Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Véronique Gens

It is sad, but there are well-known works of music that I have simply heard too often in my lifetime. No loss in my musical world if I never again hear Mendelssohn's violin concerto, nor the G minor violin concerto of Max Bruch, nor Dvorak's cello concerto, nor the fifth symphony of Beethoven. Sad, but over-familiarity breeds indifference, and no performers can ever re-create the magic for me; not even Fritz Kreisler in the Mendelssohn concerto, this week.

Off tomorrow for a few weeks in France, then Sicily. Lots of spaghetti alle vongole, and many plates of fritto misto del mare (I hope). Before leaving, I am luxuriating in the smoky soprano of Véronique Gens singing Berlioz's Les Nuits d'Eté, and Ravel's Shéhérazade. That is music that keeps me alert and entranced. As I have often mentioned, I am a great admirer of Véronique Gens who combines a lovely voice with superb diction and exemplary musicality. Ravel's Shéhérazade has long been a favourite of mine, dating back to an LP with Frederica von Stade singing superbly (1982).


Friday, 21 April 2017

Joseph Achron's Violin Concerto

I complain often about the conservatism and lack of ambition by violinists or impresarios when it comes to violin concertos. We hear the same old 12-15 concertos season after season. A friend recommended to me a recording of the first violin concerto of Joseph Achron, dating from around 1926. Achron – a violinist – would seem to have written three violin concertos (the third being commissioned by Heifetz). A search of the web suggests that only one of his concertos, the first, has ever been recorded; and recorded once only, 19 years ago by Elmar Oliveira. Hard to understand. Achron's musical language in the first concerto reminds me of the concertos of Aram Khatchaturian and Otar Taktakishvili; friendly folk-based music from down there in Armenia, Georgia, etc. Nothing to frighten audiences or record buyers. Plenty of playing to enjoy. Maybe, like many concertos written by violinists for violinists, the orchestra has a bit of a nominal role. However, in this one recording of this one of Achron's violin concertos, Oliveira seems to play well and with enthusiasm. I enjoyed listening and, after having now listened twice, I'll be sure to listen again at some time.

Liner notes and booklets always seem designed to annoy me, even when I have enjoyed the music and the playing. I do so dislike labels. Joseph Achron grew up in Europe, with a solid European background in Russia and Germany. He served in the Russian army in the first world war. He didn't go to America until he was 39 years old. Nevertheless, Naxos labels him as an “American Classic”, complete with American flag. Joseph Achron was no more a product of America than was Joseph Stalin. As if that is not enough, the CD is also labelled “American Jewish Music”. I dislike labels. Are we to have a series of “the five greatest Lesbian pianists”? Or “the three greatest Protestant composers”? Or “the greatest Nordic-Teutonic violinist”? It is said that Erica Morini (or was it Ida Haendel?) rightly objected when a newspaper critic labelled her as “a major woman violinist”. Music is independent of sex, language, religion, race or nationality, which is one of its strengths. Let us keep it that way.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Fritz Kreisler's Early Recordings

Fritz Kreisler was already 29 years old when he made his first recordings in 1904, followed by a second batch in 1910. Naxos issued his complete recordings, with the early ones being excellently re-mastered by Ward Marston. I have just been listening to the early recordings, starting with 1904, with a great deal of pleasure.

Despite being recorded well over 100 years ago, the essence of Kreisler's playing comes over as if it were yesterday: his burnished, golden tone; his deeply singing double-stops; his unmatched sense of rubato; his legendary bowing dexterity; his impeccable sense of style. And, over and above all that, the famous geniality of the man communicates itself. Everyone loved Fritz Kreisler, from audiences to fellow violinists. Even hyper-competitive Jascha Heifetz loved Kreisler and his playing ever since hearing him at a concert in Vilnius when Heifetz was still very young. A photo of Kreisler always hung in Heifetz's music room, the only violinist so honoured.

