Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Frederick Delius

Great bargains to be had nowadays. I bought triumphantly the new Warner box of Beecham conducting the music of Frederick Delius (seven CDs). I forget to check that I already had an EMI box of Beecham with five CDs of Beecham and Delius, including the same recordings as in the Warner box.

Delius's music needs someone like Beecham who was ultra- sophisticated and elegant, and who knew and loved the music. Delius does not take to lingering or point-making. In my teen years I liked much of the music of Delius; the short pieces, Sea Drift, Brigg Fair, Paris. I can never claim to have been a Delius fan, but much of his music was part of my repertoire over the decades. He seems to have fallen out of favour nowadays, perhaps because no conductors have Beecham's qualifications for Delius performances. The music is not particularly English (neither was Delius). More German neo-Romantic, mixed with Grieg. Come to think of it, poor old Edvard Grieg seems also to have fallen out of favour, together with musical co-religionists such as Karl Goldmark (another protégé of Beecham).

Sadly, clutching my twelve Delius-Beecham CDs, I find that the attraction Delius's music used to have for me, has died. Works such as Sea Drift, that I once loved, now sound mawkish and second rate. After I am gone, there will be a lot of dusty Delius recordings for someone to inherit.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Elgar: Daniel Barenboim versus Vasily Petrenko

I rarely indulge in head-to-head comparisons. Either a performance convinces me, or it does not. And there are many way to skin a cat, so very different performances of the same work can often be equally valid. I greatly admired the recent recording of Elgar's second symphony (Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic) but, so far, mine is the only opinion I have come across. I did notice a number of critics expressing great enthusiasm for Daniel Barenboim's recording of the work with Staatskapelle Berlin, so I decided to acquire the latter and to see what all the fuss was about. My tasting notes on my head-to-head listening are as follows:

First Movement: Allegro vivace e nobilmente: Barenboim 18:28. Petrenko 19:14

Barenboim makes big difference between the allegro and slower sections – a bit like John Barbirolli. The music almost becomes becalmed at times. Petrenko integrates the different sections and moods better, being a bit slower over all, but then the slower sections can be faster than with Barenboim. The Liverpool brass and woodwind shine better than the Berliners. Overall the sound is better with Petrenko (Onyx) than with Barenboim (Decca). There is more nobilmente with Petrenko, and Barenboim's tempo changes get on my nerves. There used to be a similar contrast between Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli in this movement, with Barbirolli killing it with love.

Second Movement: Larghetto. Barenboim 14:01. Petrenko 15:04

One of Elgar's loveliest movements, and the Liverpudlians are obviously playing their hearts out. Again, Barenboim has problems establishing a basic pulse; the music frequently becomes becalmed. The superior Liverpool brass and woodwind (or recording thereof) greatly favours Petrenko's performance.

Third Movement: Rondo – Presto. Barenboim 8:01. Petrenko 7:58

The return of the throbbing nightmare is well handled by Barenboim, and is quite dramatic. The timings are identical: Barenboim's basic tempo is a shade faster, but he loses time in slamming on the brakes from time to time. As throughout the music to date, Petrenko and the Liverpudlians give the impression of knowing exactly where they are going. Barenboim and the Berliners often seem to be exploring and finding their way through an unfamiliar environment.

Fourth Movement: Moderato e maestoso. Barenboim 15:31. Petrenko 16:50

By now my views were pretty clear. Barenboim and his Berliners do come out fighting in the fifteenth round, and the finale is the best of their four movements; particularly the impressive final minute. But by then, it's too late. A clear win for the Russian and his valiant Liverpudlians, on points. I have always been impressed with Vasily Petrenko, who seems to me to be an exceptionally talented and musical conductor. He understands the importance of pulse in symphonic music. I have never taken to Daniel Barenboim. His recording of the Elgar will be shelved and will gather dust; Petrenko will be taken down whenever I want to listen to Elgar's second symphony.

After two hours listening to the two versions: what a magnificent twentieth century symphony this is! Well done Vasily Petrenko, the Liverpool Philharmonic, the Onyx recording team … and Edward Elgar.

