First loves forever?

Do your first purchases of great music on disc still stack up? With me, some do, some don’t. Here are a few examples.

Brahms Symphony 4            Bruno Walter/NYPO              No     Toscanini and the BBC Symphony stepped ahead of Walter

Heifetz @ co in Mozart’s G minor Quintet                         Yes

Karajan and the Philharmonia in Sibelius 2                     No (no edge to the performance)   Monteux, Ansermet and Toscanini (1940), all vastly superior (IMHO)

The Oistrakhs/Kondrashin in Mozart’s E flat Sinfonia concertante    Yes

Verdi’s Falstaff – Toscanini, NBC                                          Yes

Furtwängler Tristan                                                               No – in general I prefer the leaner, fierier Carlos Kleiber

Mahler 9 Bernstein NYPO                                                     No – Walter pre-Anschluss gets me every time

Bach solo violin Sonatas – Heifetz                                       Yes … but Hilary Hahn is coming close

Can I have some of your hits and misses?

Best

Rob

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Colin Davis’s ‘Berlioz Odyssey’

‘First rate’ would be an understatement when it comes to describing Sir Colin Davis’s various performances of major works by Hector Berlioz, and no matter what period in Davis’s career you’re taking about. But the ultimate accolade surely has to go to the concert performances he gave with the LSO from early in the new Century, with first-rate recordings produced by the late James Mallinson now collected in ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ on LSO Live LSO0827 (6 SACDs + 10 CDs). Pride of pace must go to the operas The Trojans(with Ben Heppner and Michelle de Young), Béatrice et Bénédict, and Benvenuto Cellini, while L’Enfance du Christ, the Requiem and Te Deum benefit from the leadership of a conductor who appreciated the difference between intimacy, scale and bombast. In the case of The Trojans the older Davis faces significant competition from his younger self with Jon Vickers, Josephine Veasey and the Royal Opera House forces (Philips), not to mention, on CD, Jon Nelson’s Award-winning version with Joyce DiDonato (Erato, now in their big Berlioz ‘complete works’ box), another stunner, Charles Dutoit (an absolutely complete recording) and historic performances under Sir Thomas Beecham (Malibran) and Rafael Kubelik (Testament). But Davis at The Barbican packs a fair wallop, while his trademark ability in Berlioz, so crucial, to balance Classicism with Romanticism is everywhere in evidence. La Damnation de Faust is also excellent and as to Roméo et Juliette I fondly recall hearing the original broadcast – or at least a Davis broadcast of the work from around this period – and trying to guess who was at the helm … Munch, maybe, or Monteux or indeed, Davis himself? I’d heard him conduct the work live at the South Bank many years earlier, also with the LSO, but with nothing like the levels of intensity achieved in this Barbican performance. As to the rest, Harold in Italy with violist Tabea Zimmermann is more dynamic and keenly shaped than Davis’s Philharmonia version with Menuhin and the one mild disappointment, the Symphonie fantastique which although thoughtfully moulded and often excitingly played is just a little wanting in spontaneity. I note that most performances originate from recordings made over more than one day, which begs the question how ‘live’ is live? Still, anyone wanting a trusted guide to Berlioz could hardly do better than Sir Colin Davis and for that reason alone this ‘Berlioz Odyssey’ is like manna from Heaven.

Perhaps readers would care to offer critical comments on Davis’s Berlioz in relation to other interpretations on CD, either new, rather less than new or vintage? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

John Ruskin: the great Victorian- 200 this year and still a force to reckon with

The great Victorian John Ruskin, who died on this date in 1900 and whose birth bicentenary we celebrate on February 8th, was once a household name, which is what he should be today. Few thinkers or writers from the Victorian era more clearly anticipated such issues as climate change, social injustice and ways to overcome it, sham renovation (specifically with reference to his beloved Venice) or the artificial polarity between left- and right-thinking politics.  Although not a liberal in the strictest sense, Ruskin had a synoptic overview of politics that we could benefit from revisiting. His most famous aphoristic thought – and his work is crammed with meaningful aphorisms – is ‘There is no wealth but life’ and his alarmed response to the ‘storm cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ (as both witness to a natural phenomenon and prophet of damaging industrialisation) is deeply significant.

Ruskin was born into comfortable circumstances and as a boy was inculcated by his mother into reading the Bible daily, a process that would greatly influence his writing style, though it wouldn’t nail his thinking to any conventional religious template. Early travel among family and friends awakened his senses to the beauty of art and nature abroad. His discovery of Turner was pivotal: a devotion to Turner’s work helped consolidate the great painter’s reputation and he was destined to accept the role, initially unwillingly, of executor to Turner’s will.

Ruskin was himself a superb draughtsman, whose pencil sketches of important buildings and scenes from nature vied with the best for sensitivity and a feeling for perspective. He was a great literary stylist whose magisterial pen lightened somewhat with the passing years. He was also a significant influence on the pre-Raphaelites.  A fine teacher and lecturer, Ruskin initiated ‘The Guild of St George’ (which survives to this day), where the idea that urban folk can enjoy, and work, the countryside was revived under his supervision.

