Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Wishes for 2015

My three modest musical wishes for 2015:
  • Igor Levit – Bach: Goldberg Variations. Beethoven: Diabelli Variations. Schubert: late piano sonatas.
  • Tianwa Yang – Paganini, 24 capricci (she recorded them when she was 13 but, after her triumph in the Ysaÿe, sonatas, she should re-do a definitive version).
  • Pavel Haas Quartet – more late Schubert string quartets. Start on the late Beethoven string quartets with Op 130 with the Große Fuge as finale.

Handel's Messiah: Emmanuelle Haïm

During the immediate post-war period when he was a freelance musician, my father frequently declared that Handel wrote his Messiah so that orchestral musicians would never starve during the month of December. I thought of him this Christmas week when, quite by chance, a new recording of the Messiah arrived, a release conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, a conductor I have frequently admired in the past.

As a very young teenager, I was given six or so 78 rpm records of the Messiah featuring, as I recall it, excerpts from the first part. Haïm's Messiah is somewhat different from these old recordings from the 1940s, but I liked it very much. The orchestra is French, and well recorded. The chorus is British, some twenty singers in number, and gives a welcome clarity to Handel's choruses with sufficient weight and gravitas, in a recording, to do justice to Handel's great choral numbers. The vocal quartet is also British, with Lucy Crowe as the jewel in the crown; she really is one of my favourite baroque sopranos. Unfortunately Haïm opts for a dreaded counter-tenor rather than for a female alto or contralto; maybe she had little choice after pressure from the castratos' union but, I, for one, prefer the natural voices of soprano, tenor, alto and bass rather than this strange counter-tenor breed. An excellent recording and balance by a French team for Erato makes this a very strong version of Messiah. I never thought I'd be listening to the oratorio during Christmas week. Haïm is forceful and exuberant, as ever, but without going to the extreme lengths of some conductors of baroque music (though I could have done with a slightly more reticent drummer, on occasions; he does tend to thwack a bit). Anyway: three stars.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Schubert's String Quintet - Pavel Haas Quartet

There is a handful of timeless classical masterpieces (or perhaps, more accurately, a basketful). In the hand – or basket – is Schubert's C major string quintet, D 956, one of the very last works Schubert lived to write. With this work alone Schubert earns his place at the top table with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. It's a work I have loved since the 1950s; it's evergreen and one can never, ever become tired of listening to it.

I have eight recordings of the work, including with such luminaries as Casals, Heifetz, and the Amadeus Quartet (the version with which I grew up in the 1950s on an old LP). All older versions and rivals are, however, completely swept aside for me by the Pavel Haas Quartet (four Czechs, with a German-Japanese second cellist). The quartet plays the music with a passion a long way from Alt Wien, Gemütlichkeit and all that Viennese stuff. This is great music in the raw, a little like Beethoven's Große Fuge, with no holds barred and no prisoners taken. Recorded in Prague only last year, it is already one of the Great Recordings of the Century, in my book.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Furtwängler conducts Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

I have always liked the Große Fuge as a dramatic finale to Beethoven's Op 130 string quartet in B flat, and regret that pressure from “experts” persuaded him to substitute a lightweight “get you home” finale in its place. When I listen to the Op 130 quartet, I usually try to find a version that allows me to go back to Beethoven's original intention and end with the Fuge.

Would that those same “experts” had prevailed upon Beethoven to re-think the finale of his ninth symphony. After a superb and dramatic first movement, and a truly sublime slow movement, we plunge into an awkward mixture of banality and sublimity, with a chorus belting out Freude, schöner Götterfunken, a quartet of four solo voices occasionally contributing little, orchestral interludes that are often superb, and the occasional chorus that is really moving, such as Seid umschlungen, Millionen! For me, a bit of a let-down after the variations of the slow movement.

I rarely listen to the ninth, but heard it again yesterday, mostly with pleasure. The conductor was Wilhelm Furtwängler in a well re-mastered CD from Audite of the Swiss broadcast tapes of the 22nd August 1954 performance at the Lucerne Festival – Furtwängler's final performance of the ninth, after conducting it over 100 times. There are a number of recordings around of Furtwängler conducting this work, notably the truly demonic performance on 22nd March 1942 in Berlin, and the Bayreuth Festival 1951 recording (with the wobbly horn in the adagio). In some ways, Furtwängler was “Mr Ninth Symphony” with classic versions of the Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner 9s to his credit. This new re-mastering is good, given the mono 1954 origin of the broadcast tapes; like most such historical recordings, it is best listened to via very good loudspeakers, rather than through headphones. In 1954 the Philharmonia orchestra (that played in the Lucerne performance) was near the top of its form. A good version of Beethoven's ninth to have.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Jenö Hubay

This week has been something of a Jenö Hubay week, not a composer who is often talked about these days, outside of his well-known Hejre Kati for violin & piano (always called “Hairy Katy” by a friend of mine). But here I was listening to multiple versions of his four violin concertos, plus a CD of short pieces for violin & piano. And I was very happy to do so.

The CD of short pieces was played by Ferenc Szecsödi with Istvan Kassai as pianist (Hungaroton) and is one of thirteen CDs recorded by the pair comprising Hubay's music for violin & piano. First surprise was the quality of the music; one hour of “best of Hubay” is probably of equal stature to one hour of “best of Kreisler”, but guess who has always had the greater fame and exposure? Hubay's Carmen Fantasy is as good as Sarasate's, and a lot better than the flashy piece by Franz Waxman, but guess again who gets the greater exposure?

Second surprise was the violin playing of Ferenc Szecsödi; my first reaction was: “the Léner String Quartet”, since the string sound is very similar to that 1930s sound. Jenö Léner and his violin and viola colleagues were all pupils of Hubay (the cellist was a David Popper pupil in Budapest). Szecsödi's sound, like that of the Léners, is intensely smooth, with low bow pressure and sparing vibrato, and is immediately identifiable as “school of Hubay”, though Hubay, who died in 1937, would not have taught Szecsödi, of course. Szecsödi's technique is impeccable in these pieces I listened to.

On to the four violin concertos by Hubay, very rarely played or recorded these days, for some inexplicable reason. Jenö Hubay was born in 1858, so his musical language is very much end of nineteenth century. The first concerto is excellent; the second and third highly enjoyable; I don't like the fourth much, since it was written “in the old style” and comes over as a kind of eighteenth century pastiche, coming from the head rather than the heart. Hubay's slow movements are strong points, with long singing lines, and he also had the important gift of being able to write memorable tunes, melodies or themes .... unlike so many of his twentieth century competitors. I find the last movement cadenza of the third concerto over-long (I don't like long cadenzas).

I listened to the first two concertos played by Chloë Hanslip, Vilmos Szabadi and by Hagai Shaham. All were excellent, but Hanslip disqualifies herself by taking the two slow movements far too slowly, a common defect by many modern players trying to squeeze maximum feeling out of slow music and ending up killing it. Hanslip's liner notes for the first concerto's slow movement term it adagio ma non tanto and she drags it out for 11' 33”. Szabadi's and Shaham's sleeve notes term it andante ma non tanto and they take 8' 26” and 8' 57” respectively; quite a difference. Similarly, in the second movement larghetto of the second concerto, Hanslip crawls along at 9' 13”, whilst the two competitors do 6' 49” and 7' 02” respectively. Stopwatches only tell part of the story, of course. But Hanslip needs to learn that playing too slowly induces boredom; music needs to flow like a stream, or it becomes stagnant.

Szabadi has the North Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, Shaham the BBC Scottish Orchestra, and Hanslip the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Both Szabadi and Shaham are good buys, though at a pinch I think the Hungarian team with Szabadi comes in just before the Israeli-Scottish team since the music seems to flow even more naturally with the Hungarians. High time there was a Hubay renaissance.

Friday, 5 December 2014

My Most Memorable Top Three of 2014

It is coming to the end of 2014 and everyone and his dog is making lists of the “best 10” or the “favourite 20”, or whatever. Since I listen to a lot of music, and buy far too many new CDs each month, I'd better get my list in, as well. I'll avoid the overkill of “best historical” (though Pristine Audio, in particular, has made a great improvement to many of my classic recordings). Or “best violin”, since it is difficult sorting through the many superb violinists who have come along, including Tianwa Yang, Kristof Barati and Josef Spacek. Or “best vocal CD” since there are hordes of them from the likes of Joyce DiDonato, Sandrine Piau, Diana Damrau, and many others. Let me just therefore pinpoint my Most Memorable Three CD sets of 2014. In order of composition of the music, they are:
  • Bach: Six keyboard partitas (Igor Levit)
  • Beethoven: Late piano sonatas (Igor Levit)
  • Schubert: Die Winterreise (Jonas Kaufman and Helmut Deutsch)
I have written about all these elsewhere in this blog. Remarkably, all three come from Sony Classical and were recorded in Germany. All three will stay near at hand and not be filed away with the hordes of others. I find all three truly superb and was particularly amazed at Die Winterreise, a work I have known intimately for over 60 years but have now been weaned well and truly from the classic older recordings by Hans Hotter or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. And it is truly extraordinary that Igor Levit has only issued two CD albums so far, and that both end up in my top three. It goes without saying that "top three" takes into account the music, as well as the performances.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Music for Violin & PIano by Franz Liszt

I was surprised to hear of a CD featuring music for violin and piano by a major composer, never having heard of the music before. But a new Naxos CD announces music for violin and piano by Franz Liszt, a composer beloved of pianists and known mainly for his piano music. But lo and behold, we have a Duo Sonata on Polish themes (a sort-of 22 minute variation in four movements on Chopin's Mazurka in C sharp minor Op 6 No.2); a nice 10 minute piece called The Three Gypsies and written for the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi; a 15 minute Grand duo concertant on Lafont's “Le marin”; and a few other shorter works. A total of 70 minutes of highly enjoyable and tuneful music, all entirely unknown to me until this week. Another reason to give thanks to companies such as Naxos.

