Sunday, 28 August 2016

Tempo Giusto

Donald Vroon, writing in the current issue of the American Record Guide sounds off against a couple of violinists in Mozart concertos: “No one dares a true Adagio. Why not? It strikes me as downright dumb to play music according to rules instead of how you feel about it. What are violinists for? Concertos are not written for metronomes”.

On the question of tempos, I have vacillated like a weather vane over the years, swinging backwards and forwards. The Bach Brandenburg concertos seem to have become Formula One Brandenburgs, with every version trying to clip minutes and seconds off the previous versions, and a pity about the music. Tempos pre-1950 were usually slower than post- 1980, and conductors and instrumentalists now dare not slow down the music for fear of being accused of being boring. Fast is modern, and fast is currently fashionable. Slow sees you criticised, fast sees you praised (apart from by a few old codgers like Donald Vroon and me). I disliked most of the rapid tempos in Riccardo Chailly's set of the Beethoven symphonies – a set I have since given away. I love Furtwängler's languid Pastoral symphony where he sounds like a true country lover. Chailly sounded like a town boy who can't get out of the countryside fast enough. John Eliot Gardiner usually sounds too fast, to me but, there again, I am the only person to enjoy Otto Klemperer's majestic and awe-inspiring opening Kyrie in Bach's Mass in B minor. Much music cries out to be savoured, like a great wine. Savouring needs time; no one should down a bottle of a great wine in two minutes flat.

Music has tempo markings, but no one knows exactly what molto moderato meant to Schubert. One can expostulate what a given composer expected to hear; but one can never be sure what the composer hoped to hear, or would like to have heard. Bach may have expected to hear his sonatas and partitas for solo violin played rhythmically and in tune by a court violinist; but, given the option, would he have been more delighted listening to them played by Jascha Heifetz? The original composition is, of course, in the composer's head; the heavenly choirs he imagines when writing might jibe harshly with the small amateur choir he had to put up with for a hastily arranged performance.

There are tempos that are idiosyncratic; Benjamin Britten was driven to protest to Sviatoslav Richter about his tempo in the opening movement – molto moderato – of Schubert's last piano sonata. It is slow. Richter obviously felt it should be slow, and I agree with Richter (when it is played by him; the performer has to feel that that is the right tempo). Performers should play with sincerity, how they feel the music should go. I am reminded of Nathan Milstein's account of playing Glazunov's violin concerto conducted by a somewhat inebriated Glazunov. At a certain point, Glazunov stopped the rehearsal and said to Milstein: “I marked that passage piano”, to which Milstein says he replied: “I think it sounds better forte”. After a pause, Glazunov replied: “You may be right”.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside in Schubert Lieder

A kind friend sent me a CD of Roderick Williams (baritone) and Iain Burnside (piano) in a recital of 22 Schubert Lieder. I had never heard of either musician, but I have been very pleasantly surprised. Williams has a most attractive light baritone voice, making a pleasant change from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's occasional rasps and gusts. His German sounds excellent (to me) and his diction is immaculate; one hardly needs the libretto. The songs are intelligently chosen and contrasted, with seven of the songs coming from Rellstab texts in the Schwanengesang collection.

I usually hesitate about song recitals by non- native speakers. The French for French mélodies, the Germans for German Lieder, and the British for English language songs, is a fairly sure rule. But I make an exception for Mr Williams. Another pleasant surprise was Iain Burnside's highly participating accompaniments; a long way from the smiling and polite Gerald Moore of yesteryear. Burnside is a real contributor to these songs (as he should be). All in all, a very fine new CD from the Delphian label.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Augustin Dumay and Maria Pires in Beethoven

The ten sonatas Beethoven wrote for violin and piano are pretty well all of a high standard, with many lovely slow movements. They are also true duo sonatas, with neither violin nor piano in a star or dominant role. They demand two well matched (and well recorded) performers. I have no less than eleven complete sets of the sonatas, from artists as varied as Kristof Barati and Klara Würz, Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp … and a few others. The works are not particularly difficult to play technically, but for me the essential quality is balance; balance between the stature of the two artists involved, balance in the sound so that, even when the violin is playing pianissimo, it can be heard against the more dominant sound of the piano. Too many modern recordings give the piano undue prominence, which means one often struggles to hear what the poor violinist is playing.

The latest set of the ten sonatas (33 movements in all) to hit my shelves features Augustin Dumay and Maria Pires, recorded sometime in the 1990s and, from the sound, on a number of different occasions in different venues. The sound quality varies between good, and very good, but you can always hear what the violin is playing, even against a strong piano background.

Opus 30 No.3 finds the pair in a somewhat more aggressive mood, with some strong accents – particularly in the first movement. Was this Beethoven having a bad-mood day, or Pires and Dumay? The variation slow movement of the Kreutzer sonata finds the pair at their most typical and most impressive; true duo playing by two friends both of whom are first class musicians. No one does it better than this. Opus 96, the lone violin and piano sonata of later Beethoven, gets a lovely performance here. This set goes right into my top three (the other two depend on my current mood and taste). Compared with the competitive violinists listed above, Dumay is well up with the best, with an appealing sweet tone. Pires, however, is equalled only by Haskil, both of whom take to Beethoven (as also to Mozart) like ducks to water.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Confessions of a Dilettante

After around 60 years of listening to music, there is a long list of works and composers that I love. There is a shorter list of composers whom I qualify with “maybe, sometimes”. The latter list includes Mahler, Brahms, Britten, Elgar, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, and Robert Schumann.

With Robert Schumann, I hum and ha. His songs and song cycles get three stars from me, both for the vocal line and the piano parts. His solo piano music (that I do not know very well) rarely appeals, since it always seems so muddy. His orchestral music is usually even muddier, though I will confess to a long-standing liking for his fourth symphony that I began to know as a teenager, in a recording conducted by Furtwängler. I never took to his piano concerto, let alone his cello concerto; and certainly not his violin concerto. The Dichterliebe and Liederkreis song cycles were part of my youth and are still very much with me. I warmed to Schumann again yesterday listening to the entirely admirable Christian Gerhaher singing Schumann lieder, including the Dichterliebe.

In general, I spend little time with the “keyboard” composers such as Schumann, Chopin and Liszt (always excepting Rachmaninov, of course). Still some time left for re-evaluation but, in the meantime, there is most of the music of Purcell, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Bruckner, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Duparc, Fauré, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov …. and many, many others. In classical music, there really is an embarras de choix. As a string quartet lover, who has only recently discovered the quartets of Haydn and Shostakovich, I find no need to try to plunge into the string quartets of Bela Bartok, a composer who almost always leaves me feeling somewhat chilled.