Friday, 30 January 2015

Bach's Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043

Bach's concerto for two violins BWV 1043 is a popular work, especially for violinists. The earliest of the 19 recordings I possess dates from 1915 (Kreisler and Zimbalist). A friend recommended a YouTube performance ( given by Arabella Miho Steinbacher and Akiko Suwanai, filmed at a concert in the Louvre in Paris in 2010. A truly delightful rendition, with the two young women plainly enjoying their dialogue and choosing, to my mind, exactly the right tempi in all three movements. Their “period instruments” (“Booth” Strad of 1716, and “Dolphin” Strad of 1714) sound superb played, thank goodness, in a thoroughly modern manner. The slow movement almost merits the over-used epithet “heavenly”. And not forgetting the accompanying band of Sergey Khachatryan, Manrico Padovani, Yuki Manuela Janke, Kazuhide Isomura, Danjuro Ishizaka, Maggie Cole. This goes to the very top of my 19 recordings of the work, despite the limitation of compressed YouTube sound. This is how Bach's double concerto ought to sound. Coincidentally, the work was composed within a few years of the date the two Strad violins played here were made in Cremona.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Kristof Barati, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was one of the most gifted of young teenage composers, in the company of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert and a few others. His life became a mess, through no fault of his own. Born in 1897 in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the end of his teenage years saw the collapse and disappearance of the old Austria after the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Then, in the 1920s and 1930s, the iconoclasts such as Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Bartok and Stravinsky heralded the end of fashionable tonality and strong links with the music of the nineteenth century. The 1930s and the rise of Nazism saw Korngold (a Jew) having to flee Europe and settle in California where he made a (good) living writing “people's music” for the Hollywood studios; coincidentally during the same period in the USSR, composers there were also faced with the choice of writing “people's music”, or having their voices never heard.

Korngold died in 1957 at the early age of 60, disillusioned with life, with the frittering away of his prodigious talent, with his aborted attempt to re-establish himself in post-1945 Vienna. I've always loved his violin concerto, which has become quite mainstream in the past decade or so. His sonata for violin and piano was written when he was only sixteen years old. It lasts some 38 minutes – far too long and sprawling – but after just a few seconds, one can hear unmistakably that it was written by Korngold, with his characteristic bitter-sweet late Viennese harmonies. It received its premiere in 1913 with Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel, no less, and I've had a recording of the sonata for many years, played by the Americans Glenn Dicterow and Israela Margalit. I have now received a second recording, played by the Hungarians, Kristof Barati and Gabor Farkas.

It does not join the violin concerto or the Much Ado About Nothing music in my Korngold pantheon, but it is well played and the recording is well balanced. Also on the CD is a live performance (2014) of Korngold's violin concerto, with the Philharmonie Zuiderniederland. For a live recording, the sound is excellent, although I would have preferred Barati's sound to have been a little more forward, particularly in the last movement. Barati is not a violinist who indulges in slow tempi, and this is a big plus in Korngold's concerto where the slow movement, in particular, is often brought to a near stand-still by other violinists. This is a lucky concerto, with many fine recordings over the past decade or so. Barati's live performance is pretty well as good as any, and better than most, and the rarely played or heard sonata is good coupling for the Brilliant Classics CD. The orchestra makes a real contribution (and Korngold knew all about orchestration).

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Nemtanu Sisters play Bach

Around 60 years ago, I began to play the Bach violin concertos on my violin (with piano accompaniment). The A major, the E major and the D minor double concerto (where, for some reason, I always played the violin 1 part). Up until a few decades ago, I could still play the violin parts of the three concertos by heart. Recordings were always a problem; I don't like dry, scrawny imitation “baroque” playing in violin concertos, nor giant symphony orchestra renditions. Best stand-by up until now has been Nathan Milstein in the 1960s, with Erica Morini in the double concerto.

Wanting a good modern recording, I chanced upon the two sisters Deborah and Sarah Nemtanu, with the Paris Chamber Orchestra. Deborah plays the A minor, Sarah the E major, and both play the D minor. A couple of Bach Two-part Inventions are included, with Deborah playing the viola and Sarah the violin.

