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.