The music is performed by Voytek Proniewicz and Wojciech Waleczek, hardly names that trip off the tongue. Difficult to judge how well they do, having no competition and playing music I did not know at all. But they make enjoyable sounds and are well balanced and well recorded. An excellent addition to repertoire of likeable music for violin and piano.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little has never been a violinist who has featured high in my Pantheon of violinists. I bought a CD of hers years ago, featuring short bits and pieces for violin (the sort of music I love). Such pieces are difficult to play so as to hold the listener's attention, since they demand the kind of variety of bow strokes, dynamics, rubato and vibrato that modern violinists all too often lack. So Tasmin went into the “OK” bin after one hearing.

I bought a new Chandos recording featuring her and Martin Roscoe (piano) because it contained two of my very favourite sonatas for violin and piano: the sonata by Guillaume Lekeu, and the first sonata by Gabriel Fauré. Lovely to have these two favourite works on one CD, and I have to say, I was impressed by the playing of both artists, and by the Chandos recording; too few recording companies balance violin and piano to my satisfaction. Ms Little plays with real passion, with real tenderness, and often with real bravura. She and Mr Roscoe get my three stars.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Renaud Capuçon, Khatia Buniatishvili, and César Franck

The sonata for violin and piano in A major by César Franck was written in 1886 as a wedding present for Eugène Ysaÿe. My groaning shelves currently contain no less than 55 different recordings of the work, the oldest (and perhaps greatest) being by Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot in 1923 (the pair re-recorded the work post-electric recording in 1929). Every violinist plays the work; even I, in my youth, played both the violin and the viola versions. Technically the violin part is not too virtuosic, though the piano part is often tricky.

It is important to remember the work's Franco-Belgian origins, since all too often this music of the high-Romantic era is beefed up by violinists and pianists so that it sounds almost Russian, Italian or German. Ysaÿe was a sophisticated violinist, and I immediately took to the suave, sophisticated sound of Renaud Capuçon on a brand new Erato CD. This, surely, is how Franck's violin part is meant to sound. I cannot fault Capuçon's sound or playing in this work, where he seems to be following in the august footsteps of the great Belgian Arthur Grumiaux, another suave and sophisticated player.

A big attraction of this CD for me, however, was to re-hear Khatia Buniatishvili in the piano part. The Franck sonata is very much a duo sonata (even if the violin part is somewhat the more important) and it benefits from a pianist of at least similar stature to the violinist (thus the historic success of Cortot and Thibaud, and Ferras and Barbizet). Buniatishvili did not disappoint; she has an extraordinary touch on the piano keyboard and I have mentally nicknamed her “velvet paws” for the sleek, purring sound she often obtains from her piano – not that she is reticent or limp-wristed, quite the contrary – but her sound is so distinctive (and she is also an excellent musician and partner, here). All in all, this makes for a truly memorable and enjoyable account of César Franck's somewhat over-played sonata. I'll come back to it with pleasure. And, a plus, Erato has balanced the violin and piano parts as they should be balanced (for these works).

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Mozart's K. 516

A surprisingly large number of musical works that are still very special to me date from my teenage years. These include: Sibelius' 6th symphony, Mahler's 4th, Beethoven's 6th, Tchaikovsky's 6th, Brahms' 4th, Bruckner's 9th, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, Schubert's last B flat major piano sonata, Schubert's Die Winterreise, Elgar's violin concerto, Bach's Mass in B minor ... and Mozart's string quintet in G minor K. 516.

The Mozart quintet has always seemed to me to be a very personal demonstration of why Mozart was a genius. The quintet is not written to impress; it is personal and written by someone who could just pour out really great music. In my early youth the work was on an old Pye-Nixa LP played by the Amadeus Quartet, with Cecil Aronowitz. Listening yesterday, it was played by the Grumiaux Trio, augmented by an additional violinist and viola player. The Grumiaux version was recorded by Philips in 1973 and, after the first two notes, I am basking in a meeting with an old, old friend. I am also enjoying finding the old friend being introduced by Arthur Grumiaux; who needs alternative versions?

It is sad that, in much of the Western world, young people and teenagers are no longer exposed to any significant quantities of “classical” music. Music you get to love when you are young stays with you for life. After 60 years, Mozart's K. 516 still enthrals me.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Stravinsky, and Yevgeny Kutik

Over the past 60 years of my music listening, Stravinsky's music seems to have faded slowly in popularity, no longer frequently programmed, no longer frequently recorded. In the 1950s and 60s I lapped up Firebird, Petrouchka, Rite, Symphony of Psalms, Soldier's Tale … and even the more obscure ballets of Agon and Threni. Nowadays Firebird and Petrouchka still get aired; but not much else from Igor with his instinct for commercially acceptable, fashionable avant-garde music. I greatly enjoyed a disc of wayside music for violin and piano played by one Yevgeny Kutik (very ably accompanied by Timoth Bozarth, and well recorded by the Marquis label). Kutik has a ripe sound and style reminiscent often of the wailing Jewish and gypsy sounds from eastern Europe (in fact, Kutik's sound often reminded my of the late, great Mischa Elman). On a new CD, Kutik treats us to ephemeral pieces by Eshpai, Prokofiev, Anton Rubinstein, Stravinsky, Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and a couple of east European locals. The CD is doubly welcome for avoiding the usual hackneyed short pieces. Stravinsky's Divertimento (cobbled together by Stravinsky and Samuel Dushkin from the ballet Baiser de la Fée in order to raise a few dollars) does not impress; OK, it's “Russian”, in the sense that Stravinsky was ever any particular nationality. But the acerbic Divertimento sounds thin beside the Russian lushness of Tchaikovsky, Eshpai, Rubinstein, et al. Could Kutik not have found some more congenial Russian morceaux that suited his playing better?

Anyway, this is an enjoyable CD, and the Stravinsky can always be skipped by the choosey (like me).

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Lupu, Pires and Schubert

A correspondent chides me gently for seemingly loving every music recording I listen to. Not true actually; it's just that I usually gloss over the recordings that leave me cold or indifferent. It often seems a bit unfair to criticise hard-working professional musicians on the grounds I didn't like their results.

Recently I purchased two recordings of one of my primary works: Schubert's B flat major sonata D 960. I am now the proud possessor of 17 different versions of this incredible and multi-faceted piano sonata. I bought a new version by Klara Würtz, a pianist I much admired in her duo playing with Kristof Barati in the Beethoven and Brahms violin & piano sonatas. Her performance of the Schubert was good, but competition is very stiff in this work, and this OK performance is not one I'll be returning to often. A little disappointed, I decided to acquire the famous 1991 recording by the almost mythical Radu Lupu, a performance very highly praised by many. I listened to it once, and was puzzled that, for once, Schubert's music was not gripping me as usual. So I pressed replay and listened again. Still no buzz. So I put on the recent recording by Maria Pires ... and was back in the familiar and wonderful world of Schubert's last sonata. After nearly two hours of the B flat major sonata played three times in succession, my neighbours must have been becoming agitated.

When one listens to Lupu's phenomenal playing in the sonata, it's mainly about Lupu and less about Schubert. Pires plays the music simply, doubtless with her art concealing art. With the Pires performance, one listens to Schubert. With the Lupu performance, one listens to Lupu. I am becoming a real fan of Pires's piano playing.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Leonid Borisovich Kogan

Leonid Borisovich Kogan was one of Russia's pre-eminent violinists during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He died in 1982 at the early age of 58, still playing and still teaching (in Moscow). A confirmed communist all his life, and apparently a somewhat unlikeable character, his place in the affections of the Western musical and political world was far behind that of his gregarious and generous colleague, David Oistrakh. Even today, over 30 years after Kogan's death, Oistrakh is still talked of fondly; Kogan rarely.

Kogan left many recordings, most of them – sadly – no longer available, and all too few of them in good sound. It was brave and praiseworthy of a new transfer label, Amare, to re-issue Kogan's 1959 recording of the Beethoven violin concerto, with the Paris Conservatoire orchestra conducted by Constantin Silvestri. Even though I had this recording already (EMI) I bought it to evaluate the transfer. The sound on the Amare CD is better than the EMI, especially – and most importantly – as regards the sound of Kogan's violin. I liked this performance very much indeed; it is somewhat leisurely, but Kogan impresses mightily throughout. The Paris orchestra with Silvestri is something of a “B” team in Beethoven; a long way from Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. The CD is exceptional because of Kogan, and this is a Beethoven violin concerto recording I shall be replaying mainly to rejoice in the playing of the violin part.

Kogan was highly impressive in the concerto works of Paganini, Khachaturian, Lalo, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Beethoven. His Paganini first concerto, and Tchaikovsky violin concerto, are in the top half dozen or so performances of all recorded time. Let us hope that Amare, or others, will be bringing back the best of Kogan. I have amassed a very large collection of Kogan recordings over the years, but welcome anyone who can improve the often highly imperfect original sounds that date from the 1940s, 50s and 60s (in the main, though Kogan was recording right up until 1981).

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Tosca - Again

I wrote two days ago about my admiration for the 1953 Tosca recording (Callas, et al). What I did not mention then was my disappointment in the sound of the EMI CDs. Originally I had this recording on LPs, buying the CD transfers some time later. But the sound on the EMI CDs is often harsh, and often congested. However, I like this recording of Tosca so much that I upped and invested €18 in a download of an alternative transfer, from Pristine Audio. Best €18 I've spent for a long, long time. Even considering its 1953 mono origin, the Pristine transfer can be listened to without qualms and without wincing, with none of the stridency and congestion that featured on the EMI version. Many thanks again, Pristine.