Pleasant versions of these over-familiar works. Neither violinist is “baroque”, thank heavens, although many tempi are slightly faster than I would have liked. Since Johann Sebastian Bach gave no timings -- he probably did not even own a stopwatch -- I am not sure from whence comes the idea that Bach's music must jog along at a rapid pace. Certainly his music needs to flow; but it also needs to breathe.

The CD also contains a concerto grosso for two violins, harpsichord and string orchestra by Alfred Schnittke. Not altogether a good idea, I feel. Schnittke's work is pleasant enough, but is totally out-classed by Bach; a bit like putting me in a boxing ring with Muhammed Ali in his prime.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Mauro Tortorelli plays Saint-Saëns

In a world completely awash with first-class concert violinists, one rarely hears of Italian violinists, except in the context of “baroque” players scrubbing away on their old instruments. I have been very happy to make the acquaintance of Mauro Tortorelli, first when I heard him in the first of Sandro Fuga's violin and piano sonatas, and now on a CD of the violin & piano music of Camille Saint-Saëns, including the two sonatas for violin and piano. I would characterise Tortorelli's sound as “sunny and relaxed”, perhaps an appropriate reflection of Italy.

I am, of course, a member of the Saint-Saëns fan club (there are not many of us), but an additional source of pleasure with the current CD was provided by Giovanni Caruso, the “sound engineer & producer” on this Brilliant Classics disc. A lot of Saint-Saëns's music calls for the violin to play pianissimo, and it is not too often nowadays that sound engineers understand that we need to be able to hear both piano and violin, even when the violinist is playing very softly. We can hear every note that Signor Tortorelli plays – thanks also to the light-fingered pianist, Angela Meluso. A CD I bought on a whim, but one that is giving me much pleasure for the music, the playing and the recording.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Pavel Sporcl

Lovers of violin playing owe a big debt to Naxos, Hungaroton and Supraphon. Naxos is, of course, universal in its artist list, whilst putting special emphasis on the hordes of new violinists coming from Asia. Hungaroton specialises in Hungarians, Supraphon in Czechs. The small part of Europe occupied by assorted Hungarians / Czechs / Romanians / Bulgars / Slovaks / Moldovans has always been rich in violinists and violin playing. Glancing at my personal collection of recordings (and going mainly by name in order to pinpoint probable national origin) I can identify the following concert violinists as coming from that small region:

Josef Suk, Kristof Barati, Peter Csaba, Vaclav Hudecek, Bohuslav Matousek, Vasa Prihoda, Vaclav Snitil, Pavel Sporcl, Ivan Zenaty. Barnabas Kelemen, Vilmos Szabadi, Zoltan Szekely, Josef Szigeti, Mihaly Szücs, Jenö Hubay, Ferenc Szecsödi, László Szentgyörgyi, Johanna Martzy, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Vasco Abadjiev, Stefan Milenkovich, Nemanja Radulovic, Ion Voicu, George Enescu, Hana Kotkovà, Adelina Oprean, Antal Szalai, Irina Muresanu, Mincho Minchev, Stoika Milanova, Vanya Milanova, Ivan Kawaciuk, Silvie Hessova, Josef Spacek, Svetlin Roussev. Not to mention the Lakatos tribe in Hungary that specialises in folk music, and gypsy music, from that region. Pretty impressive, especially considering this is a region of Europe that has always been rich in talent, but relatively poor in ready cash and investment funds.

Which brings me to Pavel Sporcl, a Czech from whom I have four Supraphon CDs, one devoted to Paganini, one to “gypsy” music (folk music of that region) and two to Czech music. All four CDs are excellent, and Sporcl demonstrates the strengths of violin playing in that region of Europe: spot-on intonation, highly focused sound (as opposed to the rich organ-type notes favoured by some other styles of playing), judicious vibrato use, a volatile right hand in wielding the bow. His “Gypsy Way” (with the band Romano Stilo) is great fun; his Paganini suitably virtuosic; his Czech collection of short pieces by Kocian, Laub, Drdla, Ondricek and others very enjoyable listening; and his traversal of more substantial pieces by Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek, Sevcik and Martinu a classic rendition of some Czech masterpieces. As an artist, he seems to have chosen to go the way of first-class violinists such as Nigel Kennedy and Gilles Apap and emulate the popular music scene; never, in my judgement, a wise long-term career move. Whatever; I hang on to my four Pavel Sporcl CDs and hope there will be more.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Sandro Fuga

