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.