Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov

I noticed the release of Boris Giltburg playing Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux Op 39, and the Moments Musicaux Op 16. Since I love both sets of pieces, I put the CD on my wishlist. After a time, I decided that, given I already had several recordings of both pieces, including those by Zlata Chochieva and Xiayin Wang, I would forgo Giltburg, so I took him off the wishlist. Then a highly laudatory review in the Gramophone magazine put him back on the wishlist. Then I noticed it was a Naxos CD, and thus only around the price of a good sirloin steak in the supermarket. So I bought the CD, happily for me.

Giltburg is a pianist on this CD with superb pianism, and a superlative range of sound and dynamics. Some pieces I found too slow for my taste, but it did not matter when Giltburg played them this way. Like Rachmaninov himself, the pianist concentrates on the music, eschewing showmanship. Zlata and Xiayin are still there in my must-listen pile. But so now is Giltburg. Strange to remember that Rachmaninov the composer was once somewhat looked down on by “those in the know”; it is dangerous to write music that music lovers really like!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Violinist Repertoire

It is difficult for fine musicians to achieve notice in the overcrowded modern world, where every man and his dog can commission a recording or post on YouTube. Some try the eccentric route; Nigel Kennedy and Gilles Apap come to mind, in the violin world. Many try the experimental modern contemporary composer-of-the-moment route, where competition and comparisons are limited; Patricia Kopatchinskaja comes to mind, obtaining press coverage with an enfant terrible image. Some violinists still try the well-trodden route of Tchaikovsky-Mendelssohn-Bruch-Sibelius, where they promptly come up against Heifetz, Kreisler, Milstein, Oistrakh, and 200 others.

I fully appreciate that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a mark in “standard” repertoire. But nearly three hours of recorded music for violin and orchestra that arrived chez moi yesterday show one does not need to resort to cacophonic experimental compositions in order to do something different. Two of yesterday's CDs contain three violin concertos of Christian Sinding, plus his better known Suite and a couple of shorter pieces. The third CD contains seven substantial pieces for violin and orchestra by Eugène Ysaÿe. Pretty well none of the three hours of music here is well known, yet all the works are worth getting to know. Violinists in the Ysaÿe are Amoury Coeytaux and Svetlin Roussev; the Sinding features Andrej Bielow.

Kristof Barati in Mozart Concertos

Kristof Barati is a very fine violinist, as he has proved many times since winning the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels in 1997. Being a Hungarian violinist living in Hungary, he is perhaps not as well known internationally as he ought to be. His recorded opus to date, however, is extensive – and enjoyable. The latest addition is two hours of Mozart violin concertos and a few pieces for orchestra, recorded live in Hungary last year and just issued by Brilliant Classics in a well recorded and low priced double CD album. I enjoyed it immensely.

Barati is a brisk player in Mozart, particularly in the first movements of the concertos. A little perturbed at first, I soon began to enjoy the image of a young Mozart flaunting his prowess on the violin. One does not always enjoy young Mozart for violin virtuosity, but one does here; Barati is always interesting. I also much approve of his brief cadenzas (Joachim's in the first movement of K.219); often violinists choose cadenzas that go on and on and thus interrupt the flow of the music. Not so here.

The Hungarian Chamber Orchestra (directed by Barati) contributes appropriately. Inevitably in two hours of live recording there are a few bits and pieces that would have been re-done and patched in a studio. Such things rarely worry me. I have recently enjoyed Mozart concertos played – very differently – by Arabella Steinbacher, and by Katrin Scholtz. There is room for everyone in Mozart interpretation, but I'll always enjoy coming back to Barati's brisk, virtuosic versions that hold my interest from the first bar onwards, even in this music I have known backwards for around six decades.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Symphony Orchestras

I am never over-fussy about orchestras. Modern orchestras are filled with – often younger – players who can cope with most technical challenges. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I have the impression that one and two star orchestras can often make for more rewarding listening, since they try harder than their three star cousins, who are sometimes content to rest on their laurels or past reputations. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to accompanying soloists, and one suspects that – particularly in the past – major orchestras here often fielded ranks of substitute players, rather than the principals. There are many reports of conductors in the past having been nonplussed to discover that the orchestral personnel they were conducting at the actual concert did not entirely correspond to the orchestral personnel with whom they had been rehearsing!

All too often, three star orchestras have become “brands”, in the modern parlance, so much so that, a few years ago, the “Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” was caught out playing two different concerts in two different places; on the same evening! Common sense tells us that the Berlin Philharmonic of the 1930s will not be the same Berlin Philharmonic of the 1960s, or 90s, or the present day. Players change, and retire. Orchestras go through good periods, viz the Philharmonia in the 1950s and 60s, and weak periods, viz the London Symphony Orchestra in the same period. Conductors known for their orchestral training prowess, such as Toscanini, von Karajan, Stokowski, and others, can make a big difference fairly quickly.

Nevertheless, orchestras are not all the same. Russia, Scandinavia, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and America have usually offered a range of fine orchestras whereas, for some reason, countries such as France, Spain, Italy or Greece struggle in any given period to offer even one orchestra of real international standard. France is particularly puzzling, since the country boasts a strong range of first-rate instrumentalists and numerous prestigious conservatoires. There are orchestras in Paris, Toulouse and Lille, but it is difficult to think of a famous French orchestra. As for Germany; the country bursts with fine orchestras, some with major “brand” images such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, not to mention the orchestras of Dresden and Leipzig, with superb orchestras all over the place in Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and elsewhere – Bremen is a recent fine contestant. I am very fond of the recordings by Günter Wand that he made mostly in Cologne and Hamburg with regional German radio orchestras; to my ears, the orchestras sound fine and I do not miss their three star cousins.

