Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Nemanja Radulovic

It is sometimes good to hear old warhorses flogged mercilessly into battle. Nemanja Radulovic is no shrinking violet, and his performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto I have just listened to (from an off-air Catalan radio broadcast) makes the sparks fly; I looked anxiously at my amplifier, at times. The orchestra – GIOrquestra under Marcel Sabaté – comes over well, in excellent sound. Radulovic must be the very devil to accompany, with his frequent almost spontaneous tempo and dynamic changes. He makes Mischa Elman sound positively straight-laced. There are a few fluffs in Radulovic's performance, but if you are going to play with this degree of intensity, it is only to be expected.

There are other ways of playing this concerto, apart from the warhorse route. I recently admired Vilde Frang's lyrical account, and also Georg Kulenkampff's old-world charm. I have also admired Julia Fischer, Vadim Repin and Mischa Elman in this concerto. Radulovic gets my three stars for his violin playing. It does not necessarily make me long to hear him in Mozart, but he certainly starred in Paganini recently, and his Tchaikovsky concerto gets the juices flowing. A must performance for lovers of virtuoso violin playing; but not necessarily a must for lovers of Tchaikovsky's music. For a good modern recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, Vilde Frang is hard to beat.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

George Frideric Handel had a remarkable life. Even as a teenager he was famous in Saxony in the region of his native town of Halle, with Georg Philipp Telemann making a journey to meet the famous teenager. The famous teenager then moved to Italy where in his early 20s he poured out music of astonishing quality (and quantity). In 1708 at the age of 23 he was found in Naples, presenting his cantata a tre Aci, Galatea e Polifemo which was, in effect, a mini-opera (a little like Purcell's Dido and Aeneas). The “cantata” is packed with marvellous music, much of which Handel, an inveterate cut-and-paste artist who wasted little, mined in later years for other works after he had moved to England for the third phase of his extraordinary life. Later in England he returned to the story to write Acis and Galatea which, however, used little of the music of the Neapolitan work.

As always with Handel, performances need first-class singers and a first-class band. The performance I have just listened to well meets all the requirements, with Sandrine Piau sounding like a Stradivari violin, Sara Mingardo like a Stradivari viola, and Laurent Naouri providing the villain's bass voice. The ever-reliable Emmanuelle Haïm directs Le Concert d'Astrée (2002). Arias such as Aci's Qui l'augel da pianta in pianta (with oboe and violin obbligato) must have left Neapolitan aficionados open-mouthed (Handel, of course, re-used the aria's music later in other works). A good Handel performance of a superb Handel work leaves me happy. It is now over 330 years since Handel's birth in Halle, but his music is still going strong as it undoubtedly will for another 330. Handel died a rich man, because he wrote music people liked and valued. Had he had the royalties from his music over the past 300 years, he would have been even richer, since his reputation is still going strong.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Handel's "Hercules"

Handel always comes up with an excellent way to fill two and a half hours with pleasant and attractive music. Today was the turn of Hercules, half music drama, half oratorio. I usually find the first hour somewhat suggestive of composing-by-numbers, but the second half of the work picks up with Handel's usual touches of genius. The recording I listened to today was early John Eliot Gardiner (1982) with an excellent English cast including two mezzo-sopranos (Sarah Walker and Catherine Denley), a first-class tenor (Anthony Rolfe Johnson) and a first-class soprano (Jennifer Smith). Not a castrato in sight, thank heavens. Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir is in good form, which is fortunate since Handel puts a lot of effort into his choruses in this work. Much eighteenth century music – Handel's especially – was written to show off vocal prowess. This version of Hercules fills the bill nicely. Thank you DGG's old Archiv division.

Monday, 12 September 2016

More Winterreise, and César Franck's Symphony

I first got to know Schubert's Die Winterreise cycle back in the 1950s (Hans Hotter, with either Gerald Moore or, later, the 1942 version with Michael Raucheisen when Hotter was in younger and fresher voice). I have listened to the work often since then; it's a wonderful song cycle with complex harmonies, melodies and modulations. My latest version sees Christian Gerhaher with Gerold Huber.

Winterreise is a gloomy, pessimistic work. It sounds even gloomier with this latest version that, right from the start and Gute Nacht, radiates an air of acute depression. Gerhaher is a superb singer with a most attractive light baritone. To my ears, Huber – usually a thoroughly reliable partner – does not make the most of Schubert's highly important piano part; in Die Krähe, for example. I find Brendel (for Matthias Goerne) or Helmut Deutsch (for Jonas Kaufman) preferable. The 24 songs have English translations; bad translations, that show the drawbacks with skimping overheads and employing what could almost be a teenage translator with a dictionary. Who else would translate Der Leiermann as “the Lyre Man”? Just listening to the piano, it's obviously about an organ-grinder, or a hurdy-gurdy man. Good though this version is, I think I'll stick to Hotter, Goerne or Kaufman for my Winterreise listening.