EMI has now been taken over by Warner, and that company has re-released all the Callas recordings in “new transfers, 200-bit, 12-times re-sampling”, or whatever. Given the number of CDs involved (69) and the company, one suspects nothing will have improved. Restoring the sound of old recordings is a complex art that takes time and expertise. Most of the large companies simply adopt a batch-processing, mass production approach to transferring to CD, with the often lamentable results one witnessed from companies such as EMI, RCA, BMG, RussianDisc, Arlecchino, etc. Companies such as Naxos, Dutton, Pristine and others came along and, even without access to the original tapes or 78 masters, were able to work on the sound and produce results far in advance of those of the big companies. No excuse, big companies: you have the master tapes, you no longer have the burden of royalty or fee payments to the likes of Puccini, Callas, de Sabata, et al, you have 60 years of sales revenue; why not invest a little time, effort and money to secure a further 60 years of sales revenue? Alas: the little money that is spent by the big companies goes on re-packaging, PR, sales promotion, advertising, not on meticulous transfer projects. EMI, in its last independent months, did release a number of “SACD” transfers of classics from the 1950s and 60s; I bought the Klemperer/Mozart discs, and the Schuricht/Bruckner, and the results were excellent; so it can be done, with a little effort and technical investment.

Monday, 20 October 2014


Lots of silly people make lists of “best” and “biggest”, etc. I remember some young music journalist solemnly opining that the “greatest composer of the 20th century” was ... Igor Stravinsky! Bizarre. But no one's list starts with Giacomo Puccini, and that is a shame since the composer of La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot left an indelible and probably permanent impression on the music of the 20th century.

This evening I listened to Tosca, with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano; Victor de Sabata conducted the 1953 classic recording (made in mono). Not too many recordings can be classified as definitive but this, I have always felt, is one. Not a weak spot anywhere. I only saw Tosca once in the theatre (oddly enough, in the Kremlin Theatre in Moscow in the 1970s). But it's an opera for eternity that is always a deeply emotional experience.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Maria Pires in Beethoven

I am not an uncritical admirer of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. On occasions, his “rustic rudeness” seems to me to be somewhat false, and to be imposed from the outside rather than coming from inside the music. That being said, there is much music of Beethoven's that I love dearly, including many of the piano sonatas, sonatas for violin and piano, string quartets ... and the fourth piano concerto. I grew up with the fourth concerto in the 1950s played by Claudio Arrau. Although it is a work I know intimately, I was considerably impressed with a new recording where Maria Pires is partnered by Daniel Harding and the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra.

It is something of a shock to discover that Pires is now 70 years old. She is a pianist whose stature seems to have grown and grown, and I recently enthused over her Schubert sonatas. To listen to, Pires reminds me of the late Clara Haskil; the same (deceptive) simplicity, the same avoidance of personal Lang Lang -type hyping. When Pires is playing, we listen to Beethoven's music; end of story.

I liked this CD a lot, not least because Daniel Harding and the Stockholm players make a real contribution to the performance. Too often with symphony orchestras playing concertos, the orchestra is stuffed with stand-in or substitute players, and some worthy and trustworthy conductor is put in charge of keeping pace with the soloist. In these two Beethoven piano concertos (the CD also contains the third concerto, a work I like less) pianist and orchestra really play in partnership; this comes to the fore especially in the imaginative slow movement of the fourth concerto where Pires's playing tames the savage orchestral beast in a way that would probably have greatly moved Beethoven himself. The Onyx recording is good and well-balanced so this now becomes my definitive version of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto. Anyone want my other 13 versions of this wonderful work? I'll hang on to Clara Haskil, however.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Jennifer Pike Impresses

In 2002 at the age of 12, Jennifer Pike won the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest. She later became a BBC New Generation Artist. Her new recording comes from Chandos, a British company. All this is enough to make me wary; the “home town boy” (or girl) phenomenon is well known, but top prowess in playing the violin, the piano, the cello, etc. is a highly competitive international arena. Who has ever heard of “New Zealand's greatest violinist”?

But swayed by the repertoire on Miss Pike's CD (the four Suk pieces, the four Dvorak Romantic Pieces, the Janacek sonata, plus a few bits and pieces); and a couple of highly favourable critical reviews; and the fact I could get the CD very cheaply from an Amazon re-seller in Seattle (!): I bought the CD. And I am very glad I did. It turns out Miss Pike is not just a British star but that she stands up internationally to the best of the new breed of violinists in their 20s. Her playing reminds me a bit of Nathan Milstein: impeccable technique, first-class musicianship, lovely sound (but not excessively so). Her 1708 Matteo Goffriller violin sounds just right for her, and her duo partner, Tom Poster, impresses. Finally, the Chandos sound and balance are both first-rate. A CD I'll keep out and near my player, and I look forward to more from Jennifer Pike (providing it's not Bruch, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Sibelius, Ravel sonata, Franck sonata and all such works that everyone and his dog has recorded).

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Max Bruch. Jack Liebeck

Poor old Max Bruch. He sold the rights to his hugely popular first violin concerto to a music publisher, so never received any royalties even when the work took off and was played by pretty well everyone. He spent the rest of his life trying for another “hit” but never succeeded. The second violin concerto is in no way as good as the first, and the third concerto is a pretty routine affair. About the only other work by Bruch that still receives a regular airing is his highly likeable and echt romantic Scottish Fantasy for violin (and harp) and orchestra.

The Scottish Fantasy was a favourite work of Jascha Heifetz; written for Sarasate, the work suited Heifetz's suave and sophisticated playing like a glove. In performance Heifetz usually got through the work in around 25 minutes, helped by flowing tempi and a few cuts in the score. In a new recording, the greatly talented Jack Liebeck takes 31 minutes, with broader tempi, and no cuts. Liebeck's recording certainly does not supplant Heifetz, but it does enhance the work of Max Bruch since the orchestra makes a real contribution and Liebeck plays well and makes a nice sound; well recorded. Unfortunately, Hyperion completes Liebeck's CD with the dud third concerto; why did the company not substitute Karl Goldmark's far more interesting but rarely played violin concerto to make a really desirable disc?

Jonas Kaufmann and Die Winterreise

As a frequently lovelorn teenager, I lapped up Schubert's Die Winterreise song cycle. I had the cycle on two LPs (fourth side blank) sung by Hans Hotter, with Gerald Moore and I still have the school exercise book in which I copied the texts of all 24 songs so I could learn the words of Wilhelm Müller's poems. The Hotter version was complemented later with Fischer-Dieskau (of course) and, for a time, with Brigitte Fassbaender. Swayed by some ecstatic reviews, I recently bought a new version of the cycle, with Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch, slightly sceptical that an operatic tenor could supplant Hotter or Fischer-Dieskau in my affections.

But the bass and the baritone are supplanted: Kaufmann is superb in this cycle bringing an ardour and a freshness to the music. Hotter had always seemed to me a bit gruff in parts of this music, and Fischer-Dieskau “too smooth by half”, to use an expression of my mother. And Helmut Deutsch's piano is greatly superior, in my view, to Gerald Moore's somewhat subservient contribution. From now on, for Winterreise it will be Kaufmann. I also have the version by Matthias Goerne, somewhere or other, but I find that Kaufmann's tenor voice more immediately conveys the anguish of disappointed young love.

The 40 years encompassing the final years of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert saw an astonishing flood of really great music from the three composers in their final years in Vienna. Die Winterreise is one of music's truly great experiences and the variety of moods, tonality and emotions contained within the 24 songs lasting around 70 minutes is quite extraordinary and unprecedented. Had Schubert lived …. But what could he have done to follow Die Winterreise, the last quartets and the final piano sonatas?

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Kristof Barati and Klara Würtz in Brahms

Pretty well every violinist has played the three violin and piano sonatas of Johannes Brahms; and seemingly hundreds have also recorded them (since the three fit nicely on to one CD). Success (for me) means: good, classic tempi for all ten movements; a good-sounding violin (there are many lyrical and romantic passages); a true duo partnership with an equal-status pianist; a well-balanced recording; a sense of style. All of these attributes are met, for me, in a new recording by the duo of Kristof Barati and Klara Würtz. I would characterise the approach as “classic Central European” in the tradition of violinists such as Adolf Busch, Josef Suk and Wolfgang Schneiderhan. Some way away from the post-1950s tradition of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern or Pinchas Zukerman.

I will not be throwing away my pile of alternative versions (of which I have far too many, including the excellent recent Leonidas Kavakos with Yuja Wang). But the Barati-Würtz duo continues its superb track record that began with the complete violin and piano sonatas of Beethoven. Three stars for 64 minutes of happy and agreeable listening (Brilliant Classics).

Friday, 19 September 2014

Ariodante, and Handel Opera

Following eye surgery, I have been having a break from reading books or looking at screens, and have indulged myself in listening to long stretches of music. Over the past couple of days it has been Handel operas and, mainly at random, I picked Ariodante off the shelf. Three hours of truly first class music. Not only was Handel a superb melodist, he also – unlike most of his rivals – wrote “accompaniments” to the arias that show just what can be done with a few strings, an oboe, a couple of horns and bassoons. Listening without a libretto, I discovered what I have always suspected: pace the critics, one can enjoy 18th century opera perfectly well just listening to the music and with no idea whatsoever of a “plot” (that is usually perfectly ridiculous). Listening to Ariodante, entranced by the music, I had no idea of the story line and it was only when Ariodante sang “io, tradito” that I realised Ariodante was a man, despite being sung here by a mezzo soprano. The king could do his nut, and someone else could be weeping some loss or another; but I just listened on regardless. With me, it is a case of prima la musica, e poi … not much else. Either Handel, or Nicholas McGegan in the performance I listened to, had cut out much of the recitative. Critics fulminate against cuts in recitative in 18th century opera “because it renders much of the story unclear”. I welcome a few recitatives as a means of breaking up the procession of arias and ariosos, and that is all. After nearly 300 years, people are not still listening with pleasure to operas by the likes of Scarlatti, Vivaldi or Handel because of the libretti.

