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.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Translation of the month

Translation of the month from a website:

"Tchaikovsky: Souvenir of an expensive place, Opus 42".
[Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Op. 42].

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Re-Listening to the Beethoven String Quartets

I have always had a fondness for the music of string quartets (I once, long ago, played the viola in an amateur string quartet). In some ways, the combination of two violins, a viola and a cello, is an ideal platform for music. Throughout my life I have had a great affection for the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert … and lately, Shostakovich. By chance, I have just discovered on my shelves that I have no less than four complete sets of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets; there used to be five, but I ditched the set by the Hungarian String Quartet some years ago.

The remaining maestri are the Léner Quartet (recorded circa 1928), the Vegh Quartet (circa 1952), the Talich Quartet (1980s) and the Juilliard Quartet (1964-70). I cannot now remember why I invested in the Talich or the Juilliard sets, but I bought the Léner set (from Japan) because I liked the olde worlde sound of the quartet, with its distinctive Hungarian style and large doses of portamenti. I bought the Vegh, since the Vegh recordings of opus 59 no.1 and opus 95 were the first Beethoven quartet recordings I acquired (on an old French LP, when I was around fifteen years old). I replaced the LP with the complete set by the Vegh, many years ago.

So I seized the Juilliard set off the shelves, and have embarked on a retrospect of all sixteen Beethoven string quartets. I know the late quartets extremely well, and the middle opus 59 quartets quite well. But it has been interesting and rewarding over the past few days becoming re-acquainted with the six opus 18 quartets, that I know less well. Interesting, enjoyable, and with a recorded sound and style of playing that I find greatly pleasing, even though there is evidence of a certain American brashness in some of the playing. I still greatly regret that the Busch Quartet never recorded the complete Beethoven string quartets; Adolf Busch, in particular, always brought a remarkable authority to the first violin part. Still, the Juilliard players are worthy stand-ins for the absent Buschs, and I am enjoying my listening marathon. One day, I'll have to get out the old set led by Jenö Léner, with his distinctive old world style and sound.

Saturday, 19 August 2017


I very much enjoyed a CD from the super-talented Nazrin Rashidova accompanied on the guitar by Stanislav Hvartchilkov; believe it or not, I come somewhat new to the sound of the classical guitar. Spurred on by my discovery, I invested in a Naxos disc of prize-winning Xianji Liu playing a selection of solo guitar pieces. I did not enjoy it much. No fault of Mr Liu, I suspect; it is just that 60 minutes of solo guitar becomes extremely monotonous, with the guitar's limited range of colour. A bit like listening to 60 minutes of violin music, all played pizzicato.

Guitars, I have decided, are excellent accompanying instruments, whether vocal or instrumental. But not instruments for dedicated listening to for long periods.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Nazrin Rashidova, and Emile Sauret

I knew little of Emile Sauret (1852-1920) apart from the fact he wrote a famous cadenza for the first movement of Paganini's first violin concerto, so I was most grateful when a good friend gave me a birthday present of the first seven of Sauret's 24 études-caprices. How would he stand up against similar works by Paganini, Ernst, Rode, and others?

The short answer is: very well. Sauret's works on this CD are really tough on the violinist, but tough in demanding every variety of bowing, and every possible combination of fingering. Unlike others, Sauret does not demand chimpanzee-like dexterity with melodies in harmonics, or double stopped in harmonics; Sauret's pyrotechnics are subtle and violinistic, not attempts at showmanship. The 61 minutes on this CD pass by very agreeably – probably more so for lovers of violin playing rather than general music lovers. But lovers of fine violin playing will have a veritable feast.

Thanks to Monsieur Sauret, but also thanks to the CD's violinist, Nazrin Rashidova. She copes with the fiendish bowing demands, she copes with swooping from the bottom of the G string to the highest echelons of the E string, she ensures that the music always sounds good, with a highly admirable variation of dynamics. Frankly, it is difficult to think of these pieces being better played. Or sounding better; I imagined Ms Rashidova was playing on some ancient, multi-million dollar Italian violin. But it transpires that her violin is one made by David Rattray, London, in 2009. So well done Emile Sauret, Ms Rashidova's right arm, Ms Rashidova's left hand, Mr Rattray's violin, and Joseph Lamy's bow (1890). This CD (from St Naxos, patron saint of lovers of violin music and playing) is labelled as Volume 1. I await the following volumes with impatience. The excellent and informative liner notes were written by: Ms Rashidova. Obviously a young woman of talent.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Corey Cerovsek: Beethoven

Eight of Beethoven's ten sonatas for violin and piano were written when he was in his late 20s or very early thirties. The Kreutzer Op 47 was an exception, as was the late, lonely sonata in G major Op 96. Being first-class Beethoven, the music is sophisticated but not especially profound at this early age. All ten works are first class, though I am not a fan of the Kreutzer, finding it over-long and somewhat belligerent at times.