Repertoire was unavoidably limited back in the old days of acoustic recording, all gathered round a big horn that acted as a microphone. But despite the limitations of repertoire, and despite the prevalence of extensive portamento, these old Kreisler acoustic recordings are ones to cherish and to listen to with pleasure every year or so. No one now plays like Fritz Kreisler, more's the pity.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Wonderful Julia Lezhneva. And Carl Heinrich Graun

Music that has lain undisturbed for around 250 years is usually best left in peace. But not always, and the opera arias of Carl Heinrich Graun (a contemporary of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, et al) have turned out to be a happy resurrection, thanks also to the inspired singing of Julia Lezhneva, the Jascha Heifetz of the soprano world. What a lovely voice, what intelligence and enthusiasm, and what an incredible vocal technique! Unlike Sonya Yoncheva, the last soprano I listened to, Lezhneva really feels the words she is singing. Ten of the eleven arias on this new CD of Graun's music are world premiere recordings. All eleven well-varied arias are well worth listening to. All the arias are in Italian, the opera language of the day, and Ms Lezhneva's diction is exemplary; a lesson to many of her rivals.

True, Herr Graun did not have Handel's genius when it came to writing memorable music for the orchestra in operatic works; but neither did anyone else in the eighteenth century until Mozart came along. Ms Lezhneva, now at the ripe old age of 27, is an amazing voice and a major artist. My thanks to a good friend who sent me a copy of this CD as a present. It's a CD I will not file away for a long time to come. Enjoyable and interesting listening on a Sunday afternoon. A sample is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pls5Yzzw1yM



Thursday, 13 April 2017

Sonya Yoncheva

Sonya Yoncheva. A pretty woman. A lovely voice. Wonderful music (in arias from Handel operas). Her latest CD is a compilation of Mr Händel's Greatest Hits.

The highly competent orchestra (Academia Montis Regalis) is relegated somewhat far back, which is a shame, since Handel's instrumental parts are always extremely interesting. In Handel's opera arias, the orchestra is never a mere backing group, as in so much operatic music. We need to hear the orchestra! When Ms Yoncheva sings, “Traditore!” or “Amore!” are given the same sound and inflections. Sopranos should listen to Maria Callas, or Lorraine Hunt, or Joyce DiDonato, concerning the ability to convey meaning within the sound. Handel's marvellous music and melodic gift convey the meaning of what is being sung; but so should the singer be able to colour the voice accordingly. A non-stop beautiful mezzo-forte really is not good enough.

Ms Yoncheva's accent, whether in Italian or English, is carefully-trained East of Europe (Bulgaria). The CD has a “B+” from me for beautiful music and beautiful singing. But every aria on the CD can be found better communicated. Violinists (and pianists) take note: a beautiful sound is really not enough. You need to be able to communicate the music behind the notes.


Monday, 10 April 2017

Good Times for Music Lovers

Young people who like classical music (“young” for me being under 45 years of age) do not realise how lucky they are. Not much more than 100 years ago, you took what you were given in terms of repertoire played in your local area. The advent of broadcast music then helped enormously to widen choice and knowledge of alternatives, as did the arrival of recorded music. But, until the arrival of the World Wide Web, streaming, downloading, and online ordering, choices were still somewhat limited. I have just had a mini-festival of the violin music of Julius Röntgen, played by Ragin Wenk-Wolff, Liza Ferschtman, and by Atsuko Sahara. As it happens, I enjoy the genial music of this Dutch composer who was admired by Brahms and by Grieg. But I would have been hard pressed to listen to different recordings of Röntgen's music even thirty years ago. Nowadays, with a few clicks of a mouse, one can find pretty well any piece of music, somewhere or other. And listen to it, or buy a recording of it made any time after 1900.

The current era is good for those wanting to listen to music, but it is also good for professional musicians who want to be known and heard. Not more than around 60 years ago, there was room for only a handful of pianists, conductors, orchestras or violinists to become well known and famous. When I started collecting recordings back in the 1950s, even popular classics such as the Beethoven symphonies could only be found with a choice of 5-10 versions, according to the place in which one lived. When I wanted a recording of Ginette Neveu playing the Sibelius violin concerto, one of my sisters had to buy it for me in New York, since it was not available in England (the recording companies released recordings territory by territory, in those days, and shopping around, except in person, was pretty difficult).

