Saturday, 22 February 2014

Hélène Grimaud plays Brahms

Today, Friday, turned out to be Brahms day, with two hearings of his first piano concerto, and one of his second. Pianist in both was Hélène Grimaud and I greatly enjoyed her playing. The orchestral background was suitably rich and Brahmsian (Bavarian Radio orchestra, and Vienna Philharmonic in respectively the first and second concertos). Against this rich background, Ms Grimaud's clarity and transparency of textures was very welcome. It is many years since I have heard the first concerto -- to my surprise, I discovered that until today I no longer had any recording of it; again to my surprise, I found I enjoyed the first concerto even more than the second. Tastes change, with age and experience. I had not expected to enjoy Ms Grimaud's playing in Brahms as much as I did, but these are performances I shall return to often, with pleasure. Good recording and balance. Usual tacky DG notes, with no less than eight photographs of the attractive Ms Grimaud, most of them with staring eyes that remind me of a deer caught in the headlights.

Probably a couple of weeks pause in this blog while I take off for Northern Thailand and Laos. Lots of sun and good food, I hope, but probably little music until I return.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

On Bach and Berlioz

At a concert of solo violin music by Bach a year or so ago in a small concert hall, I was amazed at the range of dynamics produced by the solo violin of Alina Ibragimova, whose sound went from a barely audible pianissimo to a very loud fortissimo. If you are going to listen to a solo violin for 90 minutes, such a range of colour is pretty well obligatory. I thought of this yesterday when listening to Gregory Fulkerson playing unaccompanied Bach. Stylistically and technically the performances were impeccable, and highly enjoyable. But, finally, the works began to pall a little since Fulkerson, as recorded here in a somewhat reverberant acoustic, came over as playing with a fairly limited dynamic range.

I switched to Simone Kermes singing coloratura arias from (mainly) little-known composers of the early 18th century. Thoroughly enjoyable for the music, and for the singing. They knew how to write good tunes in those days and to keep you listening for a whole hour!

Earlier, I had once again abandoned poor old Berlioz's Harold in Italy, a work I have tried hard to enjoy for around half a century now, but still with little success. Not due to the executants, I think, since I have Menuhin or Tabea Zimmermann both conducted by Colin Davis, or William Primrose conducted by Beecham. As a proud owner of two excellent violas on which I scrape away from time to time, I am heavily predisposed to like the viola. But there is something about Berlioz's Harold that gets in my teeth and I very rarely manage to get through listening to all the movements. Perhaps it is just that the plaintive idée fixe theme comes around too often for me, or that I am uncomfortable trying to grasp a work that is neither a symphony, nor a concerto.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich

It is difficult to form a great piano trio (as opposed to a very good one). First of all, one needs three players of top-notch international stature. Then one needs those three players to play together regularly over a period of years. The three players need to be collegiate -- that is, from approximately the same musical backgrounds. Finally, the three players need to be friends, not competitors each seeking advantage or the limelight; friends share things fairly and naturally.

Recently I enthused over the piano trio formed by Cortot, Thibaud and Casals -- a true model of a great piano trio. Yesterday I spent no less than five hours re-listening to a Doremi set of piano trios played by Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich; to my mind, another great piano trio that met all my conditions above. The three Russians play Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and a few other pieces. They seem to be enjoying themselves, and we can enjoy the music with them. It's good, listening to Gilel's piano playing. It's good listening to Kogan's violin playing. And it's good listening to Rostropovich's cello playing. Considering the source of the originals (1950s, mainly early Russian) the Doremi transfers are excellent.

The middle of the 20th century also saw another all-star piano trio: that of Rubinstein, Heifetz and Feuerman (later Piatigorsky). According to Rubinstein, Heifetz tried to insist that his name always came first, which is a clue as to why I would not classify this trio as “great”; they were not friends, they had different backgrounds, and they did not play together too often. Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich played together for ten years (from 1949 until 1959). In the end, the stress between the passionate dissident Rostropovich and the patriotic communist Kogan became too much and Rostropovich left the trio. Our loss, but at least we have five hours of recordings as souvenirs.

