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.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Julius Röntgen

Unfortunately, up until now Julius Röntgen has only flickered across my radar very occasionally. This is unjust, because he seems to have written some attractive music that is highly listener-friendly and should appeal to anyone who likes Brahms, Grieg or Dvorak. Almost alone of so many little-known composers, he knew how to write a memorable tune. I've just been listening to a violin and piano CD sent to me by a Dutch friend (the E major sonata Opus 40, the Phantasy Op 24, the Sonata Trilogica, and the suite of Seven Concert Pieces). All highly enjoyable – so much so that I have ordered a second, competitive version to compare with my current disc where the violinist is the unknown (to me) Christoph Schickedanze. All sounds OK, but the violin is balanced a little too far back; a situation rectified to some extent by listening through headphones. The music does not sound at all technically challenging, and should be ideal for concert violinists looking for something outside the usual inevitable 12 violin and piano sonatas. At any rate, it is music that concert attendees would immediately take to (as did I).

Monday, 27 June 2016

More Scarlatti from Yevgeny Sudbin

Domenico Scarlatti must be the king of Easy Listening music. He wrote over 500 keyboard sonatas – most lasting typically 3-6 minutes each. Years ago I bought a CD of 18 of his sonatas played by Yevgeny Sudbin, and the CD lasted well on each re-listening. So I have now bought his second CD, featuring 18 more sonatas. I love it! Others – including Clara Haskil – have recorded Scarlatti sonatas, but there is something about Sudbin's playing that sounds just right. Music, and playing, to keep close to hand.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Speedy Isabelle Faust

There is some truly wonderful violin playing on Isabelle Faust's 2009-11 recording of the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach. At times, one simply has to gasp in admiration, and I often regretted that, so far, Ms Faust does not seem to have recorded Paginini's Capricci. Her Strad here sounds beautiful, and Ms Faust does not miss a trick, or even a demi-semiquaver. The fast movements come off very well indeed – and the B minor partita that can often seem to go on for too long, gets a magnificent performance.

But, and it's a big but: some of the music is played simply too quickly. The fugues, the lovely andante of the A minor sonata, the largo of the C major sonata, as well as the Ciaccona – need to breathe. In practically every movement I looked at, Faust is faster even than Jascha Heifetz. The Ciaconna is dispatched in one long breath of 12'26; probably a world record. Make no mistake, there is some breathtaking violin playing on these two CDs; the well-known Preludio to the E major partita is full of fascinating light and shade. Ms Faust is no dumb high-speed virtuoso; she is a superb musician in all she does. It's just that some movements in this set are just too damn fast!

I have only once heard Isabelle Faust live, but I have many recordings by her, and practically everything she touches turns to gold. Two hours of wonderful violin playing here, and I sense I'll return to this set often; but I still need alternatives such as Heifetz, Milstein or Ibragimova for performances that allow the music to breathe and leave me admiring Bach, as well as the violinist.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Henry Purcell: Fantasias

There is music where one has a sense of a composer communicating with his muse, leaving aside all thoughts of patrons, public renown, reputation, or celebrity. Examples are found often with Bach (Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, the 48 preludes and fugues), with Beethoven (the late string quartets), Shostakovich (the string quartets, the preludes and fugues for piano) … and with Henry Purcell and his Fantasias for viols. By the time Purcell wrote his fantasias in 1680 when he was 21 years old, the consort of viols was already somewhat passé, and no one quite understands why Purcell wrote for what we would now call “period instruments”.

I came across the fantasies (“fantazias” as Purcell termed them) many decades ago, and they continue to fascinate me with their kaleidoscopic range of colour, tempo and harmony. The harmonies are often “post Schönbergian” in places, and this must have astounded any listeners – if there were any – in the 1680s. What a wealth of invention, and what a marvellous sense of a great composer revelling in his musical and contrapuntal skills. No challenge was left unopposed, viz the celebrated Fantazia upon one Note à 5.

