Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bach's Goldberg Variations

I have twelve versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Ten are piano, none are harpsichord. I came to the Goldberg's relatively late in my life (as opposed to the Diabelli Variations, which I have known well since my teens). The first person to introduce me to the Goldberg's was Tatiana Nikolayeva (1970 recording) followed by Maria Judina (1968). I then, of course, bought Glen Gould (1955 and 1981). The very latest purchase has been Dong Hyek Lim (2006).

Not knowing the Goldberg's intimately over many years, I am no expert judge when it comes to top performances. One can only really judge knowledgeably if the music is entirely familiar in the way that, for example, Beethoven's violin concerto is all too well known to my ears. My ears tell me that Gould's recordings are far too Bach-Gould for my tolerance. My ears are similarly sceptical with Andrei Gavrilov (1992), Angela Hewitt (1999), Johanna MacGregor (2007). Which leaves me with Tatiana Nikolayeva, Igor Levit, Beatrice Rana, and Dong Hyek Lim, any of whom will do me for my desert island.

In playing of a long set of variations, I look for virtuosity, taste, affection, and musicality. “Profundity”, admired by many critics, seems to me to have little place in performances of the Goldberg's. My four desert island choices all have something to offer, with Beatrice Rana being perhaps the most personal interpretation of the four, Levit and Lim the most “classical”.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Violin and Piano Balance

Balancing a violin and a piano is a tricky business for recording engineers. A lot of experience is needed, and that is rare in the current environment of roving recording teams doing everything from grand opera, to star-based popular music, to general chamber and orchestral music. Julia Hwang is a young violinist, and a very fine one. On a new Signum CD, she is well recorded, at a suitable distance, and with suitable dynamics. The problem is the piano, which is recorded far too close; when one winces every time the piano strikes up, something is wrong. And one does not turn to Wieniawski's Faust Fantaisie, nor Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending, in order to listen intently to the piano part. I longed to get up on the recording stage and push the piano back ten metres or so. Greatly admiring Miss Hwang's playing, I did not admire the playing of the over-prominent pianist, Charles Matthews. Choppy, with minimal legato and too loud. This is my only recording of Vaughan Williams' Lark, with piano (as originally written) and I prefer this version since the solo violin played piano or pianissimo does not merge too often with the orchestral violins, as can happen when an orchestra is substituted for the piano.

Hopefully next time round will see Julia Hwang partnered by Khatia Buniatishvili or Dong Hyek Lim or some such sympathetic pianist with a sense of style. And all recorded by engineers with lots of experience in balancing a piano with a violin. Poor Miss Hwang goes on my back shelf. Not her fault.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

I seldom listen to rival versions of the same work one after another, but I made an exception after feeling slightly disappointed this time round with Emmanuelle Haïm's version of Handel's Serenata – Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a work composed in Naples in 1708 by the 23 year old Handel. I followed Haïm's version with one from Marco Vitale with his mixed cast of Canadian, Chilean-Swedish, and American with a band mainly from the Netherlands. Emmanuelle Haïm lines up an all-star cast of Sandrine Piau, Sara Mingardo (alto), and Laurent Naouri (baritone). Marco Vitale's singers are Stefane True, Luciana Mancini (mezzo), and Mitchell Sandler (bass).

Haïm's direction is a bit fussy, at times. Vitale is more “operatic”; although the work is designated by Handel as a “serenata”, the music is always thoroughly operatic and shows all the watermarks of Handel's later operatic works. A major advantage of Vitale's version is the diction of his singers. With basic Italian, you can follow the libretto just by listening. With the Haïm version, however, the words are something of a blur, especially with Sandrine Piau, a singer I much admire for her voice and intelligence, though often expressing discontent with the lack of clarity with her diction.

Having an alto for Galatea does help differentiate the two female voices; Luciana Mancini's mezzo-soprano voices does merge often with the fresh soprano of Stefanie True, something that never happens with Piau and Mingardo. I first heard Aci at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in the 1980s. The cast then included David Thomas and Emma Kirby; I have a recording from 1986 that probably was a result of that Oxford performance; the lower female voice on that recording is Carolyn Watkinson. It's a long time since I listened to it, but it is unlikely to replace my new-found enthusiasm for Marco Vitale and his international forces. Handel's music deserves the best!

