Monday 19 December 2011

Maria Bachmann: Glass Heart

Glass Heart
Glass, Schubert, Bach/Gounod, Ravel

Maria Bachmann (violin)
Jon Klibonoff (piano)

Orange Mountain Music OMM7006

Maria Bachmann holds a cut glass heart before her on the cover of this violin recital disc and, indeed, the Glass is the heart of a programme ostensibly designed to compliment a new work for violin and piano.  Philip Glass has written a violin sonata and, with it, has stepped into a long and formidable tradition hinted at in this attractive and enjoyable album.  Does Glass's new work hold its own against such formidable companions as Schubert's great A major Sonata?  I'm not so sure.

Glass Heart follows swiftly from Orange Mountain Music's live recording of Glass's 2nd Violin Concerto, subtitled the American Four Seasons, but Maria Bachmann's playing on the present album presents none of the problems of Robert MacDuffie's strained and inconsistent performance in the concerto.  Bachmann's way with Glass is tender and gently expressive and her mellow tone is suited to the sonata.  She is well balanced with pianist Jon Klibonoff, who throughout demstroates the same sensitivity and lightness of touch.  The sonata, though, is less memorable.  For the most part, it feels like a retread of the familiar Glass style, complete with copious arpeggios and repetitive figurations.  It might seem ignorant to accuse the most high profile of minimalists of being repetitive, but here Glass's repetitions seem more to do with a musical style based around a paucity of material than one the hypnotic and slowly transforming minimalism of old.  Each movement is actually based on a conventional chaconne model and, in the case of the first movement, the sequence of underlying chords yields only limited possibilities.  There are some moments of finely realised beauty, however; the second movement stands out for its regretful and reflective character and its opening bars are really quite special.  If only the rest were that good.

The booklet notes suggest that the rest of the programme has been chosen to reflect aspects of Glass's musical character.  Gounod's heavenly Ave Maria melody over Bach's masterclass in arpeggiated writing is an obvious comparison, though I feel the Bach/Gounod team do it rather better.  I suppose certain works of Schubert share Glass's introspective quality, but not the Sonata in A (originally published as the Duo) and in any case, the comparison between Glass's Sonata and Schubert's isn't a kind one.  Schubert's Sonata is a great work, though Bachmann's subdued take on the first movement saps some of its energy.  She seems always to be pulling back from Klibonoff's more incisive accompaniment and is unresponsive to the darting changes of character.  Her playing is stylish, though some of her more extravagant shifts are in poor taste and she generally is better suited to Ravel's posthumously published violin sonata, which receives a lovely performance.  Again, the stated connection to Glass's music is dubious, but Bachmann's sweet tone and control of colour suit it perfectly. 

Friday 16 December 2011

Razumovsky Ensemble at Wigmore Hall

Tuesday’s Wigmore Hall appearance from the Razumovsky Ensemble was a decidedly mixed affair, with one member outclassing the others.  Hamish Milne’s pianism was exquisite throughout, while Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s violin playing varied wildly.  Read my review at Classicalsource.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Prokofiev's Violin Concertos from Pavel Berman

Violin Concertos
Sonata for two violins

Pavel Berman (violin)/Anna Tifu (violin, Op.56)
Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana/Andrey Boreyko

Dynamic CDS 676

He may have been a pianist, but something about the violin excited Prokofiev enough for him to produce some of the instrument’s finest works.  Not much of the twentieth century’s repertoire for the violin can match the dazzling colour of the First Violin Concerto, completed in 1917 but not performed until the dust had settled after the Russian revolution, or the gravity and rhythmic energy of the Second, composed in 1935, shortly before Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union to assume the role of most favoured composer.  Pavel Berman’s attractive coupling of the two is complemented by the Sonata for two violins of 1932, an ingenious and witty work much favoured by the father-son partnership of David and Igor Oistrakh.

In keeping the menu an all Prokofiev affair, Berman’s Dynamic recording would initially seem a more appealing proposition than some previous sets featuring both concertos.  Maxim Vengerov’s recordings with Rostropovich were at one time available with the Glazunov concerto, while Decca’s CD rerelease of Kyung Wha Chung’s 1970s performances came with the Stravinsky concerto.  Both of these venerable sets offer more persuasive performances, however, and while there are still things to be enjoyed in Berman’s playing, it was a disc that I found myself liking less as it progressed.    

The First Concerto begins promisingly.  Berman sets an unusually swift tempo, lending a dancing and dotted character to the opening melody, but this creates problems when he reaches the faster central section.  There’s nowhere to go and little contrast to be found, and this lack of care over the pacing continues across both concertos and, ultimately, everything feels rather generalised.  There are fine moments, though, particularly the first moment’s tranquil coda, captured very well by Berman and the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana.

Berman’s performance of the Second Concerto is also a mixed affair, with the first movement proceeding quite carefully; indeed, one moment seems to find Berman struggling with the basics of getting his fingers round Prokofiev’s passage work.  The Andante suffers from more generalised pacing, stretching it out and making it feel more repetitive than it ought to. But the finale is a success, with Berman finding more grit and swagger for the unhinged rustic dance.  In the Sonata for Two Violins, Berman is well matched with partner Anna Tifu, though the recording here lacks body.

Friday 9 December 2011

In memory of a fellow writer

My colleague at Musicweb and Classicalsource, Bob Briggs, has died after a long illness.  Musicweb have published a tribute to him.

Even if you didn’t know Bob, you may well have spotted him at concerts.  He was a huge guy, normally dressed in black; as Len Mullenger rightly says, a real life Hagrid.  He was also extremely friendly and willing to compare musical tastes and opinions with anyone.  I only met him on a couple of occasions, but on both spent a long and enjoyable time mulling over with him what we’d recently heard.  He was a real champion of the unusual and neglected, and I for one will miss his company at some of London’s more unusual musical events.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

5 for December

5 interesting December releases that caught Devil's Trill's eye.

I for one didn't imagine that we'd have Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony at the Proms; that's precisely what we did get in this year's series, much to the delight of English music nerds everywhere. In the end, I thought it was a tremendous experience live, but not one I'd rush out to again in a hurry. I'm interested to see how Hyperion's live recording of the concert turned out, though, having been stood up in the crowded gallery on the occasion.

Elgar's recordings are fascinating and haven't always been as readily available recently as they should.  No idea what's in it though; Music & Arts's website hasn't been updated for some months and MDT's listing (presumably from the record company themselves) doesn't say either. Don't these people want to sell us things?  You could just buy this really cheap EMI one.

Ernst was a great rival of Paganini and was apparently desperate to discover his secrets. This second volume from Toccata Classics, those archaeologists of the obscure, adds to other recent revivals of Ernst's music.

I've not heard Krzysztof Meyer's music, but his CV is very interesting. He was a pupil of Penderecki and Lutoslawski, and completed Shostakovich's unfinished opera The Gamblers.

Arthur Rubinstein - The Complete Album Collection (Sony)

Seriously wantable.  Prices vary, but I've seen this 144 disc set online for less than £200, which is a bargain by any standards.  Experience shows that these mega Sony behemoths don't hang around long; The 2009 Vladimir Horowitz set has gone from the catalogue, and last year's Heifetz collection is disappearing fast.  So get in early if you want one.  I'm seriously tempted...

Thursday 1 December 2011

British composer award winners

The winners for the British Composer Awards were announced yesterday at a ceremony in London.  Follow this link for news of who won what.  Some composers won for string music, including Anthony Payne for his String Quartet No.2 and William Sweeney for his Cello Sonata.  The ceremony is broadcast on Radio3 on Sunday at 2pm.