From small beginnings … a dazzling tour de force from pianist Andreas Haefliger

The very start of Dieter Ammann’s year-old ‘The Piano Concerto’ (Gran Toccata) balances on a single note before percussion join in the fray, then strings, then more percussion – some of it decidedly aquatic-sounding – and once up and running Ammann calls on the work’s dedicatee Andreas Haefliger to toy with Gershwinian syncopations, face a huge orchestra head-on (a tuba sometimes growls conspicuously) and keep up the pace. Absolutely no flagging allowed, you understand. The second part of this highly inventive half-hour tussle is perhaps the most argumentative, at least initially, whereas once into part three after some Reichian pulsing and what sounds like a visit to the grimy backstreets where Bartók’s Mandarin was murdered Ammann pauses for thought and cues a spot of genuinely Romantic piano writing. It’s here more than elsewhere in the work that you encounter some ethereal tone painting (the brass in particular are quite magical) whereas for the end there are more gnomic, staccato chords repeated again and again.

So, that’s the measure of it: we end as we began, on the edge of a question of no little significance. It’s a terrific piece and Haefliger successively shifts roles from virtuoso, to a collaborative first among equals, an attentive bystander and a poet. His playing, which is never less than sensitive, is often stupendous: he shows absolutely no fear and the Helsinki Philharmonic under the highly gifted Susanna Mälkki are consistently on the ball, whether picking up from where he leaves off or goading him to further action. How to sum up this extraordinary piece? I spontaneously came up with idea of John Adams and Bartók having a jar or two at Prokofiev’s pad. That’s the general drift, anyway and BIS’s recording is nothing short of fabulous (thank you, executive producer Robert Suff).

Next up on this remarkable programme Haefliger, Mälkki and the Helsinki band embrace the Concerto for the Left Hand that Ravel wrote for pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher Ludwig) who lost his right arm in the First World War. Again, the musical symbiosis really tells for a performance where tautness and clarity of articulation combine and the bitter, black humour of the marching central section jars as it should. Then there’s Bartók’s airy Third Concerto, Haefliger here parading a lightness of touch I haven’t encountered since the wonderful Czech pianist Eva Bernathová recorded the work with the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ancerl many years ago. The central ‘Adagio religioso’ is especially beautiful: Haefliger’s first entry held me utterly captive. In short we’re treated to three very different musical worlds brought together by skilled performers who are fully up to the task of interpreting each of them with conviction.

Ammann, Ravel, Bartók  Andreas Haefliger (piano), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki  BIS BIS-2310 SACD

Mozart transported out of this world

When it comes to capturing music’s essence in words, the Missouri-born poet Langston Hughes offers a credible definition, albeit by referring to dreams rather than to dots on the stave

“Hold fast to dreams,” he writes
“For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”

I can’t think that many composers would baulk at the idea that their music is dream-inducing, that we can profitably hold fast to those dreams while listening, keeping them alive, and a new cd by that most charismatic of pianists Hélène Grimaud gently coaxes us to the edge of creative sleep with Valentin Silvestrov’s haunting The Messenger for string orchestra and piano of 1996, Mozartean motives heard from afar with subtly applied sound effects, warming and mysterious and that might easily force you to slow down even if you don’t want to. Pieces based on Schubert and Wagner, as well as a solo piano version of The Messenger, compound the effect which had already set in with a fascinating presentation of pure Mozart, starting with the variously shaded Fantasia in D minor which Grimaud has morph ingeniously into the D minor piano concerto (No.20), though you’ll need to forgive her lopping off the Fantasia’s closing bars. No problems in my book, such is the impact of what we hear. Her approach to Mozart – at once impetuous, lyrical and vividly coloured – recalls the great Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel, often pressing forwards though, uncannily, with time on her side, or so it seems. Immediately prior to Silvestrov we hear Mozart’s C minor Fantasia, silent film music before its time (beam up from 4:28) whereas later passages of the same work anticipate Beethoven’s Appassionata. Surely Mozart never looked further into the future than he does here. This is one of the most absorbing piano programmes of recent years, principally because of the way it activates the senses, stimulates the intellect and has the imagination going into overdrive. Grimaud’s alert collaborators are Camerata Salzburg.

