Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chopin : Piano Concerto No 2 - Clara Haskil 1954

There are some pianists who become pigeon-holed – Hewitt equals Bach, Uchida equals Mozart/Schubert, Glenn Gould equals Goldbergs. Haskil's Mozart has tended to do the same for her. This does a serious disservice to a very versatile performer. To hear her play Beethoven's op 111, for example, is to hear a totally different player (Music & Arts have it on a superbly remastered recital disk which also features her Ravel, Debussy and Schumann).

I am eternally grateful to G, who recently uploaded a clutch of live Haskil performances, including this one, of the first Chopin piano concerto, the Piano Concerto no 2 (confusing? Both the Chopin and the Beethoven concertos were published out of sequence; in each case, the first published was the second one written)

Listen to how she manages the build up to the first movement recapitulation. She lets off the pedal in order to get a more incisive, emphatic sound from the passage work, cranking up the tension wonderfully. And listen to her bell-like and telling use of the bass line in the slow movement, supporting that lyrical right hand on a noble foundation. And, of course, listen to her glitter in the closing pages of the last movement. What a player!

Clara Haskil, National Orchestra, André Cluytens April 1954
Mp3 @ 320kbs from radio re-broadcast

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Martin : Et in terra pax

I had never heard of Martin before I heard this oratorio, which he composed in the last months of World War II. I was in Belgium at a choral festival with my girlfriend. We cycled to a concert which featured, in the first half, a local virtuoso pianist who was premièring his new piano concerto - a witty confection that suggested that Gershwin wasn't quite dead. He gave numerous encores to a delighted audience, improvising on Beatles tunes in the style of, and finishing with an improvisation on a bunch of random notes selected by different audience members. Everyone loved it.

Then came the second half. From the first chords of the music, I was transported to another era. The music was grainy, gritty, black and white. I remember, in particular, seeing the tenor sing the words of the beatitudes (track 9). Each one he sang more softly, until at the last line – Father, forgive them, they do no know what they are doing – he achieved a breathtaking pianissimo. Even the concluding chorus – Holy is the Lord God, Who was, Who is and Who is to come – holds out hope but doesn't suggest that everything will be fine instantly.

Afterwards, we looked around. It was clear from the applause and the faces of the audience that they would have preferred more sub-Gershwin. But I was convinced that I had heard a masterpiece. Much less pretentious than Britten's War Requiem, it's a work that convinces through those two reliables: personal integrity and good part-writing.

This performance is in German, but none the worse for that - Martin himself supervised the version.

Catherine Naglestadt, Doris Soffel, Charles Workman, Christian Gerhaher, Ralf Lukas
MDR Symphony orchestra and choir, Hartmut Haenchen
mp3 @ 256 kbs

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Beethoven : Piano Concerto No 5 - Bruno-Leonardo Gelber

Those trademark eyebrows are hard at work here, in a wonderful live "Emperor" from 2006.

There's something about Beethoven's Emperor concerto that seems to divide households. My father and mother were both fond of classical music, but with the proviso that my father found the string quartets which my mother favoured a little dull, while my mother made no secret of her opinion that anything with a blaring orchestra was vulgar. Her face, as my father put on Dvorák's New World symphony or Respighi's Pines of Rome was a study in distaste. It was the very face she put on when she absent-mindedly took a mouthful from a cup of tea that had long gone cold. I associate orchestral music with Saturday mornings, on which my father would get up early and play his symphonies and concertos while my mother lay on in bed, her normal reluctance to get up in the morning doubtless intensified by the prospect of going downstairs and facing the music.

The one thing she could not tolerate was swing, which was a shame because my father dearly loved it – Django Reinhardt, Stefan Grapelli and the boys especially. It was an eerie sound, the slap-wump slap-wump that sometimes came from the living room. It was the sound of my father, drumming on the arms of the armchair as he listened to swing on the headphones, a beatific smile on his face, in silence.

And I, in my turn, am married to a woman who tolerates my preoccupation with classical music, but who has never seen the attraction of washing the dishes to the accompaniment of some loud orchestral racket. It was watching her slight wince at the opening of Beethoven's Emperor concerto that made me remember Tony.

