Saturday, 26 December 2015

Christmas Music

Christmas is a special period, and demands special music. After a recent diet of Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Rachmaninov and Brahms, Bach's Goldberg Variations cleanse the auditory palate. And no one better to play them than Igor Levit. An hour or so of supreme music and masterly playing.

Bach's Mass in B minor is a core work of the classical world, well within the top half dozen musical works of all time. It has now been going strong for some 280 years and shows no sign of fading. For my ears, none better to conduct it than Otto Klemperer. His approach may not currently be fashionable, but Klemperer loved the music, he had a superb sense of form and structure, and his ability to ensure that all strands in the music are heard, pays heavy dividends in Bach. To ears accustomed to contemporary Bach performances, some of the music may appear slow – particularly the opening Kyrie. But Klemperer gives the music stature, greatness, and a nobility that escapes the current modernists. “Wunderbar!” Herr Bach would surely have exclaimed, listening to this performance. Klemperer assembled a first-class line-up of soloists: Agnes Giebel (the breach with Walter Legge spared us Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey and Franz Crass. Who could ask for better? Not a castrato, male alto, counter-tenor or boy soprano in sight. Great music in the hands of great musicians will long survive all the ex-choristers and harpsichordists who currently clutter the contemporary scene for “period performance”.

And that was my Christmas music making. After a short pause over the end of the year while I go off to France to eat as many oysters as I can; I'll be back in 2016.

2015 Prizewinners

2015 with me saw many, many new CDs and many, many hours of listening. If I have to pick just two CDs from all the 2015 vintage, they would be:

Alina Ibragimova for her recording of the six solo violin sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe. These sonatas have been much recorded, and choice is wide, competition fierce. Ibragimova has more than enough technique, but she also brings a wealth of fantasy and variety to these six sonatas; at times, it is almost as if she is improvising the works.

The second CD is Zlata Chochieva playing the complete Etudes of Chopin. Never a real Chopin fan, I was nevertheless completely seduced by Chochieva's playing here, even after I had compared her versions head-to-head with that of Alfred Cortot.

So two young Russian women get the 2015 prize. If I'd have allowed myself a third choice, it would have gone to Igor Levit; a real Russian trilogy!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Eight Prizewinning Violinists

If you reach the finals of a competition such as the Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow) or Queen Elisabeth Competition (Brussels), you cannot play it safe; to impress the jury and win a medal, you need to go for broke. Thus the great attraction of the four CD booklet from the Queen Elisabeth competition, featuring eight different violin concertos played by eight different prize winners. There was obviously a policy of not duplicating either violinists, or concertos, which is sometimes a pity when X's marvellous performance of a given work is not included, since Y's equally marvellous performance of the same work, is. There is also the drawback of having orchestras and conductors who are not always of the top class, and who will not have had much time for rehearsal of a given work with a given soloist. No real matter; the spotlight is on the soloists. The stiff cover booklet has poorly reproduced black and white photos, misspells Philippe Hirschhorn's name throughout, and does not contain much real information apart from puffs for the competition. Again: no real matter.

Vadim Repin won the top prize in 1989 with the Tchaikovsky concerto. A magnificent performance, with a virtuoso finale. Nervous vibrato. Akiko Suwanai came second that year (Paganini 1st violin concerto, not included here).

Nikolaj Znaider won the first prize in 1997 with a fluent, efficient Sibelius concerto with a good flowing adagio di molto.

Miriam Fried (Israel, 1st prize 1971) gives a fluent and fleet-of-foot recording of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, somewhat in the Heifetz mould. I think this is how it should be played; if milked for all it is worth, violinists soon reveal there is not too much milk to be had, whereas played exuberantly, as here, the concerto sounds fresh and ever-green. She is recorded a bit too close. Miriam Fried never went on to have much of a career, at least not in Europe.

Kristof Barati (1997) gives a thoroughly musical performance of the Beethoven violin concerto, ably supported by the Flanders Philharmonic under Marc Soustrot, presumably here on more familiar repertoire territory. This concerto – like those of Mozart – is perhaps not the best choice for a major competition, since it provides little scope for stunning an audience with technical display; the Beethoven concerto is difficult to play from a musical point of view, and here Barati is first class. Technically, of course, he is also first rate.

Like Miriam Fried, Yossif Ivanov (born in Belgium, despite his name) never went on to have much of a career after his success in Brussels in 2005. It is a pity that the desire not to duplicate concertos in this album means that the first Shostakovich concerto is given to Ivanov, as here, rather than presenting the coruscating 1963 performance by Alexei Michlin (first prize in that year).

I have blogged previously about the astonishing performance of Elgar's violin concerto by Gidon Kremer (1967). A pity about the contribution of the Belgian National Orchestra under René Defossez – the Elgar concerto, like that of Beethoven, needs a solid orchestral backing. It is a real shame that Kremer – never one of my favourite violinists – seems never to have recorded the Elgar again.

The same year saw the first prize go to Kremer's fellow Latvian, Philippe Hirschhorn, with an amazing performance of Paganini's first concerto. This is presumably why Akiko Suwanai's terrific performance in 1989 is not included in this 4-CD album. But it's good to have Hirschhorn in full flight, since he was a superb violinist.

The eighth concerto is the Bartok, given to Barnabas Kelemen (2001). Not one of my favourite concertos, but convincingly played here. This Queen Elisabeth set of four concertos is an essential acquisition for all lovers of fine violin playing.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Zlata Chochieva plays Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux

The Russians may not produce many first class economists, but for well over a century Russian music schools have produced a seemingly never ending stream of first-class conductors, pianists and violinists. And the stream continues with young Russians such as Alina Ibragimova, Igor Levit, Julia Lezhneva …. and Zlata Chochieva. Today the post girl brought Zlata Chochieva playing the complete études-tableaux by Rachmaninov. Superb !

