Friday, 27 November 2015

Bach - Partitas - Levit

Rating: 4/5

A little over-interpreted for me

I like this recording but I can't quite share the unbridled enthusiasm of many reviewers.  The music itself is fabulous, of course, but I have some personal reservations about Levit's approach.

In many ways this is brilliant.  Igor Levit is a superb pianist with impeccable technique and a real ability to bring music to life and it is plain that many people have responded with genuine enthusiasm to his playing here.  For my taste, though, it is a little on the over-expressive side at times.  Bach shouldn't be just mechanical by any means, but that great pulse which beats throughout his music should be respected, I think, and his magnificent musical architecture allowed to stand without too much being laid over it.  For me, Levit rather overdoes the interpretative flourishes and gestures sometimes in a way which detracts from the music rather than adds to it, so I'm hearing rather too much Levit and not quite enough Bach. 

(I have a similar problem with Pletnev's playing of Scarlatti.  Levit's Bach seems to me to be another example of a very fine pianist bringing a little too much Romantic interpretation into Baroque music where it doesn't quite fit.)

At this level of excellence these things are largely a matter of personal taste so don't let me put you off.  Many knowledgeable people whose judgement I respect greatly love this, and you may, too.  Personally, I'll be sticking to my loved piano recordings by Angela Hewitt and Murray Perahia and by Trevor Pinnock on the harpsichord, and I'll only be giving this a very occasional outing, I suspect.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Purcell - Fantazias and In Nomines - Sit Fast

Rating: 5/5

Excellent Purcell

I wasn't sure whether to bother with this disc.  I already have excellent recordings of these works by Fretwork (twice) and Musica Amphion, and I also found the name of the ensemble rather off-putting…and I was completely wrong to worry.  This is excellent, and a very welcome addition to my collection.

These pieces are pretty well the last hurrah for the viol consort in England as tastes changed, but they are still quite fabulous works.  They are richly polyphonic and show Purcell's remarkable harmonic invention.  They are complex, beautiful and to me deeply satisfying pieces which I love – and that makes me very fussy about performance.

Fortunately, Sit Fast are excellent.  They are a young French ensemble who are all superb players who have the technical skill to make even the most demanding passages sound perfectly natural, and they bring a wonderful sound from their instruments.  They invest Purcell's music with real feeling and beauty, and I find myself quite spellbound in places on this disc.  They bring character to the music while always making it about Purcell rather than the performers and, to my surprise, I think this may become my favourite recording of the Fantazias and In Nomines. 

The recording is very nicely balanced and captures the lovely sound of the consort beautifully and there is an attractive booklet with good notes.  This is a very good disc all round and very warmly recommended

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Schubert - String Quintet & Quartets - Belcea Quartet

Rating: 5/5

Very good Schubert

This is a very good double CD – and very good value.  These are among Schubert's finest chamber works and they are all very well played by the excellent Belcea Quartet.

The music itself scarcely needs endorsement from me.  Death And The Maiden and the great last G major quartet are among the greatest of all string quartets and the quintet, of course is a pinnacle of the chamber repertoire.  They are all full of beauty, passion and sometimes turbulent confusion, all of which is very well expressed by the Belceas, who are established now as one of the world's leading quartets. 

The players' technique is impeccable, with faultless intonation and superb precision which also shows a real empathy between them.  They adopt quite a brisk, almost robust approach much of the time which works very well, especially in the more darkly emotional passages.  I think that in the famous Adagio of the Quintet that they perhaps lose a little of that trembling, aetherial beauty which makes it such an extraordinary piece of music, but that's a matter of personal taste and others plainly love it.  Certainly their darkly passionate approach to the opening of Death And The Maiden is perfectly suited and quite spine-tingling at times.

There are a lot of great recordings of these works and this won't supersede them in my affections, but it's a set which will sit proudly among them and which I shall play often.  The recorded sound is excellent, and I can recommend this warmly.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Bach - Violin Concertos - Ibragimova, Arcangelo, Cohen

Rating: 5/5

A terrific recording

This is terrific.  I wasn't at all sure I needed yet another disc of Bach violin concertos, but I was persuaded to try this because of Alina Ibragimova's magnificent performance of the Sonatas and Partitas at the 2015 Proms.  I am very glad I did.

These are works which exist in a great many recordings by some truly excellent violinists, and I already have dearly loved versions by Rachel Podger, Andrew Manze, Viktoria Mullova, Julia Fischer and several others.  This is an instant favourite and I suspect will remain so.  The programme here is the two "established" violin concertos in A minor and E, and three transcriptions from Bach's keyboard concertos, all of which probably started life as concertos for violin or oboe d'amore.  They all work very well in these excellent transcriptions and make for an interesting and varied programme.

The playing is just brilliant.  Ibragimova herself is wonderful, with a beautiful tone and a lovely feel for Bach's music.  She invests it with real warmth, depth and distinctive character while that essential pulse always beats strongly.  Tempi in the outer movements are generally quite quick, but there is never any sense of rush or strain and her solo parts skip along delightfully but never lose any of the music's intellectual weight.

