Monday 30 May 2011

Don't look now - it's the Classic Brits

Swapping ‘Classical’ for ‘Classic’, the Brits have (half) dropped the pretence of classical respectability this year for a ceremony which, conversely, featured fewer of the warbling cross-over horrors that have made past shows so car crashingly unmissable.  The twelfth annual Classic Brit awards actually took place on May 12th, but lucky TV audiences had to wait the customary few weeks to see it.  The event was again hosted by no one’s favourite pianist, Mylene Klass, heavily plugging her show Pop Star to Opera Star, and featured a fairly bland solo from new PSTOS judge Katherine Jenkins. 

What jars most about this event, though, is the inexplicable disparity between the award winners.  As though stuck in a split personality spiral, the Brits hand out gongs alternately to proper classical musicians and embarrassing opera-lite types such as Il Divo, here named ‘Artist of the Decade’.  That’s ten years of music, and the best they could come up with was Il Divo.  And this is the same show that managed to lure the famously reclusive Estonian composer Arvo Pärt with a ‘Composer of the Year’ award, featured (what they said was) Anne-Sophie Mutter’s first appearance of her anniversary tour and handed an award to rising violin star Vilde Frang.

Unfortunately, we don’t get many Oscars style reaction shots from the famous faces in the audience, so we’ll never know if Antonio Pappano (winner of ‘Male Artist of the Year’) kept it together through Il Divo’s staggering rewrite of Barber’s Adagio for strings.

Friday 27 May 2011

Joshua Bell to head St Martin in the Fields

Joshua Bell has today been announced as the music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the first person to have been granted the position since Sir Neville Marriner founded the orchestra in 1958.  Bell will spend double his previous commitment of time with the orchestra from September 2011, which will presumably mean a little less international solo touring.  Read full details at the website of the Academy.

Review: Ruth Palmer's Hidden Acoustics

Hidden Acoustics

Sonata for solo violin
Partita No.2 for solo violin in D minor, BWV 1004  

Ruth Palmer (violin)
Nimbus Alliance NI6133

Ruth Palmer is an enterprising British violinist with a talent for creating intriguing projects. Her first album featured music by Shostakovich, accompanied by a self financed documentary about her own personal journey with the music of the Russian master. Now she turns to two great pillars of the solo violin repertoire: Bartok's fearsome Sonata and the great D minor Partita by Bach. The album Hidden Acoustics coincides with a tour taking in a number of unusual venues in which music can interact with space. Alas, I find I have missed her in my area, but this disc offers full recompense with gripping performances of these mighty works.

Late in life, the uncompromising hard edge of Bartok's music softened a little: works such as the Concerto for Orchestra, the Third Piano Concerto and even the Second Violin Concerto step back from the musical precipice glimpsed in some of his more astringent works of the 1920s and 30s. You'll have to look hard for that softness in the Sonata for solo violin of 1944, but it's there in the greater recourse to lyrical melodic material, particularly in the reserved beauty of the third movement. Palmer is adept at emphasising the moments of tenderness in this score, though her interpretation is also shot through with muscularity and tremendous momentum. It's a riveting performance of a forbidding work aided by her sense of the emotional narrative of the music. The individual voice of the Fuga might not be as carefully characterised as in Isabelle Faust's Harmonia Mundi  recording (HMG 508334-35), but Palmer makes a greater sense of the overall trajectory of the piece than I've heard from anyone else. She thankfully opts for the restored quarter-tones in the finale (originally excised by the work's dedicatee, Yehudi Menuhin, after Bartok's initial uncertainty as to the success of the effect) and her excellent intonation helps make this as compelling a case for this sonata as we're likely to hear.

Palmer is warm toned but urgent in Bach’s most formidable Partita, the D minor, capped by a broad and involving performance of the mighty Chaconne.  At just shy of 17 minutes, Palmer’s Chaconne occupies more than a quarter of the disc’s duration and in this most demanding of solo violin works she takes the long view, carefully pacing her performance rather than exploiting contrasts.  She doesn't push on with the defiance of Arthur Grumiaux (Philips 438 736-2), but she is more flexible in the four shorter movements than Julia Fischer is in her admirable recording for Pentatone (PTC 5186 072).   Appropriately, given the disc’s title, the acoustic space feel vast and reverberant, but we miss no detail of Palmer's performance, thanks to the vivid and close recording of the violin.  Rather, the vast space is felt when the music stops; in pauses and particularly at the end of the Chaconne, the sound rings out into the space as though continuing on its journey once it's left our ears.

This review originally appeared at Musicweb-International.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Akiko Suwanai joins Sapporo SO's earthquake benefit concert in London

Tadaaki Otaka's superb Sapporo Symphony Orchestra turned a date on their 50th anniversary tour into a benefit concert in support of aid charities working in the hardest hit areas of Japan.  It was a great concert, though violinist Akiko Suwanai's exhaustingly forceful performance of the Bruch 1st concerto was perhaps not the high point.  Here's a quote from my review:

"Suwanai now performs with the Dolphin Stradivari of 1714, once owned and played by Heifetz.  By all accounts, Heifetz’s tone was comparatively small; Suwanai’s was at the other end of the spectrum, seeming to dwarf the collective contribution of the orchestra.  She was hugely secure throughout, but her aggressively clipped articulation proved wearing and even in the ‘Adagio’ she never relaxed."