A good friend pointed me towards a most useful website listing live performances of performances with orchestras (http://orchestraondemand.blogspot.co.uk/). What riches, and what a plethora of artists I have never heard of! Twice in my life I have been to Braunschweig in Germany, but it was only through the on-demand website that I discovered there is a Braunschweiger Staatsorchester whose conductor is named Albrecht Mayer; together, they turn in an excellent performance of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. And then there was a young violinist called Maria Milstein (no relative of Nathan, I suspect) playing the Glazunov violin concerto (very well). Apart from the on-demand website (and many similar) there is also YouTube to introduce unknown players to the general public. We are lucky to have this explosive burst of classical music, new and old.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Mozart's String Quintets. And Arthur Grumiaux

Ask 100 music cognoscenti to name the three greatest composers, and you will almost certainly end up with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Ask them for the ten greatest, and the fighting will start. I recall a twitty young journalist a few years back who insisted on listing the seven greatest composers – amongst whom he included Mahler and Stravinsky!

I will agree with the traditional top three. If I had to slim it down to the top two, it would be: Bach, and Mozart. Listening today again to the six Mozart string quintets (with two violas) one has to recognise that, even at the age of seventeen with the early quintet K 174, Mozart was not content with merely writing fluent, agreeable music. Even at seventeen years old, he was pushing the envelope of harmony and development. And the other five quintets went on to explore even greater depths and feats of daring. I grew up with the miraculous K 516 in G minor (with an early LP from the Amadeus Quartet). Subsequently, I took in the other five works. Today, despite competing versions, I will settle happily for the (augmented) Grumiaux Trio, recorded in the 1970s. Arthur Grumiaux was an incredible violinist, particularly in the classical repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. His duo recordings with Clara Haskil in Mozart and Beethoven are, rightly, regarded as something of a gold standard in recorded music. He played and recorded (thanks to Philips) almost the entire violin literature, but it is his playing of the older classics that really stands out – plus much of the Franco-Belgian musical heritage. We have the Dutch Philips company to thank for its long-term recording support of Grumiaux; and also for its excellent recording team (a tradition that the team carried over to the Pentatone label after the sale of Philips).


Monday, 3 April 2017

Accompanied by ...

Let's face it; when it comes to the orchestral contribution to Sergei Rachmaninov's piano concertos, the orchestra has a minor role. Not quite as minor as accompanying a violinist in Paganini's violin concertos. But nearly. So all praise to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi who really make the most of it when playing the orchestral part for Rachmaninov's second and third piano concertos with Khatia Buniatishvili. Ms Buniatishvili receives the lion's share of publicity (and musical glamour), and quite rightly so. But listening again, I also greatly admired the Czech Philharmonic. Rare an orchestra receives praise for accompanying a major soloist in a virtuoso concerto; when playing with violinists such a Jascha Heifetz or Michael Rabin, the orchestra – as well as being relegated to the background by the recording engineers – also had the indignity of seeing whole swathes of the orchestral music cut as being of little interest. Who wants to listen to the backing group (in popular music parlance)? Which is yet another reason why I treasure Wilhelm Furtwängler “accompanying” artists such as Edwin Fischer, Yehudi Menuhin, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, or Erich Röhn in concertos. And the Czech Philharmonic does well partnering Ms Batiashvili.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets

Even with my thinking cap on hard, I can think of only one example of a great composer dedicating a major work to another great composer. The one example is Mozart's dedication of a set of six string quartets, to Joseph Haydn. What a gift! Mozart was seemingly incapable of writing purely routine music, but the six “Haydn” quartets go as far from the routine as possible, and one senses Mozart applying his very greatest skills in composing music in order to impress his revered colleague. This is "Grade A" Mozart.

