Thursday, 17 November 2016

Holidays

Off on my holidays: France, Laos, Myanmar, France, home. Not much music where I am going, but plenty of good food. A pity about the wine, but wine and Asian countries do not go well together. However, there will be lots of good food, and interesting old villages and towns, and many temples, and very different and exotic cultures. Awaiting me on my return is a bottle of 2003 Moldovan wine; this will be the very first Moldovan wine I have ever tasted.

Before leaving, I have just enjoyed (again) Joyce DiDonato's latest CD (War and Peace). Ms DiDonato joins my (small) favourite band of current musicians.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

RIP Leonard Cohen

Over the past two centuries, a big gulf opened up between “classical” music, and “popular” music. Even the name popular, or “pop” has become derogatory by those who espouse so-called classical music. In this blog, I refer rarely to “non-classical” music (terminology is a real pain, here). Let us name the kind of popular music that appeals to me as “folk” music, which encompasses the wide variety of folk music, gypsy music, central and eastern European folk music, klezmer music, American folk music …. and on, and on, and on. I was sad today to learn of the death of Leonard Cohen, one of my esteemed musical companions for many decades. Leonard Cohen, like Gillian Welch, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and others, joins my love of gypsy music (whatever that is) and klezmer music in my musical pantheon.

To me, the essence of great music is sincerity. And it is sincerity that I have always found in the music of Leonard Cohen. I have CDs of his music. I love diving into YouTube and sampling Leonard Cohen over the decades. To my mind, he was a great musician – whatever label you put on him. Bird on the Wire, Famous Blue Raincoat, Suzanne, So Long Marianne, and many other songs are part of my favourite musical heritage. RIP, Mr Cohen. He was a sincere artist, rarely a showbiz type. And, let's face it, the poems of his songs were more interesting than those of most 18th century librettos! An essential of great music, in Beethoven's words, is that is goes from the heart, to the heart. The phrase sums up the best of Leonard Cohen's songs. We could also say the same of Edith Piaf.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Music for Winter Evenings

In Northern Europe, the evenings are dark and long. One needs something warming and cheering, which is why I have been listening to a new CD of Joyce DiDonato singing fifteen assorted arias from 17th and 18th century works (around half by Handel or Purcell). DiDonato is an intelligent and cultured singer. Like all sopranos, she can screech a bit at times, but not often during the 79 minutes of this disc. Her rendition of Purcell's “When I am laid” is moving, as is Handel's “Lascia ch'io pianga”. Around half the arias are in Italian, half in English. So In War and Peace (CD title) joins my shelf of much-favoured DiDonato recitals. The recording is good (Warner label). Il Pomo d'Oro provides the expert instrumental background. Handel's Augelletti, che cantate (from Rinaldo) comes off wonderfully. After the music was finished, I retired to a meal of lamb shank braised for over three hours in onions, carrots, herbs, parsnips, mushrooms, and various additions. Good winter evening food and music.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1944 Eroica

A critic recently opined that the recording of Beethoven's Eroica symphony made in late December 1944 in Vienna with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic was the greatest of all Eroica recordings. Late December 1944 with the Red Army rolling inexorably towards Vienna must have concentrated the minds, with Götterdämmerung just round the corner. I have just been re-listening to it in a new transfer (by Pristine Audio) and I have to say that, for once, a critic may be right. Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler were the two great conductors of this symphony; Furtwängler here even outshines Otto, with the funeral march sounding positively contemporary in its savagery and originality.

The CD also has a coruscating performance (Berlin 1943) of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's Coriolan overture. Those doubtful of old sound can rest assured. Pristine Audio, taking a holiday from fooling around with second-rate American radio broadcasts and recordings, has produced a miraculous sound that could well date from the 1960s. This, surely, is what audio restoration is all about. Stars to everyone concerned. And commiserations to the able and talented conductors of today; what on earth are you to do faced with a 72 year old performances like this one? So three stars to Ludwig van Beethoven, and three stars to Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic (Coriolan) and Vienna Philharmonic (Eroica). Three stars to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for the transfers, and three stars to the German recording engineers of 1943 and 1944; if the battle of that time had been between Russian, Allied and German recording engineers (and orchestras), the Germans would have won hands down.


