Sunday, 31 July 2016

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Happy at last

I have been listening to Bach's evergreen Brandenburg Concertos on and off for the past 60 years. Orchestral versions, small groups, chamber groups, pseudo-authentic, modern …. Somewhat by happy chance last week I came across a version of the six that really pleases me; a small, expert chamber orchestra, immaculately played modern instruments, a warm, well balanced 1968 recording, a harpsichord, when used, banished to the shadows; what more could I ask for?

The Brandenburgs do not relate well to a modern symphony orchestra, since – as always with Johann Sebastian – it is important to hear the individual strands of the music. I do not like Brandenburg-lite performances, with a handful of players dictated by a financial controller. I do not like Formula One Brandenburgs (also often dictated by a financial controller, 'get them all over in 59 minutes, please, so that we save money'). I am not a fan of recorders, harpsichords and vibrato-less strings. So the recording I picked up very cheaply with Benjamin Britten directing the English Chamber Orchestra and recorded at the the Maltings, Snape, was just up my street. After all six Brandenburgs, I could not find one tempo with which I was not happy. A harpsichord is listed for the fourth Brandenburg (but is happily inaudible) and also for the fifth where it is one of the solo instruments, with a massive cadenza in the first movement. I suspect that Britten, like me, was not a fan of harpsichords and probably agreed with Thomas Beecham's quip about “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”. The playing throughout by the small orchestra is first class, with players of the stature of Emanuel Hurwitz, Peter Graeme, Ifor James and Richard Adeney playing the solo bits. Britten's direction is sane, musical and supremely well judged.

The Decca set is one of many double-CD recordings available at ridiculously low prices, which probably means these classics of the 1950s, 60s and 70s will probably be out-of-print for future generations. I snapped up six packs (12 CDs) in one order, and will probably go back for more before the whole lot vanish into a musical black hole.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Handel's Ariodante, again

I currently have around forty complete Handel operas and oratorios, a horde of duplicates, many kilos of excerpts, plus innumerable cantatas. I have embarked on listening to the forty or so, starting with the “A”s (and Handel wrote an extraordinary number of operas whose main character begins with “A”). First off the shelf was a return to Ariondante, in two versions: a 1995 recording made in Germany with Nicolas McGegan conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester and with a vocal cast that was mainly American (Harmonia Mundi USA); and a 2010 recording from Italy with a mixed international cast and the mainly Italian Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis (Virgin Classics). Competing in the principal role of Ariondante were two Americans: Lorraine Hunt, and Joyce DiDonato.

I heard Alan Curtis conduct much the same group of players and singers in the Théâtre de Poissy circa 2007, where the opera was Alcina, with DiDonato again in the title role. He was an entirely professional conductor of the baroque repertoire, with a great sense of opera, of orchestral participation, and of inspiring his singers. In these two Ariodante recordings, Curtis and his crew win hands down. Curtis's singers are a better group, and their Italian is more idiomatic than in McGegan's American-German version, the Curtis's singers act with their voices, the Virgin recording is better, the orchestra more alive and more present. Unfortunately, the printed booklet libretto is badly made and soon began falling to bits.

The two principals, Lorraine Hunt, and Joyce DiDonato, make a good contrast. Hunt sings superbly, with a haunting scherza infida; but DiDonato, with better orchestral backing, is even more moving. Hunt gives a superb oratorio performance. DiDonato, the better actress, is far more operatic, and Handel would have been pleased with her. I'll keep the McGegan version on my shelves to listen to Lorraine Hunt occasionally. But my Ariodante is now the Alan Curtis version.

Curtis's cast is: Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Sabina Puértolas, Marie Nicole Lemieux, Topi Lehtipuu, Matthew Brook. All of them superb.

McGegan's cast is: Lorraine Hunt, Juliana Gondek, Lisa Saffer, Jennifer Lane, Rufus Müller, Nicolas Cavallier. A mixed bunch, often with highly unidiomatic Italian.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Nikolai Lugansky, and Sergei Rachmaninov

A recent passion in my musical life has been the solo piano works of Sergei Rachmaninov. Today's acquisition was the opus 23 Preludes, plus the opus 16 Moments Musicaux. Pianist this time round is Nikolai Lugansky, one of my preferred modern Russian pianists (along with Yevgeny Sudbin). I sit back and bask in lovely music, and superb playing; all 65 minutes of it.