A generous friend presented me with a box of the ten sonatas recorded in 2006 by the Canadian Corey Cerovsek and the Finn Paavali Jumppanen. This joins numerous complete sets on my shelves, including Grumiaux-Haskil, Barati-Würtz, Kreisler-Rupp, Faust-Melnikov, Dumay-Pires, Capuçon-Braley, Ferras-Barbizet, Ibragimova-Tiberghien, Kavakos-Pace, Suk-Panenka, Tetzlaff-Longuich. A few sets, including Pamela Frank, and Joseph Szigeti, are long gone. No lack of first-class choices when it comes to the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas.

Cerovsek and Jumppanen were around the age when Beethoven wrote these sonatas when they made the recording in 2006. Cerovsek reveals himself as a pupil of Joseph Gingold – who was a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe. Many of Gingold's pupils seem to have learned a sweet tone, viz also Nai-Yuan Hu, also a Gingold pupil. Cerovsek here reminds me of Arthur Grumiaux, and maybe Renaud Capuçon. It's a nice set of the sonatas, with the two young men forming an excellent duo partnership, with constant attention to dynamics and detail. Balance is OK, though balancing a violin and a piano must rival balancing a duet for trumpet and flute, for difficulty. After a marathon listening, it is probably the piano playing that stays foremost in my mind, though that may also be down to Beethoven's intentions. If I ever record the ten Beethoven violin and piano sonatas, I will contact Paavali Jumppanen. Forced to grab a set of the Beethoven sonatas before exile to a desert island, I am not sure what set I would grasp, though it would be no great loss if it turned out to be Cerovsek-Jumppanen.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Véronique Gens: Visions

There is music one listens to because of the music itself. There is music one listens to because of the performers. Ideal listening is great music with great performers; which happens, sometimes. I still enjoy listening to Arkadi Volodos playing Brahms' solo piano music, even though I am not a lover of Brahms' solo piano music. Seeing that Véronique Gens had a new CD recording (Visions), I hastily bought it, being a great fan of Ms Gens. I also like French song (mélodies) and noted the twelve French tracks.

I forgot, however, that I do not really like 19th century opera (except Wagner, whose works are not really “operas” as such). I especially do not like 19th century French opera, and that is what Véronique Gens offered me, to my consternation. Opera arias from Alfred Bruneau, Louis Niedermeyer, Félicien David, Henry Février, Fromental Halévy and a few other even better known names.

Gritting my teeth, I have now listened to the CD with increasing pleasure. Much of the music is of a muzak nature, and none of it particularly profound or earth-shaking. But Véronique Gens is a truly superb singer in this repertoire (the Arkadi Volodos of French song). The Munich Radio Orchestra plays really well, even though almost all the music must have been sight-read, and Hervé Niquet gives Ms Gens the best backing she could ever desire. The recording from Alpha-Classics is excellent; why is it that these small labels consistently create exceptional recordings of interesting repertoire, whilst the Warner Music / Universal / Sony Classical labels either churn out 12th re-issues of old recordings, or new recordings by half-naked young females (or unshaven young males)? Anyway, with each listening to this CD, I have gone from despondent to highly positive. 55 minutes of enjoyable listening; well done, Véronique Gens, Fromental Halévy, et al.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Julia Fischer

I listened recently to Julia Fischer playing the Beethoven violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti and was not too impressed. The first movement in particular sounded somewhat brusque, though whether this was down to the violinist, Muti or Chicago it is hard to say. However, in my eyes Ms Fischer fully redeemed herself this week when I listened to her off-air in the violin concertos of Béla Bartok and of Benjamin Britten.

