Monday, 31 October 2016

Alfred Brendel

Now in my later years, I tend to categorise performers of “great” music into two main camps: “Listen to me! Listen to me!” Or “Listen to Schubert! Listen to Beethoven!”

For some reason, the famous pianist Alfred Brendel escaped my ears and my experience. Determined to make up for my loss, I invested in six hours of Brendel playing Schubert, and Beethoven. A poor investment. To my ears, Brendel is a media creation, and very much a “Listen to me! Listen to me!” artist, posturing and constantly drawing attention to what he is doing (as opposed to what the music is relating). Definitely not my kind of pianist; his playing is very mannered. Anyone want some secondhand Brendel recordings?

Ray Chen. Virtuoso

In the right hands, the members of the woodwind family such as the oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon make lovely sounds. The piano and the organ, of course, have a far wider range of sound and a much bigger palette of colours. But the relatively limited range of nice sounds from the woodwind is part of the reason why so few solo or concertante works feature major parts for woodwind members; lovely though the oboe may sound, 79 minutes of lovely oboe playing tend to pall.

In the right hands, the violin has a wide range of colour, from relatively harsh sounds, to silky smooth. In the hands of a folk violinist (gypsy, folk, klezmer) in the old Central European lands, the violin could express rage, love, tenderness or belligerence. To some extent, the violin has now joined hands with the woodwind, with the modern emphasis on an all-over beautiful sound and smooth legato playing, with seamless bow strokes rivalling the breath control of clarinettists or oboe players.

This was my reaction to much of the 79 minutes of violin playing by the young violinist Ray Chen on a recital CD given the title “Virtuoso”. Mr Chen is certainly an impeccable technician, and a tasteful musician. Be it Tartini's “Devil's Trill” or Bach's chaconne from the second solo violin suite, the music sounds effortless and beautiful under Mr Chen's able fingers. What did I miss? The stream of lovely sound risked becoming boring, and works such as Wieniawski's Légende had me wishing for the individuality that an Elman, Heifetz, Busch, Neveu, Schneiderhan or Kulenkampff would have brought to the music. Mr Chen is an excellent modern violinist and probably plays in a way demanded by most modern audiences.

César Franck's sonata for violin and piano is not a virtuoso work; even I used to play it on either violin or viola, at one time, and the piano part is arguably more difficult than that of the violin. The performance here is not great. The piano partner (Noreen Polera) is relegated to second place, and the violin over-indulges in smooth legato and “beautiful” sound. As I have said before many times, in sonatas such as the Franck sonata, the playing of the violinist and the pianist should be of equal interest. Ms Polera does not have much hope.

Not a great performances of the Franck sonata, and far too much “listen to my beautiful violin sound”. Much more impressive is Mr Chen's rendition of the chaconne from the second solo violin suite by Bach. Although not technically a “virtuoso” work, the chaconne demands an extremely high level of violin technique (I never attempted it) and an immense variety of bowing, dynamics and sound production. It does not lend itself to sleek, smooth violin playing, nor to excessive legato. I enjoyed Ray Chen's performance here, so at least 15 minutes of the CD were salvaged for me for frequent future listening.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Haydn and the Goldmund Quartet

In England, a new Naxos CD costs little more than a good sirloin steak for one person; and it lasts a lot longer. Which means if the repertoire appeals, buying a Naxos CD is a low-risk venture, so I buy many Naxos CDs, particularly since the company greatly favours string players. My latest low-risk purchase is three Haydn string quartets – opus 1 no.1, opus 33 no.5, and opus 77 no.1, early, middle, and late. Performers are the Goldmund Quartet, four young men from Munich, and this is their first recording venture.

Nearly one hour of first-class music, with first-class playing and first-class recording. And even better for the body's digestive system than a sirloin steak. This is the kind of purchase that makes me happy to be around still in the modern age. The Goldmund's playing style is “informed modern”, with none of the imagined 18th century period affectations that detract from so many current performances of 18th century music. Roll on the Goldmund's next recording.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Handel's Italian Cantatas

I was pleasantly surprised looking at the index to my collection of recordings to find that I have no less than 193 recordings of the cantatas or duetti that Handel wrote in Italy, starting in 1706-7 when he was 21-22 years old – probably not old enough to order a gin & tonic in California. A goodly number of these works feature in a Glossa CD edition, of which I have the first seven CDs. These all feature Fabio Bonizzoni with La Risonanza, and a varying cast of Italian singers including the versatile Roberta Invernizzi (soprano).

