field. Many thanks, Mr Suzuki (and BIS). You are much appreciated.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Barati and Würz in Beethoven

Beethoven's ten sonatas for piano and violin do not demand a high level of virtuosity (at least as far as the violin parts are concerned; I can't speak for pianists). A set of the ten when recorded does however require a) an excellent pianist b) an excellent violinist and c) an excellent recording and balance engineer. Get all three together, and you have a classic set of the ten. The 33 sonata movements, in the main, are not “great” Beethoven as with some of his symphonies, piano sonatas or string quartets, but they are highly agreeable and well-crafted works that repay frequent playing and listening.

Balancing a violin and a piano – in performance, as well as in a recording – is tricky since the two instruments are not too compatible. The piano hammers its strings, can make a very loud noise indeed when required, and finds it difficult to play really pianissimo. The violin caresses its strings with a bow, cannot really play at a very high volume, and excels at pianissimo and cantabile passages. There are a fair number of excellent recordings of the Beethoven 10, among which I would list Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, Christian Ferras and Pierre Barbizet, Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp, Josef Suk and Jan Panenka, Christian Tetzlaff and Alexander Lonquich. To these I have now added Kristof Barati with Klara Würz (I also have Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace, but these await listening).

Barati and Würz are excellent; both are very high class instrumentalists, and they play as a true duo. Tempi are “spirited” -- no bad thing in these amiable and mainly agreeable works that do not set out to plumb vast emotional depths. [[So another potentially top-class set, let down as so often by the recording engineers. The piano is slightly too forward, the violin slightly too backward, meaning that when the violin is playing with the piano we often have to strain our ears. And the engineers have allowed an unpleasant over-bright sheen to many of the higher passages when played by Barati; a 1703 Stradivari does not sound like this on its higher strings! So only 7/10 for the recording technology, which is a great shame since Würz and Barati really deserve the best.]]

Post Scriptum: My opinions above concerning balance and violin sound were arrived at listening to the ten sonatas via my loudspeakers (Quad). Listening now to Op 96 through good quality wireless headphones (Sennheiser) suggests there is nothing wrong with the balance and the violin sound on these recordings. From 7/10, we should go at least to 9/10, if not a bit higher. It confirms my growing suspicion that my current loudspeakers over-favour the bass (and thus the piano) and neglect the treble (and thus the violin). Speaker change is called for. Meanwhile, my apologies to Brilliant Classics for underestimating its recorded sound here. And a chance to underline, once again, my admiration for Klara Würtz and Kristof Barati in these recordings; they may well end up as my favourite set of them all.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Leisurely Arabella

Arabella Steinbacher has an immaculate technique, and she makes a beautiful sound on her violin. For sound and technique she scores 10/10, but there are often little problems when it comes to tempos.

Tempo is a difficult concept. In one sense, it is objective: allegro molto vivace means fast. Adagio molto tranquillo means slow. In another sense, it is subjective; if a piece of music sounds as if it is being played too fast, or too slow, that is usually the case. The final element between composer and listener is the performer, who should be feeling the correct tempo for him or for her. In earlier entries on this blog, I recorded feeling that Adrian Boult in the Brahms symphonies, and Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley in the Beethoven violin & piano sonatas, had found the “right” tempo for every movement. In other words, it would appear that composer, listener and performer all agreed.

I usually have no problems with the tempos chosen by Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fritz Kreisler or Jascha Heifetz – to take four eminent examples. I often have problems with the tempos of equally eminent exponents such as Toscanini, Cantelli, Celidabache or Riccardo Chailly. And I often have problems with the tempos chosen by Arabella Steinbacher: she is often too damned slow! On her latest CD, she sounds so lovely in Chausson's Poème that the often languid tempos can be (almost) forgiven. Ditto the Bruch G minor concerto. But poor old Erich Korngold's attractive little concerto suffers greatly from languid tempos; in the lovely slow movement, one is almost tempted to go and make a cup of tea while waiting for something to happen and for the music to move on. Please can someone explain to the lovely Ms Steinbacher that andante does not mean “fall asleep and move only imperceptibly”? Slower and slower (in sentimental music) is a modern disease and is detrimental to the music.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Kristof Barati plays Bach

Technically, the six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach are not too difficult to play for the modern generation of professional players. Every violinist has a go at them – even I, in my youth, though missing out the fugues and the chaconne which are a bit hairy for amateur players. As usual with Bach performances, the music does not take kindly to layers of “interpretation”, added schmaltz or exaggerated swooning. The music needs technical accuracy, it needs rhythmic stability, it needs sensible tempi with no violent vivaces nor lachrymose andantes. It needs subtle variations in colour and dynamics to avoid monotony; it needs an appreciation of baroque style. Get all that together, and the sonatas and partitas are a pleasure to listen to.

Frequent stumbling blocks from players are lack of violinistic colour, sluggish tempi, lack of contrast. The music does not take kindly to what I term the “Juilliard / DeLay” sound with its emphasis on even tone production and seamless bow strokes. Eminent violinists such as Perlman, Julia Fischer and Johanna Martzy fall by the wayside through lack of tonal variety. The worst performance I ever heard was one Sunday in Blenheim Palace near Oxford where Alfredo Campoli took over from an indisposed Yehudi Menuhin. Beautiful playing, but stupifying after ten minutes.

