Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Julius Röntgen

Unfortunately, up until now Julius Röntgen has only flickered across my radar very occasionally. This is unjust, because he seems to have written some attractive music that is highly listener-friendly and should appeal to anyone who likes Brahms, Grieg or Dvorak. Almost alone of so many little-known composers, he knew how to write a memorable tune. I've just been listening to a violin and piano CD sent to me by a Dutch friend (the E major sonata Opus 40, the Phantasy Op 24, the Sonata Trilogica, and the suite of Seven Concert Pieces). All highly enjoyable – so much so that I have ordered a second, competitive version to compare with my current disc where the violinist is the unknown (to me) Christoph Schickedanze. All sounds OK, but the violin is balanced a little too far back; a situation rectified to some extent by listening through headphones. The music does not sound at all technically challenging, and should be ideal for concert violinists looking for something outside the usual inevitable 12 violin and piano sonatas. At any rate, it is music that concert attendees would immediately take to (as did I).

Monday, 27 June 2016

More Scarlatti from Yevgeny Sudbin

Domenico Scarlatti must be the king of Easy Listening music. He wrote over 500 keyboard sonatas – most lasting typically 3-6 minutes each. Years ago I bought a CD of 18 of his sonatas played by Yevgeny Sudbin, and the CD lasted well on each re-listening. So I have now bought his second CD, featuring 18 more sonatas. I love it! Others – including Clara Haskil – have recorded Scarlatti sonatas, but there is something about Sudbin's playing that sounds just right. Music, and playing, to keep close to hand.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Speedy Isabelle Faust

There is some truly wonderful violin playing on Isabelle Faust's 2009-11 recording of the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach. At times, one simply has to gasp in admiration, and I often regretted that, so far, Ms Faust does not seem to have recorded Paginini's Capricci. Her Strad here sounds beautiful, and Ms Faust does not miss a trick, or even a demi-semiquaver. The fast movements come off very well indeed – and the B minor partita that can often seem to go on for too long, gets a magnificent performance.

But, and it's a big but: some of the music is played simply too quickly. The fugues, the lovely andante of the A minor sonata, the largo of the C major sonata, as well as the Ciaccona – need to breathe. In practically every movement I looked at, Faust is faster even than Jascha Heifetz. The Ciaconna is dispatched in one long breath of 12'26; probably a world record. Make no mistake, there is some breathtaking violin playing on these two CDs; the well-known Preludio to the E major partita is full of fascinating light and shade. Ms Faust is no dumb high-speed virtuoso; she is a superb musician in all she does. It's just that some movements in this set are just too damn fast!

I have only once heard Isabelle Faust live, but I have many recordings by her, and practically everything she touches turns to gold. Two hours of wonderful violin playing here, and I sense I'll return to this set often; but I still need alternatives such as Heifetz, Milstein or Ibragimova for performances that allow the music to breathe and leave me admiring Bach, as well as the violinist.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Henry Purcell: Fantasias

There is music where one has a sense of a composer communicating with his muse, leaving aside all thoughts of patrons, public renown, reputation, or celebrity. Examples are found often with Bach (Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, the 48 preludes and fugues), with Beethoven (the late string quartets), Shostakovich (the string quartets, the preludes and fugues for piano) … and with Henry Purcell and his Fantasias for viols. By the time Purcell wrote his fantasias in 1680 when he was 21 years old, the consort of viols was already somewhat passé, and no one quite understands why Purcell wrote for what we would now call “period instruments”.

I came across the fantasies (“fantazias” as Purcell termed them) many decades ago, and they continue to fascinate me with their kaleidoscopic range of colour, tempo and harmony. The harmonies are often “post Schönbergian” in places, and this must have astounded any listeners – if there were any – in the 1680s. What a wealth of invention, and what a marvellous sense of a great composer revelling in his musical and contrapuntal skills. No challenge was left unopposed, viz the celebrated Fantazia upon one Note à 5.

Unfortunately, I now have only one recording of the fantasies, that by a viol ensemble that called itself Phantasm, recorded back in the early 1990s (I have just ordered a second version, with Jordi Savall). As far as I can judge, the Phantasm group is excellent, but it really will be good to have alternatives to compare; English groups can be somewhat prim and proper, and averse to throwing themselves into the music. Purcell's fantasias are rarely played today, probably because there are few viol consorts around, and players of later instruments (violins, violas, cellos) are terrified of being labelled musically incorrect. And the fantasias were not even published until 1927! But, ah, what magnificent music we find in the Purcell fantasias, the true musical ancestors of the late Beethoven and Shostakovich string quartets. We can think of the (paraphrased) remark attributed to Handel, when talking about Purcell: “Had he lived longer, we would all have been out of a job”.