Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tianwa Yang / Vilde Frang

Concert and recital programmes are becoming stupefyingly boring, with the same few works re-cycled over and over again, unless it be some contemporary piece, to be played once only and never again, and sandwiched carefully mid-programme to discourage non-fans from arriving late, or leaving early. Two recent CDs to tumble through my door reveal how recorded music is saving the day for the thousands of musical works rarely or never played in public. One new CD features seven shorter pieces for violin and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, with only the Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo capriccioso being at all familiar. And even those two pieces rarely show up in concert programmes today. Which is a great pity, since all the music here is attractive and pleasing to the ear. Expert performer is the highly talented Tianwa Yang, with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. I suspect people in Havana are more laid back than Ms Yang supposes, and her Havanaise goes by at a brisk trot. Still, delightful music, well played and well recorded. A CD from St Naxos, of course; what would lovers of violin music do without Naxos?

The other CD was a most enjoyable recital of 17 short pieces for violin and piano, played by Vilde Frang, with pianist José Gallardo. You won't find these pieces played in recital programmes, except as encores, more's the pity; the choice is excellent, based on hommage to great violinists of the past as composers or arrangers. Thus, Heifetz, Kreisler, Wieniawski, Auer, Szigeti, Bazzini, et al. I was especially happy to re-encounter Szigeti's arrangement of an étude by Scriabin (étude in thirds). The playing is of the very best, the recording and balance just as they should be. Being a Warner product, the CD is liberally plastered with photos of young Ms Frang, of course. Naxos, quite rightly, gives us just one small black and white photo of Tianwa Yang, on the understandable grounds that we are buying the music of Saint-Saëns, not the performance of a young female.

I now rarely go to live concerts or recitals, more a question of geography and logistics rather than anything else. But looking at present day concert programmes, I guess I'd probably stick to recorded music even if I lived next door to a concert hall, since recorded music has such riches in terms of repertoire offered. Like the two CDs here.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Quatuor Mosaïques in Late Beethoven

My scepticism concerning “original instruments” and “period performances” is well documented in this blog. I can never really see the point, except it is currently fashionable. All those critics – most of them either pianists or choral scholars – who pretend they can discern immediately whether an instrument they are hearing has gut strings, metal strings, or plastic strings, can do nothing of the sort. I grew up with gut strings and they were a pain in the neck, always going out of tune, and snapping if you so much as looked at them. Instrument strings are one of the few things in the world that have become better over time (as well as computers, and cars). The strings I use in 2017 seem rarely to go out of tune, and very rarely break. And my playing does not sound any worse than it did when I had gut strings in my youth.

Well, all that as an introduction to the Quatuor Mosaïques playing the five late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven “on period instruments”. Of the sixteen strings used by the four instruments of the quartet, my sensitive ear can hear that three are non-gut. (Actually, it can't, but that just shows how silly the whole thing has become. I cannot even hear which of Heifetz's four violin strings was non-gut; he always used three gut strings, and one metal covered. I seem to remember it was the G that was metal covered). I bought the Mosaïques set because I have its Haydn quartet set, and like it very much indeed. Despite being “period”, the quartet has a warm, friendly sound, and does not scamper through the music at high speed like so many “period” performers. And unlike many period performers, the four players can actually play their respective instruments rather well; in this set, I would particularly pick out the cellist, the Frenchman Christophe Coin, who really makes the most of the cello part; it is as if Furtwängler were directing the ensemble, with emphasis on the bass part underpinning the music. More brownie points: for the B flat quartet opus 130, the Mosaïques go straight into the Grosse Fuge, after the Cavatina, a solution to Beethoven's controversial finales I much prefer, even though the Fuge does sound deranged in places, even to 21st century ears. To the ears of 1825, it must have sounded worse than the music of Luciano Berio.

No performances of the last five string quartets of Beethoven are going to be definitive. Listening to the Mosaïques, I still recall passages as played by the Busch Quartet – in the Cavatina of opus 130, for example. And the Busch players let the music breathe more than do their rivals. However, in these wonderful string quartets, I'll happily settle for the Busch, the Mosaïques and the Talich Quartet, in any old order. In the words of a Bach cantata: Ich habe genug.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Gerhard Taschner - Part One

Gerhard Taschner was born in 1922 and died in 1976 at the age of 54. In 1941, at the age of 19, he was chosen by Furtwängler to be leader of the Berlin Philharmonic. In the early 1960s, health problems forced him to abandon his concert career. Like so many from Central Europe in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, his career was stunted and he never found the renown his playing merited. He was, apparently, also a difficult person, once walking out of a rehearsal with Herbert von Karajan in the late 1940s and never going back.