The Messenger, music by Mozart and Silvestrov, Hélène Grimaud (piano), Camerata Salzburg DG 483 7853

Proms musings

Although happily ensconced at, when harking back to my days as a regular presenter for BBC Radio 3 among my fondest memories are two Proms ‘Last Nights’ that I hosted alongside the lovely Stephanie Hughes. Attitudes to these rowdy Proms ‘party bags’ vary from condescension and distaste to a heart-felt love for their unashamed popularism, but I can tell you that seeing and hearing the spectacle from an open presenters’ box in the Royal Albert Hall is an inspiration, the colour of it all, the waving of flags (not all of them Union Jacks by any means), the swaying minions that fill the arena, the cheers and heave-ho’s as the piano lid is lifted, the rapturous applause for almost everything – irrespective of musical quality – and, most of all, the sense of community. It’s the ideal series ‘encore’ beyond the stronger meat of the preceding concerts in the festival.

Once over and the crowds spill out into the night air, the feeling of having shared a great event remains. And the tuneful perennials? It’s easy to forget that in the midst of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and fears about igniting memories of colonialism that the words for ‘Rule Britannia’ were written by James Thomson whose The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1730) is based around a proud princess of Carthage who had committed suicide rather than submit to slavery at the hands of the Romans. What matters most on the Last Night are the tunes – you get utterly swept up in them –  and as for ‘Land of Hope and Glory, mother of the free’ who could possibly object either to Arthur Benson’s words or the ennobling melody, the centrepiece of the first of five uplifting symphonic marches by the man many of us consider to be our greatest composer.

The whole business of judging whether, given their lyrics, certain old songs are still fit for purpose is complex, just as it is with literature, with Othello, Shylock, Fagin and the like. Years ago, as a sheet music archivist, I’d regularly encounter such ballad horrors as ‘The Happy Jappy’ and ‘De Gorn Coon’, occurrences gladly cancelled out not only by the ghastly lyrics but by the music’s substandard quality. Or there was another occasion when I was shocked to find, in a local thrift shop, a vinyl record of Dvorak’s 12th String Quartet called not the ‘American’ but the ‘Nigger’ Quartet, a nickname that had no negative connotations for the composition, and was abandoned after the 1950s. Although I was curious about the performance (by a highly reputable quartet) I couldn’t bring myself to buy the record.  And take Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’, now commonly called just ‘Cakewalk’ or Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Most of the opera’s songs couldn’t cause offence but what about the immigrant illiteracy of ‘Bess you IS my woman now’? Shouldn’t we now be changing it to ‘Bess you ARE my woman now’? Maybe worth thinking about. When it comes to history, you can ‘right’ it for the present, or at least attempt to, but you can’t ‘re-write’ it for the past.

A POKER-FACE GENIUS WHO WILL BREAK YOUR HEART: The inimitable art of Jascha Heifetz

The much-missed violinist Aaron Rosand once recalled a specific Heifetz concert performance – it was the world premiere of Louis Gruenberg’s action-packed, movie-style Violin Concerto. “He stood there like a god,” mused Aaron affectionately, “immobile and immaculate with his waistcoat, silver watch and chain, bowing these sounds that went straight to your heart. It was incredible”. Extant films of Heifetz in performance confirm that same impression and yet even now some commentators equate a lack of visual demonstrativeness with a supposed coolness of interpretation, the strongest possible argument for not seeing who’s playing. (‘Who wants to watch people work?’ was Sviatoslav Richter’s take on music videos). ‘Poker-face’ by the way is a term that Heifetz claimed others used when describing how he looked on stage. And fast speeds? The ‘Complete Stereo Collection’ that I’m recommending below includes, in addition to elegant Mozart, assertive Beethoven, forceful Brahms (Solo and Double concertos), searing Sibelius and expressive 20th century works by Rózsa and Arthur Benjamin, a whole plethora of chamber music recordings where your pulse will quicken as the tempo increases.