I have the six quartets played by the Quartetto Italiano, by the Alban Berg Quartett, and by the Hagen Quartett. I have just finished listening to the Hagens in all six. Wonderful playing, but the extreme pianissimo dynamics become irritating as one constantly has to notch the volume level up or down. I feel that, particularly in the first of the six quartets – K 387 – the changes in volume level almost bar by bar, grate on the nerves. Back to the Italiani of over 50 years ago.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Bach's Goldberg Variations, with Beatrice Rana

From my young years, I always knew Beethoven's Diabelli variations, but Bach's Goldberg variations were just a name to me until a lot later in life, when I heard a recording by Tatiana Nikolayeva (that an American friend found “too Romantic”). I still have that recording, plus many others. Glenn Gould never found favour with me: too much Gould, not enough Bach. Recently, I thought I had found my all-time favourite version with Igor Levit.

Levit comes across as superb, classical, and objective. Listening to Levit playing Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, it is difficult to imagine him playing Chopin, or Rachmaninov. Having greatly admired the young Italian Beatrice Rana in Tchaikovsky, I was curious to hear what she made of Bach's Goldberg variations. I bought the CD, and listened with interest. I confess to being completely enchanted and captivated by her playing of Bach's thirty variations. She makes no attempt to enter the sound world of a fusty cantor of early eighteenth century Saxony. Listening to her Bach, it is easy to imagine her playing Chopin or Rachmaninov. She revels in Bach's music and I once again had the heretical thought that there is music that is more suited to young players, rather than mature elderly practitioners. Beatrice Rana is only 23 years old (even Levit was not yet 30 when he recorded the Goldbergs). Yet another superb young pianist to listen to at every possible opportunity. The Diabelli variations, next? I know that her Goldberg variations will now always be my favourite version; poor, wonderful Igor Levit sounds somewhat dry in comparison.


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Frederick Delius

Great bargains to be had nowadays. I bought triumphantly the new Warner box of Beecham conducting the music of Frederick Delius (seven CDs). I forget to check that I already had an EMI box of Beecham with five CDs of Beecham and Delius, including the same recordings as in the Warner box.

Delius's music needs someone like Beecham who was ultra- sophisticated and elegant, and who knew and loved the music. Delius does not take to lingering or point-making. In my teen years I liked much of the music of Delius; the short pieces, Sea Drift, Brigg Fair, Paris. I can never claim to have been a Delius fan, but much of his music was part of my repertoire over the decades. In my teens, I even made a pilgrimage (on bicycle via the N7) to Grez-sur-Loing and viewed the house where Delius passed his later years.

He seems to have fallen out of favour nowadays, perhaps because no conductors have Beecham's qualifications for Delius performances. The music is not particularly English (neither was Delius). More German neo-Romantic, mixed with Grieg. Come to think of it, poor old Edvard Grieg seems also to have fallen out of favour, together with musical co-religionists such as Karl Goldmark (another protégé of Beecham).

Sadly, clutching my twelve Delius-Beecham CDs, I find that the attraction Delius's music used to have for me, has died. Works such as Sea Drift, that I once loved, now sound mawkish and second rate. After I am gone, there will be a lot of dusty Delius recordings for someone to inherit.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Elgar: Daniel Barenboim versus Vasily Petrenko

I rarely indulge in head-to-head comparisons. Either a performance convinces me, or it does not. And there are many way to skin a cat, so very different performances of the same work can often be equally valid. I greatly admired the recent recording of Elgar's second symphony (Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic) but, so far, mine is the only opinion I have come across. I did notice a number of critics expressing great enthusiasm for Daniel Barenboim's recording of the work with Staatskapelle Berlin, so I decided to acquire the latter and to see what all the fuss was about. My tasting notes on my head-to-head listening are as follows:

First Movement: Allegro vivace e nobilmente: Barenboim 18:28. Petrenko 19:14

Barenboim makes big difference between the allegro and slower sections – a bit like John Barbirolli. The music almost becomes becalmed at times. Petrenko integrates the different sections and moods better, being a bit slower over all, but then the slower sections can be faster than with Barenboim. The Liverpool brass and woodwind shine better than the Berliners. Overall the sound is better with Petrenko (Onyx) than with Barenboim (Decca). There is more nobilmente with Petrenko, and Barenboim's tempo changes get on my nerves. There used to be a similar contrast between Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli in this movement, with Barbirolli killing it with love.