Read my full review at

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Review: Midori plays Paganini and Tchaikovsky

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 6
Sérénade mélancolique, Op.26
Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34 

Midori (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/
Leonard Slatkin
Newton Classics 8802028 
If you've noticed a slew of red topped Newton Classics discs appearing in online catalogues and stores, the good news is that their mining of the recorded past is set to continue and will ultimately lead to new recordings of their own.  One such reissue is this early recording by Japanese-American violinist Midori, who set these pieces down on disc in 1987, at the age of just 13.  Her subsequent success has seen her avoid the pitfalls of such early precocity and forge a continuously rewarding solo career, but that first flush of talent is captured here and makes for startling listening.

From her first entry in Paganini's First Violin Concerto, Midori's playing demands no special allowances for her age.  She's extrovert and characterful and has a greater perfection of intonation than some of her prominent seniors.  If you were without prior warning, you'd never know that this super confident playing belonged to one so young. Her subtle slides are stylish and in the taxing cadenza she remains unfazed and commanding.  In this Concerto, she is certainly superior in technique to Ilya Kaler on Naxos (8550694) and though Hilary Hahn is more crisply characterful and rhythmically incisive (Deutsche Grammophon 4776232), that hardly reduces Midori's achievement. If age is at all telling, it is in the more purely melodic moments which lack the expressive shading and nuance of a more mature musician.

It's this lack of maturity that makes Midori's performances of the two Tchaikovsky items less appealing. Although she still plays with a full, attractive tone, her way with the growing melody of the Serenade Melancolique is a little one dimensional. Once set, the dynamics and weight on the bow alter little and she suggests little in the way of spontaneity.  The bounce of the Valse Scherzo is absent, and Leonard Slatkin's leaden direction in the orchestral introduction doesn't help. It may seem churlish to pick on aspects of musicianship that a 13 year old cannot yet possibly have developed, but if you're going to buy this disc for the repertoire alone, you'd be best looking for alternatives in the Tchaikovsky.  Julia Fischer's Pentatone recording (PTC5186095), coupling these two charming works with the Violin Concerto and the Souvenir d'un lieu cher, is one of the best violin records of recent years and would serve as a better first port of call.

Ultimately, this reissue works best as a document of a remarkable case of early talent, with Midori offering a very enjoyable performance of Paganini's D major concerto and a technical security far beyond her years.  The violin is consistently well recorded, though sits rather more prominently in the mix than the orchestral accompaniment.

This review originally appeared at Musicweb-International.

Monday 23 May 2011

Review: Wojciech Koprowski plays Ysaÿe

Eugène Ysaÿe - Six Sonatas for violin solo, Op. 27
Wojciech Koprowski (violin)
CD Accord ACD 147-2 

Judging by the number of new recordings of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonatas for solo violin, it seems that this remarkable cycle of violinistic high-wire acts is taking hold among young string players.  It may be that young violinists are seeing them as a short cut to credibility; the demands made of the musician are certainly as great as anything else in the solo violin repertoire and they are not simply flashy showpieces.  Within them lies a world of reference (both to Bach and to Ysaÿe’s great violinist friends) as well as a technical time-capsule preserving in perpetuity the sound of their composer, one of the greatest of all violinists, who sadly peaked just before the advent of recorded sound.

Polish violinist Wojciech Koprowski, born in 1987, brings a staggeringly assured technique to these pieces, playing throughout with a clarity and beauty of tone.  In the First Sonata, the most overtly Bachian in form and movement, Koprowski is precise and ultra smooth.  The voices of the Fugato are excellently defined, played with minimal vibrato, and without prior knowledge you’d not know this was just one instrument.  Koprowski is also excellent at the more introverted moments of the more celebrated Second Sonata, particularly in the Danse des ombres movement.  It’s fair to say that you won’t hear a more immaculate recording of these works; every double stop is precisely tuned and ever voice clear.

