Sunday, 31 January 2016

Fanny Clamagirand

As a break from my current wall-to-wall Haydn listening (twelve more recordings of the symphonies on the way via Amazon), I had a sudden urge to listen to Camille Saint-Saëns' three violin concertos. Why on earth they are not played and heard regularly I cannot imagine. One of the mysteries of musical taste and fashion. I listened to the three concertos today played by Fanny Clamagirand, a superb French violinist. First class music. First class playing from Clamagirand. Excellent back-up from the Finnish orchestra. First class recording and price from Naxos. For what more can one ask? Frequently my family members comment on my enormous collection of recordings: “Do you really listen to them all?” No, I do not. But it is marvellous that, when suddenly some whim comes into my head, I can head off to my shelves and find the recording that is buzzing through my brain.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Joseph Haydn Discovered

For some 74½ years, Joseph Haydn and I have been merely on cool nodding terms. Bach and Handel, for me. Then Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. I knew of Haydn, and had a (very) few of his works. Never played a note of his music on my violin. I knew he wrote 104 symphonies and around 90 string quartets. In my youth, I had a recording of his “Oxford” symphony (on the second side on an LP that I bought because of the Mozart symphony on the first side).

A few weeks ago, having listened by chance to a couple of Haydn's string quartets during my string quartet phase, all that changed. Into my post box thunder recordings of Haydn's symphonies and string quartets; a biographical tome of Haydn is in the post somewhere. Haydn and I are in business. As with the music of Handel, I now welcome Haydn's lack of emotional complications, exquisite craftsmanship, admirable powers of invention using limited resources. I took to the string quartets recorded by the Takacs Quartet; discovering in my archives a recording of three Haydn quartets played by the Quatuor Mosaïques, I found myself really liking the lightness and transparency of the playing – doubly surprising, since it is an “original instrument” quartet, a concept that usually sees me fleeing the room as violins play long notes without any vibrato in sight (in the mistaken belief that this sounds “better”; which it does not). Anyway, the playing of the Quatuor Mosaïques appears to suit Haydn's quartets admirably, and a 10 CD box of Haydn quartets from the Mosaïques is on its way to me via the postal service. I love string quartet playing where I can hear each of the four instruments, as opposed to a general sound mush.

Again in my archives, I discovered a box of eight Haydn symphonies, recorded in the early 1960s by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia. Not to be outdone, I then ordered two boxes each of six Haydn symphonies recorded by Thomas Beecham and the RPO in the very late 1950s. The two sets of recordings complement each other perfectly: Beecham stylish and light of touch, Klemperer with the better orchestra and recording, with typical forward woodwind band and transparency of sound and structure. It's a good time for those collecting recordings, since all these older recordings are now available for less than the cost of a bottle of wine. Critics will wince at Klemperer and Beecham in Haydn – it's all a question of editions of musical scores that are too old, and orchestral sounds that are not old enough, it appears. But critics seem rarely to listen to music simply to enjoy it. I'll spend many happy months to come with Otto, Thomas, Takacs and Mosaïques. And Joseph Haydn. Maybe after another 74½ years I'll be extolling the virtues of Arnold Schönberg and Luigi Dallapiccola? Probably best not to take bets on it.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Music for convalescence

An eye operation has seen me confined to listening to music for a few days, rather than reading books or working at a computer. The time has passed swiftly with Bach (Mass in B minor), Haydn (string quartets) and Mozart (string quartets). Those who fly frequently in Europe will recognise that one can fly from the region of Eisenach / Leipzig to Vienna / Esterhazy, all within around 30 minutes. Pretty miraculous that so much great music came from so small an area of Planet Earth. My Bach was via Otto Klemperer (of course). Haydn courtesy of the Takacs Quartet; Mozart courtesy of the Quartetto Italiano. Music can be very soothing.

