Saturday, 28 February 2015

Jascha Horenstein in Brahms

I have written before in this blog about Jascha Horenstein, a great conductor who never had a permanent conducting post, never had a prestigious recording contract, but who – in his chosen repertoire, was fully the equal of his luckier contemporaries such as Furtwängler, Klemperer, Szell, Reiner or von Karajan. I was extremely pleased to meet him again in good recorded sound with a good orchestra. The new Pristine Audio transfer of his 1962 recording of the LSO has to be one of the best Brahms first symphonies ever recorded. All Horenstein's familiar attributes are there: an impeccable sense of dynamics, an intelligent knowledge of structure, a sure instinct for phrasing, and a sense of orchestral balance that sees the symphony sitting on a solid foundation from the bass line – a bit in the Furtwängler mode, and no doubt (!) helped by the fact that, in 1962, my father was a double bass player with the LSO. I saw Horenstein in person only once, at the Albert Hall in London in 1959 when he conducted the LSO and hundreds of others in Mahler's grotesque eighth symphony, but this image of a small, elderly man controlling vast forces calmly but imperiously has never left me. This is a Brahms first symphony to set alongside classics such as Furtwängler and Klemperer.

Also on the Pristine transfer is an excellent sounding 1962 recording of Horenstein and the LSO accompanying David Oistrakh in Bruch's splendid Scottish Fantasy. Alas, this has to be the dreariest recordings of this lovely work ever recorded. All concerned – soloist, conductor, orchestra – sound as though they are just going through the motions, at rehearsal speed in all four movements. I have never been a big fan of David Oistrakh; he was technically a truly remarkable violinist, but here his sound is so bland and uninvolved it could almost be Itzakh Perlman playing. We are a long way from the passion of a Heifetz, a Rabin or a Kogan. Thoroughly boring, and incredibly slow !

Monday, 23 February 2015

Bruckner's 9th. Pristine Audio

As I have remarked before, the 7th October 1944 performance of Bruckner's 9th Symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and played by the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the great performances of all time. And the (live) recording is little short of miraculous given the date and the circumstances. The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is something that one no longer hears, remarkable given that the Philharmonie had just been bombed and that the T34 tanks of the Red Army were rolling inexorably towards Berlin where they would arrive just seven months later; it was a bit like the band still playing when the Titanic went down.

I was therefore horror-stricken when, playing my CDR of the Pristine Audio transfer of the work yesterday, the sound suddenly featured the ominous click-click-click and tap-tap-tap of a damaged CD; and the third movement would not play at all! Very odd in a CDR I had played OK before and where they were no signs of marks or scratches. A frantic email to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio found him on holiday, half way up a mountain. But within an hour I had a link to a new download and I now have the work on a brand new CDR playing happily. There is a lot to be said for buying from responsive small companies, and thank you Andrew.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Vilde Frang in Mozart Concertos

I am a great admirer of Vilde Frang's violin playing, so I was particularly disappointed with her new CD of Mozart concertos (the 1st and 5th for violin, plus the Sinfonia Concertante). She has been cajoled into playing with little of her normal vibrato and this coupled with the fact she is recorded somewhat distantly, makes her playing sound oddly cool and thin. No such problem with Maxim Rysanov who joins her in the Sinfonia, however, where his warm vibrato sound is most welcome.

The “orchestra” (Arcangelo) sounding here more like a large chamber group isn't much help, playing with a conspicuous lack of legato, and being forced into some odd, choppy phrasing by the evidently interventionist conductor, Jonathan Cohen. One suspects an orchestra would have been better left to its own devices and instincts. And some of the allegros are just too allegro for my taste; they often sound rushed. When it comes to Mozart violin concertos, I'll continue to get down Arthur Grumiaux, or the recent Arabella Steinbacher. This modern passion for attempting to imitate the presumed sound of an 18th century performance does Mozart no favours; I am sure he, a lover of beautiful music, would have welcomed Steinbacher or Grumiaux with open arms, whilst being lukewarm over poor Vilde Frang as recorded here. No stars for this one.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Rachmaninov's First Piano Sonata

One comes to the works of Sergei Rachmaninov slowly, and usually after repeated hearings. Up until a few months ago, I had never heard the first piano sonata of Rachmaninov, a sprawling work extending over some 35 minutes for its three movements. I came across it first played by the immensely talented Xiayin Wang, then again played by the immensely talented Zlata Chochieva on her début recording CD. Both young women play it superbly and fearlessly and I have now listened to the work some six times and have come to love it – in the end, once Rachmaninov's fragile themes had embedded themselves in my consciousness.