For some reason that escapes me, I find I have no less than twelve CDs of various recordings by Taschner, most of them from broadcast tapes, since he never had a major recording contract. A two CD set contains all of Taschner's 78 rpm recordings from the 1940s and reveals immediately a highly focused tone, impeccable intonation, and a wonderful bow arm. And what a technique! His recording here of the Bach Chaconne (1941) is one of the most interesting I can think of; a long way from “period style”, but enthralling playing by the 19 year old Taschner. I lapped it up, despite the crackly surface noise from the shellac discs. The sonata by César Franck with Cor de Groot in 1943 reveals Taschner to be a superb chamber music and duo player, despite, on occasions, a distracting fast, narrow vibrato, especially prominent in slower music. But this 21 year old player was certainly no mere virtuoso. Within a few years, the very fast vibrato appears to have been tamed and becomes less of a distraction.

I must confess that I had more or less forgotten about these old recordings on my shelves. Meaning to sample different tracks, I soon found that I always had to listen to the whole thing, since Taschner's playing is fascinating, and his musicianship so convincing. Pieces by Paganini and Sarasate (1942 and 44) reveal Taschner to be at least the equal of Heifetz or Kogan in these works (and more interesting than 95% of today's violinists), with a superb sense of rhythm and the best left-hand pizzicato in the business – hearing his Zigeunerweisen makes one realise just how many violinists cheat or smudge when it comes to the pizzicato passages. Some of the shellac disc sides have more crackle and pop than many breakfast cereals, but I am not au fait with the technical possibilities of removing surface noise without impacting the violin sound, and with violinists the sound is important. In April 1948, Taschner turns in an excellent performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, with an approach that makes one think of Jascha Heifetz: authoritative, sensitive, and with a refusal to linger over sentimental passages. The finale underlines Taschner's virtuoso credentials. Berlin in 1948 cannot have been the most pleasant place on earth in which to play music.

A remarkable four CD box from Dabringhaus und Grimm sees Taschner in the early to mid 1950s, with two CDs of short or encore pieces and two CDs of sonatas for violin and piano. Those were the days when musicians were permitted to programme or record short pieces and encore pieces. No more 78 rpms for the Dabringhaus set, but at least Taschner had a little luck in that in the 1940s and early 50s the Germans were probably top of the pile when it came to recording technology, with the Americans and Russians limping way behind during the same period. Holding listeners' interest through around 26 short pieces demands a violinist with an exceptional palette of sound, style and colouring. Heifetz could do it. Kreisler could do it. And on the D&G CDs, Taschner certainly could do it! I intended to sample, but I listened to everything, all through. None of today's highly talented violinists can get anywhere near Taschner's playing of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasia (November 1954, with Martin Krause). You are glued to your speakers or headsets. And out of my 81 (!) recordings of Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, I cannot think of any more thrilling than Taschner's (6th October 1952, with Hubert Giesen). His 1952 recording of Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin may be the best of the 45 recordings of this short piece I possess, since, chameleon-like, Taschner always adapts his sound and his bowing to the different music he plays. Like Laurence Olivier on the stage, or Maria Callas in the opera house, Taschner adapts his sound and his playing to the music at hand. Particularly when listening to a recital of short pieces, one discovers there are many Taschners at work. The style and sound of the Taschner who plays Beethoven sonatas (7th November 1955) is, quite rightly, very different from the sound of the Taschner who plays Brahms' G major sonata (26th November 1955).

The third and fourth CDs in this truly excellent Dabringhaus und Grimm set feature sonatas for violin and piano by Dvorak, Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Othmar Schoeck, and Maurice Ravel. All the recordings on all four CDs seem to come from German radio archives, and sound quality ranges from not bad, to pretty good. Pianists in the sonatas here are Edith Farnadi and Martin Krause, with Hubert Giesen in the Dvorak. We find Taschner to be a truly first class player of chamber music and duo sonatas. Indeed, of the 34 pieces of music presented on these four CDs, a very high proportion indeed would feature in my three best recordings of the music concerned. You can almost certainly find almost all the 34 pieces played by contemporary players such as Joshua Bell or Nikolaj Znaider. But you will find no playing of the standard set by Taschner. And I know of no one else who has recorded the fascinating “Mosquitos” by the American Blair Fairchild.

The connection between talent and fame is a fragile one. A violinist such as Isaac Stern was ten times more famous than Gerhard Taschner; Gerhard Taschner was ten times a better and more interesting violinist than Isaac Stern. Gerhard Taschner was a major violinist who is now pretty well unknown. In this he resembles the violinist David Nadien who is also pretty well unknown (but for different career reasons from Taschner). Come to think of it, the playing styles of Taschner and Nadien have much in common, including completely fluent techniques and an aversion to lingering and slow tempi, although there is more fire and tension in Taschner's playing. Violinists for violinists. I am happy to possess my Taschner collection. When people ask who are the great violinists of the past century, you can reply “Heifetz, and Kreisler” and they will nod. If you add “Joseph Hassid, David Nadien, and Gerhard Taschner” they will look at you oddly.