Having said that, however, orchestras can make a difference in certain respects; Russian orchestras appear to dive into the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich in a particularly heart-felt way, as do British orchestras in the music of Elgar – and the Vienna Philharmonic in the music of Anton Bruckner. I marvelled recently at the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's eighth and ninth symphonies (conducted by Carl Schuricht in the early 1960s); the sound was simply so right. In many respects, however, symphony orchestras are much like restaurants or wine: they have their good periods and their bad periods, good years and bad years, a change of chef can make a major difference as can a change of ownership or funding. Ah, the Concertgebouw orchestra of the 1970s vintage !

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Tristan & Isolde

Hans Knappertsbusch, Carl Schuricht, Bernard Haitink, Günter Wand, Adrian Boult, Jascha Horenstein, Pierre Monteux, Victor de Sabata, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Eugen Jochum, Eduard van Beinum ... there is a long list of highly admirable conductors who never managed to reach the "star" list, not because of lack of ability, but often because of lack of ambition, or lack of effective PR managers, or inability to gain three star recording contracts or media material posts with prestigious orchestras. Otto Klemperer nearly joined the list, but he was "rescued" by Walter Legge in the early 1950s and Legge, for all his chronicled faults, could recognise first-class musicians and do something for them, if he chose.

Carl Schuricht was one such "star, non-star". In its dying days, EMI issued a superb re-mastered SACD version of Schuricht conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1961 and 63 in Bruckner's eighth and ninth symphonies, and I have been listening again to this with much pleasure. I have an uneasy feeling that great performances of the music of Wagner and Bruckner died out during the later decades of the twentieth century, a feeling reinforced today listening to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, recorded by EMI in 1952 and conducted in a London studio by Wilhelm Furtwängler. This is a well-known great classic of the recording eras, but how incredible it is! The stature of this recording is due almost entirely to Furtwängler, who melds the massive 4-5 hour opera into one seamless, impassioned whole. Timings are slow, forward progress relentless. The stature is enhanced by the 1952 mono recording, produced by Walter Legge with the incomparable Douglas Larter as balance engineer. I found the recording quality (digital transfer by Christopher Parker) to be quite amazing, given the 64 years that have elapsed since the original was set down. They don't make great classics like that any more when it comes to Wagner or Bruckner, it seems; the old dinosaurs died with their secrets intact.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Music in Germany, and Katrin Scholz

One of those strange media articles (CNN, I think) recently featured “Seven Things the Germans do Best”. Cars were there, as were beer and sausages (I think). But nothing about music, even though the Germans obviously do music very well indeed, and have done for a few centuries now. Looking through a list of my favourite German-speaking violinists, I found:

Erich Röhn, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Frank Peter Zimmerman, Christian Tetzlaff, Katrin Scholz, Adolf Busch, Fritz Kreisler, Arabella Steinbacher, Georg Kulenkampff, Laurent Albrecht Breuninger, Isabelle Faust, Julia Fischer, David Frühwirth, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Benjamin Schmid, Gerhard Taschner, Thomas Zehetmair. Quite a list. And of major orchestras in the world, the orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart. Plus the plethora of opera houses in pretty well every German city, plus the music conservatoires. And when it comes to recording music, the Germans have been superb for getting on for a century now (with the Dutch and the British also often highly competitive). German music, played by Germans and recorded by Germans, is often a benchmark for first class quality.

All of which came to mind as I listened to Katrin Scholz playing Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn with the Kammerorchester Berlin (Michael Sanderling conducting in the Beethoven). Ms Scholz plays the five concertos on her two CDs – the last three by Mozart, plus a Haydn concerto, plus the Beethoven – with a touching simplicity and playing that is “classical” in the best sense of the word, avoiding the heavy point-scoring in every bar in which some performers seem to indulge. The recording quality, dating from 1997-2004, is excellent, as is the balance between violin and orchestra. I cannot think why Music did not make CNN's list of things the Germans do best. And I cannot think why Katrin Scholz, who has made some fine recordings, is not better known.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Tempi in Mozart, and Arabella Steinbacher

My good friend Lee Cheng Hooi compiled an interesting chart showing the timings of Mozart violin concerto movements as played by Arabella Steinbacher, Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Arthur Grumiaux. Tempo is an interesting conundrum and, as is well known, stopwatch timings tell only half the story. In my view, a tempo usually feels too fast or too slow if it is chosen because:
  • “at this speed, everyone will think I am a great player”
  • “at this speed, everyone will think I feel deeply about this music”
  • “this is the speed I think (or, more arrogantly, I know) Mozart et al would have expected”.
A tempo usually seems right if it is the tempo the player feels suits the music best. Jascha Heifetz's rapid tempi usually suit me fine, since it is obviously the tempo Heifetz felt to be right at the time. Similarly, I am (usually) impressed with Arabella Steinbacher's tempi, even when, on average, she takes half a minute or more per Mozart movement compared with Zimmermann or Grumiaux. Coming back to Arabella, I find I really enjoy her performances of Mozart's 3rd, 4th and 5th violin concertos; I would characterise her playing as relaxed. She seems to be enjoying playing what she plays, and overall enjoyment is helped by the superb Pentatone recording, and the contribution of the Festival Strings Lucerne led by Daniel Dodds. An enjoyable experience. On order I have yet another CD of Mozart violin concertos, to be played this time by Kristof Barati; he'll have a job to do better than Arabella, who is a lovely violinist in all senses of the phrase.