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Lisa Batiashvili: Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky

For the past sixteen years, I have been a faithful admirer of the violinist Lisa (formerly Elisabeth) Batiashvili. I recounted recently how she was in my top echelons for recordings of the “big” violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, and Shostakovich. I greatly admire her poise, and her extraordinary powers of concentration, a concentration that means she can often get away with tempos slower than many of her fellow instrumentalists. She always has beautifully judged dynamics, perfect phrasing, all allied to an immaculate technique. Which is why I seized upon her new CD of the well-worn violin concertos of Sibelius and Tchaikovsky (DG, with the Berlin Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim).

I already have one excellent recording of Batiashvili in the Sibelius concerto, one she made in 2007 with Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio orchestra. This new recording is similar to that excellent old one, with the Finnish orchestra sounding perhaps more involved than the Germans (although the orchestra does not play a big part in Sibelius's concerto). In 2007, Batiashvili was slightly faster in the first movement, but pretty well the same tempo in the second and third movements. If I prefer the old orchestra, I slightly prefer the newer Batiashvili; even more poised, more serene and mature, and even more immaculate in dynamics, intonation and phrasing. In 2007 the playing was slightly more passionate; in 2016, more poised and elegant. And maybe her violin (now a del Gesù) sounds better here than in the 2007 recording.

Batiashvili was a known quantity in the Sibelius concerto (she won the Sibelius prize with it, long ago) but I was curious to hear her in the Tchaikovsky concerto, an unlikely choice for the Batiashvili treatment, I would have thought. She confesses that she avoided the Tchaikovsky concerto for many years, since “everyone plays it” and (I would guess) she suspected it did not really suit her style of playing. But: a pleasant surprise. After Radulovic's “slash and burn” approach (that I greatly admired recently), Lisa is warm and lyrical. There is a beautiful and fascinating account of the first movement cadenza; what intonation! And really lovely playing in the slow movement. The Tchaikovsky concerto gains immensely in stature when played like this. Radulovic and Batiashvili are chalk and cheese in this concerto but, in my heavenly tomb, I will take the Batiashvili version with me for its poetry and entrancing violin playing.

Damn it: the girl has scored two more bull's eyes! The violin on the DG disc is balanced a little more forward than is usual at the moment, and this is a good thing since I do not have to strain to hear the violin when it is played pianissimo, or with harmonics. I am running out of three stars. I really hope that one day Batiashvili will launch into the Elgar and Britten violin concertos (where she would almost certainly once again arrive at the front of the grid).


Friday, 4 November 2016

Tianwa Yang in the Symphonie Espagnole

Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Max Bruch, and Edouard Lalo have all survived as well-known composers mainly because of one famous work, without which their names would have faded. Lalo is now known almost solely through his popular Symphonie Espagnole, an attractive and melodious concerto for violin. I seem to have ended up with 38 different recordings of the work – evidence of its popularity – with the earliest dating from 1932 (Henry Merckel) with Yehudi Menuhin following in 1933. Latest acquisition, and in many ways one of the very finest, comes from the young Chinese violinist, Tianwa Yang, enthusiastically accompanied by the Barcelona orchestra. The work was written for Sarasate, and Ms Yang's playing invokes the poise, sophistication and delicacy of Sarasate's playing. I liked it enormously, and this is probably the recording I'll reach out for if ever I want to listen to the Symphonie Espagnole again. As a bonus, the recording is another must-have from the admirable Naxos company, truly the violin lovers' friend.

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.


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Nemanja Radulovic

It is sometimes good to hear old warhorses flogged mercilessly into battle. Nemanja Radulovic is no shrinking violet, and his performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto I have just listened to (from an off-air Catalan radio broadcast) makes the sparks fly; I looked anxiously at my amplifier, at times. The orchestra – GIOrquestra under Marcel Sabaté – comes over well, in excellent sound. Radulovic must be the very devil to accompany, with his frequent almost spontaneous tempo and dynamic changes. He makes Mischa Elman sound positively straight-laced. There are a few fluffs in Radulovic's performance, but if you are going to play with this degree of intensity, it is only to be expected.