A recent big disappointment, however, was getting down off the shelves a CD of Rachmaninov himself playing a selection of his solo piano pieces. Extraordinary pianism, of course (Rachmaninov was one of the 20th century's very greatest pianists). But to me, Rachmaninov always sounds brusque and angry in his playing of these pieces. Maybe he had a right to be angry; the exclusive recording contract he signed with (an American) company meant that whole swathes of his solo piano compositions were never recorded by Rachmaninov: (“No market, I'm afraid, Mr Rachmaninov. We would never show a profit over the next two years”). However, his fellow Russians, not to mention a smattering of highly gifted Chinese, have made up for his thin catalogue of solo piano recordings of his own music, many of which are in somewhat ancient sound. Sergei Rachmaninov's music lives on!

Monday, 18 July 2016

Beethoven's String Quartet Op 130

Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of the string quartet. This evening it was a return to Beethoven's B flat major quartet, Opus 130; this time played by the Hagen Quartett in 2001. Such incredible music. I love the Hagen Quartett's rendition, although at times it brought to mind Carl Flesch's critique of Bronisław Huberman: 'He either whispers, or he shouts'. The Hagens often whisper, and sometimes shout. Headphones are needed for listening, otherwise some things are lost.

This is the only Beethoven string quartet where I do not automatically gravitate towards the Busch Quartet's 1941 recording (why one earth did Busch leave it so late?) as my first choice, since the Busch did not finish with the Grosse Fuga, but with Beethoven's make-shift, get-you-home finale that friends, players and publishers persuaded him to substitute. The Fuga finishes this quartet superbly, after the magnificent Cavatina. 'That is where the rot set in' remarked Benjamin Britten perceptively, identifying the composer's divorce from sponsors, patrons, listeners and performers in Opus 133 (as the original finale later became). Beethoven was right, and sponsors, patrons, listeners and performers were wrong, but Beethoven's “poisonous fruit” was borne out around 100 years later by the transitory dodecaphonists, with their abandonment of harmony and melody, thus vindicating Britten's forebodings. If you want to write “pure” music and forget about everyone else, you have to be a really great composer.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Michèle Auclair

In the later 1950s, you could have found me playing any of the six sonatas for violin and keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach (not necessarily very well). I was later occasionally accompanied by a hit-and-miss pianist. But like all of Bach's music, it always sounds best if you play it yourself and can concentrate on the submerged rhythms and melodic fragments. There is no Bach like my Bach (so long as no one is listening).

Later, of course, I bought recordings of the six sonatas, played by ye olde violinists, modern violinists, thumping pianos or plucking harpsichords. The keyboard role here is often just to fill in the harmonies, and the violin is often supreme. Modern recordings were always carefully balanced to keep the essential violin in the background and yank the keyboard to the foreground. The recording by Viktoria Mullova was especially disappointing, with a whining non-vibrato by the violinist throughout, and a plucking harpsichord miring the sound picture. Her two CDs did not last long on my shelves.

Purely by chance, I have just found a 1956 recording of the six played by Michèle Auclair. This suits me! Ms Auclair was a very fine violinist indeed; she plays here with a modern vibrato sound, she is balanced well forward, and the keyboard part harmonises discreetly – on an organ, played by Marie-Claire Alain. The set was serendipitous, since the six sonatas were included in an eight CD box of recordings by Michèle Auclair.

The French were supremely unlucky with their post-war violinists. Ginette Neveu died in an air crash in 1949, Jacques Thibaud in an air crash in 1953. In the early 1960s Michèle Auclair had to give up her concert career following an accident. In 1982, after a long decline due to alcohol, Christian Ferras committed suicide. Michèle Auclair, as preserved here during her brief recording career mainly in the 1950s, was a violinistic force to be reckoned with, with a controlled intensity similar to that of Ginette Neveu. The recordings are mainly by a “B” team, the accompaniments as well (apart from Willem van Otterloo in the Brahms concerto). But Michèle Auclair's violin shines through it all, and I was particularly happy to listen to her 1956-style Bach sonatas, as well as to the violin playing of the first half of the 20th century with its liberal use of bow strokes and exemplary trills – after the middle of the century trills became somewhat perfunctory, and I always listen with pleasure to the old violinists and their tight trills. I think I still have my original copies of Bach's music somewhere, arranged for violin and piano by Debussy, if I remember rightly, although it is decades since I  last played it.