Latest candidate on my turntable to tackle the six works is the youngish Hungarian, Kristof Barati, playing an attractive sounding Strad. Mr Barati gets my thumbs up. He may not be a well-known player (I had never heard of him until recently) but he is technically superb, stylistically aware, and plays with attractive variations of tone and dynamics and tempi that are fleet of foot (without being too fleet). And no pseudo-museum playing, just playing that is stylistically aware. A pleasure to listen to, and highly recommended.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Britten's Violin Concerto

For decades Benjamin Britten's violin concerto lurked in the musical shadows and was rarely heard. Partly I suspect this was due to a certain distaste surrounding Britten the man; partly critical scorn at someone daring to write a concerto in D minor with tunes, themes and melodies … in 1939. I came across the concerto relatively late in my life but I now own no less than fourteen versions played by a broad swathe of violinists: James Ehnes (x2), Bronislav Gimpel, Daniel Hope, Janine Jansen (x2), Mark Lubotsky (with Britten), Rebecca Hirsch, Lorraine McAslan, Anthony Marwood, Theo Olof (the original version in 1948 before Britten revised it) and Frank Peter Zimmermann (x3). On order is a version with Maxim Vengerov (for which I do not hold out great expectations, but it comes as part of a box).

I have just been listening to Frank Peter Zimmermann in this work (recorded in 2004 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck). Zimmermann is my kind of violinist, and the Britten work suits him down to the ground. He plays with passionate conviction (the kind of passion I missed with James Ehnes) and his sophisticated violin sound suits this multi-layered music. We do not need the rich, dark Juilliard / DeLay sound in this music (which is one reason I suspect Vengerov will prove a dud for me). Somewhat to my surprise, the Swedish Radio Orchestra makes a very real contribution, playing Britten's sweeping melodies as if it were their favourite work. A big hit, then, and Zimmermann may even trump Janine Jansen, the reigning favourite.

Also on the Zimmermann CD are the two violin concertos of Karol Szymanowski. I have struggled to like these concertos for decades; at one time I even bought the violin music so I could try it out myself (some hope). But both concertos, in the end, remain somewhat elusive, and while I can bask in the general orchestral wash, I cannot really get involved with Szymanowski's music. My loss, I suspect. I'll go on persevering (but not on my violin).

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Bach and Handel

From Eisenach, where Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685, to Halle where Georg Friedrich Händel (as he then was) was born in the same year, is only around 170 kilometres as the crow flies; when I drove from one to the other a couple of years ago, it took around two hours. Their music is as different as chalk and cheese, with Handel embracing the new, Italianate style of uncluttered melody and accompaniment and Bach looking backwards to a world of complex polyphony. I find it remarkable that two such people could have been born in the same area within six weeks of each other (Handel was the elder, and he and Bach had quite different adult lives and never met) and that, 328 years after their births, their music is still alive, well, popular and played regularly all over the world.

I grew up with the music of Bach and Handel and have a large collection of recordings (and violin music) of both. This evening I put on a 1990 recording (Philippe Herreweghe) of three Bach cantatas. It is music that is simply eternal, and completely satisfying. It is rich, it is varied, it announces from the very first notes that a great composer is at the helm. Both Bach and Handel were prolific composers (they had to be to earn money to make ends meet). We are all lucky to have such a treasure house of great music; I confidently predict that, in 328 years time, my successors will still be listening to Bach cantatas and Handel operas with enormous satisfaction.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mikhail Simonyan, and Catherine Manoukian

My generous friend Lee sent me a CD of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto as a birthday present. Very kind of him, and one must not look a birthday horse in the mouth, so I listened with interest. Violinist is Mikhail Simonyan (an Armenian) and this is his first commercial CD. Orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi and, from the sound of it, the orchestra does not have many Armenian members; very polite and accurate, very British, and a long way from the frenetic Romanian Radio Orchestra directed by a wild Niyazi (for Julian Sitkovetsky). I found the orchestra under Järvi a little too interventionist for my liking (in this particular concerto).

The Khachaturian is a young person's concerto and pays dividends to a player who throws himself or herself into the music, with gusto. Simonyan is just the man; right from the start, his staccato playing stands out as incredible – Heifetz's jaw would have dropped. Like too many young players, he spoils the first movement a little by stamping on the brakes hard whenever a nice lyrical tune appears. He commissioned a new cadenza for the first movement (what was wrong with the old one?) and it goes on and on and on, becoming almost a new movement in itself. Black mark; cadenzas should be spectacular – and brief. The slow movement (andante) is a bit slow, but superbly played by the violinist, with a real ability to hold a long, melodic line. The finale brings back the stunning staccato playing and confirms Simonyan as a truly spectacular violinist. A pity about that cadenza, which should have been on a separate track so it could be skipped on future hearings. Bizarre or inappropriate cadenzas appear to be all the rage nowadays, as violinists and pianists try desperately to differentiate themselves from the last player with a Unique Selling Point (usp).

In for a penny; in for a pound, so I immediately dived into an alternative version with an Armenian by origin, Canadian by birth – Catherine Manoukian – with the Armenian Philharmonic conducted by Eduard Topchjan. The Armenian Philharmonic sounds less British than the LSO; no bad thing in Khachaturian. Some enthusiastic cymbal playing throughout. Manoukian lacks Simonyan's go-for-broke enthusiasm, and her playing is far more meditative – a warm evening in Yerevan. And she does not have Simonyan's spectacular staccato (but who does?) Coming immediately after Simonyan, she sounds almost careful in her playing, but that is down in the end simply to a contrast in approaches. Her first movement cadenza ain't short, either. A lovely, meditative slow movement and a well-judged finale.

As usual, it's swings and roundabouts. With Simonyan you get some really exciting violin playing with a staccato to die for. But you also get a somewhat unidiomatic orchestra and conductor, and that long first movement cadenza. With Manoukian you get some lovely playing and an orchestra that obviously knows and relishes the music. With Simonyan, you come away full of admiration for the violin playing. With Manoukian, you come away with admiration for Aram Khachaturian. Obviously, I'll have to keep both versions near to hand. Life is never simple.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seven Violin Concertos. And James Ehnes

The nine years 1938-47 witnessed the birth of no fewer than seven violin concertos that are still – 70 years on – being played and recorded. Quite a phenomenon for a turbulent period. The seven concertos are by Nikolai Myaskovsky (1938), Béla Bartok (1938), Benjamin Britten (1939), William Walton (1939), Aram Khachaturian (1940), Erich Korngold (1945) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1947). Seven concertos in nine years!