Written in 1907, Rachmaninov himself seems to have subsequently neglected the work. Of the two young women, I prefer the Chinese in this work; Xiayin Wang is a superb Rachmaninov pianist who seems to have a real empathy for the composer. She has better dynamic shading here than the young Russian – viz the very opening of the work – and is better at differentiating the various harmonic and thematic strands. The Russian is slightly faster in all three movements, but the Chinese has a kind of relaxed virtuosity that seems to me to fit this music that must be extremely difficult to play. This is now a work that has firmly entered my (listening) repertoire.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Zlata Chochieva

On a whim, I bought a new CD of Zlata Chochieva playing all the Chopin études. A whim, since I'd never heard of Ms Chochieva, a Russian, and I am not really a Chopin fan. When I want to listen to the études, I normally reach for Alfred Cortot, recorded some 80 years ago, but still going strong.

I started listening to Zlata, then ended up listening to all 64 minutes non-stop. I decided to compare Zlata with my Naxos copy of the Cortot … and ended up listening to the whole of Op 10 played by him, rather than just a sample. Then back to Zlata Chochieva and, yes, this is the real thing: a great new recording of the Chopin études. Cortot is still Cortot, of course, with exquisite rubato and supreme grace and elegance but, after 80 years, his recording (as transferred here, and via my speakers) is bass heavy, which makes it sound as if he has a giant left hand and a flimsy right hand. Zlata has no such recording problems, and the balance of bass and treble — very important in many of the études — is a joy to hear. Some of the playing here is as light as a soufflé; the “study” aspect of the études is never downplayed, and the studies are deliciously musical in Ms Chochieva's hands.

The excellent CD (Piano Classics) comes plastered with posed photos of Zlata, as if we are buying flesh rather than a pianist playing Chopin's music. And nary a picture of Chopin, of course.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

French Mélodies

I am a fan of the French equivalent of the German Lieder (mélodies) so I bought the recital given by Stéphanie D'Oustrac. You win some, and you lose some. This is not an "Invitation au Voyage" (CD title) that I will play often.

21 mélodies, and all but a handful of them slow, or very slow. Eyelids droop. Fatally, Ms D'Oustrac has a lovely mezzo soprano voice, but poor diction (unlike, say, Véronique Gens). The CD mixes up tracks 2 and 3, and it is some time before one realises the singer is singing the wrong song. Even a native born French speaker will need to be glued to the libretto in order to understand what Ms D'Oustrac is singing about; and an appreciation of what is being sung is as important here as it is with German Lieder. Singers must learn to articulate clearly; singing is not just about making lovely sounds – advice that is as valid for instrumental players as it is for singers.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

In Praise of Philippe Jaroussky

As a staunch non-religion person, I am not naturally drawn to church music. With important exceptions, such as most of Bach including his church cantatas (minus libretto), his Mass in B minor and the St Matthew Passion. And I have frequently shown my extreme hesitation when faced with the countertenor / male alto or castrato voice. Every rule has exceptions, however, and Philippe Jaroussky is one. His countertenor voice is lovely and sounds so natural, and he has an acute musical intellect that makes everything he sings sound moving. Even church music, and I have just been revelling in Jaroussky singing Vivaldi's sacred works, including a stunning Stabat Mater. The music is exceptionally beautiful. The singing marvellous to hear. The accompanying band (Ensemble Artaserse) first class, and the recording (Erato) all that could be desired. This is not a CD to be shelved in some distant corner, since I'll be listening to it frequently, church music, countertenor, and all.