Take Mozart’s G minor Quintet – one of numerous recordings from the ‘Heifetz-Piatigorsky’ chamber music series (sample below) – the breathless sense or urgency, tragedy even, of the first movement, light years removed from the more relaxed, dainty ‘crooked pinkie’ style so often favoured by the Viennese. I remember Gramophone magazine raving about this recording when it first came out as part of a vinyl box set, and when Radio 3 (then the Third Programme) broadcast the G minor one Saturday morning this Mozart-sceptic was won over by the sheer intensity of the playing – the minuet pitilessly dramatic, the slow movement so rich in expressive inflections that I could hardly breathe for the duration. Come the super-swift finale and I was overwhelmed, much as I would be by the accompanying Schubert, Brahms, Franck and Mendelssohn masterpieces that confirmed elevated standards already established by the Quintet. People wrote in terms of a string playing ‘summit’ and they weren’t wrong. Yes there are other ways to play this sort of music (think of Adolf Busch, Joseph Szigeti, Sándor Végh, Pablo Casals, Isaac Stern and so forth) but Heifetz & co would regularly visit a single phrase with such ardour and heightened colour that the effect stayed with you long after the music had faded from earshot.

Schubert’s late Fantasie provides a fine example of the older Heifetz at his most rugged, a cork-faced W H Auden to compare with the dashing Errol Flynn of his youth (or Busch’s princely traversal) … but, again, it’s what you learn from listening that matters most – the sense of line, even when frail, and the elevated transition to the excited closing variation. Tchaikovsky’s sextet Souvenir de Florence (another fairly ‘late’ recording) is as rough as hell, a real onslaught in fact, but so honest in its reckless enthusiasm, so fearless, that any attempt at resistance is futile.

I shan’t bore you with a blow-by-blow resumé of the whole collection. There’s no need for that, but if you can follow my thinking thus far you’ll know what to expect from the rest. Heifetz levels with you nose-to-nose; he’ll brook no compromise when it comes to musical feeling and he won’t let the odd slipped note get in the way of an ‘as-live’ spontaneous performance (there’s a whopping slip near the end of the finale of Beethoven’s Trio Op. 1 No. 1). Heifetz was famously averse to stitching re-takes into the main recording; the truth and nothing but …, might have been his motto. Try the brief trio of Bach Inventions for size, or the (cut) finale to Mozart’s ‘Turkish’ Concerto. Always there’s this feeling that Heifetz is allowing you access to elevated front-room music-making. You feel privileged and enriched to be there. At least I do, always.

Mozart G minor Quintet – i (allegro)

PERFECTION WITH A PURPOSE – the priceless art of Andór Foldes

Years ago, as a youthful Bartók acolyte, I learned the three piano concertos via Géza Anda’s marvellous DG recordings (with Ferenc Fricsay conducting) and the solo piano works from György Sándor’s near-complete series on Vox. Years later I acquired Andor Foldes’ DG mono set of the solo works (less comprehensive than Sándor’s but still representative) and was amazed at just how different the music sounded, chiselled and well drilled as opposed to improvisatory and relatively unbuttoned, which was more the case with Sándor. Foldes is at his best in the pile-driving opening movements of the Sonata (sample below) and the suite Out of Doors, but he also achieves a sense of stillness in the slower music (the Suite’s ‘Night Music’ for example), and being Hungarian-born his mastery of the Hungarian folk idiom is evident in his grandly assertive performances of, for example, Kodály’s Marosszék Dances and Háry Janós suite (excerpts), the latter as arranged by Foldes himself. All of these recordings have already been released on Australia’s miracle reissue label Eloquence but now find themselves boxed together with countless other goodies in the context of a handsome and superbly documented 19-cd bargain set ‘Andor Foldes: Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings’, (484 1256).

