Friday, March 30, 2012

Schubert : Octet – Doric Quartet, Michael Collins

I've been listening happily to a wonderful performance of Schubert's octet, live, and wondering once again if our ideas about great music are too wedded to the notion of earnest music. 

Here's a case in point. The octet seems to want to convey no great struggles, no lofty contrapuntal ambitions, but simply to beguile. And yet in doing so it walks in a sort of garden of Eden that is perhaps the highest plane that music can reach. 
And Schubert seems to acknowledge this by his quotation, at the start of the last movement, of the question he posed in the piano accompaniment to Die Götter Griechenlands: Schöne Welt, wo bist du? – Beautiful world, where are you? He would also use this motif in another composition – I will irritate you by leaving you to remember which one!

But back to this performance. It's chamber music at its best. There is a sense that the music can do no wrong. That from the first note, we can relax; the work will unfold effortlessly. I love when you're playing and that happens. I still recall a performance of the Mozart piano and wind quintet and that sense that I no longer had to make any judgements or decisions – everything was simply happening. 

Of course, Michael Collins earns his star billing here. Just listen to the effortless quality of his playing, from the way he floats above the theme of the adagio to the joyous end of the scherzo. But listen, too, to the other wind players. That's some mighty fine bassoon playing from Robin O'Neill for a start. 

Eight players, utterly on top of their game here. Enjoy!

Live from Champs Hill in Sussex, 29 March 2012
Michael Collins (clarinet), 
Doric Quartet, Richard Watkins (horn), 
Robin O'Neill (bassoon), Lynda Houghton (double bass)

M4a tagged and tracked at about 320 KBS VBR

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Khatia Buniatishvili and friends : Schumann Piano Quartet Op 47

With many thanks to Piero, who uploaded this into the comments on a previous posting, here is a wonderful piece of chamber music making. 

The Schumann piano quartet has always languished in the shadow of the phenomenal piano quintet. The quintet just seems to play itself, and its pianistic difficulties (those horrifying rapid octaves, written to show off Clara's technique, for instance) are counterbalanced by the ease of the music itself. It never seems to outlast its welcome, or to lose its way.

The quartet, on the other hand, can easily seem repetitive, yammering in the piano part and curiously under-powered. Part of this has to do with the immense difference between the modern piano and the piano of Schumann's day. Many of the apparent doublings of the string parts by the piano are actually the reverse: the strings are doubling the piano to make sure that the piano line is audible! And the lighter, clearer sound of Schumann's piano (particularly in the bass) meant that those endless repeated chords bounced melodiously. On a modern piano, they have hardly time to establish the basic sound before they are cut off. 

All of this makes the work really hard to bring off. And so, when Piero uploaded this performance, my hair stood on end. Just listen to the music making! The breathtaking clarity of Buniatishvili's playing is a key ingredient to the success. She creates feather-light textures that have a bell-like clarity without the faintest sense of the tone being muzzled. And this allows the energy and drive of her fellow-musicians to shine through. And what musicians! I couldn't get a shot of them all together, so I put a photo of each musician in each of the movements, and I have used a well-known shot of Robert and Clara for the posting. 

This is chamber music of the highest order. If you ever had doubts about the Schumann quartet, abandon them here.

Incidentally, the Schumann's are pictured at a gate piano. The gate piano was so called because the whole action – keyboard, hammers, dampers, the lot – hinged outwards like a gate, allowing you to work on it very easily. When you close it, a long rod goes right down through it, holding it in place. I played on a piano like this one, beautifully restored, many years ago, at the home of Cathal Gannon, a wonderfully eccentric Irishman who built harpsichords and restored old pianos. 

Schumann: Piano Quartet Op 47
Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Julian Rachlin [viola] Boris Andrianov [cello] Khatia Buniatishvili [piano]. Recorded 2009-12-28 in Vredenburg, Utrecht. 256 kbs.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alina Ibragimova in Bach, Biber and Vivalidi

I really am going to get my leg pulled about this one by BOOM, who already refers to this blog as my 'shrine to the lovely Alina'. But I couldn't resist it. Ill as I was last night, I got up to listen to this concert, and enjoyed it so much I listened to the whole thing again, with a glass or two of wine for company. 

It is causing me to have misgivings about the violin though. Is it possible that there's an ugly woman out there who plays the violin well? If so, why hasn't she got a recording contract?

In this concert, Ibragimova swaps her usual violin for a baroque Amati. The Biber pieces, in particular, are a revelation. The astonishing
Passacaglia starts from almost nothing and builds up in a hypnotic thread of utter concentration.  I've known the Battalia for years, thanks to an ancient Archiv recording, and it still delights me in its inventiveness. In the course of it, the strings imitate the sounds of battle, drunken soldiers singing in different keys, and lamentation. 

As a director, Ibragimova goes for dangerous speeds at times, but nothing the AAM can't handle. She's joined by Rodolfo Richter and Joseph Crouch in the Vivaldi Op 3 and by harpsichordist Alastair Ross in the sonata. 

Biber - Passacaglia in G minor from the Mystery/Rosary Sonatas
Bach - Sonata for violin and harpsichord in E major, BWV 1016
Bach - Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Vivaldi - Violin Concerto in D major, RV 234 (L'inquietudine)
Vivaldi - Concerto for two violins and cello in D major, Op. 3 no. 11 (RV 565)
Biber - Battalia
Bach - Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042.

Alina Ibragimova (violin and direction), Academy of Ancient Music
Assembly Rooms in Ludlow, 3rd March 2012

Radio 3 HD Internet Stream, normalised, tracked and tagged

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