Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Beethoven, Brahms, Furtwängler, and Toscanini

My listening tastes at the moment have taken me away from most of the symphonic repertoire (with exceptions, of course). Today, however, I took down two old favourites dating back to my teenage years: Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, and Brahms' fourth symphony. The Pastoral for me was always Furtwängler's 1952 recording (not approved of by the critics of that era). I enjoyed it again today in its fine Pristine Audio reincarnation. Furtwängler, for me, fully brings out the spirit of Beethoven's music. Beethoven, we feel, loved the countryside.

The Brahms fourth with which I grew up was that conducted by Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a performance that was fast and hard-driven, with chords like whiplashes. That recording (on an LP) is long gone from my shelves. For my current listening to the work, it was back to Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1948 (amazingly brought back to life by Pristine, once again). It is astonishing the quality of orchestral sound that German audio engineers could manage back in the 1940s – especially compared with the Americans in the 1950s. Furtwängler in Brahms with his Berliners is far more Germanic than Toscanini with his Americans some five years later. First loves in music usually last a long time, but Toscanini never lasted long with me. Music needs love, as well as fire and fury. Brahms fourth symphony is one of my favourites (and also one of those rare symphonies whose finales to which I really look forward).

Lovers of great performances of the past are greatly indebted to Pristine Audio and to Andrew Rose, and I wish the company a speedy and triumphant recovery from its recent IT catastrophe.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Elgar's Second Symphony: Vasily Petrenko

I greatly admired and enjoyed Vasily Petrenko's recording of Elgar's first symphony with the Liverpool Philharmonic and waited impatiently for his recording of the more complex second symphony that Petrenko recorded in 2016. It arrived today and was given an immediate hearing. I was not disappointed; it's a magnificent reading (and recording) of the work.

Elgar is not easy to conduct. His music needs to keep moving, and needs a conductor who can grade the dynamics in what is a long work weighing in at over one hour. Petrenko succeeds in Elgar, just as he succeeds in Shostakovich. I continue to be amazed at the prowess of the Liverpool Philharmonic under Petrenko's baton. In particular, the brass and the woodwind impress. In the last analysis, perhaps the violins could do with more Russian or German heft at the main climaxes (for example, the wonderful moment towards the end of the larghetto when the first violins swoop down, fortissimo, from on high). But, on this evidence, not many orchestras could equal the Liverpudlians under Petrenko in this music.

By coincidence, the last performance of this work I listened to was also by a Petrenko; Kirill Petrenko (no relation, except both Petrenkos – or Petrenki – are Russian) conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. That also was excellent. Perhaps Elgar appeals to Petrenki. Their conducting of Elgar certainly appeals to me.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Musical Pitch

In physics, there is no such pitch as standard “A”. In 17th-century Europe, tunings ranged from about A=374 to A=403. Historical examples exist of instruments, tuning forks, or standards ranging from A=309 to A=455. Although the agreed standard today is A=440, some orchestral groups and chamber groups prefer to tune higher, at A=442 or even A=444 to make a brighter sound. In other words: “correct” pitch is simply what one is used to.

In Bach's music, there are advantages and disadvantages in choice of pitch. Listening to Karl Richter in the sixth Brandenburg concerto, for example, the higher modern pitch lightens the sound of the violas and cellos, that can sound somewhat gruff and murky at A=415 which was the semi-standard pitch at the time the Brandenburgs were written. But again listening to Karl Richter in some Bach cantatas, it is evident that modern pitch often poses serious challenges for sopranos and tenors; musical instruments can accommodate different pitches, where the human voice is a pretty fixed instrument and can struggle in the higher echelons at A=440 where the music envisaged A as being somewhere around 415.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Julia Fischer and Bach

For almost all my life (or at least for the past 65 years) I have known the violin concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach. First, from learning them and playing them on my violin, and then from a plethora of recordings, starting with the E major concerto on two 10 inch 78 rpm shellac discs. The concertos have not fared well with recordings. Pre- 1950, they were often given the full romantic treatment, with a ponderous symphony orchestra accompanying. Then, post the 1970s, they were too often given the full hocus-pocus “authentic” treatment, with the worst I have encountered being the much-admired Alina Ibragimova grotesquely accompanied by some pseudo baroque band with a monstrous plucking theorbo (or jeroboam) breaking up the sombre bass line in the slow movements of of the E major and A minor concertos (Jonathan Cohen and his 18th century Arcangelo bandits).

