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”.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside in Schubert Lieder

A kind friend sent me a CD of Roderick Williams (baritone) and Iain Burnside (piano) in a recital of 22 Schubert Lieder. I had never heard of either musician, but I have been very pleasantly surprised. Williams has a most attractive light baritone voice, making a pleasant change from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's occasional rasps and gusts. His German sounds excellent (to me) and his diction is immaculate; one hardly needs the libretto. The songs are intelligently chosen and contrasted, with seven of the songs coming from Rellstab texts in the Schwanengesang collection.

I usually hesitate about song recitals by non- native speakers. The French for French mélodies, the Germans for German Lieder, and the British for English language songs, is a fairly sure rule. But I make an exception for Mr Williams. Another pleasant surprise was Iain Burnside's highly participating accompaniments; a long way from the smiling and polite Gerald Moore of yesteryear. Burnside is a real contributor to these songs (as he should be). All in all, a very fine new CD from the Delphian label.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Augustin Dumay and Maria Pires in Beethoven

The ten sonatas Beethoven wrote for violin and piano are pretty well all of a high standard, with many lovely slow movements. They are also true duo sonatas, with neither violin nor piano in a star or dominant role. They demand two well matched (and well recorded) performers. I have no less than eleven complete sets of the sonatas, from artists as varied as Kristof Barati and Klara Würz, Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp … and a few others. The works are not particularly difficult to play technically, but for me the essential quality is balance; balance between the stature of the two artists involved, balance in the sound so that, even when the violin is playing pianissimo, it can be heard against the more dominant sound of the piano. Too many modern recordings give the piano undue prominence, which means one often struggles to hear what the poor violinist is playing.

The latest set of the ten sonatas (33 movements in all) to hit my shelves features Augustin Dumay and Maria Pires, recorded sometime in the 1990s and, from the sound, on a number of different occasions in different venues. The sound quality varies between good, and very good, but you can always hear what the violin is playing, even against a strong piano background.

Opus 30 No.3 finds the pair in a somewhat more aggressive mood, with some strong accents – particularly in the first movement. Was this Beethoven having a bad-mood day, or Pires and Dumay? The variation slow movement of the Kreutzer sonata finds the pair at their most typical and most impressive; true duo playing by two friends both of whom are first class musicians. No one does it better than this. Opus 96, the lone violin and piano sonata of later Beethoven, gets a lovely performance here. This set goes right into my top three (the other two depend on my current mood and taste). Compared with the competitive violinists listed above, Dumay is well up with the best, with an appealing sweet tone. Pires, however, is equalled only by Haskil, both of whom take to Beethoven (as also to Mozart) like ducks to water.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Confessions of a Dilettante

After around 60 years of listening to music, there is a long list of works and composers that I love. There is a shorter list of composers whom I qualify with “maybe, sometimes”. The latter list includes Mahler, Brahms, Britten, Elgar, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, and Robert Schumann.

With Robert Schumann, I hum and ha. His songs and song cycles get three stars from me, both for the vocal line and the piano parts. His solo piano music (that I do not know very well) rarely appeals, since it always seems so muddy. His orchestral music is usually even muddier, though I will confess to a long-standing liking for his fourth symphony that I began to know as a teenager, in a recording conducted by Furtwängler. I never took to his piano concerto, let alone his cello concerto; and certainly not his violin concerto. The Dichterliebe and Liederkreis song cycles were part of my youth and are still very much with me. I warmed to Schumann again yesterday listening to the entirely admirable Christian Gerhaher singing Schumann lieder, including the Dichterliebe.

In general, I spend little time with the “keyboard” composers such as Schumann, Chopin and Liszt (always excepting Rachmaninov, of course). Still some time left for re-evaluation but, in the meantime, there is most of the music of Purcell, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Bruckner, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Duparc, Fauré, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov …. and many, many others. In classical music, there really is an embarras de choix. As a string quartet lover, who has only recently discovered the quartets of Haydn and Shostakovich, I find no need to try to plunge into the string quartets of Bela Bartok, a composer who almost always leaves me feeling somewhat chilled.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Happy at last

I have been listening to Bach's evergreen Brandenburg Concertos on and off for the past 60 years. Orchestral versions, small groups, chamber groups, pseudo-authentic, modern …. Somewhat by happy chance last week I came across a version of the six that really pleases me; a small, expert chamber orchestra, immaculately played modern instruments, a warm, well balanced 1968 recording, a harpsichord, when used, banished to the shadows; what more could I ask for?