If it were possible to wear out cds, I’d already be on my second set – and I’ve only had it a week! I kid you not, this is for the most part remarkable playing, the first disc devoted to elderly Decca/Polydor recordings (1949/1950) of music by Prokofiev and Bartók, the latter’s Sonata similar in concept to the better recorded DG re-make, the Second Concerto (with the Lamoureux Orchestra under Eugène Bigot) tight as a drum ensemble-wise (premonitions of Anda and Fricsay), with a central movement that comes closer than any I’ve encountered to Bartók’s own rule-bending revelation (ie, a pretty dire-sounding pre-war broadcast recording of excerpts issued by Hungaroton). Other early recordings, never previously released on CD (the vinyl originals are as rare as hen’s teeth) originate from Mercury’s earliest years and consist of music by Schumann (including a quite magical account of ‘Papillons’) and Grieg (Norwegian Peasant Dances), Foldes proving himself as adept in the musical folklore of Norway as he is – or was – in the folkish works of Bartók and Kodály.

The other indispensable 20th century repertoire disc features music by Barber, Copland, Stravinsky, Thomson and Albéniz. It’s fascinating to compare Foldes’s relatively inwards-looking account of Copland’s magnificent solo Sonata with Leon Fleisher’s stereo version from just a few years later (recently reissued as a bonus CD in Sony Classical’s admirable Fromm Music Foundation 20th Century music collection, 19439715642), Fleisher equally nimble but more assertive whereas in the Vivace Foldes seems to be dancing among the shadows of another world. Then again Foldes humanises the sustained finale like no-one else – while in his hands Stravinsky’s Sonata could be said virtually to define neoclassical elegance.

The beauty of Foldes’s playing is in the way he articulates every note of each piece, even at speed, though speed is never an end in itself, as is obvious from his thoughtful yet viscerally exciting account of Liszt’s B minor Sonata (the sort of reading I could imagine Lipatti giving) and the brilliant opening of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue while the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata dazzles with its clarity, precision and faultless sense of rhythm. Foldes’s Beethoven in general has both muscle and bounce (virtually half of the sonata cycle is included), the opening movement of the Sonata Op. 7 like that of his idol Wilhelm Backhaus (I’m thinking of Backhaus’s second [stereo] recording in particular) a model of how to ‘explain’, in performance terms, the common sense of sonata form. The First Concerto under Ferdinand Leitner is another instance of immaculate musical judgement, the fun-filled finale both swift and sparkling. And there are the Mozart concertos (five are included), the Andante of No. 15 in B flat a performance that gave rise to the claim at the head of this review, ie ‘perfection with a purpose’. I’ve heard Mozart playing that’s as good as this, but none that’s better. So a rapturous thumbs-up from me for a set that although unlikely to reveal all its secrets in one go has enough in store to nourish you for a lifetime. These sets tend not to hang around forever but on the off chance that you do – make sure to have this one on your shelves, a worthy accompaniment for eternity!–andor-foldes-complete-deutsche-grammophon-recordings

TRISTAN ON THE TILES – a major tip-off

Some years ago I chanced up a French EMI double CD album that featured the two-piano and solo recordings of pianists Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet. It included Doucet’s deliciously camp – some would say outrageous – Isoldina (doesn’t the name give it away?), a sort of stride/foxtrot hybrid where the ecstatic climax of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ is thrown off like a flirtatious giggle. Over time I’ve scored many laughs with this track and recently, just by accident, I discovered that in 2013 EMI Classics released the complete Wiéner/Doucet legacy from the 1920s and 1930s on four cds (none of which plays for less than 79 minutes, 50999 72570326) where supporting artists include Maurice Chevalier; Jean, Mireille and Germaine Sablon, and Yvonne Vallée. Other classical masters ‘tweaked’ include Grieg, Liszt, Chopin, Dvorák, Johann Strauss and more Wagner. Gershwin is very well represented, as are Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter; there are even super-cool versions of Love for Sale and Saint Louis Blues played by Wiéner on the harpsichord – and a very musical ‘straight’ complete account of Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos K.448, plus Bach. But it’s the bravura and the panache of the playing that will have you hooked for hours, the mastery of rhythm and inner voices, smiles that are never forced (or worse still, patronising) and what sounds like the sheer joy of making music. And what style! The extensive booklet notes are in French only but you’ll find useful stuff on Wiki. The booklet also includes photos and comprehensive discographical information. I bought my set on line from Amazon at around £25.00

Here’s a sampling of Doucet’s way with Chopin and Wagner.