This is part one of my return to Taschner. Awaiting me are two CDs of concertos from EMI, two CDs of Tahra's Art of Gerhard Taschner, two CDs of Tahra's Portrait of Gerhard Taschner, and one CD of the Gieseking-Taschner-Hoelscher trio in Brahms. From the EMI, I'll probably gloss over the concertos by Fortner, Pfitzner and Hindemith (Kammermusik). And one of the Tahra CDs duplicates material I have already considered. To be continued ….

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Arabella Steinbacher, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten

The violin concertos of Paul Hindemith and of Benjamin Britten were both finished in 1939. Somewhat remarkably, until now I had no recording of Hindemith's work, and to the best of my knowledge I have never heard it before in my entire life. Today I heard it for the first time and I have to confess that I feel I have not been missing much. Hindemith's concerto is well-crafted in a highly Germanic post- Brahms and post- Bruch idiom. I suspect it is not much played, and I cannot say I am surprised.

The highly capable soloist (I imagine) is the glamorous Arabella Steinbacher. The usual excellent recording comes from Pentatone. I cannot see the CD spinning too often chez moi. But also on the CD is Britten's (suddenly) ever popular violin concerto. At this rate, the concerto will outpace that of Tchaikovsky in recordings and popularity! I commented recently (re Julia Fischer) how so many top violinists have suddenly discovered the work. Now Arabella has added it to her recorded repertoire and it is an excellent version. The Britten work is permeated with sadness; the Hindemith work admits to no emotions. The Britten is also one of those rare works where I do not feel that the finale is a bit of a let-down, and I am happy that it is at last enjoying a well-deserved popularity, after being sniffed at by critics for so long, and ignored by so many soloists of previous generations, with the honourable exception of Theo Olof (1948) and Bronislaw Gimpel (1961).

Arabella is never a girl in a hurry, and this Britten takes its time, particularly in the final passacaglia. Vladimir Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra sound excellent and idiomatic, and Pentatone's recording makes this a highly useful three star addition to the catalogue of excellent recordings. It is really good to hear so much orchestral detail; in Britten's concerto, the orchestral part is extremely important; on a par with that of the soloist. As for Herr Hindemith and his violin concerto … Oh well, you can't win them all.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Mischa Elman, Violinist

Listening to Mischa Elman with the “New Symphony Orchestra” playing a Vivaldi concerto (1931) prompts the thought that they do not play Vivaldi like that, any more. To which an ascetic academic would probably comment “thank goodness” and many others would say “more's the pity”. Elman came from a background where the fiddler's role was to enchant the listener, and I suspect Vivaldi would have nodded his head in approval and said “to hell with period practice!”

Mischa Elman (born 1881) came from the Leopold Auer stable in Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, he signed an exclusive recording deal with RCA in America, and RCA did not believe in duplicating repertoire so gave all the prime repertoire slots to its favourite exclusive violinist, Jascha Heifetz. Elman had to pick up the crumbs, so his recorded legacy is mainly bits and pieces, often recorded when he was past his prime. The earliest recording I have of him is in 1906; the latest 1966. He died in 1967, aged 76. The later recordings he made when, presumably released from his RCA contract in the 1950s, show the old Elman, but much of the fire and virtuosity are missing. I have long been a fan of Elman's violin playing; he is a violinist for lovers of the old Russian and central European school of violin playing (his grandfather was a klezmer violinist).

Mendelssohn's charming violin concerto plumbs no great musical or emotional depths and because of complete over-familiarity, it is no longer a work that holds my attention for the music alone. It can, however, hold my attention because of the violin playing, as it does in a 1947 recording of Elman with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Elman's violin sings! (Another recording of the work that I still enjoy is Yehudi Menuhin in 1938, with George Enescu conducting, one of Menuhin's last truly spontaneous recordings before the onset of the periods of fallibility). My Elman recordings are ones I shall never part with during my lifetime; he is always a tonic for lovers of violin playing.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Jascha Heifetz plays Bach

The three sonatas and three partitas that Bach wrote for solo violin are extraordinary works. Apart from anything else, they are extremely difficult to play since the violin is not at home with chords, accompaniments to melodies, and fugues. One boggles to imagine what violinists made of it in Bach's time since, even now and post- Paganini, the pieces pose real challenges; above all, the challenge to play them well so that the violin makes agreeable sounds.