The recording I listened to was made at the time of the 1993 Göttingen Handel Festival and was conducted by Nicolas McGegan. Orchestra was the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and soloists – good, in the main – included Lorraine Hunt and Lisa Saffer. Lorraine Hunt's singing of “Scherza infida” moved me greatly thanks to her singing, the melody, and Handel's miraculous accompaniment; this is one of Handel's -- and thus the music world's -- really great arias. A most satisfactory three hours.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Joyce DiDonato, and vocal music post 1900

Joyce DiDonato's new CD (“Stella di Napoli”) reminds us just how much music is still pretty well unknown. We hear attractive arias from the likes of Giovanni Pacini, Michele Carafa, Saverio Mercadante and Carlo Valentini along with music from the more familiar Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini. To entrance us, a good aria needs a fine librettist (to write the words), a talented composer (to compose music for the words) and a superb singer (to sing the words and the music). Joyce DiDonato is a singer who really enters into what she is singing, and is able to convey the feelings behind the words being sung even if you don't follow the language. A very fine CD indeed; entrancing music, expertly sung.

Listening to the 10 arias on the CD, one cannot help but wonder what has happened to operatic music post-1900. From Italy from the very beginning of the eighteenth century onwards, vocal music poured out from a multitude of talented composer, from Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Porpora onwards until Verdi and Puccini and then: nothing of note. It was a similar tale in Germany, where vocal music poured forth from the end of the seventeenth century onwards and then: Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler and afterwards very little, with the honourable exception of Richard Strauss.

In 50 years time, will one of DiDonato's grandchildren give us a CD of moving vocal music by Dallapicolla, Nono, Schönberg and Stockhausen? I somewhat doubt it. Twentieth century composers whose music looks like surviving long term include Sibelius, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten (maybe). Not many Italians or Germans. However, a new Great Age might dawn, one day.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Christian Tetzlaff in Shostakovich

David Oistrakh remarked that Shostakovich's two violin concertos are completely and utterly different from each other. The first – that has become extremely popular – has heavy doses of pessimism and raw emotion. The second, a very late work, has a mainly meditative quality that only gets through to listeners after many hearings. I have loved the first concerto for many decades and currently have no less than 44 different recordings of it. I have nine recordings of the less often recorded second concerto. There are few unsatisfactory recordings amongst my 44 of the first concerto (maybe only Michael Erxleben because of some wildly slow tempi) but Lisa Batiashvili, Vadim Repin, James Ehnes, Leila Josefowicz, Alexei Michlin and Maxim Vengerov all stand out and received three stars from me.

As an admirer of Christian Tetzlaff I snapped up his new Ondine CD of the two Shostakovich violin concertos. It is a magnificent CD and I am very happy. I like Tetzlaff's playing; slightly less emotional than some, and more akin to James Ehnes in the first concerto. I like the sound of Tetzlaff's marvellous violin (Peter Greiner, a modern German maker) with its even temperament over all four strings with equal strength of sound from lowest G to highest E; the sound of this violin matches Tetzlaff's playing ideally, and it is difficult to imagine him with a different fiddle under his chin. The orchestra (Helsinki Philharmonic) makes a major contribution, and confirms my feeling that many less well-known orchestras play better in concerto recordings than do their more famous colleagues (often packed with substitutes for concerto accompaniments). The Ondine recording is superbly balanced and recorded, with an ideal relationship between violin and orchestra. Tetzlaff's playing in the scherzo of the first concerto is less demonic than some, but he and the orchestra handle the great passacaglia third movement very movingly, and Tetzlaff's silences during the cadenza of the first concerto are extremely effective. I think that Tetzlaff judges the tempo of the long first movement (Notturno) of the first concerto ideally; taken too slowly, it can drag. Throughout both works, his pianissimi are a pleasure to hear (and well captured by the recording, at least when listening through good headphones).

This performances of the first concerto joins others at the top of my list, with the second concerto going right to the top in a less competitive line-up. Bravo Tetzlaff, Helsinki Philharmonic, John Storgards (the conductor) and the Ondine recording team.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Humble Pig

In the 1940s and 50s when I was young, my mother would sometimes acquire a pig's head (leaving the rest of the animal to roam free in organic meadows, no doubt), scoop out the interior of the head and stew it up with a few herbs (parsley, etc) as well as a couple of pig's trotters (for the jelly). The resulting meat would be left to cool into a jelly, then we would all eat: brawn! On a visit to Canada to see one of her daughters long ago, my mother went with the family to the local farmer where “a whole pig” had been ordered. My mother was scandalised that the head was not included, and demanded the head. A head was found, and my mother brought it home in triumph. My brother-in-law suggested putting it on a pole in the garden, but my mother ordered him into the kitchen with it and demanded that he open up the head by cutting it in half. An hour later, my frustrated brother-in-law resorted to a chain saw, with disastrous results on the surrounding walls, floor and ceiling. But brawn was made.

Brawn is more or less extinct in a world of hamburgers, pizzas and chicken McNuggets but is still around in Germany (Sülze) and France (frommage de tête). After decades of pining for brawn, I discovered (via an Internet search) that it was sold at just one of my local supermarkets (Morrison's). I bought some yesterday. It was cheap, and very high quality (an extremely rare combination of adjectives). We owe a lot to the humble pig: brawn, pigs' trotters, boiled ham, cured ham, smoked ham, bacon, pork sausage, roast pork, pork hock, pork chops, andouillette, pork pie, roast belly of pork, boiled gammon, pork pâté ... Every morning I give thanks that I am not a Moslem, Jew or vegetarian. They don't know what they are missing. A plate of nut cutlets is simply no substitute for a good chunk of brawn with bread, red wine and cornichons. Now I have re-started my brawn eating and have found a local source, there will be no stopping me.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Igor Levit plays Bach

A good-hearted friend sent me a new recording of Igor Levit playing the six Bach keyboard partitas. It makes a lovely present. In Bach's partitas for keyboard, you often get the impression of Johann Sebastian sitting writing music and simply communicating with his muse. In the fourth partita, for example, a simple Allemande dance wanders for around 11 minutes, and the final Gigue indulges in complex fugato and counterpoint. Many of the movements in the partitas are (relatively) simple dances, but many are extensive workings of complex pieces of music. The fourth and sixth partitas, in particular, have some pretty long movements (for a dance suite).

When Igor Levit is playing the partitas, one gets the impression of a pianist sitting alone, communing with Bach. No thought of historical reconstruction of how the music may have sounded in 1726; no thoughts of a jury at a piano competition judging the playing; no thoughts of impressing the listeners with breathtaking pianism. Just Igor and Johann Sebastian, talking together.

It is difficult to explain why I, like pretty well everyone else for the past 200 years, consider Bach to be “the greatest”. How to explain it? Handel, Mozart and Schubert can usually boast more memorable tunes than can Bach; not many errand boys whistle Bach while they go to work. Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert can communicate a far wider range of emotions than can Bach. So if Bach's music is not especially rich in melody or in emotions; why is it thought great? I cannot explain it except to say that, listening to these six keyboard partitas, I am conscious of my emotions and my head being equally engaged. Like Igor Levit, Bach rarely strives for effect, or to wow his audience. Bach draws us into his complex web of music. And Levit draws us into Bach.

Igor Levit is a major figure in modern pianism. After his extraordinary Beethoven and Bach, I sincerely hope he goes on to give us his view on the later Schubert piano works. And all praise to Sony Classical. Not many record labels would give an unknown pianist in his 20s a début recording of two hours of late Beethoven, followed by a second recording of two hours of relatively personal Bach works. Igor Levit comes from Russia (don't they all) but moved to Germany when he was eight and currently lives in Hanover. At the moment, based on listening to him in two hours of late Beethoven, and two hours of Bach, I would put him in the same pianistic category as Sviatoslav Richter, Edwin Fischer, and Alfred Cortot. Very high praise.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

In Praise of Oscar Shumsky

As I have often remarked in this blog, playing the music of Fritz Kreisler is no easy matter, and very few of those who tackle the pieces come anywhere near Kreisler himself. Two violinists who did come somewhere near Kreisler were Joseph Gingold and Oscar Shumsky, both of whom were friends and admirers of the great man. Gingold, like other masters of the violin such as David Nadien, recorded very little. In the America of much of that period, if you did not have a contract with CBS or RCA you did not make records (unless, like Aaron Rosand, Menuhin, Milstein and others, you had contacts with record companies in Europe). Oscar Shumsky was born in Chicago in 1917 to Russian parents, and his teachers included Leopold Auer and Efrem Zimbalist. We are fortunate that, in his sixties and with his technique unimpaired, Shumsky decided to return to the concert platform and to make recordings. There followed a glorious golden autumn of the complete Mozart violin & piano sonatas, the complete Bach works for unaccompanied violin, the complete Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dances, the six sonatas for solo violin by Eugène Ysaÿe, all 24 of the caprices of Pierre Rode, and much more, including four CDs of the music and arrangements of Kreisler. No record company of the time was going to invest in an unknown 60 year old violinist, so Shumsky's recordings were mainly from little-known companies and, where appropriate, with very junior conductors and orchestras. I saw Shumsky once, playing the Beethoven violin concerto in London with Simon Rattle conducting, around 1987 when Shumsky would have been 70 years old. I remember an impeccable technique, a wonderful sound, playing that focussed on the music rather than on the performer, and a calm, unruffled platform manner that made Jascha Heifetz seem like an extrovert. Shumsky went on to record the concerto with the Philharmonia in 1988.

Listening to Shumsky playing Kreisler yesterday evening (a 1983 recording) was a rare treat. I had not heard the CDs for many years and I lapped up the exquisite playing, the intimate rapport with the music, the wonderful sound of Shumsky's Stradivari violin, the dedicated intelligence of the playing, the miraculous technical adroitness and variety of dynamics and bowing. Here was a real master violinist at work, and Leopold Auer would have been proud of him. It is a real shame that so little was recorded by Shumsky during most of his lifetime, but a true bonus that – unlike Joseph Gingold or David Nadien – he did get to record much of his favourite repertoire later in his life. Most of his recordings from the 1980s have been reissued by Nimbus, thank goodness. So Shumsky's playing lives on. He died in 2000 at the age of 83.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Arabella Steinbacher plays Mozart

Technically, the violin concertos of Mozart are not difficult to play. Interpretatively, however, they pose problems and many violinists fail to satisfy. The music demands what I would term “sophisticated simplicity” and that is hard to find. Two superb exponents of the music in the past were Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Grumiaux, both masters of sophisticated simplicity. I was sceptical when I saw Arabella Steinbacher had recorded the third, fourth and fifth concertos (Pentatone) and held off buying. Miss Steinbacher has often perturbed me with her “oh-so-beautiful” style of violin playing, as well as with her somewhat languid tempos (at the most extreme in the lovely slow movement of the Korngold violin concerto, where she almost came to a standstill). I relented in the end and bought the CD, swayed by several very complimentary reviews, the fact that Pentatone recordings are usually excellent, and the chance to buy the CD at a very modest price from an Amazon re-seller.

