Friday, 21 April 2017

Joseph Achron's Violin Concerto

I complain often about the conservatism and lack of ambition by violinists or impresarios when it comes to violin concertos. We hear the same old 12-15 concertos season after season. A friend recommended to me a recording of the first violin concerto of Joseph Achron, dating from around 1926. Achron – a violinist – would seem to have written three violin concertos (the third being commissioned by Heifetz). A search of the web suggests that only one of his concertos, the first, has ever been recorded; and recorded once only, 19 years ago by Elmar Oliveira. Hard to understand. Achron's musical language in the first concerto reminds me of the concertos of Aram Khatchaturian and Otar Taktakishvili; friendly folk-based music from down there in Armenia, Georgia, etc. Nothing to frighten audiences or record buyers. Plenty of playing to enjoy. Maybe, like many concertos written by violinists for violinists, the orchestra has a bit of a nominal role. However, in this one recording of this one of Achron's violin concertos, Oliveira seems to play well and with enthusiasm. I enjoyed listening and, after having now listened twice, I'll be sure to listen again at some time.

Liner notes and booklets always seem designed to annoy me, even when I have enjoyed the music and the playing. I do so dislike labels. Joseph Achron grew up in Europe, with a solid European background in Russia and Germany. He served in the Russian army in the first world war. He didn't go to America until he was 39 years old. Nevertheless, Naxos labels him as an “American Classic”, complete with American flag. Joseph Achron was no more a product of America than was Joseph Stalin. As if that is not enough, the CD is also labelled “American Jewish Music”. I dislike labels. Are we to have a series of “the five greatest Lesbian pianists”? Or “the three greatest Protestant composers”? Or “the greatest Nordic-Teutonic violinist”? It is said that Erica Morini (or was it Ida Haendel?) rightly objected when a newspaper critic labelled her as “a major woman violinist”. Music is independent of sex, language, religion, race or nationality, which is one of its strengths. Let us keep it that way.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Fritz Kreisler's Early Recordings

Fritz Kreisler was already 29 years old when he made his first recordings in 1904, followed by a second batch in 1910. Naxos issued his complete recordings, with the early ones being excellently re-mastered by Ward Marston. I have just been listening to the early recordings, starting with 1904, with a great deal of pleasure.

Despite being recorded well over 100 years ago, the essence of Kreisler's playing comes over as if it were yesterday: his burnished, golden tone; his deeply singing double-stops; his unmatched sense of rubato; his legendary bowing dexterity; his impeccable sense of style. And, over and above all that, the famous geniality of the man communicates itself. Everyone loved Fritz Kreisler, from audiences to fellow violinists. Even hyper-competitive Jascha Heifetz loved Kreisler and his playing ever since hearing him at a concert in Vilnius when Heifetz was still very young. A photo of Kreisler always hung in Heifetz's music room, the only violinist so honoured.

Repertoire was unavoidably limited back in the old days of acoustic recording, all gathered round a big horn that acted as a microphone. But despite the limitations of repertoire, and despite the prevalence of extensive portamento, these old Kreisler acoustic recordings are ones to cherish and to listen to with pleasure every year or so. No one now plays like Fritz Kreisler, more's the pity.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Wonderful Julia Lezhneva. And Carl Heinrich Graun

Music that has lain undisturbed for around 250 years is usually best left in peace. But not always, and the opera arias of Carl Heinrich Graun (a contemporary of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, et al) have turned out to be a happy resurrection, thanks also to the inspired singing of Julia Lezhneva, the Jascha Heifetz of the soprano world. What a lovely voice, what intelligence and enthusiasm, and what an incredible vocal technique! Unlike Sonya Yoncheva, the last soprano I listened to, Lezhneva really feels the words she is singing. Ten of the eleven arias on this new CD of Graun's music are world premiere recordings. All eleven well-varied arias are well worth listening to. All the arias are in Italian, the opera language of the day, and Ms Lezhneva's diction is exemplary; a lesson to many of her rivals.

True, Herr Graun did not have Handel's genius when it came to writing memorable music for the orchestra in operatic works; but neither did anyone else in the eighteenth century until Mozart came along. Ms Lezhneva, now at the ripe old age of 27, is an amazing voice and a major artist. My thanks to a good friend who sent me a copy of this CD as a present. It's a CD I will not file away for a long time to come. Enjoyable and interesting listening on a Sunday afternoon. A sample is at:

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Sonya Yoncheva

Sonya Yoncheva. A pretty woman. A lovely voice. Wonderful music (in arias from Handel operas). Her latest CD is a compilation of Mr Händel's Greatest Hits.

The highly competent orchestra (Academia Montis Regalis) is relegated somewhat far back, which is a shame, since Handel's instrumental parts are always extremely interesting. In Handel's opera arias, the orchestra is never a mere backing group, as in so much operatic music. We need to hear the orchestra! When Ms Yoncheva sings, “Traditore!” or “Amore!” are given the same sound and inflections. Sopranos should listen to Maria Callas, or Lorraine Hunt, or Joyce DiDonato, concerning the ability to convey meaning within the sound. Handel's marvellous music and melodic gift convey the meaning of what is being sung; but so should the singer be able to colour the voice accordingly. A non-stop beautiful mezzo-forte really is not good enough.