There are other ways of playing this concerto, apart from the warhorse route. I recently admired Vilde Frang's lyrical account, and also Georg Kulenkampff's old-world charm. I have also admired Julia Fischer, Vadim Repin and Mischa Elman in this concerto. Radulovic gets my three stars for his violin playing. It does not necessarily make me long to hear him in Mozart, but he certainly starred in Paganini recently, and his Tchaikovsky concerto gets the juices flowing. A must performance for lovers of virtuoso violin playing; but not necessarily a must for lovers of Tchaikovsky's music. For a good modern recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, Vilde Frang is hard to beat.


Friday, 23 September 2016

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

George Frideric Handel had a remarkable life. Even as a teenager he was famous in Saxony in the region of his native town of Halle, with Georg Philipp Telemann making a journey to meet the famous teenager. The famous teenager then moved to Italy where in his early 20s he poured out music of astonishing quality (and quantity). In 1708 at the age of 23 he was found in Naples, presenting his cantata a tre Aci, Galatea e Polifemo which was, in effect, a mini-opera (a little like Purcell's Dido and Aeneas). The “cantata” is packed with marvellous music, much of which Handel, an inveterate cut-and-paste artist who wasted little, mined in later years for other works after he had moved to England for the third phase of his extraordinary life. Later in England he returned to the story to write Acis and Galatea which, however, used little of the music of the Neapolitan work.

As always with Handel, performances need first-class singers and a first-class band. The performance I have just listened to well meets all the requirements, with Sandrine Piau sounding like a Stradivari violin, Sara Mingardo like a Stradivari viola, and Laurent Naouri providing the villain's bass voice. The ever-reliable Emmanuelle Haïm directs Le Concert d'Astrée (2002). Arias such as Aci's Qui l'augel da pianta in pianta (with oboe and violin obbligato) must have left Neapolitan aficionados open-mouthed (Handel, of course, re-used the aria's music later in other works). A good Handel performance of a superb Handel work leaves me happy. It is now over 330 years since Handel's birth in Halle, but his music is still going strong as it undoubtedly will for another 330. Handel died a rich man, because he wrote music people liked and valued. Had he had the royalties from his music over the past 300 years, he would have been even richer, since his reputation is still going strong.


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Handel's "Hercules"

Handel always comes up with an excellent way to fill two and a half hours with pleasant and attractive music. Today was the turn of Hercules, half music drama, half oratorio. I usually find the first hour somewhat suggestive of composing-by-numbers, but the second half of the work picks up with Handel's usual touches of genius. The recording I listened to today was early John Eliot Gardiner (1982) with an excellent English cast including two mezzo-sopranos (Sarah Walker and Catherine Denley), a first-class tenor (Anthony Rolfe Johnson) and a first-class soprano (Jennifer Smith). Not a castrato in sight, thank heavens. Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir is in good form, which is fortunate since Handel puts a lot of effort into his choruses in this work. Much eighteenth century music – Handel's especially – was written to show off vocal prowess. This version of Hercules fills the bill nicely. Thank you DGG's old Archiv division.

Monday, 12 September 2016

More Winterreise, and César Franck's Symphony

I first got to know Schubert's Die Winterreise cycle back in the 1950s (Hans Hotter, with either Gerald Moore or, later, the 1942 version with Michael Raucheisen when Hotter was in younger and fresher voice). I have listened to the work often since then; it's a wonderful song cycle with complex harmonies, melodies and modulations. My latest version sees Christian Gerhaher with Gerold Huber.

Winterreise is a gloomy, pessimistic work. It sounds even gloomier with this latest version that, right from the start and Gute Nacht, radiates an air of acute depression. Gerhaher is a superb singer with a most attractive light baritone. To my ears, Huber – usually a thoroughly reliable partner – does not make the most of Schubert's highly important piano part; in Die Krähe, for example. I find Brendel (for Matthias Goerne) or Helmut Deutsch (for Jonas Kaufman) preferable. The 24 songs have English translations; bad translations, that show the drawbacks with skimping overheads and employing what could almost be a teenage translator with a dictionary. Who else would translate Der Leiermann as “the Lyre Man”? Just listening to the piano, it's obviously about an organ-grinder, or a hurdy-gurdy man. Good though this version is, I think I'll stick to Hotter, Goerne or Kaufman for my Winterreise listening.