Second Movement: Larghetto. Barenboim 14:01. Petrenko 15:04

One of Elgar's loveliest movements, and the Liverpudlians are obviously playing their hearts out. Again, Barenboim has problems establishing a basic pulse; the music frequently becomes becalmed. The superior Liverpool brass and woodwind (or recording thereof) greatly favours Petrenko's performance.

Third Movement: Rondo – Presto. Barenboim 8:01. Petrenko 7:58

The return of the throbbing nightmare is well handled by Barenboim, and is quite dramatic. The timings are identical: Barenboim's basic tempo is a shade faster, but he loses time in slamming on the brakes from time to time. As throughout the music to date, Petrenko and the Liverpudlians give the impression of knowing exactly where they are going. Barenboim and the Berliners often seem to be exploring and finding their way through an unfamiliar environment.

Fourth Movement: Moderato e maestoso. Barenboim 15:31. Petrenko 16:50

By now my views were pretty clear. Barenboim and his Berliners do come out fighting in the fifteenth round, and the finale is the best of their four movements; particularly the impressive final minute. But by then, it's too late. A clear win for the Russian and his valiant Liverpudlians, on points. I have always been impressed with Vasily Petrenko, who seems to me to be an exceptionally talented and musical conductor. He understands the importance of pulse in symphonic music. I have never taken to Daniel Barenboim. His recording of the Elgar will be shelved and will gather dust; Petrenko will be taken down whenever I want to listen to Elgar's second symphony.

After two hours listening to the two versions: what a magnificent twentieth century symphony this is! Well done Vasily Petrenko, the Liverpool Philharmonic, the Onyx recording team … and Edward Elgar.


Khatia Buniatishvili plays Rachmaninov

Looking at the new CD that arrived in the post, I get the impression it features the music and playing of Khatia Buniatishvili. She appears to be playing the music that some old Russian, Sergei Rachmaninov, has been commissioned to arrange for her and an orchestra. Thus nine photos or images of the glamorous Ms Buniatishvili, and not one of the scowling arranger of the music (though the does get a credit in the text). One wonders exactly whom these major record companies think they are trying to attract. There are presumably lots of disappointed purchasers who discover that Ms Buniatishvili is not actually singing sultry love songs, or stripping, on this new CD.

Well, more than enough of the booklet; on with the music and the playing. No danger of me being curmudgeonly about Ms Buniatishvili's playing of the piano; I am a declared fan. I also like Mr Rachmaninov's arrangements of music for Ms Buniatishvili's piano and orchestra in his second and third piano concertos on this CD. Competition in both concertos is, of course, ferocious. Despite the nay-saying of various expert critics during the previous century, Rachmaninov's music has lived on and on in popular esteem over the decades. Being Khatia Buniatishvili, there are many tigress moments, of course, but she can also play with a touching simplicity, as in the adagio of the C minor concerto. She is a tigress who also knows how and when to relax. The first movement cadenza of the third concerto is here a real tour de force. Throughout the two concertos, the dark sound of the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Paavo Järvi is entirely appropriate for Rachmaninov's Russian gloom and aching nostalgia.