The Brandenburgs do not relate well to a modern symphony orchestra, since – as always with Johann Sebastian – it is important to hear the individual strands of the music. I do not like Brandenburg-lite performances, with a handful of players dictated by a financial controller. I do not like Formula One Brandenburgs (also often dictated by a financial controller, 'get them all over in 59 minutes, please, so that we save money'). I am not a fan of recorders, harpsichords and vibrato-less strings. So the recording I picked up very cheaply with Benjamin Britten directing the English Chamber Orchestra and recorded at the the Maltings, Snape, was just up my street. After all six Brandenburgs, I could not find one tempo with which I was not happy. A harpsichord is listed for the fourth Brandenburg (but is happily inaudible) and also for the fifth where it is one of the solo instruments, with a massive cadenza in the first movement. I suspect that Britten, like me, was not a fan of harpsichords and probably agreed with Thomas Beecham's quip about “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”. The playing throughout by the small orchestra is first class, with players of the stature of Emanuel Hurwitz, Peter Graeme, Ifor James and Richard Adeney playing the solo bits. Britten's direction is sane, musical and supremely well judged.

The Decca set is one of many double-CD recordings available at ridiculously low prices, which probably means these classics of the 1950s, 60s and 70s will probably be out-of-print for future generations. I snapped up six packs (12 CDs) in one order, and will probably go back for more before the whole lot vanish into a musical black hole.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Handel's Ariodante, again

I currently have around forty complete Handel operas and oratorios, a horde of duplicates, many kilos of excerpts, plus innumerable cantatas. I have embarked on listening to the forty or so, starting with the “A”s (and Handel wrote an extraordinary number of operas whose main character begins with “A”). First off the shelf was a return to Ariondante, in two versions: a 1995 recording made in Germany with Nicolas McGegan conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester and with a vocal cast that was mainly American (Harmonia Mundi USA); and a 2010 recording from Italy with a mixed international cast and the mainly Italian Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis (Virgin Classics). Competing in the principal role of Ariondante were two Americans: Lorraine Hunt, and Joyce DiDonato.

I heard Alan Curtis conduct much the same group of players and singers in the Théâtre de Poissy circa 2007, where the opera was Alcina, with DiDonato again in the title role. He was an entirely professional conductor of the baroque repertoire, with a great sense of opera, of orchestral participation, and of inspiring his singers. In these two Ariodante recordings, Curtis and his crew win hands down. Curtis's singers are a better group, and their Italian is more idiomatic than in McGegan's American-German version, the Curtis's singers act with their voices, the Virgin recording is better, the orchestra more alive and more present. Unfortunately, the printed booklet libretto is badly made and soon began falling to bits.

The two principals, Lorraine Hunt, and Joyce DiDonato, make a good contrast. Hunt sings superbly, with a haunting scherza infida; but DiDonato, with better orchestral backing, is even more moving. Hunt gives a superb oratorio performance. DiDonato, the better actress, is far more operatic, and Handel would have been pleased with her. I'll keep the McGegan version on my shelves to listen to Lorraine Hunt occasionally. But my Ariodante is now the Alan Curtis version.

Curtis's cast is: Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Sabina Puértolas, Marie Nicole Lemieux, Topi Lehtipuu, Matthew Brook. All of them superb.

McGegan's cast is: Lorraine Hunt, Juliana Gondek, Lisa Saffer, Jennifer Lane, Rufus Müller, Nicolas Cavallier. A mixed bunch, often with highly unidiomatic Italian.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Nikolai Lugansky, and Sergei Rachmaninov

A recent passion in my musical life has been the solo piano works of Sergei Rachmaninov. Today's acquisition was the opus 23 Preludes, plus the opus 16 Moments Musicaux. Pianist this time round is Nikolai Lugansky, one of my preferred modern Russian pianists (along with Yevgeny Sudbin). I sit back and bask in lovely music, and superb playing; all 65 minutes of it.