I chanced upon a CD of Julia Fischer playing the violin concertos (with Alexander Sitkovetsky in the double concerto). This is how I like Bach played. No conductor – the Academy of St Martin in the Fields does not need an interventionist conductor for this kind of music. Ms Fischer plays the music straight, and from the heart. No romantic posturings; no pseudo- 18th century embellishments. The band provides the tuttis with not an arch-lute in sight (nor a harpsichord, deo gratias).

The concerto in C minor for violin and oboe fares a little better than usual, but it will not come into its own until a courageous balance engineer puts the oboe at the back of the band (under protest, and threat of legal action) and the violin at the front. The piercing sound of the oboe is simply too dominant when pitted against the softer sound of the violin on equal footing. The first recording I had of this concerto was a French seven inch LP (or maybe EP) with Karl Ristenpart and his Saarlanders; probably fetch $20,000 on EBay now, though it is long since gone from my shelves.

Julia Fischer has always been a superb violinist, though her star seems to have faded of late. These Bach concerto recordings date from 2008. I did notice she was recently playing Beethoven sonatas in Germany with Igor Levit. That would be something to hear. In the meantime, I really like Ms Fischer's Bach concertos and will lift them off my shelves regularly. More and more, for Bach I gravitate towards Edwin Fischer and Karl Richter, with Alina Ibragimova (as long as she plays solo).

Monday, 13 February 2017

Return to Josef Spacek

A surprising number of composers wrote only one sonata for violin and piano: Leos Janacek, César Franck, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel. The list really also includes Prokofiev, whose somewhat lightweight second sonata is an adaptation of a flute sonata, and Robert Schumann, whose second sonata is very small beer compared with the first. Gabriel Fauré also wrote a second sonata that has nowhere near the stature of the first. Elgar wrote one sonata for violin and piano, as did Guillaume Lekeu and Albéric Magnard; many composers wrote none at all. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, of course, wrote many sonatas for violin and keyboard, and Brahms wrote three (very good ones, too).This occurred to me forcibly listening to a CD recital yesterday.

Some three years ago in this blog I warmly praised Josef Spacek's CD of Janacek, Smetana and Prokofiev. Having listened to it again yesterday, I praise it again; it's a superb CD, and really well recorded. Janacek's ever-fascinating sonata is played warmly. Prokofiev's first sonata for violin and piano has all the tension and spikiness that I missed in Lisa Oshima's recent CD, and Spacek is greatly aided by his piano partner, Miroslav Sekera. Great music, well played and recorded. Supraphon does some good things for a small label in a small country.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Lisa Oshima in Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev and I only have a nodding acquaintance. I know little or nothing of his string quartets (did he write any?), or his piano sonatas, or his piano concertos, or his operas, or his ballet music, or his symphonies. I do, however, know well and like very much his music for violin: the two violin concertos, the two sonatas, the various pieces arranged for violin. So I bought a CD with the (unknown, to me) violinist Lisa Oshima with the (unknown to me) pianist Stefan Stroissig. The CD contains the wonderful first sonata for violin and piano, the Five Melodies Op 35 bis, Five Pieces from Cinderella, and an arranged Suite from Romeo and Juliet. A good start: an imaginative combination of pieces for a seventy minute CD.