How do the recordings of the two concertos here stack up against the great players of the past: Rachmaninov himself, Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch, Richter, Argerich .. and almost anyone else one can think of? The answer, I think, is that the performances should be taken in their own right, with a fascinating pianist, an admirable orchestra, and an excellent modern recording. When I want to listen to the second or third of Rachmaninov's concertos, will I reach out my hand for Buniatishvili? Very definitely; there is so much to enjoy in these two performances and, like all the big Romantic works that also involve an orchestra, a good, modern recording quality is a great asset.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Charles-Auguste de Bériot

Charles-Auguste de Bériot fares quite well on my shelves, with 26 recordings of his musical works. He does not seem to fare so well in the concert hall, however, and I do not recall seeing a concert programme featuring his works. All a bit mysterious, when his music is tuneful, well written and attractive to listen to. He was certainly a better melodist than Alban Berg in his violin concerto!

My latest acquisition (thanks again to faithful Naxos) is a CD of Bériot's fourth, sixth and seventh violin concertos, plus a couple of substantial morceaux for violin and orchestra. The violinist is a young Japanese, born in 1997, Ayana Tsuji and she copes really well with Bériot's tough demands on the right arm, with ricochet and staccato bowing in constant use. She has the right delicate touch for this music – the central movement of the seventh concerto is especially moving. The music of de Bériot does not call for a Russian T34 tank.

Concerts featuring violinists seem locked into the same old eight or ten violin concertos (or else some ephemeral modern concoction cunningly placed between two popular pieces to forestall audiences voting with their feet). De Bériot's music is not hard on the intellect, but it is friendly on the ear and I listen to my 26 recordings with pleasure, including this new one with Ms Tsuji. And thanks again, Mr Naxos; 13 of my 26 recordings are on the Naxos label.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Beethoven

I rather thought I had given up enjoying performances of Beethoven's violin concerto. I have been listening to it regularly now for over sixty years. I have 90 recordings of the work on my shelves, including the one I bought in the 1950s (Bronislaw Gimpel). So I was surprised just how much I enjoyed a performance (over the web) by Frank Peter Zimmermann and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert – a conductor who is quite new to me. The concert dates from 3rd March of this year. I already have a performance of the Beethoven by Zimmermann dating from 1987, but he has come on a long way in the intervening 30 years (he is now only 52 years old and playing magnificently). Zimmermann plays the familiar Kreisler cadenzas, a pleasant contrast to so many violinists who seek out something exotic and provocative. And it goes without saying that -- hurrah, hurrah -- there is not a period or authentic effort in sight. Beethoven's concerto does not need it.

The Beethoven concerto is a tough one to play. For a start, it is very much a concerto for violin and orchestra, and a good orchestral contribution is essential. The violinist has little in the way of bravura passages or pyrotechnics with which to wow the audience. The first movement is long (around 22 minutes) and demands the utmost sophistication from the violinist, and informed and intelligent contributions from the orchestra. It also demands the right tempos for each of the movements – particularly the first, which is often taken too slowly. Zimmermann triumphs on all accounts (as do Alan Gilbert and the orchestra) and the performance, that held my attention throughout, gets one of my rare three star ratings and joins a small, select band of top class performances of this concerto on record.

As an addendum: I was astonished at the quality of this downloaded recording. We have come a long way since I used to couple up my tuner and amplifier to a cassette recorder in order to preserve off-air recordings. There is now (on my equipment) little to choose between studio recordings, and (good) off-air broadcasts over the Web such as this one from New York.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Russian Music. And Khatia Buniatishvili

Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Glinka, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin (for pianists) …. there is a long litany of Russian composers who have achieved firm places in the romantic and post-romantic eras of music. All complemented, of course, by hordes of first-class pianists and violinists from Russian lands. The Russian system may not produce first-class results in economics, but it certainly succeeds in music.

Modest Mussorgsky is now known mainly for his Pictures at an Exhibition, and his operas Boris Godunov, and Sorochyntsi Fair. I have been listening again with increased admiration to Pictures played by the charismatic Khatia Buniatishvili. It's wonderful music, with wonderful playing. The CD is complemented by Ravel's La Valse, and three movements from Stravinsky's Petrushka. A three star disc.