Not that they all swept to instant fame, of course. At that period, the world was somewhat busy with everyone fighting each other. And music with themes, tunes and melodies attracted ugly scowls from the musical establishment, still advocating serialism and atonality. Seventy years on, however, the seven have gained a fair degree of acceptance. The lovely Myaskovsky concerto is still something of a rarity, despite it having been championed by Vadim Repin, amongst others (Repin's recording of the work with Valery Gergiev is a real classic). The first Shostakovich concerto has entered the ranks of much-played and much-recorded works. Personally, I am not too interested in the Walton concerto, which seems to me to be clever rather than deeply felt. I can get through the Bartok, but he is not my kind of composer.

The Britten concerto has sprung into prominence over the past few years; I have just acquired a new recording of the work by James Ehnes (who has often performed it) and tomorrow will see the delivery of yet another new recording, this time from Frank Peter Zimmermann (who has also performed it frequently). The Ehnes is coupled with the first Shostakovich concerto; the Zimmermann will feature the two violin concertos by Szymanowski – another non-serial composer from the 1930s.

The new Ehnes CD is superb; the orchestra is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits. Ehnes tackles both the Britten and Shostakovich with aplomb, with breath-taking accuracy and immaculate taste. For anyone who likes these two not dissimilar concertos, this CD is a perfect gift. If I have to confess to a slight hesitation when faced with well-near perfection, it is that Ehnes rarely shows much personal or emotional involvement (a quality extremely difficult to define). But Janine Jansen in the Britten, and Leila Josefowicz in the Shostakovich, to take just two examples, reveal in their playing that they really feel this music. Ehnes is a marvellous violin player and a perfect musician; my minor doubts are for the same reason I often react with some hesitation to much of the playing of David Oistrakh or Nathan Milstein – both supreme violinists, but without that extra 5% one gets from deep, emotional commitment. Anyway; enough of nit-picking. Ehnes gets my three stars in both works.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Khachaturian's Violin Concerto

Aram Khachaturian chose a bad time to write a violin concerto in D minor. Post-1940 after the concerto was written, music coming from the USSR was derided as propaganda music to please Russian factory workers. And to write music with a key signature, and with tunes, was asking for opprobrium from the Western musical establishment. I recall in the 1960s/70s a BBC music commentator almost apologising for the music [the Khachaturian concerto] that a violinist had just played: “Of course, it's not modern music as we understand it, but the violinist played very well …. “

To this day, the musical establishment still tends to sniff at Aram Khachaturian and its members – unlike musicians or audiences – would rather some tuneless meandering by Alban Berg, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen or Arnold Schönberg were programmed instead. Or yet another Mendelssohn or Bruch. Certainly not Aram Khachaturian!

Well, being musically incorrect, I really like Khachaturian's colourful and tuneful concerto that is well written and should be one of the most popular works for violin and orchestra. The great classic recordings, in my view, were by Julian Sitkovetsky with the Romanian Radio Orchestra and Niyazi in 1954 – a wild and mesmeric performance – and Leonid Kogan with Pierre Monteux in Boston in 1958. Today I listened to two modern recordings: Julia Fischer with Yakov Kreizberg (2004) and Sergey Khachatryan with Emmanuel Krivine (2003). Both Fischer and Khachatryan are truly top violinists. Maybe Khachatryan has a slight edge in authenticity when playing music by a fellow Armenian, but he does suffer from a “correct” recording positioning between soloist and orchestra, whereas I think the soloist in this particular concerto should be allowed to stand out more, a bit like a Primas in a gypsy band. I think Khachaturian's concerto is one of the best of the twentieth century and hope that, like the violin concerto of Benjamin Britten (pretty well exactly the same date of composition) the musical establishment will permit it to be programmed – frequently.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Die Walküre, and Otto Klemperer

During the current period, it is not too often that I settle down and listen to opera; at the moment, I seem to prefer mainly chamber music. But this evening I revelled in Act 1 of Wagner's Die Walküre. Now that is music! Erotic passion at full throttle, much like Tristan and Isolde (Wagner seems to have been good at erotic passion). Only Act 1 this evening; I find the beginning of Act 2 a bit tedious, until we reach the Todesverkündigung towards the end of the act.

This evening's conductor was Otto Klemperer, in the 1960s with three excellent singers and the Philharmonia orchestra. Over the years, I warm to Klemperer more and more. Like me, he had doubts about large chunks of Mahler, Wagner and Strauss – while feeling passionate about some of their works. I love Klemperer's recording of Strauss's Metamorphosen for Strings, to which I have come late in life. And I love Klemperer's passionate conducting of Act 1 of Die Walküre.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Handel's Song for Saint Cecilia's Day

Handel's Song for St Cecilia's Day is one of his most aimiable and tuneful works. It shows Handel's mastery of melody, his genius for the human voice, and his unerring instincts about getting the most out of an instrumental band of moderate size. It's a work I've loved and turned to for a good many years now. Listening to it, one gets the strong impression that Handel really enjoyed himself writing this music to Dryden's poem.

To succeed in such high-class music, any performance needs a good instrumental band, two good soloists, and an efficient right-sized choir. For a recording, add a good recorded balance and a sound that integrates the whole ensemble without overt spotlighting.

The new recording by Ludus, conducted by Richard Neville-Towle and featuring Mary Bevan and Ed Lyon as soloists succeeds on all fronts. The soloists are not earth-shattering, but they are more than adequate. And the recording is exemplary. Thoroughly enjoyable.

