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.