I am glad I relented; this is an excellent CD. Miss Steinbacher plays very stylishly and I had no problem with her tempos for any of the nine movements of the three concertos. The Pentatone recording is excellent, as expected, with exemplary balance between soloist and orchestra. The orchestra, the Festival Strings Lucerne led by its leader, Daniel Dodds, does all one could hope for. Arabella Steinbacher seems to have recorded almost everything ever written for the violin, but nothing so far she has recorded has impressed me as much as the current CD.

Monday, 4 August 2014


I first came across music critics around 1953-4 when I began to read every issue of the Gramophone magazine. Over the decades I have often been well informed by music critics, and quite often led astray by someone's misplaced enthusiasm. The first time this happened was in the 1950s when a friend asked me to recommend a set of the Brahms symphonies; having just read a rapturous review in the Gramophone, I recommended a new Pye-Nixa set from Adrian Boult … little realising that the reviewer, Trevor Harvey, was an acolyte of Sir Adrian and thought the sun shone out of Boult and everything he did. My friend was disconcerted listening to the LPs he purchased on my recommendation (the recorded sound was pretty awful). And I marvelled at a recent review of a recording of Ysaÿe's six sonatas for solo violin where the critic (International Record Review?) began his critique by saying he had never heard of the works before receiving that CD for review and had no knowledge of any other version. So how much was his opinion worth?

Critics inevitably reflect all kinds of biases. One of the most common biases is to review for a publication dependent on major advertisers. Advertisers get preference (one reason I like reviews in the American Record Guide, a publication that does not accept advertising). Another common bias is to give priority to a known local artist where the critic may have been cajoled into good reviews by invitations to concerts and receptions over the years; don't bite the hand that feeds you. And yet another common bias is the wish to favour one's local tribe – fellow American, fellow Jew, fellow German, fellow Russian, etc.

One of my bêtes-noires with many critics is laziness. Given that any major classical work can probably boast around 100 recordings, of which a dozen may be excellent, the lazy critic always dives back to good-old standbys: “Oistrakh in 1965 remains the main choice …. in this work you have to have Karajan, 1969 … no need to look further than Grumiaux in 1971”, etc. Really good performances are reviewed every year, then forgotten by the time the next review of the same work comes around. Josef Spacek's account of Prokofiev's first violin & piano sonata was (deservedly) reviewed with enthusiasm by pretty well all critics but, by the time Alina Ibragimova's recording came out around a year later, Spacek was no longer mentioned by British critics, even though Ibragimova's recording is badly balanced and Spacek's performance is easily as good, and better recorded. But Ibragimova lives in England, and her recording company here (Hyperion) is British, whereas Spacek is a Czech, recording for a Czech company.

And, finally, we have fashion. The current fashion in the world of music criticism is to extol “original instrument” recordings and performances and to sniff at “old style” playing of music before 1900 or whatever. In the 1950s, critics sniffed at Furtwängler and praised Toscanini's frantic and dry recordings to the skies. Anything Yehudi Menuhin did was praised by British, French and German critics, even though the violin playing was often pretty bad.

After around 60 years of listening to music, I tend to know what I like. I do value the opinion of others, especially if I know their tastes and their track records. Commercial critics tend to get short shrift from me these days, unless many of them share the same enthusiasm for a particular performance or recording, in which case my interest perks up. Anyway, my blog certainly is not prejudiced. ???

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Maud Powell

Listening to old, acoustic recordings can be a labour of love, undertaken rarely for the sake of the music, and never for the sake of audio gratification. A friend ordered the four Naxos CDs of the complete recordings of Maud Powell twice, so he sent one set to me -- nearly five hours of recordings of nearly 70 tracks of music, none of the tracks lasting for more than 4 minutes and 50 seconds. The recordings date from 1904 to 1917 and were all made at the RCA Victor studios in America.

As was the case for Kreisler and Elman, both of whom were active in the same studios during these years, much of the music is pretty ephemeral: “Adoration” by Felix Borowski, “Silver Threads Among the Gold” by Hart Pease Danks, “Caprice on Dixie” by Dan Emmett, etc. Otherwise the same many short pieces popular during the period, with the strange exception of nothing at all by Fritz Kreisler. Unusually, de Bériot's 7th violin concerto is recorded “complete”, but with piano and many cuts to bring it down to 12 minutes and 55 seconds, or three 12 inch 78 rpm sides.

In the end, the only conceivable reason for listening to these five hours of music is to hear Maud Powell's violin playing. Born in 1867 in Illinois and a pupil of teachers who included Dancla in Paris and Joachim in Berlin, the recordings suggest a violinist of very considerable powers, including superb intonation, trills like they can never do nowadays, and a marvellously agile right arm. As was the fashion for most of her life, vibrato was used sparingly but effectively. Again, as was the fashion, portamenti are very common and do jar modern ears (one wonders why fanatics who insist on everyone playing “in the old style” don't insist on portamenti as well. But give them time ...). What comes over, above all, is the freshness, enthusiasm and vigour Maud Powell brought to her playing; none of the smooth, careful routine that we hear too often nowadays from many of the post-1950s violinists. What we cannot know, alas, is how her tempi relate to typical tempi nowadays. The tyranny of the 10 inch shellac side (three and a half minutes) or the 12 inch (four and a half) meant that until after the later 1940s, nearly everything had to be either speeded up, or cut back. Even played impossibly fast, Bazzini's Ronde des Lutins could never be done in 4 1/2 minutes, so it was always cut until after the later 1940s. Ms Powell plays many pieces here at a good lick, and Saint-Saën's Swan paddles past at top speed to get home in 2 minutes and 37 seconds and thus leave room for another piece on the same shellac side. Violinists, and lovers of violin playing, can learn a lot from these four Naxos CDs.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony

A number of great musical works were left unfinished for one reason or another, starting perhaps with Bach's Art of the Fugue (death) then Mozart's Requiem (death). Schubert's Unfinished symphony (plus many other of his works), Bruckner's Ninth symphony, Puccini's Turandot … and so on. Musicologists and others often attempt to complete such works or to flesh out skeletons such as Elgar's “Third” symphony, or Mahler's “Tenth”. Recently someone completed the finale to Bruckner's Ninth symphony (and Simon Rattle, for one, has recorded it). Bruckner wrestled for two years with this finale, before his death, and I can sort-of understand why: Bruckner's Ninth symphony does not need a finale (and Bruckner's finales were rarely high spots, anyway). The long adagio, so pregnant with feeling, makes a superb end to the symphony, and to Bruckner's opus.

Even after shedding many recordings, I am still left with a good number. In date order of recording: Furtwängler (1944), Horenstein (1952), van Beinum (1952), Knappertsbusch (1958), Schuricht (1961), Klemperer (1970), Horenstein (1970), Jochum (1978), Wand (1998), Haitink (2013) and, the latest acquisition, Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (2013). The recording I grew up with was the faithful old Vox LP of Jascha Horenstein in 1952. For me, still the greatest of all recordings of this work is Furtwängler in 1944 (remastered by Pristine Audio).

I loved Haitink's mellow 2013 performance, with its tranquil tempi; now I also love Abbado's mellow 2013 performance, also with tranquil tempi. Looking at the long first movement, Abbado takes 26'47”. Klemperer 26'43”. Haitink 27'31”. At the other end of the spectrum, Furtwängler takes 23'37”. Horenstein 24'51”. Jochum a fleet 23'06”. Far too slow for me is Giulini weighing in at 28 minutes; I could not take this, so I gave the CD away even though, of course, timings only tell part of the story. But Giulini manages to make the Adagio last 29'30” while pretty well everyone else does around 25'30”, like Furtwängler and Abbado.

For me, Bruckner's Ninth is one of the world's great symphonies and I would never be without it. It is not music for young conductors. My last three forays into purchase have been Jochum, Haitink and Abbado and I would not be without any of them, perhaps especially the new Abbado with its superb recording and terrific orchestral playing from the 2013 Lucerne Festival Orchestra. But the emotionally-charged Furtwängler public performance from 1944 remains hors concours.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Brahms with Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang

After around 60 years of listening, I am pretty over-familiar with the three violin and piano sonatas of Johannes Brahms. Superb music it may be; but I know it back to front and inside out so I am rarely in the market for any new recorded version. I made an exception for the new CD by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang; I have liked and admired Kavakos for over two decades, and I was curious to hear what Miss Wang made of the piano side of the duo sonatas. No regrets; this is a first class performance of the three works.

Kavakos plays as if meeting an old friend, with a great deal of affection. Yuja Wang plays as if she is enthusiastically exploring a new friend, and revelling in her role as duo partner. The violin seizes the listener's attention; the lucid piano playing seizes attention. Both players sound as if they are enjoying playing together. Very high level stuff.

The recording is interesting. The Hamburg studio has put the violin firmly and pretty exclusively in the left-hand channel, and Miss Wang pretty exclusively in the right-hand. The result is that one hears every note of the piano part, and every note of the violin part. Very well done, and I marvelled at the excellent balance. Leonidas Kavakos is a known quantity in the violin classics, but Yuja Wang is more often heard in Rachmaninov, Chopin, etc. Miss Wang seems to love her new duo sonata role, and I hope she explores more of it. I wrote recently about Tianwa Yang and Xiayin Wang, the highly talented young Chinese of the new generation. Should have been Wang, Yang and Wang because Xiayin, Tianwa and Yuja are really top international class musicians.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Hyperion Records

I suspect it is mainly the result of advances in recording technology and in the explosion of recording companies, but the present day witnesses a veritable explosion in the number of top-class young musicians. Thinking only of young violinists, there are: Tianwa Yang. Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Janine Janson, Liza Ferchstmann, Lisa Batiashvili, Alina Ibragimova, Leila Josefowicz, Hilary Hahn. Vilde Frang, Fanny Clamagirand, Julia Fischer, Annebella Steinbacher, Baiba Skride. And that is just young female violinists I have heard and whom I can list off the top of my head. If we add males, then pianists ...