It makes me want to acquire Handel's Alexander's Feast by the same forces (but with Mary Bevan's sister). However the two Delphian CDs are at a pretty high price, so I'll have to wait to pluck up courage.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Grieg's "Violin Concertos"

Since the beginning of time, music composers – and others – have arranged and re-arranged music for different instrumental combinations. Brahms' Hungarian Dances began life as piano duets. Prokofiev's second sonata for piano and violin began life as a flute sonata. Not to mention J.S. Bach, and many others … My 1954 recording of Paganini's first violin concerto with Christian Ferras is with … Pierre Barbizet (piano).

Different media rarely transfer well. The Seventh Seal (high among the ten greatest films ever made) would not make a good book, nor a good theatrical play. [For the benefit of the younger generation, The Seventh Seal is not a nature documentary, but a black-and-white film by Ingmar Bergman]. Shakespeare transfers with difficulty to the cinema. The books of the Lord of the Rings, even to devotees like me who have known them since the later 1950s, did – against all my expectations – transfer reasonably well to film. The exception proves the rule. Can you imagine the film of Les Enfants du Paradis as … a book?

Similary, chamber music, as in duo sonatas for violin and piano, is inherently different from orchestral concertos, as in the violin concertos of a Shostakovich, an Elgar or a Brahms. So it was a little foolhardy of Henning Kraggerud (aided by Bernt Simen Lund) to inflate the aimiable three sonatas for violin and piano by Grieg and to try to transform them into concertos for violin and orchestra (the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra). In my view, it just does not work. Grieg's music remains as tuneful and enjoyable as ever, but this is emphatically not music conceived for a violin with an orchestra. Had Grieg wanted to do that, he would undoubtedly have composed things quite differently.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Mengelberg in Mahler

I spent an interesting hour listening to Mahler's 4th symphony played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra at a concert on the 9th November 1939 in Amsterdam, conducted by Willem Mengelberg. Mengelberg, the orchestra and Mahler all knew each other well, so there was a fascinating air of authenticity about the performance. Was this how Mahler conducted it? (Mengelberg was present at the first performance, and worked on the conducting score with the composer).

I found the performance fascinating in the degree of personal involvement between conductor and the score. One feels Mengelberg's love of the work, and notices how many conductors – especially in the pre 1945 decades – took what was later called “liberties” with the score. Tempi are manipulated constantly. After 1945, the stern doctrine ascribed to Toscanini came to be fashionable, but there were always conductors who felt free to bring their individual thoughts and feelings to a work: conductors such as Furtwängler, Walter – and Mengelberg. In the 1950s, Toscanini and Furtwängler were classed as the leaders of the opposing traditions. In Britain, it might have been John Barbirolli versus Adrian Boult. At the present time, it might be Christian Thielemann versus Riccardo Chailly. Pre-war, Otto Klemperer was something of an exception; a major German conductor who stuck strictly to the score. We are not used to hearing music beamed through a personal medium and, to many, Mahler's 4th as played by Mengelberg will sound strange and maybe a little bizarre. In music, however, it's the end result that counts and I would rather hear Mengelberg's idiosyncratic performance as here, than Mr X's scrupulous adhesion to the letter of the score. Just as I would rather listen to Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony than hear the latest “authentic” band trying to reconstruct what they imagine Beethoven's first audience might have heard. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that is especially true in musical performance.

I like Mahler's 4th symphony (actually, it's the only Mahler symphony I like since I first met it in 1958 conducted by Paul Kletzki, still a splendid “straight” version). Everyone needs the work conducted by Kletzki, Mengelberg, Klemperer and Walter; four conductors with close connections to the work, four very different views of the work, four admirable results.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Handel's Giove in Argo

Handel's opera Giove in Argo makes for enjoyable Sunday listening. Thrown together in haste during a critical commercial juncture in Handel's later career, the composer raided his melody bank (and that of others) for a collection of attractive arias, all revolving round the usual ridiculous plot in which everyone seems to be disguised as each other. No matter; the music is first class. Handel was not only adept at writing superb melodies, but he also had a real feeling for the human voice, for the setting of words to music and, most notably, for providing varied and interesting instrumental backing to the singing. Many of the arias are re-cycled from previous works by Handel (and occasionally by others) but why waste a good tune? Unusually for a Handel opera, there are many choruses in the work; although I am usually anti choral music, the choruses here are most pleasant and make a good contribution to the work.

The performance of this newly-assembled opera is conducted by the ever-reliable Alan Curtis, who presides over a caste with no weak links. Pacing and balance are excellent, as is the recording and the playing of Il Complesso Barocco. A good Sunday as I recover from the second bout of norovirus in around nine months.

Schubert's last piano sonata D 960

Schubert's last piano sonata, number 21 in B flat major D 960 written in 1828, has long been my favourite piano sonata, and one of my favourite pieces of music. There is something miraculous in the late works of Schubert, as the music moves through a myriad of modulations, and moods change almost from bar to bar. Schubert's last works are rarely happy, angry, sad or joyful but oscillate between every possible mood of human life.

To my mind, music such as this is best played “straight” without interpreter intervention. The music in D 960 is completely self-explanatory when played as-is and this is what I find so attractive in the new recording by Maria Pires which becomes one of my favourite recordings of this work (of which I currently own no less than fourteen versions). Bravo, Maria for just playing the music.