Ms Chochieva has an uncanny sense of light and shade, of dynamics, of rhythm and rubato, of phrasing and of musical structure. Previously I had greatly admired her recording of Chopin's études. Now it is Rachmaninov's turn; I play her CD of Chopin often, and know the new CD will be another for my frequent listening rack. In every photo of the photogenic Ms Chochieva, she looks completely fed up. Maybe she is emulating Stravinsky's characterisation of Rachmaninov as “a six foot, six inch tall scowl”. If she ever plays Mozart, maybe she will smile. Anyway; anything she records, I shall buy.

Kristof Barati, and Reto Kuppel

I listened with great pleasure to a new CD from the immensely talented Kristof Barati on which he plays 13 well-known pieces for violin and piano by Sarasate, Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky, et al. In none of the pieces does he put a foot wrong, technically or musically. I might wonder a little at his rhythms in Sarasate's Romanza Andaluza, but that's about it.

My only reservations over the 70 minutes of excellent music, excellent violin playing, and excellent recording are personal: all the pieces Barati plays here are too well known (to me). I have 40 recordings of Wieniawski's Scherzo and Tarantella, and 45 of Sarasate's Romanza Andaluza ! I would never have purchased such a recording of popular gems had it not been Barati playing them.

My second reservation concerns the two pieces on this CD by Heinrich Ernst. Ernst wrote quite a bit of attractive music for his instrument, the violin. The two usual pieces trotted out by Barati are not among Ernst's best compositions: the “Last Rose of Summer” variations, and the “Erlkönig” caprice. Both these works have always seemed to me to be circus pieces, where one waits to hear when – and if – the violinist fails the test. Needless to say, Barati does not, but the events are technical tours de force rather than musical ones. Extended passages in harmonics, and double-stopped harmonics, are hell on earth to play for a violinist. But the interest is purely the technical challenge, not a musical one. I always find the last few minutes of the Last Rose faintly embarrassing and, after a first hearing, always press the “next track” button.

Barati's CD is a big contrast to 74 minutes of solo violin pieces by Henri Vieuxtemps, played by Reto Kuppel. If ever the violin has a patron saint, it will be St. Naxos who, year after year and decade after decade, gives us relatively unknown master violinists playing – often – relatively unknown music. I did not know any of the 19 pieces on this new CD; more's the pity. There are some real gems amongst them (and the étude de concert Op 16 No.1 deserves to become as hackneyed as Wieniawski's Légende as featured by Barati). Reto Kuppel (a new name to me) deserves honours for his playing here. Henri Vieuxtemps was a highly talented composer, as well as a violinist, and all his music is well worth listening to, these solo pieces for the music as well as for the (considerable) technical challenges. Unlike Ernst and Paganini, however, Vieuxtemps' technical challenges are musical, as well as purely technical. Bravo Herr Kuppel, Monsieur Vieuxtemps, and Naxos.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Beatrice Rana, and Yuja Wang (again)

I investigated Beatrice Rana, a new Italian piano “star” (on a CD with Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome). She is presented by the Warner company as a keyboard tiger, with the orchestra well in the background. The background orchestra does not matter too much in Prokofiev's second piano concerto, which must rival Chopin's piano concertos as one of the least rewarding for an orchestral player. Listening to the Prokofiev second piano concerto, I realised I have never really taken to Prokofiev's music; slick, clever, fashionable but, a bit like Stravinsky, lacking that Russian “soul” one finds in Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov or Shostakovich.

Like her ancient pianistic ancestor, Vladimir Horowitz, Ms Rana can certainly play the piano and, with the up-front Warner recording, we hear every demi-semiquaver she plays. The orchestra is less fortunate and comes over, in so far as the recording engineers are concerned, as a necessary back-up group. There are four photos of the photogenic Ms Rana, and we are in the world of showbiz rather than serious music making. I followed Ms Rana's CD with Yuja Wang playing the Ravel piano concertos with the Zürich Tonhalle orchestra conducted by Lionel Bringuier. Ms Wang is also a star (at the moment, even bigger in the galaxy than Ms Rana) but, with Yuja, we are back in the land of music making rather than circus tricks. I am not a great fan of Ravel, nor of his piano concertos. However, I can recognise great performances when I hear them, and the constant dialogue between Yuja Wang and the Swiss orchestra is a welcome antidote to the “pianist plus one” recording by Beatrice Rana. It's not often that the sweeping Tchaikovskian melodies in his first piano concerto go for practically nothing; here they are just an interlude before Ms Rana thunders in again. The Italian recording engineers should be shown the door. And Ms Rana, incredible pianist though she may be, does not go on my “buy” list.

The CD of Yuja Wang playing the two Ravel piano concertos is in a demonstration class of how piano and orchestra should play together in a piano concerto, and how they should be balanced (DG). Yuja's opening of the second movement of the Ravel G major concerto will melt any heart. I am afraid, however, that Beatrice Rana's CD of Prokofiev's second piano, coupled with Tchaikovsky's first, is a demonstration of how not to do it. Antonio Pappano will probably put this CD at the bottom of his bottom draw. I just hope that Warner does not follow this with a duo recording featuring Ms Rana and Andrea Bocelli. Or a duo recording with Ms Rana and Lang Lang.