I've always had a soft spot for music of the post-romantic, early Impressionist era, with composers such as Elgar, Chausson, Fauré, Ysaÿe, Lekeu, Debussy, Janacek, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Enescu, Magnard, et al. Music that dates from the years before the iconoclasts took charge of fashionable critical opinion. Thus it is somewhat unusual to find me listening to three sonatas for violin and piano composed, respectively, in 1938, 1972 and 1989. However, the three sonatas by the unknown Sandro Fuga are well worth playing, and well worth repeated listening. The sound is of around 1910; but what is wrong with that? In his day, Johann Sebastian Bach was frequently criticised for his old-fashioned music, looking back to the days of polyphony in the 17th century, rather than forward to the melody-based music of the 18th. such as that by Handel, Vivaldi, Porpora, et al. Fuga's three sonatas are enjoyable. The playing by Mauro Tortorelli, Alessandro Milani and Sergio Lamberto (violins) with Giacomo Fuga (presumably a relative of the composer) at the piano sounds fine, and the Naxos recording and price pleases, as usual. A CD for all lovers of post-romantic, Impressionist music, and not to be listened to once and then filed away. Will any brave violinist dare to record one or more of the sonatas (the second, for example) or to play them in public and risk the wrath of the critical avant-garde?

Lunch today was my famous Thai soup, with squid and crevettes. This evening will be Thai soup with mussels. A good day musically, and gastronomically. And excellent wine (2008 from a Bachelet vineyard around 10 kilometres from Beaune, that I have often visited, and from which I have bought many bottles, over the years).

Sunday, 4 January 2015

My "Keep to Hand". Start of 2015

My “keep to hand” CD rack has only fifteen spaces, and these are occupied by recordings I am reluctant to shelve away more permanently, for the time being. The rack contents change over the course of the year and in no way reflect “best” or “favourite”; simply recordings I know I will want to come back to shortly. Some are there mainly because of the music; some because of the performances. Some have been there quite a long time. Some, a shorter time. At the start of 2015, the 15 slots in the rack are filled by (in random order):
  • Wieniawski, Conus, Vieuxtemps violin concertos. Soo-Hyun Park. 69 minutes. Onyx. Lovely music. Well played by all concerned, and well recorded.
  • Schubert – Quartet D810 and Quintet D956 – Pavel Haas Quartet. Supraphon. Probably a new classic recording of two classic chamber works.
  • Schubert – Piano sonatas D850 / 958 / 959 / 960 – Leif Ove Andsnes. EMI
  • Shostakovich – Violin Concertos 1 and 2. Christian Tetzlaff. Ondine
  • Pergolesi – Stabat Mater. Julia Lezhneva / Philippe Jaroussky. Erato
  • Khachaturian and Shostakovich violin concertos. James Ehnes. Onyx
  • Sarasate – Fantaisies. Volker Reinhold. DGM. So good to have a collection of Sarasate opera fantasies, well played and in one place.
  • Ravel / Shostakovich. Piano Trios. Smetana Trio. Supraphon.
  • Janacek/ Smetana / Prokofiev. Josef Spacek. Supraphon
  • Rachmaninov 3 / Prokofiev 2. Yuja Wang. DGG
  • Igor Levit – Bach Partitas. Sony.
  • Igor Levit – Beethoven late sonatas. Sony
  • Marc-André Hamelin: Schumann / Janacek. Hyperion
  •  Kreisler / Zimbalist / Ysaÿe – Fine Arts Quartet. Naxos. Rarely heard music, good to listen to, well played and recorded.
  • Schubert – Sonatas D845 and 960. Maria Pires. DGG. Another instant classic recording.
Interesting how well the smaller European labels do (Supraphon, Onyx, Ondine, Sony-Germany). And how relatively young all the performers are (apart from Maria Pires). As all the voting forums say: this list is not necessarily representative !