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. ???