Khatia Buniatishvili plays Rachmaninov

Looking at the new CD that arrived in the post, I get the impression it features the music and playing of Khatia Buniatishvili. She appears to be playing the music that some old Russian, Sergei Rachmaninov, has been commissioned to arrange for her and an orchestra. Thus nine photos or images of the glamorous Ms Buniatishvili, and not one of the scowling arranger of the music (though the does get a credit in the text). One wonders exactly whom these major record companies think they are trying to attract. There are presumably lots of disappointed purchasers who discover that Ms Buniatishvili is not actually singing sultry love songs, or stripping, on this new CD.

Well, more than enough of the booklet; on with the music and the playing. No danger of me being curmudgeonly about Ms Buniatishvili's playing of the piano; I am a declared fan. I also like Mr Rachmaninov's arrangements of music for Ms Buniatishvili's piano and orchestra in his second and third piano concertos on this CD. Competition in both concertos is, of course, ferocious. Despite the nay-saying of various expert critics during the previous century, Rachmaninov's music has lived on and on in popular esteem over the decades. Being Khatia Buniatishvili, there are many tigress moments, of course, but she can also play with a touching simplicity, as in the adagio of the C minor concerto. She is a tigress who also knows how and when to relax. The first movement cadenza of the third concerto is here a real tour de force. Throughout the two concertos, the dark sound of the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Paavo Järvi is entirely appropriate for Rachmaninov's Russian gloom and aching nostalgia.

How do the recordings of the two concertos here stack up against the great players of the past: Rachmaninov himself, Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch, Richter, Argerich .. and almost anyone else one can think of? The answer, I think, is that the performances should be taken in their own right, with a fascinating pianist, an admirable orchestra, and an excellent modern recording. When I want to listen to the second or third of Rachmaninov's concertos, will I reach out my hand for Buniatishvili? Very definitely; there is so much to enjoy in these two performances and, like all the big Romantic works that also involve an orchestra, a good, modern recording quality is a great asset.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Charles-Auguste de Bériot

Charles-Auguste de Bériot fares quite well on my shelves, with 26 recordings of his musical works. He does not seem to fare so well in the concert hall, however, and I do not recall seeing a concert programme featuring his works. All a bit mysterious, when his music is tuneful, well written and attractive to listen to. He was certainly a better melodist than Alban Berg in his violin concerto!

My latest acquisition (thanks again to faithful Naxos) is a CD of Bériot's fourth, sixth and seventh violin concertos, plus a couple of substantial morceaux for violin and orchestra. The violinist is a young Japanese, born in 1997, Ayana Tsuji and she copes really well with Bériot's tough demands on the right arm, with ricochet and staccato bowing in constant use. She has the right delicate touch for this music – the central movement of the seventh concerto is especially moving. The music of de Bériot does not call for a Russian T34 tank.

Concerts featuring violinists seem locked into the same old eight or ten violin concertos (or else some ephemeral modern concoction cunningly placed between two popular pieces to forestall audiences voting with their feet). De Bériot's music is not hard on the intellect, but it is friendly on the ear and I listen to my 26 recordings with pleasure, including this new one with Ms Tsuji. And thanks again, Mr Naxos; 13 of my 26 recordings are on the Naxos label.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Beethoven

I rather thought I had given up enjoying performances of Beethoven's violin concerto. I have been listening to it regularly now for over sixty years. I have 90 recordings of the work on my shelves, including the one I bought in the 1950s (Bronislaw Gimpel). So I was surprised just how much I enjoyed a performance (over the web) by Frank Peter Zimmermann and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert – a conductor who is quite new to me. The concert dates from 3rd March of this year. I already have a performance of the Beethoven by Zimmermann dating from 1987, but he has come on a long way in the intervening 30 years (he is now only 52 years old and playing magnificently). Zimmermann plays the familiar Kreisler cadenzas, a pleasant contrast to so many violinists who seek out something exotic and provocative. And it goes without saying that -- hurrah, hurrah -- there is not a period or authentic effort in sight. Beethoven's concerto does not need it.