I have been re-listening to the six works as played by Jascha Heifetz in 1952. For those for whom such things matter, no one can accuse Heifetz of not playing on a “period instrument”, since he would have been using either his del Gesù or Stradivari violins, with his usual three gut strings. As well as being a supreme violinist, Heifetz was always an extremely tasteful player, and these works suit him down to the ground. Everyone and his dog has recorded the works over the decades, but Heifetz (and Milstein) still stand out as top violinists and musicians in these works, be it the chaconne of the second suite, the fugues of the three sonatas, the adagios, or the rapidissimo movements. I listened to Heifetz as re-incarnated by Pristine Audio in extremely good ambient stereo; for the first time in these recordings, Heifetz's unique silky tone comes over with impressive results. A three star version of these works, and thank you Pristine for the impressive restoration of Heifetz in his prime.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Fine Wine

When it comes to wine, I tend to drink good quality table wine pretty well every day. 95% of my wine will be French (because that is the wine I know best, and because France is the nearest wine-producing country to England). About 85% will be red wine, and the rest mainly rosé wine. Just in case anyone is interested.

Today, for a particularly good stew of steak and kidney (plus dumplings), I dug out an old bottle of Aloxe-Corton, Grand Vin de Bourgogne 2005. A wine from the Côte d'Or; I have no idea when or where I bought it. In one word: super! Unlike most old wines I unearth, it had improved with age and had not passed its sell-by date. Like most old wines still in good condition, it improved with being open for some time, and being drunk. It has now been drunk. Sad.

Three All-Time Classics for All Time

Given the long track record of music recordings, and the very large number of first-class musicians past and present, it is improbable that there are performances that can never be surpassed. Three sprang to my notice recently, however: Jascha Heifetz playing Spohr's 8th violin concerto (1954 recording) and Joseph Hassid's recordings of Sarasate's Playera, and Zapateado (1940).

I cannot imagine any of these three performances ever being equalled, let alone bettered. In all three cases, the violins seem to be singing, rather than being played. Very appropriate in the case of the Spohr Gesangsszene concerto ("in modo di scena cantante").

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Mozart's String Quartets dedicated to Haydn

A great deal of music has been written for sponsors, or employers, or has been commissioned. For practically the whole of J.S. Bach's life, he wrote music for his employers, be it church or court. Most of Haydn's music was written when he was a liveried servant of an aristocratic employer. Handel was an exception in the 18th century, and Mozart had no patron (though a good proportion of his music was commissioned). Even by Mozart's high standards, the six string quartets he dedicated to Joseph Haydn are among his very best works. One has a real sense of Mozart taking extra care to give of his best in these works he dedicated to Haydn. The level of invention is high and constant, so no matter how often one listens to these quartets, there is always something new. One never tires of listening.

This time round I heard them played by the Hagen Quartett, in recordings from the late 1990s. Well played and well balanced, with Mozart's favoured viola parts (that he himself probably played when the quartets were first performed for Haydn) coming over well. Mozart really put the viola back into play, after decades when it was mainly just a filling-in instrument. However, I certainly still prefer to listen to these works as recorded by the Quartetto Italiano. Music does not get much greater than Wolfgang Amadeus in top form, in a music format (the string quartet) that is among the very highest for the higher levels of music making.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Language, and Music Marketing

And now even Alfredo Campoli is being billed as “Milestones of a Legend”. Classical music promotion goes resolutely dumbing-down; almost everyone from more than twenty years ago is now a “legend”. That is, those who are not “icons”. No matter that an icon is a graphic or pictorial representation (thus the Eiffel Tower for Paris, or the Statue of Liberty for New York). Suddenly Bronislaw Huberman or Glenn Gould become “icons”; representing what? We are all waiting for someone to be deemed an iconic legend. The time cannot now be far off. And no matter that the common definition of a legend is something like: “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated”.

Sloppy language; sloppy marketing. Classical music (for want of a more accurate term) has always been a minority interest, and an interest that often intensifies with age. Comparatively few young people love classical music (even though most orchestras are full of excellent young players). Just as those who grow older tend to gravitate towards fine wines, so people who like music tend to gravitate towards the classics. From my distant youth, I recall very, very few of my contemporaries who took any interest in classical music. It is therefore difficult to comprehend why classical music marketing is increasingly targeting the young, with half-clad young women on CD covers vying with semi-shaven scowling young men. Popular music, and classical music, appeal to different sectors of the population, with popular music, quite logically, being far more popular than classical music. It always has been so, and always will be. Sell me a pianist, singer, violinist, or whatever because he or she is a superb musician. Not because she has pretty legs and a short skirt, or because he is a legendary icon.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bach's Goldberg Variations

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

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

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

Friday, 22 September 2017

Violin and Piano Balance

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

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

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Dong Hyek Lim

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

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Ji Young and Dong Hyek

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 September 2017

Two Hours of Russian Gloom

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 September 2017

In Praise of Bach and Handel

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

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

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Beethoven String Quartets with the Talich Quartet

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

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

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

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