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Dong Hyek Lim

My apologies to Dong Hyek Lim in my previous post for saying he was unknown (to me). I do, in fact, possess a much-admired CD of him playing the music of Chopin, including the 24 preludes. Which does make my point, however, as to how Korean names embed themselves with difficulty into Western minds. Known or unknown, he is a very fine pianist.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Ji Young and Dong Hyek

At this stage of my life, I rarely pay too much attention to commercial reviews where there is often too much commerce, too much fashion, and not enough music. However I was attracted to a new CD by two unknown (to me) artists playing Mozart and Beethoven violin and piano sonatas: Ji Young Lim (violin) and Dong Hyek Lim (piano). The reviewer praised the performances for being “period 2016” and found that the two artists played in a thoroughly modern style. What a welcome change! Many things have improved since the 1780s, including the sounds made by violins and pianos. “Period performances” are fine for those embarking on a degree course in the history of playing styles and mannerisms. For listening to the music of Mozart and Beethoven, give me 2016 sound any day.

Both Lims are young, and embark on the music of young Mozart and young Beethoven with freshness and enthusiasm. They are both Korean (but not related, it seems); it is strange how, in the last few decades, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese have taken to Western music with such success. Historically, it is hardly “their” music, and they certainly have music of their own. But so do Indians, Arabs and Africans, but Indians, Arabs and Africans are hardly famous as violinists or pianists in Western music.

It appears that, in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2015 (where Ji Young won first prize) her name was confused with a fellow Korean competitor, Lee Ji Yoon, who bounded onto the stage to claim the prize. One of the handicaps of being a famous Korean: no one will distinguish or remember your name thereafter. Maybe the highly talented Ji Young and Dong Hyek should adopt stage names.

Anyway, what we have here is two young people making music with skill, taste and enthusiasm. I enjoyed all four works immensely (K 301, K 302, K 378, and Beethoven Op 12 No.1). As with all violin and piano recordings, the balance depends quite a lot on how you listen – headphones, or speakers. I found the recording and balance satisfactory, and the playing of both musicians really first class. My money is ready for more from them. Often the playing of young musicians, with everything still to prove, is more refreshing and exhilarating than the playing of famous names who are playing a piece for the 200th time. Here I admire the playing of Ji Young. Equally, I admire the playing of Dong Hyek. More !

Friday, 15 September 2017

Two Hours of Russian Gloom

There are composers with whose music I seem to have an immediate rapport: Handel, Schubert, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich, for example. We are on the same wavelength. So it was a good day when two new CDs arrived in my mailbox this week: Shostakovich's piano quintet, and eighth string quartet. And Rachmaninov's second piano concerto, plus the opus 33 études-tableaux.

All praise to Dmitry Shostakovich. He wrote music that is very much of the twentieth century, avoiding the post-romantic language of Medtner or Rachmaninov, whilst retaining themes, melody, and folk elements, but avoiding the tuneless meanderings of so many twentieth century composers. I have always loved his piano quintet (along with the second piano trio). The performance recorded in Prague in 2001 and featuring the Talich Quartet with a pianist named Yakov Kasman seems to me to be well nigh ideal for its playing, interpretation, balance, and recording. I sat back and enjoyed the ride. The performance on the same CD of the eighth string quartet is also excellent; I enjoy the sound of the Talich, and the spaciousness of the recording. I have never quite understood why the eighth quartet, fine as it is, is promoted above so many of the other string quartets of Shostakovich. A bit like Beethoven's “Moonlight” sonata being over exposed.

Then on to Boris Giltburg playing Rachmaninov, to fill my week of musical gloom and angst (there is nothing like the Russians to express the dark side of life). I like Boris Giltburg, particularly when he plays the music of Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, and he does not disappoint here. He is not a pianist to over-egg the pudding, but he has the technique and the musical intelligence to turn in excellent performances. This is yet another excellent performance of Rachmaninov's ever-popular second piano concerto, and an excellent rendition of the nine études-tableaux of Opus 33. As “encores”, Giltburg gives us Rachmaninov's arrangement of Kreisler's Liebesleid, and of Franz Behr's “Polka de W.R.” Both highly enjoyable.