An Eroica to treasure

Having already released Jascha Horenstein’s 1957 Baden-Baden recording of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (PASC505) Pristine Audio have now decided to add the conductor’s broader 1953 account with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra to their sizeable catalogue. Back in the late 1960s while working for the BBC as a concerts management assistant I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Deryck Cooke. Being in awe of Cooke’s Gramophone reviews I’d frequently waylay him for chats about (LP) records. One afternoon we hit upon the subject of Horenstein’s Eroica, which Cooke had a great fondness for, “but not the later version,” he insisted, continuing (and here I’m relying on memory), “in the earlier version you really notice how, towards the end of the first movement, he builds the music, layer upon layer, with everything audible – woodwinds especially – so that the peroration is truly overwhelming.” Needless to say, I rushed to my local (Hendon) library, ordered the Vox lp and on receiving it was suitably impressed. Things were just as Cooke suggested they would be. The playing of the VSO is dramatic in the extreme, the timpanist often cueing a thunderous roar above the rest of the orchestra, the deep-toned lower strings almost Furtwänglerian in their contribution to the ‘Funeral March’.  According to Misha Horenstein, his cousin Jascha reportedly told an interviewer that “the first Eroica I conducted with my heart, the second with my head.”  Only the start of the finale is rather effortful for an Allegro molto but otherwise this is a most memorable performance, more so than the coupling, a 1952 version of the Eighth with Orchestre National de France which though lively enough is interpretatively unmemorable. Good sound throughout.

Beethoven Eroica Jasch Horenstein

Pristine Audio PASC 589

DISCOVERING ALEXANDER VEPRIK: A musical force to reckon with

It’s said that at the time of his second denunciation by Andrei Zhdanov, Dmitri Shostakovich “waited for his arrest at night, out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” Prior to his rehabilitation at home the composer suffered untold hardships but at least he avoided a much-feared fate that was possibly worse than death: the torturous, lonely and pain-inducing Gulag. That was indeed the fate that the Ukrainian-born Jewish composer Alexander Veprik faced after his arrest in 1950. The promised eight years of forced labour turned out to be four, but still, Veprik returned home a broken man. And the effect on his music? Amazingly, inspiringly, we can sense a lightening glow somewhere beyond darkened skies, much like Yevgeny Ukhnalyov’s wonderful painting that adorns the booklet cover for MDG’s superb all-Veprik CD, Ukhnalyov another Gulag victim, six years interred this time rather than four.

In the second of Veprik’s expertly orchestrated Two Poems, at 5:16, after a poetic opening, the composer ups the pace for some highly variegated and dramatic writing, sometimes reflecting Prokofiev, at other times Shostakovich himself, but then at 9:35, quiet but promising fanfares and whooping brass signal a valiant arrival. Could we be approaching Liberty Island (echoes of Gershwin at 11:53, and the Second Rhapsody in particular – probably coincidental – seem to suggest so), an optimistic New World being traded for the shackles of the Old, though the triumphant close recalls Shostakovich, whose Eleventh Symphony seems to hover 40 seconds into the Dances and Songs of the Ghetto, Viprek’s opus having been composed thirty years earlier. Mention of Veprik’s contemporaries (the Greek composer Skalkottas seems conspicuous by his prophetic dancing presence in this same work) brings me to Sibelius whose spirit fills the Pastorale, maybe the Hasidic Baal Shem sitting by the river Tuoni, watching the long-necked Swan signalling terrible sadness yet to come. These references to other composers are intended merely as a guide to what you might expect when listening. And then there’s the last of Five Little Pieces for Orchestra, a devastatingly simple Lento, all 3:15 of it, music that seems to encapsulate the troubled but at times comforting spirit of this quite remarkable composer. The Two Symphonic Songs are also mightily impressive.