To lift the gloom engendered by listening to Winterreise, I next listened to César Franck's Symphony in D minor. This is a superb symphony, full of colour and melody, that seems to have gone quite out of fashion. Before around the 1960s it appeared regularly in concerts and recordings. In concerts now it has been superseded by wall-to-wall Mahler symphonies, and few new major recordings of Franck's work have appeared over the past few decades. It was an old warhorse of Thomas Beecham, and Giulini (1957 recording) and Pierre Monteux (recorded 1961). It seems to feature less and less in programmes and in catalogues and this is a great loss to music lovers everywhere. As always, I enjoyed it greatly.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Beethoven Symphonies

When I was a teenager in the 1950s and getting to know the canon of the Beethoven symphonies, the critics in Britain were all for Toscanini, closely followed by von Karajan. The craggier Klemperer was also admitted a little later. For political and current fashion reasons, Furtwängler's Beethoven was usually sidelined, even though it came from the British EMI company. So I grew up knowing little about Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Beethoven symphonies, apart from the Pastoral that I bought defiantly in the 1950s, and the ninth symphony. Furtwängler belonged to the older generation of German-culture conductors (as did Klemperer). The new order was sleeker and faster and applauded by the critics of the time.

Some 55 or 60 years later, a box of the nine Beethoven symphonies conducted by Furtwängler with the superb Vienna Philharmonic of the early 1950s gives me a belated chance to update my education. The transfers (apart from the execrable second symphony here) are excellent (all ex-EMI, now Warner). As was often the custom then, there are no automatic first movement exposition repeats – thank goodness; who wants to hear the exposition of such familiar music repeated, just when things were getting interesting? Fanatics who do, can always press the “back to the start” button on their remote command consoles. Beethoven and Furtwängler are the stars here, but one must not forget the wonderful sound world of the Vienna Philharmonic of the 1950s, with its plaintive Sellner oboes, gruff horns, and sleek string sound. We are back in old Germany (or Austria) in a world that no longer exists.

I used to have an old French 10 inch LP of Furtwängler conducting the 1st symphony. The sound is much improved here (1952 recording) and the performance is impressive. In the 2nd symphony, the sound (Albert Hall, live, 1948) is completely intolerable. It was presumably added to the box just to make a complete set of the nine symphonies in EMI recordings. I only listened to the first minute. 6th symphony; this has always been my favourite Pastoral (1952). As throughout these recordings, the Vienna Philharmonic of the early 1950s sounds terrific. 9th symphony; this is the 1951 Bayreuth recording with the wobbly horn in the slow movement. There are better Furtwängler ninths, notably the ferocious March 1942 recording, and the August 1954 Lucerne Festival recording (Furtwängler's last performance).

Eroica: I missed this entirely over the years (the first LP I ever bought was the Eroica conducted by von Karajan with the Philharmonia). This 1952 Eroica from Furtwängler is superb, and fully the equal of the Klemperer recordings of the same period (Klemperer being craggier and with harsher lines, Furtwängler revelling in Beethoven's harmonic transitions and in the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic). To my shame, I had never before heard Furtwängler conduct Beethoven's 5th (nor his 7th). The fifth symphony here (1954) is defiant rather than, as too often when played by others, merely manic and bombastic. One understands fully that Furtwängler was coming to this music after a lifetime of study, and that everything he did came from his understanding of the music; we feel in good, experienced hands. Double bass players must have loved Furtwängler because he always made sure they could be heard underpinning the harmony. The 7th symphony was recorded in 1950 and the sound is marginally inferior to the best sounds in this mono-only set. The period 1950-60 saw a major leap in the quality of high-art recording, and this 1950 7th missed out, a little. It was during this performance that I suddenly realised that, throughout this set of the nine symphonies, my principal focus of admiration was on Beethoven's music, and less on the performers. This, of course, is the trademark of all great performers and interpreters; they lead you into the music. The trio of the third movement is taken more slowly than I have ever heard it before; Walter Legge must have hopped from foot to foot with frustration, as he did at Klemperer's Peasants' Merrymaking in the Pastoral symphony. The finale is taken at a great pace and is quite exciting. Throughout these performances there are plenty of “unauthorised” accelerandos and rallentandos for which Furtwängler was famous (or infamous, in the climate of the 1950s where the metronome was deemed to govern all).

The 1948 recording of the 8th symphony is the only one in this set, apart from the 9th, that is not with the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic of that era. The Stockholm Philharmonic of the period was certainly not the Vienna Philharmonic. Does Furtwängler sound a little impatient in this live performance? He certainly zips through the symphony without showing too much affection. The recording is just passable, but certainly not as abysmal as that of the 2nd symphony.

At least in 2016 I can now make up my own mind about performances without being over-influenced by the likes and dislikes of Trevor Harvey, Alec Robertson, or Nicholas Kenyon, music critics who were influential in the Britain of the 1950s and 60s. The stars of Toscanini and von Karajan seem to have waned since the 1950s and 60s, whereas the stars of Klemperer and Furtwängler have waxed – greatly so, in the case of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Fashions change, but real quality endures – in performances, as well as in music. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this EMI / Warner set. This is great music making by a great orchestra and a great conductor in a world that is now long past. And I am especially happy that, at long last, I have repaired my early educational deficiencies and have heard Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th symphonies.