In general, I am doubtful about making exposition repeats in music of the classical period. It seems to me that the instruction to repeat was often based on the desire to make the music last longer, or often on the knowledge that pretty well everyone would only ever hear the work in question once only, therefore the themes needed to be impressed on the listeners. But sometimes, of course, the repeat was there for reasons of structure and balance; the eighteenth century classical period set great store by the concept of balance. After around 1820, the idea of balance began to crumble, Beethoven perhaps setting the pace with the enormous finale of his ninth symphony and, orginally, the Great Fugue as the final movement of his opus 130 string quartet in B flat major (and see also his final piano sonata, with just two movements, the final variations being one long movement). Those who wish to force poor old Schubert into the 18th century sonata mold avoid the repeat in the first movement of the D 960 sonata, even though Schubert explicitly wrote bars of music to link the exposition repeat. Pianists as eminent as Schnabel and Curzon do not repeat the exposition which, if the movement is played at a true molto moderato as marked, brings the first movement in at over 20 minutes (with Pires, or 23 minutes with Richter). But, for me, Schubert was not writing a classical 18th century sonata and his music was heading towards the land of the fantasia or improvisation where classical structure was less important. Here, I have no doubt whatsoever that the first movement exposition repeat should be made, and bravo to those who do so.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Pheasant Quartet

Today sees the last of the quartet of pheasants I bought from the local butcher for £9.99 the four. Casseroled in a strong vegetable court-bouillon, with a couple of glasses of red wine, a few cloves, lots of thyme and bay leaves, salt, pepper, mushrooms, bacon. Pretty delicious. And that is the end of pheasants for six months or so, until they come back into season. Some of the world's cheapest food; four pheasants provide the meat for at least 12 meals.

Two Baroque Sopranos

Into my postbox came Anna Prohaska singing airs and arias by Vivaldi, Purcell, Handel and a couple of others. And Dorothee Mields singing Telemann arias. Two German sopranos, repertoire from a similar time period (late 17th century, early 18th – an excellent era in music). Prohaska is with a “baroque” orchestra directed by Jonathan Cohen; Mields with a similar group led by Michi Gaigg. One on Archiv Produktion. The other on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

Georg Philipp Telemann rose in my esteem once I discovered his vocal music (cantatas, and operas). Until recently, I had him pigeon-holed as old Herr Tafelmusik, but his arias are a different kettle of fish, and most attractive music. Ms Mields has a gentle, very feminine voice that fits the pieces on this CD like a glove. She also has splendid diction; if you lose your place in the texts in the booklet, it is easy to pick it up again. The Austrian band under Michi Gaigg makes a positive, thoroughly professional contribution. Listening to this CD is an excellent way to spend a Sunday morning.

Then on to Anna Prohaska. The Mields CD has two photos of the soprano; Ms Prohaska's has at least ten photos of its soprano, most in the guise of a wanton woodland nymph (for some reason or another, the disc is billed as “Enchanted Forest”). The vocal music of Handel and Purcell is always a sure-fire winner with me, though I am less keen on the two early verbose Italians tacked on to the end of the CD – Cavalli, and Monteverdi. My musical garden begins around the end of the 17th century with Purcell, and ends around 250 years later with Britten and Shostakovich. I have yards of Monteverdi's music in my collection, and it all sounds pretty much the same to my ears. Ms Prohaska's voice is more brilliant than Ms Mields and, recorded well forward as here, it can often sound rather strident. Playing the music at a volume where the soprano does not blow your socks off has the unfortunate effect of reducing much of the instrumental contribution to the background; the many violin solos by the ever-talented Stéphanie-Marie Degand (who leads the band) are very distant, a great pity in Purcell's “Oh let me weep”. I am also occasionally uneasy about Ms Prohaska's intonation, and her diction is not in the class of Dorothee Mields; lose your place in the text when Ms Prohaska is singing, and you are lost until the next aria.

So Dorothee goes on the “keep to hand” pile; Anna is filed on the shelf in the vocal compilation section.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Deborah Nemtanu

I recently enthused over the music of Camille Saint-Saëns (disc by Fanny Clamagirand). Suddenly I am faced with more Saint-Saëns, played this time by the unknown (to me) Deborah Nemtanu (with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris conducted by Thomas Zehetmair, another fine violinist).

Nemtanu plays the well-known Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, the first violin concerto, and an enchanting Romance, Opus 48. She also throws in Fauré's familiar Berceuse. The orchestra under Zehetmair plays the suite from Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande. A lovely CD. Ms Nemtanu plays with intelligence, clarity and impeccable technique and has a real feeling for this music that is never vulgar, never trite, always tasteful. The violin is well recorded, the orchestra a little on the dim side. Another CD to keep near at hand for dipping into when I feel like a little dose of civilisation. We live in good (violinistic) times.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst

The 1930s, 50s and 60s were marvellous years for recording; for a few top artists, and for mainstream repertoire. Not so great if you were looking for Handel operas, or for the violin music of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. The music of Ernst is little known and has been much neglected. But he wrote large quantities of tuneful and enjoyable salon music for the violin – much like Pablo Sarasate in a later period – and I have enjoyed catching up with him, at last. Josef Spacek (who?) plays a thoroughly listenable selection of Ernst on a recent CD (Naxos, of course; what would lovers of the violin do without St Naxos?) Spacek is just right for this music, and is well recorded -- in Monmouth, like the recent Naxos CD of Fanny Clamagirand.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Julia Lezhneva

Reflecting recently on listening to Handel's Alessandro, I commented: “Of the two female rivals, Julia Lezhneva (Rossane) struck me as exceptional, with a voice that is attractive, accurate and that appears to mean what she is singing”.

Well, today the postgirl brought a new solo CD sung by Lezhneva, the 23 year old Russian from Sakhalin Island. What a voice! Few musicians in their early 20s, especially singers, can have had such an inpact. Ms Lezhneva goes on to my “auto-buy” list for the future, a list inhabited by few 23-year olds apart from Tianwa Yang.