I have written enough of my admiration for the playing of Alina Ibragimova. Recently I compared her with Arthur Grumiaux in that, whatever she plays, it goes automatically into my Top Three of that particular work. So it is this weekend with her CD of the two Prokofiev violin and piano sonatas, plus Five Pieces. Pianist is Steven Osborne. Straight into the Top Three of all three works.

Instead, let us talk about the admirable Hyperion record company. Decades ago, when extracting a Hyperion CD from its carrier, the CD broke clean in two. I immediately emailed the company and requested a replacement. Within hours, I receive a reply email from the late Ted Perry, the label's originator and CEO, apologising and saying a replacement was in the post. A company that looks after its customers. The current Ibragimova CD has a tasteful cover (an abstract painting of a violin by Juan Gris). Opening the notes, the first thing one sees is a full-page photo of ..... Sergei Prokofiev. The following liner notes are interesting and well written. There follows a quarter page photo of Ibragimova and a quarter page photo of Osborne. A world away from the modern DG or Warner. The biography of Ibragimova is excellent in that it tells us when and where she was born (Russia, 1985) and who her teachers were following the Gnesen School in Moscow. The biography of Osborne is less interesting, with just a boilerplate listing of orchestras and colleagues with whom he has ever played; everyone seems to have more or less the same list.

I always listen critically to balance, particularly in recordings of violin and piano. Violins have a pretty slender sound, especially when playing softly. Pianos can often wake the dead. With the current CD, I started listening via my loudspeakers and was not happy; modern speakers tend to emphasise the bass and neglect the treble, and this spells trouble with a violin and a piano, and a composer such as Prokofiev (who liked lots of deep piano notes). I later switched to my Sennheiser wireless headphones, and the balance improved. I then ended up with my Philips cable headphones, and balance was better, but still too much piano and not enough violin.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Yang & Wang

My late night listening today was to two Chinese women in their 20s: Xiayin Wang (piano) and Tianwa Yang (violin). Miss Wang played Rachmaninov, and Miss Yang played arrangements by Sarasate. An enjoyable late-romantic feast.

Tianwa Yang captures to perfection the elegance and sophistication that Sarasate's music demands. Technically she is completely on top of this rather difficult music, that makes considerable demands on a violinist's bowing technique. More importantly, she is also on top of Sarasate's stylistic demands. This evening's CD was the last and final episode in Miss Yang's traversal of pretty well all Sarasate's music; I loved it.

Then on to Miss Wang. Rachmaninov's two piano sonatas do not sound easy to play, even to a non-pianist like me. In places, I could swear there were four hands at work, not just two (e.g., towards the end of the slow movement of the first sonata). I admired greatly Miss Wang's first Rachmaninov CD (which is why I bought the current one, the second Rachmaninov CD from this pianist). Xiayin does not disappoint; as I remarked when talking about the first CD, she has power when power is needed, and delicacy when delicacy is needed. And she has technique to burn (much needed, I sense, in these two piano sonatas).

Famously, Rachmaninov the composer was much sniffed at by the critics for much of the twentieth century for writing late-romantic music in an era when any composer worth his salt was writing abstract, twelve-tone concoctions much admired by critics, if not by players and listeners. History has proved Sergei right, and the critics wrong. After over a hundred years, Rachmaninov's music -- like that of Sarasate -- is still being played and enjoyed. As per me, this evening.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Alina Ibragimova. Arthur Grumiaux

The Gramophone magazine is holding its annual “artist of the year” voting contest, with ten candidates. This year three of the ten, unusually, are violinists: Leonidas Kavakos, Alina Ibragimova, and Renaud Capuçon. My vote went to Ibragimova, but I did hesitate a bit over Vasily Petrenko, the dynamic young Russian conductor.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, almost anything recorded by Arthur Grumiaux was a strong recommendation. The Belgian violinist did not like to travel so never achieved an international performing artist reputation. But the Dutch Philips company was more than willing to record him in any music he wanted to play, so we have a multitude of first-class recordings by him from that era, be it in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or the Franco-Belgian composers such as Franck, Vieuxtemps, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Debussy, etc. Grumiaux was primarily a supreme chamber music and duo sonata player, but this did not stop him from recording Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Lalo, etc. You can never go too wrong with a Grumiaux recording.

To my mind, Ibragimova holds a similar position in this century to Grumiaux's in the last. Her Bach sonata playing is supreme. Her Beethoven violin and piano sonata set is truly excellent, as is her Schubert. She excels in Lekeu, Ravel, Chausson, Debussy. She is also to be found promulgating Roslavets, Hartmann, Bartok, and Szymanowski. Promised for the near future are recordings of all the Prokofiev violin & piano works, plus the six solo sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe. Like Grumiaux, in the main, she seems to avoid the highly virtuoso repertoire of Paganini, Ernst, Wieniawski and Sarasate. Ms Ibragimova is a serious musician and, like Grumiaux, she has her own chamber music group (Chiaroscuro – “authentic”, alas). I have only heard her in person once, at a concert in Bath where she performed solo Bach sonatas and partitas, including a truly memorable performance of the Chaconne from the second partita. Her playing has been characterised as raw but sleek; wild but controlled. In Bach when I heard her, her violin whispered, and roared. The little blond Russian girl is a truly wonderful artist and violinist, which is why she gets my vote.

As a footnote to Arthur Grumiaux: Some years ago I obtained from a friend in South America a set of recordings of 44 short violin pieces played by “Heiftz” on a Korean label. Almost none of the pieces had ever been recorded by Jascha Heifetz, and a comparison of those that had, revealed that the “Heiftz” violinist was not Jascha (though superficially similar). A comparison of those short pieces by "Heiftz" that were also recorded for Philips by Grumiaux, strongly suggests that the Korean “Heiftz” was, in fact, Grumiaux (probably moonlighting under a pseudonym in return for some much-needed hard cash). Needless to say, all 44 pieces were played with Heifetzian aplomb.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Camille Saint-Saëns

The music of Camille Saint-Saëns is highly agreeable, well-crafted and often memorably tuneful. Apart from his “Organ” symphony and the Swan from the Carnival of the Animals, it seems to be rarely played or recorded at the present time. It was not always so: the Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, Havanaise and first violin and piano sonata were staple diet for Jascha Heifetz (who, mysteriously, never recorded any of the three violin concertos). One or two of the piano concertos turn up from time to time, as does the third violin concerto (but very rarely the second, which I find an odd situation). The second concerto is rarely recorded and even more rarely played in concert; it features on CDs of the complete Saint-Saëns violin concertos, and was memorably – if erratically – recorded by Ivry Gitlis in 1968, with some pretty weird vibrato in the slow movement. But one does not listen to Gitlis for orthodoxy.

Most unfair, but perhaps fashions will change. I had a mini- Saint-Saëns festival the other day, with pretty well all his music for violin and piano, and violin and orchestra played by Fanny Clamagirand (Naxos). Ms Clamagirand is no Heifetz or Kreisler, but she plays this music extremely well and with an authentic French accent (Saint-Saëns does not take well to the hectoring machismo that we hear too often in various accounts of the third concerto). There are many worse ways to while away a few hours than listening to the music of Camille Saint-Saëns! Like Fanny Clamagirand, Philippe Graffin has recorded all of Saint-Saëns' music for violin and piano, and violin and orchestra. On the whole, I prefer Graffin's leaner, more athletic style to that of Clamagirand. But we are lucky to have both.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony

Over the decades, a music lover will build up a “core” repertoire: works that are somehow special to him or to her, often without rhyme or reason or attempt to define “greatest” or “great”. Among many, two symphonies that have ended up firmly in my core repertoire are Sibelius's sixth symphony, and Tchaikovsky's sixth -- the Pathétique.

I first met the Pathétique long, long ago conducted by Toscanini, of all people. Followed by Cantelli and Furtwängler, then Evgeny Mravinsky, then Mikhail Pletnev. And I have now ended, happily, with Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra. Nothing quite equals Russians plunging wholeheartedly into Tchaikovsky. To me, the Pathétique is a marvellous work, full of contrasts, colour, supreme orchestration, heart-rending melodies, and gut-wrenching full-blooded emotions. Nothing quite like it! I wallow in it, with the greatest of pleasure, as I did this evening. With the volume turned well up (and the headphones firmly in place). No need, I suspect for further recorded versions; Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra are just fine for me.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Marc-André Hamelin

I've always had an on-off relationship with pianist composers such as Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Alkan and Scriabin. Not that I am ever anti-piano, but I do prefer the more human and personal sounds of string instruments. I can, however, be bowled over by really first class piano performances such as Gieseking in Debussy, Cortot in Chopin or Edwin Fischer in Bach, where superb musicianship and love of the music shines through. This weekend I was greatly impressed with an all-piano record played by Marc-André Hamelin on which he plays Janacek's On the Overgrown Path, plus Schumann's Waldszenen and Kinderszenen. Technically, the music sounds pretty simple and straightforward and is mainly far from being virtuoso stuff. But Hamelin's playing is entrancing; I never knew pianos could play so softly. I don't know the Schumann pieces very well (and the Janacek not at all, until now) so I cannot judge whether my impression that Hamelin plays some of the slower pieces too slowly is correct, or not. Anyway, a remarkable CD from a remarkable pianist; it is amazing just how many superb violinists and pianists come out of Canada, a country with a total population of only around 35 million people.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Good Weekend

Rather a good weekend, with Handel arias (Sandrine Piau) and mixed songs and lieder (same singer), plus Sarasate, plus Diana Damrau singing songs and lieder, all rounded off with Bernard Haitink conducting Bruckner (a magnificent 9th Symphony with the LSO). I love Sandrine Piau's voice; it is mellow and well-rounded, with none of the over-brightness or tendency to hardness that one finds in some sopranos. Food was veal escalope, asparagus, smelly French cheeses, apricot purée, fresh fruit salad (mainly peaches), lamb Rogan Josh, avocado pear, excellent 2010 Saint-Emilion wine. All together, not a bad weekend musically or gastronomically.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Smetana Trio and Shostakovich

There is a long list of first class French composers, from the nineteenth century onwards: Berlioz. Bizet. Saint-Saëns. Fauré. Ravel. Debussy. Franck (by adoption). Duparc. Chausson. The question is sometimes asked: “Who is the greatest French composer?” The answer, I suppose, is there really isn't one, in the sense of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, and so on. Listening this evening to Ravel's well-known and well-written Piano Trio in A minor, I chafed a little at so much compositional skill being applied to something that was, well, just extremely well-written. It reminded me a bit of the music of William Walton; very clever, but somehow divorced from human emotions. Moving on after a pause to Shostakovitch's Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, we enter an entirely different world, a world where the music speaks to us. We don't admire Shostakovitch's piano trio. We feel the emotions behind the music, and we live the music.