To lift the gloom engendered by listening to Winterreise, I next listened to César Franck's Symphony in D minor. This is a superb symphony, full of colour and melody, that seems to have gone quite out of fashion. Before around the 1960s it appeared regularly in concerts and recordings. In concerts now it has been superseded by wall-to-wall Mahler symphonies, and few new major recordings of Franck's work have appeared over the past few decades. It was an old warhorse of Thomas Beecham, and Giulini (1957 recording) and Pierre Monteux (recorded 1961). It seems to feature less and less in programmes and in catalogues and this is a great loss to music lovers everywhere. As always, I enjoyed it greatly.


Sunday, 4 September 2016

Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Beethoven Symphonies

When I was a teenager in the 1950s and getting to know the canon of the Beethoven symphonies, the critics in Britain were all for Toscanini, closely followed by von Karajan. The craggier Klemperer was also admitted a little later. For political and current fashion reasons, Furtwängler's Beethoven was usually sidelined, even though it came from the British EMI company. So I grew up knowing little about Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Beethoven symphonies, apart from the Pastoral that I bought defiantly in the 1950s, and the ninth symphony. Furtwängler belonged to the older generation of German-culture conductors (as did Klemperer). The new order was sleeker and faster and applauded by the critics of the time.

Some 55 or 60 years later, a box of the nine Beethoven symphonies conducted by Furtwängler with the superb Vienna Philharmonic of the early 1950s gives me a belated chance to update my education. The transfers (apart from the execrable second symphony here) are excellent (all ex-EMI, now Warner). As was often the custom then, there are no automatic first movement exposition repeats – thank goodness; who wants to hear the exposition of such familiar music repeated, just when things were getting interesting? Fanatics who do, can always press the “back to the start” button on their remote command consoles. Beethoven and Furtwängler are the stars here, but one must not forget the wonderful sound world of the Vienna Philharmonic of the 1950s, with its plaintive Sellner oboes, gruff horns, and sleek string sound. We are back in old Germany (or Austria) in a world that no longer exists.

I used to have an old French 10 inch LP of Furtwängler conducting the 1st symphony. The sound is much improved here (1952 recording) and the performance is impressive. In the 2nd symphony, the sound (Albert Hall, live, 1948) is completely intolerable. It was presumably added to the box just to make a complete set of the nine symphonies in EMI recordings. I only listened to the first minute. 6th symphony; this has always been my favourite Pastoral (1952). As throughout these recordings, the Vienna Philharmonic of the early 1950s sounds terrific. 9th symphony; this is the 1951 Bayreuth recording with the wobbly horn in the slow movement. There are better Furtwängler ninths, notably the ferocious March 1942 recording, and the August 1954 Lucerne Festival recording (Furtwängler's last performance).

Eroica: I missed this entirely over the years (the first LP I ever bought was the Eroica conducted by von Karajan with the Philharmonia). This 1952 Eroica from Furtwängler is superb, and fully the equal of the Klemperer recordings of the same period (Klemperer being craggier and with harsher lines, Furtwängler revelling in Beethoven's harmonic transitions and in the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic). To my shame, I had never before heard Furtwängler conduct Beethoven's 5th (nor his 7th). The fifth symphony here (1954) is defiant rather than, as too often when played by others, merely manic and bombastic. One understands fully that Furtwängler was coming to this music after a lifetime of study, and that everything he did came from his understanding of the music; we feel in good, experienced hands. Double bass players must have loved Furtwängler because he always made sure they could be heard underpinning the harmony. The 7th symphony was recorded in 1950 and the sound is marginally inferior to the best sounds in this mono-only set. The period 1950-60 saw a major leap in the quality of high-art recording, and this 1950 7th missed out, a little. It was during this performance that I suddenly realised that, throughout this set of the nine symphonies, my principal focus of admiration was on Beethoven's music, and less on the performers. This, of course, is the trademark of all great performers and interpreters; they lead you into the music. The trio of the third movement is taken more slowly than I have ever heard it before; Walter Legge must have hopped from foot to foot with frustration, as he did at Klemperer's Peasants' Merrymaking in the Pastoral symphony. The finale is taken at a great pace and is quite exciting. Throughout these performances there are plenty of “unauthorised” accelerandos and rallentandos for which Furtwängler was famous (or infamous, in the climate of the 1950s where the metronome was deemed to govern all).

