Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Janine Jansen plays Prokofiev

Janine Jansen has always been a violinist I have greatly admired and she does not disappoint in a 2012 recording of Prokofiev works. The second violin concerto – indelibly engraved with the name of Jascha Heifetz – is beautifully played, well aided by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic. The first violin and piano sonata is another winner on the disk; pianist is Itmar Golan whom I have never really liked, but he seems to have improved greatly with age even if, in the “wind through the graveyard” passages, he could do with a few more graveyard visits to appreciate they are silent, mournful places rather than passages to play tasteful chords whilst Janine does her admirable pianissimo stuff. Mr Golan still sounds happier doing the allegrissimo forte passages in the final movement.

Praise, for a change, for the recording and the balance engineers (Decca). Both the concerto and the sonata pose problems; in the concerto, it is often difficult outside of a live concert attendance, to separate the high-flying solo violin from the high-flying orchestral violins. In the sonata, the piano (especially when played by Mr Golan and his confrères) can often drown the sound of the violin. On this CD, balance is pretty well impeccable and we can sit back and revel in Janine Jansen's vibrant violin playing. Filler for the CD is Prokofiev's sonata for two violins (where Jansen is partnered by Boris Brovtsyn); not one of Prokofiev's more memorable works. In my view, only in the first violin and piano sonata did Prokofiev approach the kind of emotional depth of his colleague Dmitri Shostakovich.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Beethoven String Quartet plays Shostakovich

The Fitzwilliam Quartet made a thoroughly admirable recording of the fifteen string quartets of Shostakovich back in the 1970s and, until now, I have lived happily with them. But a recent acquisition of the quartets played by the Beethoven Quartet has completely overturned my loyalties. From 1938 onwards the Beethovens worked closely with Shostakovich, and gave the first performance of 13 of the 15 quartets. In particular, the first violin – Dmitri Tsyganov, the viola – Vadim Borisovsky and the cellist – Sergei Shirinsky come over as passionate solo players within the quartet. The second violin was Vasily Shirinksy, and I think that passion defines the quality I love in these performances.

The transfers from the Melodya LPs of the 1950s and 60s are very well done by Doremi (at least, for those quartets I have listened to so far). I love these string quartets, but I'm afraid the Fitzwilliams go back on the shelf, and the Beethovens stay very near at hand.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Lisa Batiashvili in Brahms

The Russians – led by Heifetz, Kogan and Oistrakh – began the tradition that the Brahms violin concerto is a macho work, where a big, tough violin competes with an orchestra and dominates it. It is good, however, to hear an alternative view and I lapped up the performance by Lisa Batiashvili in partnership with the Dresden Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemann. First and foremost: this is a partnership performance, much in the way that any concerto performance with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting became a partnership, rather than a soloist accompanied obediently by a deferential orchestra.

Lisa Batiashvili has long been one of my absolute favourites among modern violinists, faced with a veritable horde of competitors. In this performance of the Brahms concerto she gives a thoroughly feminine view, as opposed to the usual machismo one. Her concentration is as remarkable as ever, as is her lovely violin tone and her penchant for real piano and pianissimo playing; you often need good ears to hear Lisa. The sound engineers have placed the violin within the overall sound picture, as opposed to its usual prominent focus. The tempi adopted by Batiashvili and Thielemann are fluid and, thankfully, a little faster than is now fashionable; the adagio, in particular, preserves a good forward momentum. This performance goes straight into my first-echelon ranking, like so many of Batiashvili's performances. The first movement cadenza is by Busoni, rather than the usual Joachim, and this makes a refreshing change.

I have not met Christian Thielemann before (except as the conductor on Diana Damrau's exceptional collection of Strauss Lieder) but he impresses me in the Brahms concerto with Batiashvili; a German conductor in the Furtwängler mould when in partnership in a major concerto. So well done Johannes Brahms, Lisa Batiashvili, Christian Thielemann, the Dresden Staatskapelle, and the DG sound engineers. The only sour note is one unconnected with the music or the performance: nine photos of Lisa Batiashvili; one sideview of Christian Thielemann; none of Alice Sara Ott who partners Batiashvili in the three Romances by Clara Schumann that constitute a miserly filler to this short-duration CD. And no photos, of course, of Johannes Brahms. Very clear where DG's marketing department has its priority and what it thinks it is selling.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Niu Niu

15 year old Zhang Shengliang gives an attractive programme of Liszt transcriptions of Saint-Saëns, Schubert, Paganini and Wagner, with a couple of real Liszt pieces thrown in. He plays accurately, meticulously and with feeling for the music. Absent is much sense of emotional involvement, or any real idiosyncracies, not that, in virtuoso pieces such as these, this matters too much. But we are some way from the kind of playing and intensity György Cziffra brought to this music; one hopes that this remarkable 15 year old will be allowed to do his own thing, choose his own repertoire, and play things as he feels they should be played. And expands a little from a limited range of mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte. The music on this new CD is great for evening listening.

One's heart sinks reading the liner booklet that lists six “Artist Management” personnel, plus someone for “Hair & Makeup” and another person for “Styling”. Alas, we will probably now never know who did the hair and make-up for Casals, Szigeti, Furtwängler or Adolf Busch; these things are important to know. Listing these hangers-on is all part of the intense commercialisation of classical music and performers; any good performer has a host of parasites waiting to be fed, and they add nothing to the music, nor to the performances. If Mr Shengliang loses his hair, or turns 35, he will probably be dropped from the EMI artist list within hours. He has even been given a nice new memorable marketing name: Niu Niu. A friend tells me that, in Chinese, this means Cow-Cow. Anyway: Mr Cow Cow can certainly play the piano with superb technique and good feeling. One hopes the six Artist Managers will leave him free to do his own artistic thing.