There is, however, a lack of fire and movement in the faster movements, which can tend to sound a little metronomic.  For all his technical command, he rarely engages with the score’s implicit demand to reproduce Ysaÿe’s idea of style and sound.  Ysaÿe smothers these pieces with an unprecedented level of performance instruction, carefully managing every detail from rubato to fingering.  Yet Koprowski’s are thoroughly modern performances, rarely employing the more antiquated style of shifts and slides familiar from the few recordings of Ysaÿe’s playing which are known to exist.
Koprowski doesn’t exploit the sense of fantasy in these pieces; the fluttering whole tone passages of the First and Fifth Sonatas are clean rather than mysterious and in general the more transformative moments in these works remain rather prosaic.  In all, he’s tidier but less alive than Thomas Zehetmair in his recording for ECM (ECM4726872), who is thrilling and intelligent in equal measure in these works.  It’s possible that some may prefer Koprowski’s total beauty of sound to Zehetmair’s more aggressive approach, but no one more clearly makes the case for these great masterpieces of the violinist-composer tradition than Zehetmair does.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Lang Lang and friends lost in the Royal Festival Hall

The shortcomings of London’s Royal Festival Hall are well known, but Lang Lang’s second RFH recital was surely asking for trouble. He, Mischa Maisky and Vadim Repin were fighting a losing battle against the huge hall, a really unsuitable venue for a piano trio. Surprisingly, Lang Lang emerged as the strongest of the ensemble, far better than the lacklustre Repin who never seemed comfortable. Still, the audience gave it a standing ovation, so what do I know?

You can read my full review at Classical source.

Friday 20 May 2011

Hilary Hahn at Cadogan Hall

"We’ve come to expect flawless performances from the younger generation of string-players, but even by those dizzying standards, Hilary Hahn’s bullet-proof technique astounds. No challenge seems to be beyond her; what’s more, she’s able to faultlessly memorise the incessant repetitions of George Antheil’s insane First Violin Sonata, which can be no mean feat. But if something was missing from this tantalisingly programmed Cadogan Hall recital, it was a warmth and variety of tone that might have softened the edges of this muscular display."

Read my full review at Classicalsource.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Review: Philip Glass Violin Concerto No. 2

Philip Glass - Violin Concerto No.2
The American Four Seasons
Robert McDuffie (violin)
London Philharmonic/Marin Alsop
Orange Mountain Music OMM0072

No contemporary composer has penetrated the popular consciousness quite as Philip Glass has; something that still rankles with much of the new music establishment. Mention his name in the wrong company and you're as likely to get a snort of derision as anything and there are times when the most long-suffering of Glass fans might be inclined to agree. The more discerning Glass followers are well used to the mechanisms of the Glass lottery, which might be defined as a frustrating lack of quality control from the creator of one of the most instantly recognisable and bewitching voices in modern music. Now Glass returns to the violin concerto, a form he last tackled in 1987. The good news is that the Glass is alright; the bad is that the ship's taken a direct hit from one of its own.

Certainly, this new violin concerto, subtitled The American Four Seasons would not exist without Robert McDuffie, the American violinist who asked for the kind of 'Rock and Roll' Glass 'that turned David Bowie on'. McDuffie was responsible for the inspired inclusion of harpsichord and synthesiser into the concerto's instrumentation, a request that does indeed bring Glass’s music closer to his late ’seventies heyday of Einstein on the Beach and Koyaanisqatsi.

But it's McDuffie who proves to be the largest barrier to success in this recording, taken live from the work's European premiere in 2010. I heard McDuffie play Glass's First Violin Concerto in the same hall last June and was alarmed by the quality of his playing; an inconsistent and wiry tone coupled with shaky intonation gave the impression that he was uncomfortable in music one might reasonably assume he was very familiar with. The same is true here, and if ever a performance worked against a new piece of music, surely this is it.

Glass's new concerto consists of a prologue, four substantial movements and three interludes for solo violin titled 'songs'. Which movement corresponds to which season isn't revealed and judging by interviews with Glass, McDuffie and conductor Marin Alsop, no one agrees on an interpretation. Letting performers and audiences decide for themselves is a nice idea, though in reality there's not much to indicate which season might be represented; these four movements are, after all, mainly four different shades of Glass.

Not everything in the Concerto works but this is music which grows in appeal with repeated hearings. Movement II seems initially to be a familiar concoction of stock Glass moves, but as it grows it becomes an affecting and delicate waltz. The best is saved for last; Movement IV, a zany toe-tapping slice of American gothic, recalls the best scores of Danny Elfman in making the greatest use of the harpsichord and synthesiser.

I'm sure that Glass's violin writing doesn't fall under the fingers with great ease; the arpeggiated oscillations of the First Concerto throw up some awkward passages that don't sit too well on the instrument. Even so, McDuffie can't sustain the unaccompanied passages or give them any kind of shape. He's very ably assisted by Alsop and the London Philharmonic, but ultimately, he's simply not good enough and I doubt the orchestra would have booked him had he not come attached to this prestigious project. It is to be hoped that this appealing work will be re-visited and re-recorded by more able soloists, but I fear that McDuffie’s performance may dissuade interested parties from lingering over this recording for long.

This review originally appeared at Musicweb-International

Saturday 14 May 2011

Zukerman at RFH London

There are few violinists of Pinchas Zukerman's vintage still doing the rounds; how different from the scene when he was rising to the top.  Zukerman gave us an excellent Beethoven Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday, sounding like a visitor from a more warm-hearted past and if his conducting wasn't much cop, it didn't diminish the thrill of hearing him live.  Read my full concert review at Classicalsource .