Monday, 10 February 2014

George Emmanuel Lazaridis

A big advantage of the new age of recording technology that has spawned a vast array of companies and labels is that major artists who previously would have gone unnoticed can now have their performances listened to. I have just been enjoying the playing of George Emmanuel Lazaridis (who?), an excellent pianist who hails from Greece. His Schubert CD with the Wanderer Fantasy and the last B flat sonata reminds me of the recent Schubert recordings of Maria Pires; the same calm, straight playing without added histrionics or heightened pathos. Much of Schubert's music is best left to play itself, and it really does not need sophisticated interpretative intervention by the player. All praise to the hitherto unknown (to me) Mr Lazaridis. It's a change to meet an impressive new name who is not a young Chinese or Russian. And praise to the little Somm label for letting us hear George Emmanuel in Schubert.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Handel Arias

A good Sunday: a) it did not rain, for a change and b) two hours of Sandrine Piau singing Handel arias. In my current and on-going great purge of CDs I no longer want, these CDs of well-sung Handel arias will never go. The music is just so magnificent and varied.

And this evening my favourite dish: Vietnamese basa fish and smoked haddock with ginger, garlic, Thai fish sauce, olive oil, rice and chili. Delicious.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Julia Fischer plays Sarasate

As a paid-up member of the Sarasate fan club, I immediately bought Julia Fischer's new CD of Sarasate vignettes for violin and piano. A superb CD with an attractive selection of pieces and highly virtuostic violin playing. Strongly recommended. Sarasate's music has delighted violinists and audiences for around 150 years now and looks a safe bet for the next 150 since it is attractively tuneful and beautifully written for the violin.

Inevitably I compared Ms Fischer in Sarasate to Tianwa Yang, who recently recorded eight CDs of all Sarasate's music for violin and piano, and violin and orchestra. Both the Chinese and the German are technically completely on top of the music. Comparing them is a bit like having to compare a good coq au vin with a good boeuf Bourguignon; Tianwa Yang comes over as the more sophisticated player, drawing attention a little more to the music and a little less to virtuoso violin technique. Julia Fischer is more of a bravura player here, and one notices first and foremost her exquisite violin playing and slightly self-conscious virtuosity. I compared Zigeunerweisen back-to-back and liked both, though Fischer takes fully one minute less over this eight minutes-or-so piece compared with Tianwa. Have to have both.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Yuja Wang in Rachmaninov

The live performance of Rachmaninov's third piano concerto by Yuja Wang with the Venezuelan orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel is a real triumph. No doubt some grumpy critics will opine that Herr Blankensof, or whoever, finds greater depth in the work, or whatever. But when the music demands lyricism, Wang is lyrical. When it demands tenderness, Wang is tender. When it demands molto bravura; Wang positively flies. At times I almost found myself shouting “Go, Yuja, Go!”

Until now, my favourite performance of this work has been by Martha Argerich. The Chinese now beats the Argentinian by a short head – helped maybe by Wang's being a live (very live) performance and by the Venezuelan orchestra sounding really on its toes; too many orchestras, when playing virtuoso concertos, fall back on autopilot. Not here. The CD also contains a live performance of Prokofiev's second piano concerto, but I have been so enthralled by Yuja Wang in the Rachmaninov that Prokofiev is having to wait.

The only sour note, is DG's liner note packaging. Tacky in the extreme, with multiple photos of Miss Wang and Dudamel, but just one small one each of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. Instead of taking up a full page with a somewhat vulgar photo of the rear view of Miss Yang, DG could have given us more on the two composers who did, after all, make a significant contribution to the CD. In the old days, DG was famous for its tasteful LP sleeves. The current team, however, seems to think it is marketing young flesh and celebrity, rather than great performances of great music. Yuja deserves better.