Most controversially, there were Ruskin’s women who, from an amatory point of view, were all very young. His marriage to Effie Gray was never consummated, an issue widely misunderstood until recently when motives other than a ‘distaste’ for her actual body (the long-held theory) were discovered as far more significant.  Gray eventually went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais with whom she had eight children. Ruskin’s love for the wealthy Irish girl Rose La Touche (he fell for her when she was ten) survived her premature death at the age of 27. No evidence has survived that he ever attempted physical engagement with younger girls whose attentions he craved and whose company he enjoyed so deeply. Nowadays he would probably have been deemed a pedophile, which I’m convinced he wasn’t. Ruskin was in many ways an eternal child himself, reaching the age of 80 at his eventual home in Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water (now a Ruskin museum).

What I’ve written hardly touches the surface of a life that although fraught with problems, even occasional bouts of madness, was richly fulfilled and crammed with fascinating literary production.

An early volume of poetry is heavily derivative but Ruskin’s mature work – and there’s a great deal of it – impressed the likes of Tolstoy, Ghandi (whose life’s direction was changes by Ruskin’s Unto This Last) and Proust, who translated key material into French. This influence can be seen to extend beyond Wilde, Chesterton, Pound and Eliot to this very day.

As to further reading, I always recommend going straight to the source, in this case with Unto This Last (variously published at reasonable prices), a brief but powerful book on economy where Ruskin proves himself an eloquent precursor of social economy. The Brantwood Diary (Yale) offers many insights and there’s a useful ‘Selected Writings’, published by OUP. The complete works edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn and stretching to 39 volumes is magnificent in both form and content and includes one of the most impressive indexes ever published; it’s pricey but would provide a lifetime’s worth of reading.

As to biographies, Tim Hilton’s comprehensive work – the one I’d most recommend – is divided into ‘The Early Years’ and ‘The Later Years’ and available either as two separate volumes or as a single-volume 947-page paperback from Yale. A Cambridge Companion and various writings by Robert Hewison (especially on Ruskin and Venice) are valuable; Robert Brownell’s fascinating ‘Marriage of Inconvenience’ researches the Ruskin-Gray debacle and its various implications and if you can find it, Derrick Leon’s ‘Ruskin: the Great Victorian’ (Archon Books) is couched in a literary style that virtually levels with Ruskin’s own. It’s a joyous read. Beyond that there’s Cynthia Gamble on Ruskin as translated by Proust and so much more that to reach further into the critical bibliography would be to court confusion, at least initially. The important thing to remember is that John Ruskin ventured into the future without breaking the tablets of the past. That for me makes him a major thinker, one to be reckoned with.

What’s in a name? – recordings by a great but unknown pianist rescued from the vaults

In the January 2019 issue of Gramophone the distinguished critic Jed Distler wrote a usefully comprehensive resume of the finest younger pianists, citing, at one point, Benjamin Grosvenor whose dazzling, old-school artistry brings to mind the finest of his feted forebears. Jed’s mischievous suggestion that were we to lay a sheet of shellac surface noise across the best of the Grosvenor’s recordings we may as well be listening to, say, the legendary Josef Hofmann, poses the question: suppose we were to apply that principle in reverse and somehow magic away vintage sound so that the likes of Hofmann, Rachmaninov, Cortot, Schnabel, Rosenthal, Friedman, Lhevinne and others sound, in sonic terms, as immediate as Yuja Wang or Daniil Trifonov? Would we then be talking about a sort of interpretative continuum where the generations meld onto an elevated bloodline that will only admit the best, and forget the issue of this or that historic ‘period’? I’d say, definitely not. My contention is that the blooded divide that sliced the world pre- and post-War somehow soiled the concept of Romantic idealism, which is why Rachmaninov’s Chopin Second Sonata or Schumann Carnaval and Friedman’s accounts of various Chopin Mazurkas awake in us levels of fantasy that no post-War pianists, however insightful, quite manage to achieve.

So, are we then slaves to ‘big name’ syndrome? Can we only experience awe if the name appended to it is ‘legendary’? Well, here’s a test for you. You know the great Sidney Foster (1917-1977) don’t you. Sorry? You’re telling me that you don’t know him? This cultured prize-winning virtuoso, one time resident of Bloomington, Indiana, who gave the Boston premiere of Bartók’s Third Concerto under Aaron Copland and wrote his own cadenza for the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Concerto, pupil of David Saperton (Godowsky’s son-in-law and teacher of Shura Cherkassky and the like) is a pianist whose range of imagination and ability to cue audible thunder will make you think again about everything he plays. A 7-cd set of live performances on the Marston label (57001-2) includes a remarkable recording from 1941 where this 23-year old winner of the Edgar M. Leventritt Prize (the judges included Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin) played the Beethoven Concerto. The rest is from the 1950s through to the 1970s, Brahms’s Third Sonata raging wild, the Scherzo bursting upon us in a state of great agitation, and the four Ballades, the First massive in conception, the Third, restless, impulsive, and the polar opposite of the marmoreal Michelangeli.