The seventy minutes go by highly pleasurably. Ms Oshima is a fine violinist, the duo works well and is well recorded and balanced so we can hear both piano and violin whenever they play together. If I only give the CD two stars rather than three, it's because Prokofiev's music occasionally calls for some real muscle, particularly in the first sonata, and Ms Oshima is too much a well brought up Japanese young lady to risk making a harsh sound, and the pianist, Mr Stroissig, never veers towards percussion. Tempi on the leisurely side do not help. So we get a melodious Prokofiev, which drops it one star from my appraisal. I have twenty recordings of the first sonata, including excellent ones from Janine Jansen, David Oistrakh, Alina Ibragimova, Lisa Batiashvili, Vadim Repin and Josef Spacek. It's a frequently recorded work and competition is fierce, but Ms Oshima can certainly join this exalted company, particularly for those who don't like their Prokofiev too "raw". A warm welcome to seventy minutes of Prokofiev with Lisa Oshima, and some wonderful violin playing; a CD I shall certainly listen to many times.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Postscript: Pires in Mozart

In a short interview before a recent broadcast (30th January 2017), Pires said that she finds playing Mozart "very difficult" (Heifetz said the same). Pires added that sometimes she loves Mozart's music, sometimes she dislikes it. An interesting perspective. Her 2017 performances of K 488 and K 595 are, if anything, better than her versions of a few years ago. Robert Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are no match for Abbado and his hand-picked orchestras, and Ticciati – or the BBC balance engineers – need to learn about the importance of prioritising the wind band in Mozart (something Klemperer and Abbado understood). Fortunately, in the Mozart piano concertos the orchestra plays a subsidiary role; Mozart made sure the focus was on the pianist! So Ticciati and his Scots are merely "perfectly adequate". But Pires is supreme in this music.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Ravel's Tzigane

I listened with interest to a concert (31st January 2017 in Hamburg) given by Patricia Kopatchinskaja (NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock). The work concerned was Ravel's Tzigane of which I happen to have no less than 87 different recordings; it's a popular piece for violinists. As with anything Kopatchinskaja plays – apart from her avant-garde stuff – the playing is immensely interesting (and violinistically superb, of course). My impression is that the nearer the music gets to Moldova (Patricia's homeland) the more the music resounds within her. But what of Ravel's "gypsy" pastiche, written in France around 1926? Should it be played "straight", as a French composition of 1926, or can one take its tzigane label and treat it with the freedom any gypsy would have brought to it?

Kopatchinskaja, inevitably, treats it as gypsy music and allows herself a lot of freedom and rubato ad infinitum. I agree with her; Ravel's Tzigane is not a profound piece of late Beethoven that should be played with reverence and close adhesion to the composer's score. If I ever played Tzigane (miracles may occur, one day) I would like to play it like Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and with her free approach to the French score.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Edwin Fischer and Johann Sebastian Bach

I took advantage of the free offer by Andrew Rose and Pristine Audio to celebrate (?) their IT problems, and downloaded Edwin Fischer playing the first 24 preludes and fugues of the 48. I have long had Bach's 48 played by Fischer on CD (EMI) but am always willing to evaluate new transfers of the old mid-30s recordings. Repeated listening to the two CDs have prompted several musings:
  • When it comes to Bach on the keyboard, there is no real advantage in confining ones listening to the latest digital sound. The 48 on a harpsichord, clavichord, organ, fortepiano or modern grand piano are somewhat independent of original sound quality. To my ears, the recorded sound of Fischer's 1933-34 playing is fine, particularly in the Pristine transfers.
  • Edwin Fischer's Bach belongs in the same exalted company as the Busch Quartet's Beethoven and Schubert (and recorded in the same mid- 1930s period). I really do not need a better played, or better sounding, recording of the 48. Fischer in the mid- 1930s will do me fine.
  • The 48 preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach are undoubtedly great music, but I would be at a total loss to have to explain to débutante music lovers exactly why the music is great. Easy to demonstrate this with Schubert, with Bellini, with Wagner … and the rest. But with three hours of preludes and fugues, some of the pieces lasting for less than one minute? I can almost see my grandchildren's eyes glaze over. And yet: I can listen to the 48 over and over again with enormous pleasure. Analysis is irrelevant; this is music to be enjoyed, as every few minute we exclaim: Ah, wunderbar!