A recent big disappointment, however, was getting down off the shelves a CD of Rachmaninov himself playing a selection of his solo piano pieces. Extraordinary pianism, of course (Rachmaninov was one of the 20th century's very greatest pianists). But to me, Rachmaninov always sounds brusque and angry in his playing of these pieces. Maybe he had a right to be angry; the exclusive recording contract he signed with (an American) company meant that whole swathes of his solo piano compositions were never recorded by Rachmaninov: (“No market, I'm afraid, Mr Rachmaninov. We would never show a profit over the next two years”). However, his fellow Russians, not to mention a smattering of highly gifted Chinese, have made up for his thin catalogue of solo piano recordings of his own music, many of which are in somewhat ancient sound. Sergei Rachmaninov's music lives on!

Monday, 18 July 2016

Beethoven's String Quartet Op 130

Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of the string quartet. This evening it was a return to Beethoven's B flat major quartet, Opus 130; this time played by the Hagen Quartett in 2001. Such incredible music. I love the Hagen Quartett's rendition, although at times it brought to mind Carl Flesch's critique of Bronisław Huberman: 'He either whispers, or he shouts'. The Hagens often whisper, and sometimes shout. Headphones are needed for listening, otherwise some things are lost.

This is the only Beethoven string quartet where I do not automatically gravitate towards the Busch Quartet's 1941 recording (why one earth did Busch leave it so late?) as my first choice, since the Busch did not finish with the Grosse Fuga, but with Beethoven's make-shift, get-you-home finale that friends, players and publishers persuaded him to substitute. The Fuga finishes this quartet superbly, after the magnificent Cavatina. 'That is where the rot set in' remarked Benjamin Britten perceptively, identifying the composer's divorce from sponsors, patrons, listeners and performers in Opus 133 (as the original finale later became). Beethoven was right, and sponsors, patrons, listeners and performers were wrong, but Beethoven's “poisonous fruit” was borne out around 100 years later by the transitory dodecaphonists, with their abandonment of harmony and melody, thus vindicating Britten's forebodings. If you want to write “pure” music and forget about everyone else, you have to be a really great composer.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Michèle Auclair

In the later 1950s, you could have found me playing any of the six sonatas for violin and keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach (not necessarily very well). I was later occasionally accompanied by a hit-and-miss pianist. But like all of Bach's music, it always sounds best if you play it yourself and can concentrate on the submerged rhythms and melodic fragments. There is no Bach like my Bach (so long as no one is listening).

Later, of course, I bought recordings of the six sonatas, played by ye olde violinists, modern violinists, thumping pianos or plucking harpsichords. The keyboard role here is often just to fill in the harmonies, and the violin is often supreme. Modern recordings were always carefully balanced to keep the essential violin in the background and yank the keyboard to the foreground. The recording by Viktoria Mullova was especially disappointing, with a whining non-vibrato by the violinist throughout, and a plucking harpsichord miring the sound picture. Her two CDs did not last long on my shelves.

Purely by chance, I have just found a 1956 recording of the six played by Michèle Auclair. This suits me! Ms Auclair was a very fine violinist indeed; she plays here with a modern vibrato sound, she is balanced well forward, and the keyboard part harmonises discreetly – on an organ, played by Marie-Claire Alain. The set was serendipitous, since the six sonatas were included in an eight CD box of recordings by Michèle Auclair.

The French were supremely unlucky with their post-war violinists. Ginette Neveu died in an air crash in 1949, Jacques Thibaud in an air crash in 1953. In the early 1960s Michèle Auclair had to give up her concert career following an accident. In 1982, after a long decline due to alcohol, Christian Ferras committed suicide. Michèle Auclair, as preserved here during her brief recording career mainly in the 1950s, was a violinistic force to be reckoned with, with a controlled intensity similar to that of Ginette Neveu. The recordings are mainly by a “B” team, the accompaniments as well (apart from Willem van Otterloo in the Brahms concerto). But Michèle Auclair's violin shines through it all, and I was particularly happy to listen to her 1956-style Bach sonatas, as well as to the violin playing of the first half of the 20th century with its liberal use of bow strokes and exemplary trills – after the middle of the century trills became somewhat perfunctory, and I always listen with pleasure to the old violinists and their tight trills. I think I still have my original copies of Bach's music somewhere, arranged for violin and piano by Debussy, if I remember rightly, although it is decades since I  last played it.