My uncle Tony hadn't the easiest of marriages, and I suspected sometimes that we saw him more frequently, just dropping in, when things were going less well at home.
The music I associate with him is Beethoven's Emperor concerto. On one of his impromptu visits, Tony told us how, one Summer evening, he had listened to it in his garden. On a whim, he had rigged up an extension cable and brought his gramophone out to the garden and put the record on. His next door neighbour, who had been out mowing the lawn, had stopped, brought out an armchair and sat there listening too.

In my mind, it is a perfect Saturday afternoon in the suburbs, and Tony and his neighbour, each in the armchairs they have carried out of their respective drawing rooms, are listening to the music as it rises into the air.

Did they listen to it all? I wish that they did.

Many years later, I realise that this is the only happy story I know about Tony, and I treasure it.

Bruno-Leonardo Gelber, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis
MP3 256 kbs
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sergio Fiorentino - the Chopin Waltzes

There has always been a bit of hesitancy among Fiorentino fans about his Waltzes, recorded in July 1958. These are, well, the waltzes of a young touring pianist - extrovert, devil-may-care.

I first heard this record when I was twelve, and loved it. These was something intoxicating about the sheer verve of the playing. And this was the first time anyone had recorded all 19 waltzes - I was bitterly disappointed when I bought my first score and discovered that there were only 14 'official' waltzes in it. (The last is certainly not by Chopin, but the editors of the Henle edition decided to keep publishing it, on the grounds that people liked it, and that there would be no chance of anyone publishing or playing it unless they did so.)

Fiorentino does a little rewriting here and there (listen carefully and have your ears tickled), and has no hesitation in doing a little filling in of the texture in the unpublished waltzes. And, I believe, the first recording of the three little Ecossais, recorded in 1955.

It's a document of an era when you could sit down at the piano and just play without someone rustling an urtext. Many years later I still love it.

This is a needledrop, done by a friend. No noise reduction (this is left as an exercise to the reader) and only mp3 at 192 kbs, but I did manage to find and embed the original cover art.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Bloch : String Quartet No 5 - Fine Arts Quartet

Bloch wrote all but the first of his string quartets in the last years of his life, inspired to tackle the medium by hearing a performance of his first quartet by the Griller Quartet. The Grillers recorded all but the final quartet in wonderful idiomatic readings.My introduction to the last quartet came from the Fine Arts Quartet, an ensemble which even now is under-rated.  Their reading captures the idiom perfectly.
The quartet, written when Bloch was terminally ill, has a language that is gentle and searching at once. The composer's daughter, Suzanne, tells of how he wrestled with the end, writing four or five versions, each perfectly good, before he arrived at the one that made sense to him. It is a magical moment as the music loses pace, the instruments begin to separate into distinct voices, the cello hovers on D flat - the last note before the open C string, and then the chord simply opens into C major, calm, firm and final.

This is a 160 kbs needledrop, but from a decent copy of the LP, and the performance is utterly special. If you like this, head over to Music & Arts and get hold of their wonderful Bartók quartets.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Aldo Ciccolini : Beethoven Sonatas 31 and 23 (Appassionata)

Aldo Ciccolini was born in August 1925, which would make him, in July 2006 when these sonatas were recorded in Montpellier, an eighty-year-old.

You won't get much sense of this in the playing. The first sonata, the A flat, takes a minute or two to settle in, but by the time he tackles the Appassionata he's in full flow. This is one of those performances that makes you think Beethoven—yes! rather than Ciccolini—yes! It has fire in its belly, and certainly doesn't wallow in the lyrical side of the slow movement. There is something fierce about the way he brings it to its climax.

Ciccolini is a pianist whose considerable popularity in his adopted France is mirrored by his utter neglect elsewhere. Perhaps these performances will arouse a little curiosity…

Beethoven: Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57

Aldo Ciccolini, Piano
Recorded July 2006 in Montpellier
MP3 VBR averaging about 190 kbs

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