Ms Yoncheva's accent, whether in Italian or English, is carefully-trained East of Europe (Bulgaria). The CD has a “B+” from me for beautiful music and beautiful singing. But every aria on the CD can be found better communicated. Violinists (and pianists) take note: a beautiful sound is really not enough. You need to be able to communicate the music behind the notes.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Good Times for Music Lovers

Young people who like classical music (“young” for me being under 45 years of age) do not realise how lucky they are. Not much more than 100 years ago, you took what you were given in terms of repertoire played in your local area. The advent of broadcast music then helped enormously to widen choice and knowledge of alternatives, as did the arrival of recorded music. But, until the arrival of the World Wide Web, streaming, downloading, and online ordering, choices were still somewhat limited. I have just had a mini-festival of the violin music of Julius Röntgen, played by Ragin Wenk-Wolff, Liza Ferschtman, and by Atsuko Sahara. As it happens, I enjoy the genial music of this Dutch composer who was admired by Brahms and by Grieg. But I would have been hard pressed to listen to different recordings of Röntgen's music even thirty years ago. Nowadays, with a few clicks of a mouse, one can find pretty well any piece of music, somewhere or other. And listen to it, or buy a recording of it made any time after 1900.

The current era is good for those wanting to listen to music, but it is also good for professional musicians who want to be known and heard. Not more than around 60 years ago, there was room for only a handful of pianists, conductors, orchestras or violinists to become well known and famous. When I started collecting recordings back in the 1950s, even popular classics such as the Beethoven symphonies could only be found with a choice of 5-10 versions, according to the place in which one lived. When I wanted a recording of Ginette Neveu playing the Sibelius violin concerto, one of my sisters had to buy it for me in New York, since it was not available in England (the recording companies released recordings territory by territory, in those days, and shopping around, except in person, was pretty difficult).

A good friend pointed me towards a most useful website listing live performances of performances with orchestras ( What riches, and what a plethora of artists I have never heard of! Twice in my life I have been to Braunschweig in Germany, but it was only through the on-demand website that I discovered there is a Braunschweiger Staatsorchester whose conductor is named Albrecht Mayer; together, they turn in an excellent performance of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. And then there was a young violinist called Maria Milstein (no relative of Nathan, I suspect) playing the Glazunov violin concerto (very well). Apart from the on-demand website (and many similar) there is also YouTube to introduce unknown players to the general public. We are lucky to have this explosive burst of classical music, new and old.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Mozart's String Quintets. And Arthur Grumiaux

Ask 100 music cognoscenti to name the three greatest composers, and you will almost certainly end up with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Ask them for the ten greatest, and the fighting will start. I recall a twitty young journalist a few years back who insisted on listing the seven greatest composers – amongst whom he included Mahler and Stravinsky!

I will agree with the traditional top three. If I had to slim it down to the top two, it would be: Bach, and Mozart. Listening today again to the six Mozart string quintets (with two violas) one has to recognise that, even at the age of seventeen with the early quintet K 174, Mozart was not content with merely writing fluent, agreeable music. Even at seventeen years old, he was pushing the envelope of harmony and development. And the other five quintets went on to explore even greater depths and feats of daring. I grew up with the miraculous K 516 in G minor (with an early LP from the Amadeus Quartet). Subsequently, I took in the other five works. Today, despite competing versions, I will settle happily for the (augmented) Grumiaux Trio, recorded in the 1970s. Arthur Grumiaux was an incredible violinist, particularly in the classical repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. His duo recordings with Clara Haskil in Mozart and Beethoven are, rightly, regarded as something of a gold standard in recorded music. He played and recorded (thanks to Philips) almost the entire violin literature, but it is his playing of the older classics that really stands out – plus much of the Franco-Belgian musical heritage. We have the Dutch Philips company to thank for its long-term recording support of Grumiaux; and also for its excellent recording team (a tradition that the team carried over to the Pentatone label after the sale of Philips).

Monday, 3 April 2017

Accompanied by ...

Let's face it; when it comes to the orchestral contribution to Sergei Rachmaninov's piano concertos, the orchestra has a minor role. Not quite as minor as accompanying a violinist in Paganini's violin concertos. But nearly. So all praise to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi who really make the most of it when playing the orchestral part for Rachmaninov's second and third piano concertos with Khatia Buniatishvili. Ms Buniatishvili receives the lion's share of publicity (and musical glamour), and quite rightly so. But listening again, I also greatly admired the Czech Philharmonic. Rare an orchestra receives praise for accompanying a major soloist in a virtuoso concerto; when playing with violinists such a Jascha Heifetz or Michael Rabin, the orchestra – as well as being relegated to the background by the recording engineers – also had the indignity of seeing whole swathes of the orchestral music cut as being of little interest. Who wants to listen to the backing group (in popular music parlance)? Which is yet another reason why I treasure Wilhelm Furtwängler “accompanying” artists such as Edwin Fischer, Yehudi Menuhin, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, or Erich Röhn in concertos. And the Czech Philharmonic does well partnering Ms Batiashvili.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets

Even with my thinking cap on hard, I can think of only one example of a great composer dedicating a major work to another great composer. The one example is Mozart's dedication of a set of six string quartets, to Joseph Haydn. What a gift! Mozart was seemingly incapable of writing purely routine music, but the six “Haydn” quartets go as far from the routine as possible, and one senses Mozart applying his very greatest skills in composing music in order to impress his revered colleague. This is "Grade A" Mozart.

I have the six quartets played by the Quartetto Italiano, by the Alban Berg Quartett, and by the Hagen Quartett. I have just finished listening to the Hagens in all six. Wonderful playing, but the extreme pianissimo dynamics become irritating as one constantly has to notch the volume level up or down. I feel that, particularly in the first of the six quartets – K 387 – the changes in volume level almost bar by bar, grate on the nerves. Back to the Italiani of over 50 years ago.