Quibbles? I have the impression that the CD started with a concept: “we'll call it Alleluja, so we need four works for soprano ending with Alleluja”. Always bad to start with a concept, and then to hunt around to fill out the concept. The CD contains cantatas for solo soprano by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora and Mozart. Of the four, only the Vivaldi could be classed as first-class music. The other three works are somwhat second class, including the motet by the 16-year old Mozart. That is the problem with starting with a concept. Four first-class works for soprano by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora and Mozart present no great challenge; it's just when you stipulate they all have to end with Alleluja that the problems begin …

Almost certainly not Ms Lezhneva's fault; it's those loser modern marketing gurus again. Let me hope that next time Ms Lezhneva records, she gets to choose the music, and the marketing gurus just have to fit in with her choice

Fanny Clamagirand plays Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns had a long life (1835-1921) and wrote a great deal of music of all types. His music is melodic, well-crafted and highly agreeable to listen to. No great emotional depths are explored; but so what? It is a bit ridiculous that apart from his “organ” symphony and a few other bits and pieces, his music rarely sees the light of day in the concert hall. I have just spent 68 enjoyable minutes listening to a CD recital of some of his music for violin and piano, including the 23 minute long first sonata that was a favourite of Jascha Heifetz (and is also a great favourite of mine). The violinist of my new Naxos CD is Fanny Clamagirand, not yet 30 and a violinist I have always liked. The world is pulsating with first-class young violinists (many of them female).

Ms Clamagirand plays the first sonata, and also offers ten other shorter pieces by Saint-Saëns, all of them good to hear. She plays extremely well and with obvious feeling for the music, and does not even wilt in comparison with Heifetz in the sonata, partly due to her excellent pianist, Vanya Cohen, and partly to the entirely admirable recording by “Producer, Engineer & Editor” John Taylor; balancing violin and piano, particularly in louder music, is no easy task, as countless failures demonstrate. All praise to Mr Taylor. I spend much time in this blog criticising recording balance. Good to be able to express satisfaction, for a change.

Another good Naxos, then. What a remarkable company, particularly for lovers of violin music. I find it difficult to understand why Saint-Saëns' music is not programmed more often. Could we not at least have the refreshing first violin and piano sonata, rather than yet another rendition of the Franck sonata / Kreutzer / Brahms / Ravel sonata?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace in Bach

The set of six sonatas and partitas that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for solo violin are well known, much played and recorded, and in the repertoire of every violinist of stature. The six sonatas for violin and keyboard BWV 1014-19 are less well known and less often played.With the solo works, the violinist does not share the spotlight with a pianist or an orchestra. With the duo sonatas, he or she has to play with a keyboard player, and play second fiddle much of the time, since the keyboard part is dominant in these works. Similarly, a keyboard player here has to share the limelight with a violinist.

I was intrigued last week when the BBC programme “Building a Library” picked Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace as the top recommendation in the six duo sonatas; intrigued, since the BBC is usually ultra musically correct and follows fashions, and the Zimmermann-Pace set is with grand piano and non-baroque violin (a Stradivarius of roughly the same date as these sonatas).

I know these six sonatas pretty well, having played them often many decades ago when I lived in Germany (with an Australian pianist). I love the works, and really enjoyed the Zimmermann-Pace set. It is the only set I have without a harpsichord (an instrument to which I am not partial); to my ears, a harpsichord brings nothing to the works that one cannot have eight times more melodiously with a good pianist. There is music that is written for particular instruments, or instrumental combinations – most string quartets, for example, do not transfer to orchestral massed strings. Most of Bach's music outside the organ works does not seem to have been written with a particular instrumental colour or capability in mind; Bach rarely hesitated about borrowing his own, or other people's, works for different instrumental colours. Sitting back with J S Bach, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Enrico Pace, one is guaranteed an excellent 90 minutes or so of music. The recorded balance is correct for a change, with the piano being dominant, as the music requires. All the tempi sound fine to me, and the music has a strong element of dancing throughout.

It is regrettable that these duo sonatas are not better known. Within their 25 movements there are magnificent riches, and nothing is less than by a great composer. I love the solo violin works, but they do have their weaker sides: I have never felt that the three fugues are enjoyable and magnificent music (as opposed to major compositional and technical tours de force). The first partita can go on rather too long (especially as played a while ago by Lisa Batiashvili, who played deliberately and made every repeat it was possible to make – the piece lasted over half an hour. Milstein, when he played the first partita in public, wisely missed out all the repeats). And the final partita, after its brilliant prelude, can come over as everyday dance music of the early 18th century without too much originality.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Catherine Manoukian plays Elgar

The violin concerto by Edward Elgar has been a lucky one in the recording studio, with comparatively few really weak versions (excluding that by Igor Oistrakh, that I cannot take). My supreme favourite remains Albert Sammons recorded in 1929 (but with a somewhat indifferent Queen's Hall orchestra under Henry Wood).

My latest acquisition sees Catherine Manoukian playing the violin, with her husband, Stefan Solyom, conducting the Weimar Staatskapelle. Manoukian does well, and gives a nice performance. Her sound is “modern” with rich, seamless lines to her playing (why do so many modern violinists want to sound like clarinetists? Don't they realise that one reason there are so few concertos for woodwind, as opposed to strings or piano, is because super-suave tone can pall after a few minutes?)