The Bartok came from Zürich, with the Tonhalle Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit. The Bartok is on the fringe of my violin concerto listening, along with Shostakovich's second concerto and the concerto of William Walton. However, Ms Fischer seemed to be doing all the right things and making the right sounds, and the result was convincing.

The solitary violin concerto by Benjamin Britten dates from 1938-9 and is a comparatively early work of the composer. It is also one of the very few Britten works that I enjoy unreservedly. It has seen a marked renaissance in popularity recently, being performed and recorded by violinists of the stature of James Ehnes, Vilde Frang, Janine Jansen, and Frank Peter Zimmermann. To my ears, Julia Fischer has the measure of the work, and I greatly enjoyed her performance. Juanjo Mena conducted the BBC Philharmonic, making an effective contribution. I am happy to have Ms Fischer back on my listening list; she has always been a fine, no-nonsense violinist.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Box of Mozart Chamber Music

The French music magazine Diapason has published a few volumes of historical music recordings. I bought the Mozart chamber music box for the incredible sale price of £12.50 (Presto Classical). For ten CDs of great music and interesting performances, that is not at all bad!

The compilers of the recordings have, of necessity, limited themselves to works out of copyright (i.e., recorded more than 50 years ago). They also claim to have deliberately avoided picking recordings easily available elsewhere to avoid over-duplication. I am happy that the box has introduced me to music of Mozart that I simply did not know before: mainly the piano trios, and the piano quartets. Recordings range from 1937 to 1962, with most being in the 1950s, an age that still had the “old” sound and approach, somewhat different from the young-star macho performances of chamber music that one often hears today. There are ten of the sonatas for violin and piano; in truth, here they are more of interest for the piano parts than for the violinists (probably how Mozart envisaged things, as well). Five of the ten are played by Joseph Szigeti who, by the mid 1950s, was over 60 years old and well past his prime. His pianists, mainly Mieczslaw Horszowski, are impressive and I particularly liked George Szell in Mozart's K 481; I've never much liked Szell as a conductor, but he certainly impresses as a Mozart pianist! Missed his vocation. Another heavily featured pianist is Lili Kraus who plays with Szymon Goldberg in two of the sonatas, and with Willi Boskovsky and Nikolaus Hübner in the piano trios. Lili Kraus's playing pleases me immensely. Szymon Goldberg is recorded far too distantly in the 1930s and cannot make much impression, but his two sonatas are well worth hearing to listen to Ms Kraus.

The quartets for piano and strings are divided up, with the Amadeus Quartet featuring in one of the two, with Clifford Curzon. The six string quartets dedicated to Haydn are all given to the Juilliard Quartet (1962); wonderful performances, recordings and transfers of these six jewels of the string quartet world. I liked them very much indeed. The string quintets feature the (augmented) Budapest Quartet, the Griller Quartet, and the Amadeus Quartet (who also play the quartets K 575 and K 590). The Divertimento K 563 is present in an excellent transfer of the famous 1941 recording by the trio of Heifetz, Primrose and Feuermann. A man cannot have too many copies of that one.

The tenth CD moves on to Mozart's chamber music with wind instruments, which is not really my cup of tea. For me, however, the set is well worth it for the performances of the six “Haydn” quartets, for the five string quintets … and for the playing of Lili Kraus. There are, of course, no real liner notes (at this price) and the works are all listed in French, so you have to work out what si bémol majeur means (it is B flat major, believe it, or not).

Transfers throughout are excellent though, like most mono recordings of that era, they sound best through good loudspeakers rather than through headphones. The six “Haydn” quartets and three of the five string quintets are in stereo, however. I was pleasantly surprised at the warm sound of the 1941 recording of the G minor string quintet K 516 by the Budapest Quartet (a lovely performance of one of my favourite Mozart works). The piano quartet K 493 with William Kapell is a live performance, with applause. I never understand why applause is thought worth recording and retaining. I almost always regret buying large multi-CD boxes; it seems a good idea at the time, but after one pass, the box is shelved for the next couple of decades. Not this box, however. There are too many good things in it. And not a whiff of “period performance” in sight, to my great relief. I suspect that Mozart, a connoisseur of musical instruments, would also be delighted at the warm Viennese instrumental sounds on these CDs. Mozart loved playing the viola, and he also took to the new clarinet; obviously a lover of warm sound.