A good two hours of the Russians, then. I now need some Handel to cheer me up after all that gloom and angst.

Monday, 11 September 2017

In Praise of Bach and Handel

1685. Georg Friedrich Händel was born in Halle (23rd February). Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach (21st March). Between Halle and Eisenach (as the bird flies) is 150 kilometres, or less. Both composers became famous, but neither met the other. Their music, like their subsequent careers, is chalk and cheese. 330 years after the birth of both of them, here I am listening with pleasure and admiration to their very different music. A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Eisenach (Bach's first house) and to Halle (Handel's first house). I stood before the church where Bach was baptised. I listened to the organ in Halle on which Handel first learned to play. I doubt whether 2017's Rap artists will still be listened to in 330 years time.

Bach, Handel and I go back a long way – to the very early 1950s when I began to listen to music, encouraged by my mother, father and elder sisters. More than 60 years later, I am still immersed regularly in the music of Handel and Bach. They must have had a secret formula to have enabled them to write music that has lasted such a long, long time. And music that can be played – and enjoyed – in so many different ways and with so many different musical forces and performing styles.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Beethoven String Quartets with the Talich Quartet

If my personal musical Pantheon were arbitrarily limited to six musical works, it would contain the Mass in B minor, and St Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. I came to the last Beethoven quartets somewhat late, after acquiring around 1979 an LP of the 14th quartet played by the Busch Quartet. For the past 35 years or so, I have found these quartets to be infinitely satisfying and somewhat intriguing, as Beethoven abandons thoughts of sponsors, publishers, audiences and players in pursuit of the celestial music that was whirring around inside his head. “What do I care for your wretched fiddles when the Spirit comes over me?” he is said to have remarked to the unfortunate Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Having somewhat over-praised the recordings by the Juilliard Quartet very recently, I embarked on a comparative listening of the sixteen with the Talich Quartet. A big contrast; where the Juilliard projected a dynamic and boisterous Beethoven, the Talich favours more meditation and less extreme tempi. In retrospect, the Juilliard projects a Beethoven from New York in the 1960s; the Talich brings Beethoven back to Central Europe.

For the thirteenth quartet, opus 130, I patched the CD so that the quartet ended with the Große Fuge as Beethoven originally intended, and as I much prefer. As is well known, a combination of the distraught Schuppanzigh Quartet (“we cannot play it”) and Beethoven's publisher (“I cannot sell it with that ending”) persuaded Beethoven to agree to having the Fuge published separately, and he wrote an amiable “get you home safe” finale in its place. Preceding the Große Fuge is the sublime Cavatina that, Beethoven claimed, caused him to shed tears while composing it. The whole performance of opus 130 – including the Fuge – by the Talich Quartet is of the very highest class of Beethoven quartet playing, as is the playing in my favourite 14th quartet. It is a relaxed style of playing, in the era before the pseudo- "authentic" evangelists began to preach dry sound and swift tempi. Deo gratias.

The Talich quartets were recorded at the very end of the 1970s and the very beginning of the 1980s and had the advantage of late analogue sound before the advent of early digital sound. The set originally appeared on LPs (I had two of them) and the recordings were later transferred (very well) to CD by Calliope. The sound throughout the set is warm, with a moderate distance between the listener and the players, and this makes a welcome change from the in-your-face balance of many string quartet recordings. I have to admit, however, that the recorded sound comes over as different, depending on whether I listen via my speakers or my wireless headphones. Here, I much prefer the headphones since, as usual, the speakers over-emphasise the cello and viola at the expense of the violins. The Talich was never a big-name quartet, and Calliope was never a major label, so the Beethoven set never really achieved the critical acclaim it so richly deserves. I am extremely happy at having re-discovered it on my shelves and, along with the Busch Quartet recordings from the 1930s, it has become my benchmark for these sixteen string quartets. The Juilliard box has gone into my discarded bin and will end up in some charity shop.