Monday, 31 August 2015

Schubert's Last Three Piano Sonatas

Today I listened to the last three piano sonatas of Franz Schubert; strange to think that they were relatively unknown and unplayed until the 20th century. They would have fascinated composers such as Bach, Handel and Mozart because of their semi-familiar musical language, but with exotic departures and additions. I love their kaleidoscopic modulations of mood, of key, and of harmony; from one minute to the next, you never know what world you are going to be in.

The outburst of rage / frustration / despair during the andantino of the A major sonata never fails to astonish; what Schubert's friends and contemporaries made of it, I cannot imagine. And I love the frequent resigned sadness and ambiguities of the final B flat major sonata. It is incredible that the C minor, A major and B flat major sonatas were written in the same place and within a very few years of Beethoven's last string quartets; what a period of musical gold!

These sonatas are best listened to played by “simple” great pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter, Clara Haskil, Wilhelm Kempff, Leif Ove Andsnes or Maria Pires since there is little need or cause for showing off, bravura, or personal point-making. I listened to all three played by the superb Leif Ove Andsnes, recorded over the years 2001-4. A real classic recording that I always keep by me for when I feel like some sophisticated listening.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Musical Vignettes

I seem to go through listening phases. Some months ago, it was mainly big orchestral works by the likes of Shostakovich, Sibelius, Bruckner and Elgar. My current phase is for recitals of short works; maybe a result of the metabolism of my attention span. So I have delighted again in hearing the phenomenal Zlata Chochieva playing Chopin études – I, who have never been a keen Chopin fan. I am delighted again in making my way through Tianwa Yang's eight CDs of Sarasate works. And I recovered from my archives David Frühwirth's recital of 17 mainly unhackneyed vignettes for violin and piano.

It's sad there are not many Chochieva recordings around yet. I am completely captivated by her Chopin études and love her pianism. Just as astonishing is Tianwa Yang in Sarasate; I love Sarasate's music and marvel at how idiomatic Yang sounds in this Spanish music. Her sense of style, rhythm and rubato are really extraordinary; she could even have been Sarasate's favourite pupil, listening to her. And I do revel in Sarasate's music. I recall a puffed-up British critic a few years back screeching with outrage because a professional orchestral musician had told him that Sarasate's music was worth 20 or so of Boulez, or Nono, or Stockhausen (I forget which). Well, the professional musician was quite right, and Sarasate's music is eternal.

Finally, I sat back and listened to David Frühwirth playing pieces by Zimbalist, Kurt Weill, Hans Sitt, Hubay and many others. Frühwirth has an engaging warm, relaxed Austrian tone which at times reminds me of his fellow Austrian of long ago, Fritz Kreisler. And he has a gift for selecting enjoyable music that is not readily featured in compilations by others. My short pieces phase is still very much with me; fortunately I have many CDs of short pieces to fall back on – doubly fortunately, since they do not often turn up in concerts or recitals nowadays except as four minute encores.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Lisa Batiashvili

Three major violin concertos – by Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich's first – have no shortage of excellent contenders for three star status, in my hierarchy. Probably the only violinist to achieve three stars in all three concertos, is Lisa Batiashvili and I had a mini- Lisa festival yesterday, listening to the three concertos played by her.

Her strengths are well known: Nobility of tone and utterance; a sense of the long line, and an exceptional feeling for phrasing (viz Rachmaninov's Vocalise). She seems to have an uncanny ability to find the right tempo, for her and for the music. She has an excellent range of dynamics. She concentrates on the music, not on highlighting her playing. She has a complete mastery of her instrument (a Strad). And she is an intensely serious player; no Lang-Lang type antics. Finally, she has her pick of good collaborators: Hélène Grimaud, Alice Sara Ott, Khatia Buniatishvili, Stephen Osborne, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Christian Thielemann, Charles Dutoit, Sakari Oramo, Osmo Vänskä ...