The Beethoven concerto is a tough one to play. For a start, it is very much a concerto for violin and orchestra, and a good orchestral contribution is essential. The violinist has little in the way of bravura passages or pyrotechnics with which to wow the audience. The first movement is long (around 22 minutes) and demands the utmost sophistication from the violinist, and informed and intelligent contributions from the orchestra. It also demands the right tempos for each of the movements – particularly the first, which is often taken too slowly. Zimmermann triumphs on all accounts (as do Alan Gilbert and the orchestra) and the performance, that held my attention throughout, gets one of my rare three star ratings and joins a small, select band of top class performances of this concerto on record.

As an addendum: I was astonished at the quality of this downloaded recording. We have come a long way since I used to couple up my tuner and amplifier to a cassette recorder in order to preserve off-air recordings. There is now (on my equipment) little to choose between studio recordings, and (good) off-air broadcasts over the Web such as this one from New York.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Russian Music. And Khatia Buniatishvili

Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Glinka, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin (for pianists) …. there is a long litany of Russian composers who have achieved firm places in the romantic and post-romantic eras of music. All complemented, of course, by hordes of first-class pianists and violinists from Russian lands. The Russian system may not produce first-class results in economics, but it certainly succeeds in music.

Modest Mussorgsky is now known mainly for his Pictures at an Exhibition, and his operas Boris Godunov, and Sorochyntsi Fair. I have been listening again with increased admiration to Pictures played by the charismatic Khatia Buniatishvili. It's wonderful music, with wonderful playing. The CD is complemented by Ravel's La Valse, and three movements from Stravinsky's Petrushka. A three star disc.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Mutterings about Opera

Amongst my musings in this blog, opera features very seldom. I have written of my deep love of Tristan and Isolde, and of many Handel operas. I may at some time have mentioned that I also love Tosca and La Bohème, perhaps also of Bellini's Norma. But opera has never really been one of my passions, although I love collections of arias from 18th century opera. My latest happy opera hour was listening to Joyce DiDonato (mezzo soprano) and Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis in operatic duets by Handel. A stream of wonderful tunes and beautiful music that would have filled Schubert and Mozart with envy. There is a lot to be said for operatic music.

By the end of his professional life, my father was playing in the Sadlers Wells Opera orchestra. As a lifelong musician, he also loved opera, but from a musician's point of view. He liked the orchestral music and loved good singing. But he had no interest in the “plot” or in what was happening on the stage. I seem to have inherited this trait; for most operas – particularly those before around 1830 – I could not care less what the various tenors, basses and sopranos are singing about, which was probably the case with Handel's upper-class English audiences almost all of whom would have had a typical English ignorance of any foreign language, including Italian. The first opera I attended was in the Hamburg opera house, where I sat enthralled listening to Tristan and Isolde; I recall I had my eyes closed for much of the time in order to avoid being distracted by what was happening on the stage. If that was true then, it would certainly be true now when too many operatic performances appear to have been hijacked by megalomaniac stage producers determined to achieve immediate notoriety and to put the music composer in his place. The composer only has to specify “Sultan's palace, overlooking the Bosporus” for the producer to “update” the opera to the New York subway in 1958. Opera critics are quick to praise “imaginative” staging and “making the opera relevant to modern young people”. At the same time, music critics will be decrying the use of modern instruments and the absence of gut strings, etc. in defiance of what the composer would have expected. Bizarre. If you update Mozart to the New York subway in 1958, why not update that old-fashioned music at the same time, and maybe replace the violins with saxophones and re-cast the recitatives as rap music?

I recall many years ago in New York when a friend remarked that, as an economy, the Metropolitan Opera was dispensing with the side-stage sign language person who kept deaf members of the audience informed as to what was being sung. Bizarre, thinking of deaf people going to an opera, but it fits with the view of many commentators and critics that the story and the plot are of major importance; this results in commentators insisting on relating the plot at length even though, and certainly pre- 1830, opera plots are usually thoroughly silly and not worth bothering about. Some of the Mozart operas, of course, are an exception to the silly story phenomenon.

