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.