Her first Shostakovich violin concerto is truly superb, getting right to the bones of this complex work. Her Beethoven (no conductor on her Sony release) is surprisingly good, despite the absence of a conductor, and the recording is excellent. She has speeded up in this work after a re-think, compared with past off-air recordings. In the Beethoven, she uses the Kreisler cadenza; in the Brahms concerto (with Christian Thielemann) she uses the Busoni cadenza, and her long line creates a superb effect in the adagio. The Brahms concerto is not quite as well recorded as are the Beethoven and Shostakovich concertos; the violin is a little too integrated within the orchestral sound.

To my taste, she is not so good in Bach, and I have the impression that her long line and nobility of tone are perhaps not really ideal for Bach's music. There seem to be a lot of things she does not play, and I cannot find any reference to her playing Kreisler, Wieniawski or Sarasate. It's a shame that she appears not to play the Elgar violin concerto, a work that would suit her well, I sense. Anyway, pretty well everything she does play, she plays superbly and I hope for many more recordings from her whilst she is in her prime.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Albert Hermann Dietrich, and Joseph Joachim

It is sometimes dispiriting to discover that, after over 60 years of listening to music, there is so much more to discover. The 17th, 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries saw composers of all nationalities scribbling away at top speed, and most of the resulting music is unknown and unperformed; personally I have little interest in the kilos of music written after the deaths of Shostakovich or Britten (just as contemporary composers appear to have little interest in pleasing me).

Today, I was listening to the violin concerto of Albert Hermann Dietrich (who?), a close friend of Brahms, Schumann and Joseph Joachim. I then went on to listen to Joachim's Notturno for Violin & Orchestra, ending up with the more familiar Variations in E minor "In Ungarischer Weise" by Joachim. The excellent violinist in all three works was Hans Maile (who?) and the very good recording made in Berlin in 1983. OK; none of the three works bore the stamp of genius that one would have found in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc. But all three works were expertly crafted and made highly enjoyable listening and a pleasant change from many over-familiar works. I have a lot of listening to catch up on.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Mozart, and the Germans

Finding a really good recording of any given Mozart violin concerto is surprisingly difficult. Technically, the concertos pose no problems to modern violinists (even I used to play them, long ago). But the violinist needs to capture the youth and elegance of Mozart's writing; the orchestra needs to participate with the soloist and exchange musical thoughts; the recording needs to balance soloist and orchestra satisfactorily; and both orchestra and soloist need to capture the spirit and elegance of the 18th century (though preferably not try to emulate what might have been the exact sound world of the music of nearly 250 years ago).

Arthur Grumiaux has been the Mozart concerto best stand-by for nearly 50 years now and, of more recent recordings, I have enjoyed Arabella Steinbacher and Katrin Scholz. Latest arrival on my player is Frank Peter Zimmerman, with the chamber orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Radoslaw Szulc. And very good it is, too, providing really all I want for modern performances of these concertos (Zimmerman plays the 1st, 3rd and 4th on the new CD, with the rest scheduled to follow). Stylish violin playing. Excellent orchestral partnership. Good recording (Hänssler Classic) with expert balance. My kind of Mozart (and not an “original instrument” within sound or sight, thank heavens).

Somewhat coincidentally, I have recently had a minor deluge of fine violin and piano recordings, with Thomas Christian in Ernst, and Kirill Troussov and Alexandra Troussova in a recital of Russian short pieces (Dabringhaus und Grimm). Good music and playing and, commendably, excellent recorded sound with expert balance between piano and violin. All the recordings (including the new Zimmermann) come from Germany, and I sense that the German investment in Tonmeister training has really paid off. Scandinavia and the Czech lands also produce excellent modern recordings, but I sense that in too many other countries roving bands of all-purpose recording technicians are often tackling things too unrelated to their normal sound worlds of rock, pop and beat music. Classical music recording is different from recording electronically-amplified “stars” with “backing groups”. Well done the Germans. And maybe not entirely coincidental that my modern trio of fine Mozart concerto players – Zimmermann, Steinbacher and Scholz – are all Germans, resident in Germany.