The 1948 recording of the 8th symphony is the only one in this set, apart from the 9th, that is not with the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic of that era. The Stockholm Philharmonic of the period was certainly not the Vienna Philharmonic. Does Furtwängler sound a little impatient in this live performance? He certainly zips through the symphony without showing too much affection. The recording is just passable, but certainly not as abysmal as that of the 2nd symphony.

At least in 2016 I can now make up my own mind about performances without being over-influenced by the likes and dislikes of Trevor Harvey, Alec Robertson, or Nicholas Kenyon, music critics who were influential in the Britain of the 1950s and 60s. The stars of Toscanini and von Karajan seem to have waned since the 1950s and 60s, whereas the stars of Klemperer and Furtwängler have waxed – greatly so, in the case of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Fashions change, but real quality endures – in performances, as well as in music. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this EMI / Warner set. This is great music making by a great orchestra and a great conductor in a world that is now long past. And I am especially happy that, at long last, I have repaired my early educational deficiencies and have heard Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th symphonies.


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Tempo Giusto

Donald Vroon, writing in the current issue of the American Record Guide sounds off against a couple of violinists in Mozart concertos: “No one dares a true Adagio. Why not? It strikes me as downright dumb to play music according to rules instead of how you feel about it. What are violinists for? Concertos are not written for metronomes”.

On the question of tempos, I have vacillated like a weather vane over the years, swinging backwards and forwards. The Bach Brandenburg concertos seem to have become Formula One Brandenburgs, with every version trying to clip minutes and seconds off the previous versions, and a pity about the music. Tempos pre-1950 were usually slower than post- 1980, and conductors and instrumentalists now dare not slow down the music for fear of being accused of being boring. Fast is modern, and fast is currently fashionable. Slow sees you criticised, fast sees you praised (apart from by a few old codgers like Donald Vroon and me). I disliked most of the rapid tempos in Riccardo Chailly's set of the Beethoven symphonies – a set I have since given away. I love Furtwängler's languid Pastoral symphony where he sounds like a true country lover. Chailly sounded like a town boy who can't get out of the countryside fast enough. John Eliot Gardiner usually sounds too fast, to me but, there again, I am the only person to enjoy Otto Klemperer's majestic and awe-inspiring opening Kyrie in Bach's Mass in B minor. Much music cries out to be savoured, like a great wine. Savouring needs time; no one should down a bottle of a great wine in two minutes flat.

Music has tempo markings, but no one knows exactly what molto moderato meant to Schubert. One can expostulate what a given composer expected to hear; but one can never be sure what the composer hoped to hear, or would like to have heard. Bach may have expected to hear his sonatas and partitas for solo violin played rhythmically and in tune by a court violinist; but, given the option, would he have been more delighted listening to them played by Jascha Heifetz? The original composition is, of course, in the composer's head; the heavenly choirs he imagines when writing might jibe harshly with the small amateur choir he had to put up with for a hastily arranged performance.

There are tempos that are idiosyncratic; Benjamin Britten was driven to protest to Sviatoslav Richter about his tempo in the opening movement – molto moderato – of Schubert's last piano sonata. It is slow. Richter obviously felt it should be slow, and I agree with Richter (when it is played by him; the performer has to feel that that is the right tempo). Performers should play with sincerity, how they feel the music should go. I am reminded of Nathan Milstein's account of playing Glazunov's violin concerto conducted by a somewhat inebriated Glazunov. At a certain point, Glazunov stopped the rehearsal and said to Milstein: “I marked that passage piano”, to which Milstein says he replied: “I think it sounds better forte”. After a pause, Glazunov replied: “You may be right”.