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?