Superb executants of both trios (and including Shostakovitch's early first trio) was the Smetana Trio, recorded in Prague by entirely admirable Czech recording engineers at Supraphon. Piano trios are difficult to balance. But if you want to record a piano trio; go to Prague. And for a really great piano trio: Shostakovitch's E minor trio should be near the top of your list.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Busch Quartet and the late Beethoven Quartets: Pristine Audio

Pristine Audio (Andrew Rose) has brought out a 3-CD set of most of the late Beethoven string quartets (nos. 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16) along with the first Rasumovsky, number 7; played by the Busch String Quartet. I've had these recordings for over 30 years, originally on LP, then on CD. The GROC transfers from EMI were not bad, but Andrew Rose's are better, with more “air” around the slightly warmer sound. It is excellent to have these really great performances from the 1930s (with a couple of early 1940s) in the best possible transfers. The Busch late Beethoven quartet performances are legendary, with an intensity that is especially noticeable in the slow movements (for example, the long 17 minute adagio of the E flat quartet, Op 127). The refurbished sound on these transfers is so good, and the performances so authoritative that I have to wonder why I keep shelves full of alternative versions; when it comes to the late Beethoven quartets, why would I listen to anyone other than the Busch? The transfers from the European recordings of the earlier 1930s sound better than the two transfers from the American recordings of the earlier 1940s, for some reason. And, oh, why did the Busch Quartet never record the Grosse Fuge!

For me, the late Beethoven quartets occupy the very pinnacle of classical music (along with some of Bach's major works). I cannot imagine better performances of this great music. Now on to Busch's Bach, Mr Rose! The Brandenburg concertos, in particular, have a joy in music making that communicates itself over the 80 years or so since the recordings were made. Unfashionable Busch's Bach may be at the present time; but it is still great, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Magdalena Kozena / Deirdre Moynihan

It is not too often I buy compilation CDs (as opposed to recitals). However, as a long-term admirer of Magdalena Kozena I bought a two-CD set of her singing various music from Monteverdi to Ravel, via Czech folk songs. As befits this singer, everything is superb (though I wince a bit a some her singing in French). Over two hours of enjoyment.

When I was in my teens, Schubert's piano and string quartet music had been re-discovered. Mahler and Bruckner were emerging from oblivion. Handel was still considered mainly as the composer of The Messiah, Water Music, Fireworks Music and “Handel's Largo” (as if he only wrote one piece of music with that tempo indication). Antonio Vivaldi was an Italian who wrote The Four Seasons; and that was pretty much all. Vivaldi is now re-emerging as a composer of operas and cantatas, so I snapped up a new Naxos CD where, for 55 minutes, Deirdre Moynihan sings four highly interesting Vivaldi cantatas, with backing provided by the Ensemble Nota Velata (two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord).

The music is three star, but I really cannot take Ms Moynihan as recorded here. Her voice is bright, and recorded near the microphone where she sings at a relentless mezzo-forte. There is no “space” around the voice as recorded here, and after a few minutes it really gets on my nerves. The Ensemble Nota Velata has been warned that, to sound “authentic”, the strings have to eschew all vibrato, so they produce a dry, acidic backing. Senza vibrato may well have been how people played in those far-off days, but there is no need to avert one's gaze from advances in instrumental sound and technique that have occurred since. Violins played senza vibrato simply do not sound as attractive as violin playing warmed by a little vibrato. And if one wants to be historically correct, there was no question back in 1720 or whenever, of recording a concert and then playing it back twenty years or so later in one's own living room. We have, thank goodness, seen off “authentic” boy trebles as substitutes for sopranos. We have seen off sopranos singing with a “white”, vibrato-less sound. We have seen off harpsichords or forte-pianos thunking away at all keyboard music prior to around 1830. Hopefully, soon, the wind of fashion will change again and the acid baroque violin sound will be confined to the corridors of institutes of historical performance studies. On this Vivalidi CD, the band sounds like an econo-band beloved of music financial controllers (the same people who love eight part choruses sung “authentically” by four soloists). Agreed that Vivaldi did not envisage the Vienna Philharmonic as instrumental players for his cantatas. But give me any day something like the Venice Baroque Orchestra that accompanies Magdalena Kozena in many of the eighteenth century pieces in her compilation.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Volker Reinhold plays Sarasate

A commenter on this blog mentioned a Sarasate recital CD by Volker Reinhold, accompanied by Ralph Zedler. Since the CD contains 74 minutes of music comprising six opera fantasies by Sarasate, I snapped up the CD. Herr Reinhold appears to be 50 years old, lives and works in north-east Germany, and has a love of playing the music of Kreisler and Sarasate. This is apparently his début CD (Dabringhaus & Grimm).

A pleasant surprise from this totally unknown violinist (unknown to me, that is). He plays with taste, accuracy and obvious enjoyment. He is well accompanied, well recorded and balanced. The music is highly enjoyable. How does he compare with Tianwa Yang, who up until now has been “Miss Sarasate” and has also recorded all six pieces on the Reinhold CD? Well, Miss Yang has a little more nonchalance, where needed, and a little more joie de vivre, where needed. Compared with her, Herr Reinhold can sometimes sound a little solemn and straight-laced. But this is quibbling a bit, since the Dabringhaus CD has given me a great deal of pleasure. Pablo de Sarasate is holding his own in the affections of violinists and listeners after 130 years or so. And Herr Reinhold proves you do not need to have a big name and powerful PR backing to be a superb violinist and well worth listening to.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Tianwa Yang plays Eugène Ysaÿe

It has always seemed to me that Yehudi Menuhin endorsed each new violinist presented to him as “the most wonderful I have ever heard”. So, I am conscious, I do with each and every new recording of Eugène Ysaÿe's much recorded six sonatas for solo violin. Only recently I was enthusing over complete sets from Kristof Barati and from Tai Murray. Today I am enthusing over a brand-new complete set from Tianwa Yang, the phenomenal Chinese violinist. Miss Yang transitions well from Sarasate (her recent 10-hour traversal) to Eugène Ysaÿe. Replying to a critic of Jascha Heifetz's speed in a certain work, Leopold Auer is said to have retorted: “Ah, yes. But you listened to every note, did you not?” When Tianwa Yang plays Ysaÿe, I listen to every note, since there is so much variety in the sound coming from her 1729 Petrus Guarneri violin. It reminds you just how great a range of colour a violin can come up with, in the right hands.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Nemanja Radulovic

Even now, after 200 years, much of the music of Niccolò Paganini is tough going, technically. Most top class violinists can play the notes accurately, but there are still visible challenges, like the melody in double stops in the finale of the first concerto, played in harmonics. I seem to have amassed 45 recordings of Paganini's first concerto, going alphabetically from Vasco Abadjiev to Ion Voicu. My principal heroes in the piece are Leonid Kogan, Viktoria Mullova, and Michael Rabin. The latest addition, number 45, is Nemanja Radulovic accompanied by the Italian Radio Orchestra.

From the many contemporary accounts of Paganini's playing, not only was he an incredible technician, but also a major showman and mesmeriser. This came to mind listening to Radulovic, whose playing swoons, wows, slows, speeds, whispers, shouts and generally indulges in a fair degree of rubato, tempo changes and very wide changes in dynamics. Paganini would probably have considered it “authentic”; most other performances sound somewhat staid and bland compared with Radulovic, and the Italian orchestra accompanies with the kind of enthusiastic gusto Paganini probably imagined from the sounds of early 19th century Italian opera orchestras.

Radulovic had me listening to every note (except some of the pianissimos, that were pretty inaudible to me). Someone who can have me hanging on to every note for 37 minutes in a piece of music I know inside out, gets my vote; this is a performance to which I shall return many times. The CD also contains three caprices, plus other Paganini numbers, all played with quite incredible technical aplomb. I suspect I might feel differently about Radulovic in Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. But for Paganini: he's my man.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bernard Haitink in Bruckner

During the 1950s when I was exploring music, I acquired Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Ferrier) and 4th Symphony (Kletzki), as well as Bruckner's 9th Symphony (Horenstein). I still have all three recordings. That was the start of my love affair with the music of Mahler and Bruckner. Both composers were late 19th century Austrians (though Mahler was a bit younger) and both wrote more or less nine symphonies. Actually, there the resemblance ends, and my enthusiasm for Mahler waned over the decades, but the love of Bruckner grew. There is a nobility and sincerity about Bruckner's music that makes it eternal and deeply satisfying.