The main problem with this recording, however, is that it sounds very much like a “concerto for violin, with orchestra”. The soloist is recorded well forward. The orchestra sounds somewhat in the background, and the two never really dialogue as in “concerto for violin and orchestra”. The last movement cadenza, in particular, suffers from the soloist's forward balance; there is none of the mystery and lightness that the cadenza usually portrays. The Elgar concerto ideally needs a good, on-the-ball orchestra, a supreme soloist, a good rapport between soloist and conductor, and a good recorded balance. One reason I really like Thomas Zehetmair with the Hallé Orchestra under Mark Elder. Ms Manoukian joins the ranks of the many fine versions that do not quite make the top echelon.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux

“And of course there is also Arthur Grumiaux” ends practically every survey of the peak of violin recordings. Grumiaux was not a great international traveller but, from his base in Belgium, he made innumerable recordings for the Dutch Philips company. Almost all his recordings are truly excellent, above all when it comes to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the Franco-Belgians of Franck, Vieuxtemps, Fauré, Debussy, etc. You want a safe recommendation? Go with Arthur, even 40, 50, 60 years on.

I have just been re-listening to the ten Beethoven violin and piano sonatas Grumiaux recorded with Clara Haskil in 1956 and 1957. Sixty years on, this old world, civilised playing by two supreme artists still holds its own. This is chamber music at its best, with neither artist striving for effect, both listening closely to each other, both supreme stylists in this music. Beethoven's works here have a welcome transparency and lucidity, far removed from the furious grandstanding that some artists try to bring to them; for a change, I even enjoyed the Kreutzer sonata, which I often find somewhat hectoring when performed by high-powered duos. Not here; Grumiaux's restrained opening solos, and Haskil's response, set the tone for a most enjoyable traversal.

To end: a word of praise for Clara Haskil. A legendary figure with a tragic life that only came into its own for the last ten or so years of her 65 years (she died after a fall at a Brussels railway station on her way to a concert with Grumiaux). Apparently also a truly excellent violinist (just as Grumiaux was also an excellent pianist) she brings a precision and clarity to her playing, qualities that made her almost unrivalled in Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. Sometimes she and Grumiaux swapped roles, with Haskil on the violin and Grumiaux on the piano; that is chamber music making!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Wagner's Orchestral Music

An enjoyable evening wallowing in Wagner's orchestral music -- overtures, preludes, etc. Why does so little Wagner now appear on concert programmes? Is it the dogmatic belief that only "whole works" should be played? Or is it part of the modern concert scene that has seen overtures and short orchestral works banished into limbo -- unless they are "contemporary" in which case many Brownie points are earned? The only problem with the admirable practice of programming contemporary works is that the same work never seems to appear more than once. Do not audiences and orchestras clamour for second and third hearings of remarkable modern pieces?

Or maybe it's a conductor problem. The pre-1960 or so conductors cut their teeth on chunks of Wagner. This evening I wallowed in Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia (1960-61). But it could have been Boult, or Beecham, or Knappertsbusch, or Keilberth, or Toscanini, or Walter, or Furtwängler, or Schuricht, or Krauss. Anyway, Klemperer is great in this kind of music. In 1960 the Philharmonia was still in top form, and the EMI recording team at its peak. Nothing like filling the room with Wagner to banish the cobwebs and pessimistic thoughts. The latest EMI Klemperer box has four Wagner CDs out of the five (the fifth being Richard Strauss). My home will reverberate for many evenings to come.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Yuja Wang and Claudio Abbado

When commenting recently on Earl Wilde playing the Rachmaninov concertos, with Jascha Horenstein conducting, I remarked how rare it was to be admiring both conductor and soloist in works such as these. I had the same thought yesterday listening to Yuja Wang playing Rachmaninov's second concerto, and Paganini Rhapsody, with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. I was constantly admiring Abbado's contribution!

Not that Miss Wang could be overlooked. She seems to have taken lessons from Rachmaninov's own recordings, where the great pianist plays the works “straight” without all the slobbering and molto can belto that lesser pianists impose on the music; Rachmaninov's music, like Mahler's or Tchaikovsky's, does not need extra angst, agony and emotion lavished on it by the performers. The net result of the highly talented Miss Wang playing with Abbado and the (young) orchestra is an admirable freshness to these familiar works, both of them coming over almost as chamber works for large forces, such is the give and take between orchestra and soloist. Yuja Wang does not displace previous favourites, but her (live) performances here with Abbado put these versions in the highest echelon when I come to make a listening choice. The recording and balance reinforce the soloist plus orchestra character of the performances. Entirely admirable, and gives one hopes for music making in the 21st century.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Little Known Artists

An interesting article in the current issue of the American Record Guide comments on the fact that big-name performers in the world of classical music are not always better than unknowns, and that often little known performers are far superior to Artist X who trundles round the world playing and recording the same few pieces, charging vast amounts of money that are paid because he or she is a “star” and can charge premium prices. Those who pay premium prices for recordings or concert tickets are unwilling to admit to themselves that their auditory experience was less than good. In this, the world of classical music is no better than that of the popular music world.

This thought occurred to me listening to a 1965 recording of Paganini (including the first violin concerto) by Aldo Ferraresi (who?) This is wonderful Paganini playing; Ferraresi makes us realise that Paganini was Italian, and that he grew up in the world of provincial Italian opera houses. The playing here is audibly different from the mainstream Russian approach that one finds (played marvellously) by violinists such as Leonid Kogan. Ferraresi's violin sings and swoons, and he plays Paganini like a true provincial Italian tenor, rather than like a Russian T34 tank. I enjoyed it all immensely. Ferraresi belongs to that vast world of near-forgotten great musicians who, for one reason or another, never had recording contracts and never sought to conquer the world stage. Ferraresi never played professionally often outside Italy (just as Albert Sammons, another superb violinist, never played outside Britain).