Unfortunately, I now have only one recording of the fantasies, that by a viol ensemble that called itself Phantasm, recorded back in the early 1990s (I have just ordered a second version, with Jordi Savall). As far as I can judge, the Phantasm group is excellent, but it really will be good to have alternatives to compare; English groups can be somewhat prim and proper, and averse to throwing themselves into the music. Purcell's fantasias are rarely played today, probably because there are few viol consorts around, and players of later instruments (violins, violas, cellos) are terrified of being labelled musically incorrect. And the fantasias were not even published until 1927! But, ah, what magnificent music we find in the Purcell fantasias, the true musical ancestors of the late Beethoven and Shostakovich string quartets. We can think of the (paraphrased) remark attributed to Handel, when talking about Purcell: “Had he lived longer, we would all have been out of a job”.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov

I noticed the release of Boris Giltburg playing Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux Op 39, and the Moments Musicaux Op 16. Since I love both sets of pieces, I put the CD on my wishlist. After a time, I decided that, given I already had several recordings of both pieces, including those by Zlata Chochieva and Xiayin Wang, I would forgo Giltburg, so I took him off the wishlist. Then a highly laudatory review in the Gramophone magazine put him back on the wishlist. Then I noticed it was a Naxos CD, and thus only around the price of a good sirloin steak in the supermarket. So I bought the CD, happily for me.

Giltburg is a pianist on this CD with superb pianism, and a superlative range of sound and dynamics. Some pieces I found too slow for my taste, but it did not matter when Giltburg played them this way. Like Rachmaninov himself, the pianist concentrates on the music, eschewing showmanship. Zlata and Xiayin are still there in my must-listen pile. But so now is Giltburg. Strange to remember that Rachmaninov the composer was once somewhat looked down on by “those in the know”; it is dangerous to write music that music lovers really like!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Violinist Repertoire

It is difficult for fine musicians to achieve notice in the overcrowded modern world, where every man and his dog can commission a recording or post on YouTube. Some try the eccentric route; Nigel Kennedy and Gilles Apap come to mind, in the violin world. Many try the experimental modern contemporary composer-of-the-moment route, where competition and comparisons are limited; Patricia Kopatchinskaja comes to mind, obtaining press coverage with an enfant terrible image. Some violinists still try the well-trodden route of Tchaikovsky-Mendelssohn-Bruch-Sibelius, where they promptly come up against Heifetz, Kreisler, Milstein, Oistrakh, and 200 others.

I fully appreciate that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a mark in “standard” repertoire. But nearly three hours of recorded music for violin and orchestra that arrived chez moi yesterday show one does not need to resort to cacophonic experimental compositions in order to do something different. Two of yesterday's CDs contain three violin concertos of Christian Sinding, plus his better known Suite and a couple of shorter pieces. The third CD contains seven substantial pieces for violin and orchestra by Eugène Ysaÿe. Pretty well none of the three hours of music here is well known, yet all the works are worth getting to know. Violinists in the Ysaÿe are Amoury Coeytaux and Svetlin Roussev; the Sinding features Andrej Bielow.

Kristof Barati in Mozart Concertos

Kristof Barati is a very fine violinist, as he has proved many times since winning the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels in 1997. Being a Hungarian violinist living in Hungary, he is perhaps not as well known internationally as he ought to be. His recorded opus to date, however, is extensive – and enjoyable. The latest addition is two hours of Mozart violin concertos and a few pieces for orchestra, recorded live in Hungary last year and just issued by Brilliant Classics in a well recorded and low priced double CD album. I enjoyed it immensely.

Barati is a brisk player in Mozart, particularly in the first movements of the concertos. A little perturbed at first, I soon began to enjoy the image of a young Mozart flaunting his prowess on the violin. One does not always enjoy young Mozart for violin virtuosity, but one does here; Barati is always interesting. I also much approve of his brief cadenzas (Joachim's in the first movement of K.219); often violinists choose cadenzas that go on and on and thus interrupt the flow of the music. Not so here.

The Hungarian Chamber Orchestra (directed by Barati) contributes appropriately. Inevitably in two hours of live recording there are a few bits and pieces that would have been re-done and patched in a studio. Such things rarely worry me. I have recently enjoyed Mozart concertos played – very differently – by Arabella Steinbacher, and by Katrin Scholtz. There is room for everyone in Mozart interpretation, but I'll always enjoy coming back to Barati's brisk, virtuosic versions that hold my interest from the first bar onwards, even in this music I have known backwards for around six decades.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Symphony Orchestras

I am never over-fussy about orchestras. Modern orchestras are filled with – often younger – players who can cope with most technical challenges. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I have the impression that one and two star orchestras can often make for more rewarding listening, since they try harder than their three star cousins, who are sometimes content to rest on their laurels or past reputations. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to accompanying soloists, and one suspects that – particularly in the past – major orchestras here often fielded ranks of substitute players, rather than the principals. There are many reports of conductors in the past having been nonplussed to discover that the orchestral personnel they were conducting at the actual concert did not entirely correspond to the orchestral personnel with whom they had been rehearsing!