This is the thing about Foster –  he’s a player who you feel has rushed to the keyboard on impulse in the privacy of his own studio just for the  love of performing a favourite work. The concertos programmed also include Tchaikovsky’s First (with a notably poetic slow movement), a characterful Bartók Third with Copland (recorded around the time of the Boston premiere), and a cleanly articulated Schumann Concerto from Japan. Schumann’s Carnaval treads the Rachmaninov route with drive and eloquence but for me the set’s high points are two Chopin masterpieces, the Fourth Ballade and the F minor Fantasy, both works played with a combination of storm-tossed passion and structural awareness. Foster was less the refined practitioner than an intuitive musician who seemed au fait with the muse’s fiery breath. Intelligent too, of course, but reaching beyond the notes was his special skill

You listen and you wonder, why was this man’s commercial recording career restricted to a couple of LPs? Why is his name virtually unknown while the names of his pianistic inferiors fill our households?  Sadly, it’s not an unknown situation but at least in this case Ward Marston has had the courage and enterprise to make amends. Please don’t just take my word for it. I won’t guarantee you’ll like everything in the set but, to return to Jed’s conjecture, were I to present you with say the Chopin Ballade in modern sound I’ve a feeling you’d say, ‘this guy is one hell of a player! Where has he been? Let’s hear more of him’.

 

Rozhdestvensky CD hit list

With the sad passing of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky at the age of 88 what do posters reckon to a list of his greatest recordings. For what’s it’s worth – and this off the top of my head – here is mine, just for starters

Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet complete ballet

mono, Melodiya – and still the most thrilling ever recorded

the other Prokofiev ballets, and the symphonies

no-one captured the glare and rage of No. 2 like GR and I’d love to hear his Edinburgh Festival No. 3 again – 1960s. Had a reel-to-reel of it, now long gone

Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini/Khachaturian Gayaneh – Leningrad Phil at its greatest

… DG with a Sabre Dance that’s as terrifying when the playing is quiet as when it’s loud (and VERY loud)

Tchaikovsky symphonies and ballets (Melodiya)

emotionally arresting but well structured readings (ie, in the symphonies)

Glazunov complete symphonies (Melodiya)

Readings that honour the music’s ballet groundsprings, but that also make the symphonies add up AS symphonies 

Vaughan Williams complete symphonies (Melodiya)

(Melodiya) – Not. 4 and 6 sound almost like Shostakovich

Please add your own suggestions.

 

 

 

Alfred Deller Magic

A real boon to see the American Vanguard catalogue return to local circulation by stages, especially some matchless recordings by the countertenor Alfred Deller, ‘the daddy of them all’ in my view, not just because his actual voice is so beautiful but because of Deller’s musicality, his phrasing, the way he colours the line and reduces his tone to the quietest pianissimo. Modern scholarship might baulk at the sweet-toned style (sometimes) but no one surely could question such elevated artistry. The first volume of ‘Alfred Deller: the complete Vanguard recordings’ (Vanguard Classics MC193) extracts folk songs and ballads from a number of Deller’s original lp releases for the Vanguard label, including arranged ‘Tavern Songs, Catches and Glees’ Volumes One and Two, ‘The Cries of London’, ‘Tavern Songs’ Volume Two, ‘The Three Ravens’, ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gipsies’, ‘Folk Song Album’ (arrangements by Vaughan Williams), ‘English Lute Songs’, ‘Awake Sweet Love’, ‘The Cruel Mother’, ‘The Western Wind’, and so on. And there are the other singers, often contributing to a beautiful tonal blend, April Cantelo, Honor Sheppard, Wilfrid Brown, Gerald English, Edgar Fleet, Owen Grundy and Maurice Bevan and the Ambrosian Singers, some tracks with the London Chamber Players, others, mostly the ones where Deller sings solo, with Desmond Dupré playing the lute. There’s also a bonus CD-ROM with all the original notes and texts so when you access the texts for the first disc ‘A choice collection of the most diverting Catches, composed by Mr. Henry Purcell,’ and you check out track 5 ‘Once, twice, thrice’, you can confirm …. yes that is what they were singing! I shan’t let on further.  But if it’s beauty you want to sample first then Deller solo has to be your initial port of call, preferably ‘In Darkness let me Dwell’ (disc 5, track 3), once so well known from an earlier version on a plumb-label HMV 78 but just as entrancing here. I can’t wait for further volumes, Deller’s version of the ‘Agnus dei’ from Bach’s B minor Mass being one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’.

So how do you reckon Deller in comparison with say Scholl, Jarrousky and other modern countertenors? Does the style of singing ‘age’? I’d be interested to know what you think.

 

 

 

Would the music for Bach’s St Matthew Passion have been possible without the prompt of St Matthew, Christ, or God?

The question here is whether this work – and other works on the same elevated artistic level (the few that exist) – would have been possible without the awe-inspiring presence of deep-rooted religious faith. Or could nature and her mightiest representatives, whether mountains or distant stars, have prompted the same sublime music without the presence of a deity? Please discuss. My view, for what it’s worth, is that it wouldn’t have been possible.