This is young Handel Showing Off music, with music pouring out of him, memorable melody after memorable melody, imaginative accompaniments and instrumentation. Already in the first Glossa CD we have a virtuoso soprano in Tra le Fiamme. A virtuoso violin part in Un pensiero voli in ciel (Il Delirio Amoroso) – written for Arcangelo Corelli who headed the band in Rome. There is then a lovely solo cello part in Per te lasciai la luce (same cantata). And so on ….. One can understand Beethoven's recorded comment in 1823 that "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel on his grave."

Too often, for most people, Handel is now The Messiah, plus Water Music, plus Fireworks Music. But even when we have digested his 42 operas and 27 or so oratorios, it is a draft of fresh spring water to listen to his Italian cantatas and duetti. I, at least, have been able to bow my head at the site of Handel's grave in Westminster Abbey (as well as to visit his birthplace and early abode at Halle in Saxony). One day I'll even make it to 25 Brook Street in London to visit the house in which he lived for 36 years.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen

There are many music composers who died well before their time, and thus deprived us of volumes of great music. Mozart (35), Bellini (34), Schubert (31), Pergolesi (26), George Butterworth (31) and Guillaume Lekeu (24). One of the greatest losses was Henry Purcell (36). By coincidence, I have just listened to two performances of Purcell's “opera” The Fairy Queen; everyone sings excerpts and the best known numbers, but complete performances are a little less common – live performances probably even rarer since the work is part theatre (based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), part entertainment, part opera.

I started with a 1970 recording conducted by Benjamin Britten with an all-star English cast of the time including an excellent Jennifer Vyvyan and John Shirley-Quirk. Plus Peter Pears, inevitably. The work is played with affection, but has many cuts and the 1970 playing does sound idiosyncratic, even to my original-instrument prejudiced ears. Then on to William Christie (1989) with a mainly Franco-American cast including Nancy Agenta, Lynne Dawson, Véronique Gens and Sandrine Piau. This recording was made following a staging in Aix-en-Provence and sounds much more alive and theatrical compared with Britten in bleak Aldeburgh. Lynne Dawson's singing of the celebrated “Oh let me weep” is intensely moving in Christie's recording. Les Arts Florissants are well up to scratch. Two hours of first-class entertainment. There is not too much in common between the order of numbers on the two recordings: Christie has five acts, Britten four parts. The Chinese garden and Chinese men and women have vanished from Britten's version (maybe he, like me, could not work out what Chinese landscapes had to do with Shakespeare's play). This is not an opera with two or three principal roles; a strong overall cast is required. I much prefer Christie's tutti choir to Britten's more conventional Ambrosian Opera Chorus; a full-scale chorus in this work sounds just out of scale with the rest.

To check my impressions I have just ordered a third version of the work: the Accademia Bizantina directed by Ottavio Dantone, with an English cast. He seems to use the same five act version as Christie, and we also get the Chinese contingent. No doubt a report in due course, but no one can have too much Purcell.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Igor Levit at Tanglewood

Igor Levit sprang to instant fame and prominence some two-three years ago; he is still only 29 years old. His fame was achieved without the publicity of ultra-short skirts, ultra-long hair, or Gucci outfits, unlike some of his famous (and immensely talented) contemporaries. He has a style of pianism that is quickly recognisable, with the concentration of Sviatoslav Richter, and the clarity of phrasing and rhythm of Clara Haskil or Maria Pires. I caught him off-air playing at Tanglewood last August, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under David Afkham in Beethoven's third piano concerto. It's a wonderful, classical performance by a really great pianist. I had never met Afkham before, but he also impresses here.

Levit is currently winning fresh laurels in London with a series of Beethoven's piano sonatas. So far, everything Levit touches seems to turn to gold. Ever-suspicious of critical acclaim, I have to admit that this time the general critical opinion (including mine) seems to be right: at least in Bach and Beethoven, Levit is a real wonder. With Levit at the keyboard, Beethoven's third piano concerto really comes to life. Three stars.