All too often, three star orchestras have become “brands”, in the modern parlance, so much so that, a few years ago, the “Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” was caught out playing two different concerts in two different places; on the same evening! Common sense tells us that the Berlin Philharmonic of the 1930s will not be the same Berlin Philharmonic of the 1960s, or 90s, or the present day. Players change, and retire. Orchestras go through good periods, viz the Philharmonia in the 1950s and 60s, and weak periods, viz the London Symphony Orchestra in the same period. Conductors known for their orchestral training prowess, such as Toscanini, von Karajan, Stokowski, and others, can make a big difference fairly quickly.

Nevertheless, orchestras are not all the same. Russia, Scandinavia, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and America have usually offered a range of fine orchestras whereas, for some reason, countries such as France, Spain, Italy or Greece struggle in any given period to offer even one orchestra of real international standard. France is particularly puzzling, since the country boasts a strong range of first-rate instrumentalists and numerous prestigious conservatoires. There are orchestras in Paris, Toulouse and Lille, but it is difficult to think of a famous French orchestra. As for Germany; the country bursts with fine orchestras, some with major “brand” images such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, not to mention the orchestras of Dresden and Leipzig, with superb orchestras all over the place in Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and elsewhere – Bremen is a recent fine contestant. I am very fond of the recordings by Günter Wand that he made mostly in Cologne and Hamburg with regional German radio orchestras; to my ears, the orchestras sound fine and I do not miss their three star cousins.

Having said that, however, orchestras can make a difference in certain respects; Russian orchestras appear to dive into the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich in a particularly heart-felt way, as do British orchestras in the music of Elgar – and the Vienna Philharmonic in the music of Anton Bruckner. I marvelled recently at the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's eighth and ninth symphonies (conducted by Carl Schuricht in the early 1960s); the sound was simply so right. In many respects, however, symphony orchestras are much like restaurants or wine: they have their good periods and their bad periods, good years and bad years, a change of chef can make a major difference as can a change of ownership or funding. Ah, the Concertgebouw orchestra of the 1970s vintage !

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Tristan & Isolde

Hans Knappertsbusch, Carl Schuricht, Bernard Haitink, Günter Wand, Adrian Boult, Jascha Horenstein, Pierre Monteux, Victor de Sabata, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Eugen Jochum, Eduard van Beinum ... there is a long list of highly admirable conductors who never managed to reach the "star" list, not because of lack of ability, but often because of lack of ambition, or lack of effective PR managers, or inability to gain three star recording contracts or media material posts with prestigious orchestras. Otto Klemperer nearly joined the list, but he was "rescued" by Walter Legge in the early 1950s and Legge, for all his chronicled faults, could recognise first-class musicians and do something for them, if he chose.

Carl Schuricht was one such "star, non-star". In its dying days, EMI issued a superb re-mastered SACD version of Schuricht conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1961 and 63 in Bruckner's eighth and ninth symphonies, and I have been listening again to this with much pleasure. I have an uneasy feeling that great performances of the music of Wagner and Bruckner died out during the later decades of the twentieth century, a feeling reinforced today listening to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, recorded by EMI in 1952 and conducted in a London studio by Wilhelm Furtwängler. This is a well-known great classic of the recording eras, but how incredible it is! The stature of this recording is due almost entirely to Furtwängler, who melds the massive 4-5 hour opera into one seamless, impassioned whole. Timings are slow, forward progress relentless. The stature is enhanced by the 1952 mono recording, produced by Walter Legge with the incomparable Douglas Larter as balance engineer. I found the recording quality (digital transfer by Christopher Parker) to be quite amazing, given the 64 years that have elapsed since the original was set down. They don't make great classics like that any more when it comes to Wagner or Bruckner, it seems; the old dinosaurs died with their secrets intact.