So I love listening to operatic music, but shun the distraction of staging (which is why I would never buy an opera on DVD). Sitting back in my chair, I can enjoy Bellini or Wagner or Mozart or Handel without the distractions and annoyance introduced by egotistical stage directors. Prima la musica, poi le parole. Le parole come a long way behind la musica for me.

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!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Maria João Pires

Jascha Heifetz once claimed that he found Mozart “the most challenging” composer to play. It's true that Mozart's music is often somewhat chameleon, usually elegant and usually with strange twists in the harmonies that differentiate much of Mozart's music from the routine classics of the late eighteenth century. When it comes to Mozart's piano concertos, I feel that two supreme executants stand out: Clara Haskil, and Maria João Pires. I have just been listening to Pires in a handful of Mozart concertos that she recorded with Claudio Abbado over a period of some years, with various orchestras. In one word: Pires' performances are superb (as is the partnership with Abbado).

Pires, who is now in her early 70s and still playing superbly, has had a low-key career (deliberately, once suspects). She does not like solo recitals, and has expressed the view that what she enjoys most is “just making music with a few friends for a small audience”. Like Clara Haskil with Arthur Grumiaux, Pires enjoyed a long musical relationship with a violinist, Augustin Dumay, and the pair made many prized recordings of duo sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. I think Brahms is the most “contemporary” composer that Pires tackles; apart from Chopin, her predilection is for Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

“It is very important for me to know that it is possible to express something without doing too much”, Pires says. Her Mozart playing certainly reflects the same elegant simplicity and sincerity as that of Haskil. In Mozart, her elegant simplicity is matched by Abbado's elegance and sophistication and the results are enormously satisfying. Looking at my large collection of recordings of Mozart piano concertos, I really only need Haskil and Pires.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Bach's Mass in B Minor

As I have recounted before in this blog, the very first concert I attended at the age of 12 or 13 was at St Wilfrid's Church in Rose Green, Sussex … and the work in question was Bach's Mass in B minor. St. Wilfrid was not there, nor was Johann Sebastian Bach: but I was, and that was some 62 years ago and I remember the occasion clearly since no one stole my bicycle that I left outside the church during the concert. The Mass in B minor is, quite simply, wonderful music. For some reason or other, Bach poured the best of his art into the work.

There are performances that are fashionable; there are performances that are eternal. Amongst the latter the Busch Quartet recordings of the 1930s spring to mind, together with many of the Busch-Serkin duo recordings. Fastest, slowest, loudest, softest: are all quantifiable adjectives. Greatest, best, favourite: are subjective and non-quantifiable. So when I am told I can have only one musical work buried with me in the treasure chamber of my after-death pyramid, there is no sure and uncontroversial choice. For me, in my pyramid it has to be Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor. I have been listening to my latest acquisition; Karl Richter and his Munich forces (recorded extremely well and stereophonically in 1961 by the then- DGG team).

I have Bach's Mass in seven different recordings: John-Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe (two different recordings), René Jacobs, Otto Klemperer, Karl Richter, and Masaaki Suzuki. I used to have Joshua Rifkin's minimalist recording for many years, but I seem to have ditched it along the way (probably to a charity shop that may still be trying to sell it for 50p). Karl Richter ticks all the boxes: clear melodic lines, excellent orchestral players (especially the solo violin), good soloists (though I am less keen on the soprano, Maria Stadler). However, I (unusually) welcome the bass, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A vibrant, alert Mass in B minor that joins my top two. If I still prefer Otto Klemperer in this music, it's because of his stern gravitas and the sense of decades of thought-out tradition. Klemperer was – despite his erratic lifestyle – a thoroughly religious man (judaism, catholicism, finally back to judaism)

And where will you be able to find my final pyramid and resting place to which I will consign one copy of Bach's B minor mass? If I have to name a place at the moment, it will be Luang Prabang (Laos).