Ibragimova is superbly complemented by Arcangelo whose virtuosity and almost chamber scale give them a lovely suppleness and balance.  And I don't know how historically accurate the inclusion of a lute (played by the excellent Thomas Dunford) in the continuo may be, but it gives the overall sound a delightful richness – I think it's a masterstroke.

I seem to be gushing a little, but I do genuinely love this recording.  It's beautifully realised and played to perfection, Hyperion make their usual excellent job of capturing the warm, clear sound and Richard Wigmore's notes are full and informative.  Even if, like me, you already have several fine recordings of Bach's violin concertos, I would strongly recommend that you make room for this disc as well.  It's a gem.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Bach On The Ukulele - King

Rating: 5/5

Hugely enjoyable

I have to say that, against my initial expectations, I think this is brilliant.  It sounds like a joke - I mean, Bach on the ukulele? Come on! - but it really works.

John King is a genuinely fine musician and a ukulele virtuoso, so Bach's music is safe in his hands.  He plays a selection of movements from the Cello Suites and the entire E major Violin Sonata here, and it just sounds great.  The musicianship is remarkable; King really gets Bach, so that rhythmic pulse beats throughout and the lines skip and dance along beautifully.  Just try the Prelude to BWV1006 and you'll see what I mean, but the slower movements have some real solidity and meaning to them as well.

This is a different experience from hearing these pieces played on the cello or the violin.  I don't play this as often as any of my cello or violin versions, and when I do I confess that I break into a smile rather more often than might be seemly.  It is hugely enjoyable, principally because it is such superb music, genuinely very well played in spite of the apparent incongruity of the instrument.  Recommended.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Biber - Mystery Sonatas - Podger

Rating 5/5

An outstanding recording

This is simply wonderful.  Biber's Mystery Sonatas are extraordinary works in themselves, and Rachel Podger produces something really special in her performances here.

The music is a series of sonatas for violin which Biber wrote to represent key events in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  Biber was a very fine violinist and composer and in my view these sonatas are among the very best music he wrote.  It is expressive, emotionally intense and often very beautiful. He demands that the violin be retuned in unusual ways for each sonata (a technique called scordatura) which produces some extraordinarily atmospheric effects.  It's amazing music which I have liked and admired for years in excellent recordings by both John Holloway and Andrew Manze, but I have always found it slightly forbidding music somehow.  This performance by Rachel Podger has changed all that.

Technically, of course, she is superb and is rightly regarded as one of the world's leading baroque violinists. She has the skill and technique to make these extremely difficult pieces sound completely natural, with no sense of strain anywhere – just a deep involvement in what the music is saying.  Her tone is beautifully warm and she has a way of making the music accessible and welcoming without ever losing any of its intensity or intellectual weight.  She is beautifully matched in this by an excellent group of continuo players and the whole thing is an absolute delight.

Ten years ago, Rachel Podger transformed the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for me in her recording of them by showing me a way into the heart of the music and what it is really about in a way no-one else had managed.  She has done the same here with the Mystery Sonatas.  This is an absolutely outstanding recording (there will be something seriously wrong if it is not a strong contender in the next Gramophone Awards) and I can recommend it extremely warmly.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Bach - Sonatas & Partitas Vol. 1 - Thile

Rating: 4/5

Virtuosic playing of great music

This is a fascinating and enjoyable take on some of Bach's solo violin works, played quite brilliantly on the mandolin.

Chris Thile has recorded largely folk- and jazz- based music hitherto, and the first thing to say is that this is no gimmick or novelty record: Thile is a serious musician and a real virtuoso on his instrument, and this is a genuine interpretation of Bach and not a "re-imagining" or "re-working."  Thile really respects and loves Bach's music and brings genuine thought, insight and musicianship to his playing of it.  There are some very affecting moments (the opening Allemande of Partita No.1 is lovely, for example) and full-on rollicking dancing Bach where appropriate.  I very much enjoyed the interpretations.

Thile's virtuosity is quite breathtaking in places (like the Double of the Corrente in Partita No.1) and his technique is so good that he can really let the music blossom under his fingers.  My reservation about this disc is not to do with the playing, which is superb throughout, but with the limitations of the instrument itself.  However good the player, the mandolin doesn't have the expressive capability of the violin and although I cannot imagine it being better played than this, to me it still lacks the emotional depth of a really good violin performance.  (I felt much the same about Avi Avital's excellent playing of Bach on the mandolin. )

You may not share my reservations, and even if you do I suggest you give this disc a try.  It's fascinating and enjoyable and, whatever the limitations of the instrument, it's a disc of fabulous music, beautifully played by a very fine musician and I can certainly recommend it.

For another brilliant non-violin version of some of the Bach Partitas and Sonatas, I warmly recommend Suzanne Heinrigh's recording on viola da gamba.  It's fantastic.