Monday, 11 January 2016

String Quartets

Four voices. Soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Two females (give or take a bit) and two males (give or take a bit). The principal ingredients of quartets through the ages, going back to consorts of viols, and the like. The string quartet emerged powerfully under Haydn, then Mozart, then was propelled to the fore by Beethoven and Schubert, then taken up by pretty well everyone (including, latterly, the fifteen string quartets of Shostakovich). The string quartet – particularly from Beethoven onwards – became a powerful medium for personal thought and expression, away from the sponsored and public glamour of major orchestral works, symphonies and operas. This personal nature is particularly marked in the later string quartets of Beethoven, and in the fifteen string quartets of Shostakovich. For me, one of the most sublime movements in all music is the opening fugue (adagio) of Beethoven's C sharp minor string quartet opus 131; here four voices conduct a civilised discussion amongst themselves, drawing us into their world.

The music of Felix Mendelssohn is normally expertly crafted and takes place in a cloudless sky. But when mourning the death of his sister Fanny, he turned to the string quartet and wrote the impassioned Op 80 string quartet in F minor. For too long I have passed over the string quartets of Mozart; a recent acquisition has been a four-CD set of the eleven last quartets of Mozart played by the Alban Berg Quartett in the 1970s. The recording puts one at the back of the concert hall, unfortunately, and I miss the aural participation one gets with recordings such as those of the St. Petersburg String Quartet playing the eternally fascinating string quartets of Shostakovich.

I never got on with the string quartets of Béla Bartok, but then Bartok and I rarely see eye to eye. And I have made valiant efforts with the string quartets of Benjamin Britten but, like so much of Britten's music, I find them works of great craftsmanship rather than great art. So my quartet listening is based on Beethoven, Schubert and Shostakovich, with Mozart now getting a look in, and Haydn still hiding somewhere in the undergrowth. Whatever: the string quartet is still one of the very greatest forms of music, and provides listening that is endlessly fascinating and enjoyable.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Arthur Grumiaux - 1961

A new CD from the admirable Orfeo company reminds us that Arthur Grumiaux was one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century. A modest Belgian, who disliked travelling, he had the good fortune to become the “house violinist” of the Dutch Philips company for many years, and thus left many recordings. His noble playing never gives us problems with intonation, tempi, style or dynamics. On this (excellent quality) recording from the July 1961 Salzburg festival, he plays four standard repertoire works: Beethoven's violin and piano sonata Op 12 No.1, Brahms first sonata for violin and piano, Stravinsky's Divertimento (arranged by Dushkin) and Debussy's violin and piano sonata. All four works are first class in terms of playing, tempi and interpretation. What more could one ask? Grumiaux's duo partner in Salzburg that year was the Hungarian Istvan Hajdu; an excellent pianist. The playing on this CD should be compulsory listening in all music schools: this is how it should be done. Grumiaux live turns out to be even better than Grumiaux in the studio. And that is saying something.

The Khachatryans

I heard the teenage Sergey Khachatryan playing a violin concerto with Marin Alsop conducting at a concert some years ago and I was most impressed. Since then he has been a violinist in whom I have always taken a keen interest, so I seized upon a new CD featuring him called “My Armenia”. The CD consists of a number of 20th century Armenian pieces for violin and piano, of which the only two I know are two bits from Aram Khachaturian (Chanson-Poème, and Sabre Dance). Sergey is his usual admirable and efficient self, but what impressed me above all was the playing of his sister, Lusine Khachatryan. Her playing reminds me of her near-ethnic neighbour, Katja Buniatishvili, with her ability to stroke the piano keys with velvet paws. Perhaps it is the piano sound of the Black Sea / Caspian Sea region. Lusine has lots of solo pieces on the CD – many of them Armenian dances – and they make interesting and enjoyable listening, particularly when played like this. As one can remember from Khachaturian's music, Armenian music has many strands of what used to be called “oriental”. Fortunately, Armenia – like Georgia – was spared from modern Islam, with its bleak record of major artistic works, music or musicians.

All in all, a very welcome CD of pretty well unknown music -- the composer Komitas Vardapet really impresses -- and I'll keep it by me in my “play again” section. It could even turn out that I listen more to the piano pieces, than to the duets. Quibbles? In view of the stature of both artists, the CD should have more accurately been called “Our Armenia”. And whoever told the Naïve graphic artist that no track numbers, and tiny light grey print on a white background were OK, should be shown to the door. Lusine Khachatryan really should be given a CD of her own to record; I'll buy it.