Look hard enough and you’ll always be able to find little-known music that appeals. But music of this quality, that seems to score the stream of life with such immense facility and level of intuition? Not in my experience. Among recent discoveries Mieczysław Weinberg is maybe the closest point of reference. Christoph-Mathias Mueller draws brilliant performances from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who seem committed to every note of each score. The recorded sound is first-rate and so are the booklet annotations. A potential Award-winner I’d say.

Alexander Veprik Orchestral Works

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Christoph-Mathias Mueller

Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 901 2133-6

SERGIU CELIBIDACHE: musical phenomenon or fraud?

Some forty years or so ago I attended a series of concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall featuring the LSO under the highly controversial Romanian conductor-composer (also teacher and music theorist) Sergiu Celibidache, whose performances were often – to quote Debussy – ‘slower than slow’. They were also in many ways revelatory, but more about that in a moment. Celibidache usually refused to release his performances on commercially available discs, claiming that a listener could not have a “transcendental experience” outside of the concert hall. Zen Buddhism was a significant influence on his thinking, both musically and philosophically.

If Furtwängler and Huberman were sceptical about so-called canned music, Celebidache was positively paranoid about it. Among the few commercial recordings he made was the Brahms Violin Concerto featuring the young (and recently deceased) Ida Haendel, who adored him and claimed in interview that his prophecy that she would only grasp the musical essence of the Brahms once she turned forty, or thereabouts, was spot-on. But back to those concerts. Most memorable was a sequence of pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet ballet, ‘Masques’ (which was encored) taken at a teasingly slow tempo – it had people giggling in the aisles – and an account of the ‘Tomb Scene’ that was virtually powerful enough to shake the Royal Festival Hall’s foundations. That said, you had to be there. I’ve since heard a radio recording of the same concert and the effect as recorded doesn’t quite match up. Debussy, Dvorák, Hindemith, Sibelius and Verdi also featured. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be hearing this sort of music-making post-war. It’s surely the product of a far earlier age.’ So, what do you reckon, a visionary who viewed and felt music ‘on the slant’ (to paraphrase the poet Emily Dickinson) or a poseur, to quote my dear friend Tully Potter?

Another encounter found me working late on evening in the basement archive at Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers (where I was employed for near-on nineteen years). I had a radio with me, switched it on and ‘Celi’ was conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius Five. I kid you not, but never have the work’s closing minutes affected me more profoundly than they did on that memorable occasion. You’ll know the passage which is said to have been inspired by the sound of swan-calls, as well as a specific instance when Sibelius witnessed sixteen swans taking flight at once. All I’ll say is that I was suddenly transported, even flown skywards, so magnificently effective was Celibidache’s elevated way of sustaining the music.

Years later when I worked with the violinist-conductor Christian Gansch, a lovely guy, who was at the time a significant force at Deutsche Grammophon, I told him about  this performance. Christian had played in the Munich Philharmonic under ‘Celi’ and was in the process of releasing his recordings involving other orchestras (Bruckner, Brahms, Ravel etc) for the yellow label. He soon tracked the Sibelius down too, coupling it with the Second Symphony, now one of my most treasured cds. Then there was the Munich PO/Warners CD of Bruckner’s Fourth, the slow, ritual march of the finale’s coda initially all-but unrecognisable. I remember playing it to Bruckner-loving friends who thought it was …. wait for it …. Gorecki! Then again they hated modern music, Gorecki 3 was at that time all the rage, and they probably meant the reference as a slur.

So, to recall my challenge: Sergiu Celibidache, musical phenomenon or fraud? Do let me know which side of the fence you’re placed.