Yuja Wang is not an unknown name, and she is heavily recorded by DG. But she is young, and hardly (yet) a well-known international star. I was so impressed yesterday listening to her playing Rachmaninov, Liszt et al that I leapt up and clicked my mouse to order another Yuja Wang CD (Rachmaninov). What she communicates is freshness and vitality; under her fingers the music is not stale and over-rehearsed, as it can so often sound when played by Big Names. And to this short list I would add Soo-Hyun Park, who so impressed me with a recent CD of concertos by Wieniawski, Conus and Vieuxtemps. Long live the legions of the Little Names!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Tom Yum, and Christian Tetzlaff

Made an excellent "Thai" soup today. I used some tom yum powder (sachets) I bought in a Kuala Lumpur supermarket last year. And lots and lots of fresh ginger. And lots of galongal. Lots of lime juice and kaffir lime leaves. Lots of lemon grass. Some crushed chillies. Lots of mussels, with some squid and shrimps. Quite delicious; but spicey ! The tom yum paste was different from the Thai one I buy locally. But it all made for an excellent dish.

Then on to a re-visit with Christian Tetzlaff playing the Sibelius violin concerto. Tetzlaff comes from Hamburg, and plays here with a Danish orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. To sum up with one word: idiomatic. I currently have 51 recordings of this concerto, but Tetzlaff and the Danes place it firmly in Scandinavian Northern Europe (a remarkable area, despite its food and climate). Listening to the recording -- admirably balanced -- you feel yourself transported to the north; too many performers try to pretend the music is wannabe Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, which it is not. And I greatly admire Tetzlaff's violin; Tetzlaff ditched his Strad in favour of a modern German violin, and the latter sounds just wonderful. Makes you think about the snobbery / financial ramifications surrounding 300 year old Italian violins -- not all of which are remotely better than the best modern ones.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote ten sonatas for violin and piano, most of them during the earlier period of his life. As a set, they contain many genial movements and provide well over three hours of happy listening. They are chamber works, written mainly around 1800 and were designed for performances in palace rooms, rather than Carnegie Hall. They succeed best when played as chamber works by a violinist and a pianist of equal artistic stature. In the main, the piano part leads and predominates, thus the importance of the pianist. Sets that really succeed musically include Joseph Szigeti with Claudio Arrau, Arthur Grumiaux with Clara Haskil and, nearer our own time, Isabelle Faust with Alexander Melnikov, and Alina Ibragimova with Cédric Tiberghien. During the 1930s EMI wanted to record the set with Kreisler and Rachmaninov – that would really have been something – but because of cost, opted for the gifted Franz Rupp instead of the expensive Rachmaninov.

To my mind, the prime prerequisites of a satisfactory set are a) a first class violinist with a first class pianist and b) an ideal recorded balance between piano and violin. Often, particularly in the past, the violinist was over-favoured. Sometimes, the piano is so loud and so dominant that the music becomes unbalanced. This is chamber music, not virtuoso music, and it is the chamber music approach by Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley that is giving me so much pleasure on my most recent acquisition. For most of the movements, 55% of the importance goes to the pianist, and 45% to the violin; that is how it sounds here (and how it certainly does not sound with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Bay). Capuçon and Braley play as a chamber music team; they do not over-inflate this mainly genial music and give it a French-style clarity as the parts move to and fro. For a change, the recording engineers sound clued up and neither instrument is over-favoured compared with the other. 55% of the time I am marvelling at Frank Braley; 45% at Renaud Capuçon. Highly enjoyable.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Soyoung Yoon

The “right speed” for a piece of music is a complex matter. Comparative tempi come into it, as do a composer's markings. The right speed also depends on overall context. I remarked recently (Adrian Boult in Brahms) that over the 16 movements of the four symphonies, I never once found an instance where I was unhappy with his tempi. In the end, if it sounds too slow, it is too slow. And if it sounds too fast, it is too fast.

This complex question re-surfaced listening to the remarkable young violinist Soyoung Yoon in Sibelius's violin concerto. The second and third movements sounded fine, to me. But the first movement was a bit of a disaster, with Yoon seemingly seeking to convert Sibelius's allegro moderato into andante tranquillo; at times, it sounds as if everyone is falling asleep. Timings are indicative (though not, of course, the final verdict). In the first movement of the Sibelius, the classic Heifetz-Beecham recording comes in at 14.26. Miss Yoon and her team come in at 17:35 for the same piece of music, the difference being not so much the basic tempo, but the new recording's willingness to dally by the wayside the moment the music becomes tender and lyrical. As an unfortunate result, in the hands of Miss Yoon and her conductor (Piotr Borkowski) the first movement degenerates into a series of episodes that go on too long.

For the rest of the work, and for the following Tchaikovsky violin concerto, things go less controversially, though the artists still show longings to linger whenever the music suggests it could be possible. The violin playing of Soyoung Yoon reminds me of Nathan Milstein: fluent and flawless, and as a master class on how to play the violin, the current CD is excellent. Miss Yoon has won every major competition anyone could possibly want to win. What I miss is the kind of personal involvement and passionate commitment one gets with violinists such as Janine Jansen, Patricia Kopatchinskaja or Leila Josefowicz – to mention just three younger female violinists around at the moment. And I love performances of the hackneyed classics that I have heard too often, that make me sit up and enjoy an over-familiar work all over again, as a couple of years ago I enjoyed Christian Tetzlaff in the Sibelius violin concerto.

The orchestra here, the Gorzow Philharmonic in Poland, confirms my impression that young artists are often better off with enthusiastic players in less well known bands than they are with the big name orchestras where enthusiasm is often lacking, and where a band heavily laced with substitutes goes through the motions on a Wednesday morning to earn a few more euros or dollars. I enjoyed much of the playing by the Gorzow orchestra. I was recently highly impressed with the début CD of the Korean Soo-Hyun Park. Her fellow Korean, Soyoung Yoon, is no less talented as a violinist, but perhaps to make an impression one needs to choose concertos other than the hackneyed dozen where competition and comparisons are so fierce.