Friday, 3 March 2017

Mutterings about Opera

Amongst my musings in this blog, opera features very seldom. I have written of my deep love of Tristan and Isolde, and of many Handel operas. I may at some time have mentioned that I also love Tosca and La Bohème, perhaps also of Bellini's Norma. But opera has never really been one of my passions, although I love collections of arias from 18th century opera. My latest happy opera hour was listening to Joyce DiDonato (mezzo soprano) and Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis in operatic duets by Handel. A stream of wonderful tunes and beautiful music that would have filled Schubert and Mozart with envy. There is a lot to be said for operatic music.

By the end of his professional life, my father was playing in the Sadlers Wells Opera orchestra. As a lifelong musician, he also loved opera, but from a musician's point of view. He liked the orchestral music and loved good singing. But he had no interest in the “plot” or in what was happening on the stage. I seem to have inherited this trait; for most operas – particularly those before around 1830 – I could not care less what the various tenors, basses and sopranos are singing about, which was probably the case with Handel's upper-class English audiences almost all of whom would have had a typical English ignorance of any foreign language, including Italian. The first opera I attended was in the Hamburg opera house, where I sat enthralled listening to Tristan and Isolde; I recall I had my eyes closed for much of the time in order to avoid being distracted by what was happening on the stage. If that was true then, it would certainly be true now when too many operatic performances appear to have been hijacked by megalomaniac stage producers determined to achieve immediate notoriety and to put the music composer in his place. The composer only has to specify “Sultan's palace, overlooking the Bosporus” for the producer to “update” the opera to the New York subway in 1958. Opera critics are quick to praise “imaginative” staging and “making the opera relevant to modern young people”. At the same time, music critics will be decrying the use of modern instruments and the absence of gut strings, etc. in defiance of what the composer would have expected. Bizarre. If you update Mozart to the New York subway in 1958, why not update that old-fashioned music at the same time, and maybe replace the violins with saxophones and re-cast the recitatives as rap music?

I recall many years ago in New York when a friend remarked that, as an economy, the Metropolitan Opera was dispensing with the side-stage sign language person who kept deaf members of the audience informed as to what was being sung. Bizarre, thinking of deaf people going to an opera, but it fits with the view of many commentators and critics that the story and the plot are of major importance; this results in commentators insisting on relating the plot at length even though, and certainly pre- 1830, opera plots are usually thoroughly silly and not worth bothering about. Some of the Mozart operas, of course, are an exception to the silly story phenomenon.

So I love listening to operatic music, but shun the distraction of staging (which is why I would never buy an opera on DVD). Sitting back in my chair, I can enjoy Bellini or Wagner or Mozart or Handel without the distractions and annoyance introduced by egotistical stage directors. Prima la musica, poi le parole. Le parole come a long way behind la musica for me.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Beethoven, Brahms, Furtwängler, and Toscanini

My listening tastes at the moment have taken me away from most of the symphonic repertoire (with exceptions, of course). Today, however, I took down two old favourites dating back to my teenage years: Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, and Brahms' fourth symphony. The Pastoral for me was always Furtwängler's 1952 recording (not approved of by the critics of that era). I enjoyed it again today in its fine Pristine Audio reincarnation. Furtwängler, for me, fully brings out the spirit of Beethoven's music. Beethoven, we feel, loved the countryside.

The Brahms fourth with which I grew up was that conducted by Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a performance that was fast and hard-driven, with chords like whiplashes. That recording (on an LP) is long gone from my shelves. For my current listening to the work, it was back to Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1948 (amazingly brought back to life by Pristine, once again). It is astonishing the quality of orchestral sound that German audio engineers could manage back in the 1940s – especially compared with the Americans in the 1950s. Furtwängler in Brahms with his Berliners is far more Germanic than Toscanini with his Americans some five years later. First loves in music usually last a long time, but Toscanini never lasted long with me. Music needs love, as well as fire and fury. Brahms fourth symphony is one of my favourites (and also one of those rare symphonies whose finales to which I really look forward).

Lovers of great performances of the past are greatly indebted to Pristine Audio and to Andrew Rose, and I wish the company a speedy and triumphant recovery from its recent IT catastrophe.