Jascha Horenstein was a sure guide in Bruckner's 9th (I still find his reading of the demonic scherzo the most demonic of them all) but his 1952 recording was a bit thin and weedy. Later came many more, including van Beinum, Furtwängler, Jochum, Klemperer, Knappertsbusch, Schuricht and Wand, with Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1944 performance perhaps being the greatest of the great. Bruckner needs good sound -- the only conceivable drawback to Furtwängler and Horenstein. He needs a really good conductor, one who can control the ebb and flow of the music, retain a true pulse, shape the phrasing and sculpt the dynamics; and avoid Thomas Beecham's jibe against Bruckner that he heard seven pregnancies and six miscarriages.

There are conductors who achieve many column inches in the media -- Bernstein, Barenboim, von Karajan, Dudhamel, Rattle, et al. And conductors who achieve quiet reputations among cognoscenti and orchestral players: Boult, Klemperer, Horenstein, Knappertsbusch, Wand -- and Bernard Haitink. My father, an orchestral player for most of his life, thought the world of Pierre Monteux. A neighbour of mine who was a prominent player in the Philharmonia in the 1970s when I lived in London, when asked by me which of the present conductors the Philharmonia preferred, replied succinctly: “We don't mind who conducts us, as long as it isn't Menuhin”. Orchestral players have their own hierarchies and most, I suspect, regard most conductors as unnecessary and often expensive hangers-on. But not, I suspect, when it comes to Bruckner symphonies that really need an overall controller to sort out those questions of pulse, tempo and dynamics. A conductor-less orchestra would be hard-pressed in Bruckner.

Tellingly, Bruckner is rarely the pasture where media-celebrity conductors shine. I was gripped and enthralled all over again by Bruckner's ninth symphony in a new recording (2013, live) from Bernard Haitink and the LSO. I frequently smiled during this performance as Haitink so expertly negotiated Bruckner's many tempo changes, seams and joints. The performance is leisurely, as befits a conductor in his 80s and, I would argue, Bruckner's music of the late 19th century Austria where everyone was in less of a hurry than nowadays. The LSO plays superbly here, and the recording is really first rate. What more does one want? Well, Furtwängler in 1944 does provide that little something extra, but one has to weigh the something extra against the inferior sound. I give both Furtwängler and Haitink three stars in this work and am really pleased to have added 2013 Haitink to my collection.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Adolf Busch

Adolf Georg Wilhelm Busch's life was blighted by history and politics – like so many of his generation. Born in Germany in 1891, by the time he was ready to launch his professional career, the Great War broke out. After the war, defeated Germany suffered poverty, hyper-inflation, then a massive economic collapse. The rise of National Socialism saw Busch leaving for self-imposed exile in Switzerland in 1933. He then eked out a career in the 1930s with teaching, concerts and with recording in England. With the arrival of the second world war, Busch left for America where, again, he eked out a living with teaching and a few concerts. His health suffered, and he died in exile in America in 1952 at the age of sixty one in frail health.

A highly interesting double CD set from the Swiss company Guild Historical reveals what a major violinist Busch was, in his prime. Berlin recordings from 1921-2, and 1928-9 show Busch as a violinist of real stature. His recording début had to wait until he was 29 years old, but the 1921-2 recordings show a violinist with a characteristic slashing right arm, exact intonation, exhilarating trills and a superb sense of rhythm; he is particularly admirable in the Brahms Hungarian dances on the CDs. In Bach, Busch is noble and authoritative, but it is particularly interesting to hear him in music he never again recorded (or was allowed to record) such as short pieces by Corelli, Dvorak, Brahms, Gossec, Kreisler and Schumann.

Violin classes at music conservatories could well start with in-depth listening to violinists such as Kreisler, Busch and Enescu – in particular, the use of bow strokes to articulate phrasing and rhythm. Post-1950, smooth, seamless bowing became the accepted fashion (David Oistrakh remarked how Yehudi Menuhin used lots of bow strokes, and Menuhin's teachers included Enescu and Busch).

The sound on these recordings from the 1920s is surprisingly good, and few allowances need to be made. The string quartet excerpts from 1922 suffer most; good for listening to Busch, but the other three merge into a mush far from the horn. The jump in quality when we reach 1928 is very noticeable. I enjoyed everything on these two CDs except, perhaps, Busch's rendition of Schumann's Träumerei (arranged by Hüllweck) which is very slow and with lavish portamenti that distract. Busch's blighted solo violin career was tragic for him – but also for us.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Shostakovich's Symphony No.14

When Shostakovich's 14th symphony saw the light of day in 1969, my three children were already present and smiling. So, for me, it's a somewhat recent work -- possibly the most “modern” work to have entered my listening repertoire. To my great shame, it's a work I had never heard until 30th March 2014; sad neglect on my part.

I bought the CD because I like Shostakovich, I like late Shostakovich, I like Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic, and I like Naxos's recordings and prices. No disappointment. I cannot judge the performance on the basis of only one known version (to me), but Petrenko, Gal James and Alexander Vinogradov seem to be thoroughly satisfactory in the eleven linked songs that constitute the 14th symphony. The Liverpool Phil, minus woodwind and brass, sounds very professional. Pretty gloomy music, and it would not really be appropriate for a Home for the Aged and Dying. But much Russian music is gloomy, as is much of the music of Dmitry Shostakovich. Tough. I enjoy the 14th symphony immensely and I like Petrenko, James and Vinogradov.

Fritz Kreisler and Jack Liebeck

It is said that Fritz Kreisler was the only violinist Jascha Heifetz admitted to admiring, and a photo of Kreisler always hung in Heifetz's house in California. Probably in recognition of Kreisler's unique tone and style, Heifetz seems to have avoided recording most of Kreisler's compositions, probably realising his performances would never be compared favourably with those of Kreisler himself.

Fritz Kreisler was born in Vienna in February 1875 and most of his compositions for violin date from the end of the nineteenth century and the very beginning of the twentieth. His earliest recordings date from 1904, when he was already 29 years old and in his violinistic prime. For over 100 years, Kreisler's compositions and arrangements have delighted violinists and listeners alike; they are all short, melodious, well written for violin and piano accompaniment, and reflect the fin de siécle world of late nineteenth century Vienna and Berlin. Technically, the pieces are usually not too challenging to play -- even I played most of them, in my time. But they were written to show off Kreisler's unique technique and tonal palette and it is notoriously difficult to approach, let alone equal, Kreisler's own recordings, the earliest of which, Caprice Viennois, dates from 1910.

I usually buy new recordings of the music of Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps and Sarasate -- and of Kreisler, though recordings of Kreisler pieces are often a disappointment. Not so a brand new CD from Jack Liebeck where, appropriately accompanied by Katya Apekisheva, he plays some 17 Kreisler compositions and arrangements over a period of nearly 69 minutes. Liebeck's style is not Kreisler's, but he is convincing in his 69 minute traversal, and he has an excellent feeling for rhythm and tempo, so important in this music. He ends with Kreisler's arrangement of Giuseppe Tartini's “Devil's Trill” sonata, thankfully played in true 20th century style without the museum approach advocated by modern fashion; I have always found Kreisler's cadenza in this work exemplary, and a moment I always anticipate with pleasure (as long as I do not have to play it myself). For Liebeck and partner, Hyperion provides a good, well-balanced recording, with neither instrument too forward. A rare treat.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Paganini's 24 Capricci

It takes a great violinist to hold a listener's attention through 60 minutes of solo violin playing. Although the violin has a wide palette of dynamics and effects, it takes a great violinist to manipulate all the levers. Paganini's 24 caprices are now, technically, almost bread and butter to conservatoire-trained violinists. To master their intricate technicalities is one thing; but a really good performance only comes when the violinist can brush aside the technical challenges and concentrate on the music and on exploring the various voices and colours of the violin.

This blog is becoming (temporarily) a bit of a James Ehnes fan club, but I have just been listening to him in Paga's 24 and was kept gripped until the end. I enjoyed Ehnes's rendition of the finger-twisting sixth caprice. And with Ehnes at the helm, the somewhat weird harmonies of the 8th caprice were just that, and not some violinist encountering intonation problems. And, pace many of the critics --- most of whom turn out to be pianists or choristers -- the 24 capricci are really well written and are attractive music in their own right, not just exercises to show off violin technique. They come into their own when played as music, not as exercises and it was this that so endeared James Ehnes's performance to me. Bravo.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Elgar's Violin Concerto

Much of the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Elgar and Mahler is filled with Angst; it was that period in musical history 1880-1920 when many things were in a turmoil. To my taste, there are two convincing ways of playing angst-rich music: either play it straight, on the grounds all the emotion is already written into the music. Or play it with heart-on-sleeve for all it is worth. In Mahler, take your choice between someone like like Haitink or Klemperer; or someone like Bernstein. In Rachmaninov, take your pick between someone like Rachmaninov himself, or extroverts such as Martha Argerich or Yuja Wang. In Tchaikovsky, the Pathétique Symphony used to please me when played fast and straight by Cantelli or Toscanini, but nowadays I go for heart-on-sleeve Pletnev or Gergiev.

In the Elgar violin concerto to which I have just been listening, those who like the music slobbered over can go with young Menuhin, or with Nigel Kennedy. Those who like the music left to speak for itself can go with Thomas Zehetmair or with James Ehnes, to whom I listened again with admiration yesterday evening.

I have 22 recordings of the Elgar concerto and none of them are bad; the only bad one I had, with Igor Oistrakh all at sea, was deleted from my collection long ago. Apart from the superb Zehetmair and Ehnes modern recordings, I also own recordings by Hugh Bean, Alfredo Campoli, Kyung-Wha Chung, Philippe Graffin, Ida Haendel, Hilary Hahn, Jascha Heifetz, Nai-Yuan Hu, Dong-Suk Kang, Nigel Kennedy, Isabelle van Keulen, Gidon Kremer, Simone Lamsma, Catherine Manoukian, Yehudi Menuhin, Albert Sammons, and Elena Urioste. Quite a line-up, and some surprises such as the impassioned performance by Gidon Kremer, or Kyung-Wha Chung expertly guided by Georg Solti who, for all his faults, was an exemplary no-nonsense Elgarian. My personal favourite reading of all time is Albert Sammons recorded in long-gone 1929; no slobbering there!